When people find out I’m from Wisconsin, no matter where in the world we are, chances are they’ll tell me about their family vacation at the Wisconsin Dells. I’ve heard countless tales of riding the Original Wisconsin Ducks and buying fudge.
And no one ever says they hated it. This despite the fact that the Wisconsin Dells is really a cheesy tourist monstrosity plopped into the middle of otherwise perfectly peaceful woodland and riverfront property. There’s just something about it – maybe the friendliness of the blend of locals, University of Wisconsin students and international kids who work there – that makes me look forward to a family vacation at the Wisconsin Dells with disproportionate enthusiasm. Or maybe it’s just the kitsch factor and the unlikeliness of the whole place; you’ve gotta love a town with the audacity to build the world’s largest indoor water parks, some roller coasters and a giant wooden Trojan horse basically in the middle of nowhere.
Long Ago Visits to the Dells
When I was a kid, going to the Wisconsin Dells meant walking down the main strip, spending our allowance on an “Indian” turquoise ring at a souvenir shop and MAYBE if we were very lucky a trip to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not or a Tommy Bartlett exhibit before we hit the Showboat Saloon, that bar with peanut shells all over the floor, so we could sip soda while my parents cooled off with a beer.
That was it. Noah’s Ark, which clams to be the world’s largest water park, was open then, but my parents were too cheap to take me. And yet, I still loved going to the Dells.
Taking My Kids to the Dells
This year, I was able to treat my kids, ages 5 and 2, to an entirely different Dells experience. Four generations of my family stayed together in a three-bedroom suite at the newly renovated Chula Vista resort , where for the first time in my life I looked out on the Wisconsin River and saw those rock formations that made the area famous.
My parents had been to the Chula Vista pre-renovation and had compared the place to the resort in the movie “Dirty Dancing” — 1950s-style and poky. The made-over resort is dreamy. Our condo, which we rented from a private owner who we found on Craigslist, had a jacuzzi in the living room and a terrace overlooking a huge wave pool as well as the river. Across the parking lot – accessible by underground tunnel in the very likely case of inclement weather – was an indoor water park where my 5-year-old spent nearly every waking moment of our trip. An outdoor water park stands just next to it. There are bigger water parks at the Dells, but this place was plenty big enough for a 5-year-old and, besides, the quiet environment around the Chula Vista is nicer than the environs of the bigger water parks.
Riding a Duck at the Dells
On one day of our trip, my husband and I put my parents on water park duty and set out for the perfect afternoon at the Dells. We drove through town and chuckled at the massive development that’s taken place since we were kids.
Then we boarded one of the Original Wisconsin Ducks. All I’d heard about the Ducks was that they are amphibious vehicles that drive tourists on both land and water. That they are.
What I didn’t know is that the things are ancient – they’re retired vehicles from World War II that were instrumental in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Nor did I know that their drivers are equipped with scripts full of cheeseball jokes.
Still, the trip was entertaining, and the sites were lovely. We got to see Lake Delton, which was emptied last year when floodwaters breached a levee. It is once again full and looking normal. The only bad part of the Ducks ride was when the guide stopped the vehicle in the woods to try to sell us books about the Ducks and the Dells – that was kind of creepy, especially since we’d already paid $21.70 each for the one-hour tour.
Other Dells Attractions
On the trip back through town, we could see that all the pleasures of our childhoods were still going strong in the Dells: the Swiss Maid Fudge, Ripley’s, the souvenirs, and various Tommy Bartlett Show and Exploratory (my brother’s favorite as a kid was Robot World, now known as the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory). Then we hit the Chula Vista’s spa for massages, and topped off our afternoon with a soak in the resort’s adults-only outdoor hot tub, where waiters are supposed to be at the ready to bring you cocktails. None showed up while we soaked, probably because staffing was at off-season levels during our May visit.