How lucky are we that the waterpark capital of the world (yes, world!) is just three hours from Chicago? No need to wait a whole year for summer to take a dip, this kid-tastic destination is hopping year-round. You won’t whiz down an outdoor water slide or bask in the sun on a lazy river, but the Wisconsin Dells still has plenty to offer. Here’s the scoop on where to stay, eat, play and be entertained on the cool weather vacay you know you need.
You’ll feel like you’re in Mexico with palm trees towering over the water slides at Chula Vista Resort (2501 River Rd., 855-388-4782 or chulavistaresort.com), which we’re assuming is just fine with you. The water is heated to a cozy level, greenery surrounds you at every turn and indoor structures are modeled after Mayan temples. Relaxed yet? Chula Vista is one of the more toddler-friendly waterpark resorts in the Dells (its oversized wading pool has mini tipping buckets and gentle geysers). But, they also kept the more adventurous in mind with an uphill water roller coaster.
Passes to the waterpark are included in your night’s stay. For an extra fee you can play games in the onsite arcade and catch a flick in the 4-D movie theater. Chula Vista’s restaurants range from a chop house to a casual buffet breakfast spot, and there are also waterpark-side snacks. Depending on how many people you’re traveling with, you can pick from hotel rooms, suites, condos or villas that overlook the Wisconsin River.
On the other side of town, other lodging options with big-time indoor waterparks include Kalahari Resort, Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort and Great Wolf Lodge. Kalahari has a safari theme (tigers are known to camp out in the lobby in an enclosed area). Wilderness Hotel has a massive indoor amusement park with go-karting, laser tag and bumper boats. And Great Wolf Lodge caters to tiny swimmers with a four-story waterpark treehouse and lily pad walk, plus a kids’ spa.
Make like Harry Potter and grab a magic wand at MagiQuest (1400 Great Wolf Dr., 608-253-2222 or greatwolf.com). The indoor role-playing adventure challenges you to navigate a realistic-looking enchanted kingdom, unlocking clues and fighting virtual dragons along the way. While best suited for kids ages five and up (there is some strategic thinking involved), younger kids will appreciate the visual effects, which include animated fairies and engaging touch screens.
If fantasy and sci-fi is your thing, head deeper into downtown Dells for Wizard Quest (105 Broadway, 608-254-2184 or wizardquest.com), a digitally-interactive game played in a real-life massive labyrinth; it was all developed by a local Dells family. Your mission is to answer riddles and navigate secret passages to unlock imprisoned wizards, while staying on your guard for the minions that will try to stop you in your tracks.
Give your body a rest and exercise your brain by heading to a whopper of an amusement park: Knuckleheads (150 Gasser Rd., 608-254-7332 or dellsknuckleheads.com). You’ll burn off energy on the indoor ropes course, bumper cars, bowling lanes, 4-D roller coaster and other whirly-twirlies. Their indoor trampoline park has wall-to-wall trampolines. If your tiny bouncer isn’t ready for high intensity jumping, check out the “jumping pillow,” where they can hop in a more contained environment.
How about spending the day learning how stuff works? Get those noggins turning with science and robot fun at Tommy Bartlett’s Exploratory (560 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., 608-254-2525 or tommybartlett.com). It’s the only place on earth where you can see and jump right into an authentic Russian Space Station MIR core module (this was the operational nerve center for space explorers living on the MIR Space Station). Another highlight is the Van De Graaff Generator – Bridge of Fire exhibit, a static electricity generator built by Dr. Robert J. Van de Graaff in the early 1940s. Your hair will stand on end as you pick up electro charges from the generator, which has the power of a thundercloud! Daredevils big and small can also feel the thrill of riding a bicycle across a tightrope.
Cap off the fun with a photo memory at Old Abe’s Old Time Portraits (217 Broadway Ave., 608-254-5663, oldabes.com). This is your family’s chance to step back in time and capture an image of what you would’ve looked like as visitors aboard the Titanic, as Wild West cowboys and gals or immigrants to 1870’s Wisconsin. A large variety of old-time sets and a huge selection of costumes make it easier than ever to time travel when the DeLorean is in the shop.
photo: Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty
It’s impossible to miss Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty (411 Highway 13, 608-254-8717 or dellspaulbunyans.com) with huge statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox standing tall to greet you at the entrance of this Dells cult classic. You’ll find meals fit for a lumberjack with all-you-can-eat, family-style feasts served in a cabin that would look right at home in the Wisconsin northwoods. If you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, be sure to at least stop in for sugar donuts and a trip to their gift shop, where you can buy wilderness-inspired loot (think slingshots and fur caps). In order to prep for the busy summer season and spend time with family, Paul Bunyan’s is closed mid-October through March, so it’s only an option if you plan a late winter/early spring getaway.
You’ve probably noshed at a restaurant where food arrives at your table via mini train, but there’s nothing quite like Buffalo Phil’s (150 Gasser Rd., 608-254-7300 or buffalophilsgrille.com). Mini locomotives circle overhead and table-side train service chugs over Lil’ Buckaroo meals (pasta, chicken, burgers), plus surprise toys to play with while you wait. If there’s a line to snag a table to experience this train mania, amuse yourself on the ride-on horse or sit atop the taxidermy buffalo for a photo opp. Buffalo Phil’s is attached to Knuckleheads, and you could easily spend an afternoon bopping between the two.
Head to the old-school House of Embers (935 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy., 608-253-6411, houseofembers.com) for a Wisconsin Supper Club style feast. BBQ baby back ribs are the house speciality, but if you happen to be visiting on a Friday, the unbeatable Friday night fish fry is a don’t-miss.
The Dells has other dining options that are less overtly kid-focused and may appeal to more gourmet tastes. On the downtown strip, MACS (208 Broadway, 608-678-2300 or macandcheeseshop.com) serves inventive takes on mac ‘n’ cheese, including Popeye Mac (provolone, mozzarella, spinach, sauteed onions and mushrooms) and Chicken Bacon Ranch Mac (cheddar, mozzarella, chicken, bacon, ranch).
When the weather is right, hit the outdoors and trade water slides for ski slopes at Cascade Mountain (W10441 Cascade Mountain Rd., Portage, 608-742-5588 or cascademountain.com), located 15 minutes from downtown Dells. Kids ages 4-10 can participate in the Cascade Kids program to learn the snowy ropes of snowboarding and skiing. You’ll also find a tubing hill that measures 900 feet long, with a surface lift that zips you right back up for more downhill fun. Tubes are provided and no experience is required.
Take your pick between 15 downhill runs that satisfy the needs of beginners to more seasoned black diamond riders at Christmas Mountain Village (S944 Christmas Mountain Rd., 608-253-1000 or christmasmountainvillage.com). Their trails are perfect for cross-country skiing and there’s also tubing, for more slippery fun.
Spend an evening or afternoon bowling at Chalet Lanes (740 Elm St., 608-254-8727, chaletlanes.com), a family fun center that features awesome rock & bowl lanes complete with colorful lights, a mega sound system and even a fog machine. Automatic scoring and bumper bowling make this an easy pick for family fun.
photo: Palace Theater courtesy of Michelle J. via Yelp
Introduce your kids to the magic of live performances at Palace Theater (564 Wisconsin Dells Parkway South, 608-253-4000 or dellspalace.com). Its wholesome entertainment focuses on Broadway shows and Disney classics.
For more information on the area’s hotspots, check with the Wisconsin Dells Visitors Bureau online at wisdells.com.
— Amy Bizzarri & Kelly Aiglon
10 Amazing Adventures You Can Only Find in Wisconsin Dells