The Dells: A Mix of Family Thrills and Relaxation

From wild amusement park rides to mellow nature hikes, the Wisconsin Dells has it all.

While water parks get top billing at the Wisconsin Dells, there’s plenty to do at the Dells without getting wet.

Natural Dells

Ever since the first tourists showed up in the Dells 150 years ago for a scenic rowboat ride on the Wisconsin River, nature has been a big draw for the area. And my family’s favorite way to explore the Dells’ natural beauty is on an Original Wisconsin Duck.

These amphibious relics from World War II offer a one-hour adventure that includes a rugged ride over land before sliding into the Wisconsin River for a leisurely float. The route used to include a dip into Lake Delton, but that five-minute portion of the trip has been changed following a June 2008 storm that caused a disastrous breach in the wall of the man-made lake. While the tour guides tell entertaining tales of Native American lore, just riding on a Duck is worth the price of admission: $21.75 for ages 12 and older; $11.50 for ages 6-11; ages 5 and under, free.

There are plenty of other ways to commune with nature at the Dells—jet boat, river cruise, horse-drawn carriage, horseback, paddlewheel riverboat or even a leisurely stroll. There are also two state parks nearby. Mirror Lake State Park, just three miles outside of town, offers fishing, swimming, canoeing, hiking, biking and picnic areas. Devil’s Lake State Park in nearby Baraboo boasts 500-foot cliffs overlooking the river, miles of hiking and biking trails, and two sandy beaches.

Thrill Yourself

The Dells are home to a dizzying array of ways to scare yourself silly. You can walk through the Haunted Mansion (admission: $7.41, $6.35 for kids 12 and under) or the Ghost Out-Post Haunted House, where you’ll be hunted by a man-eating rat ($8.95 adults, $7.95 kids). Or you can climb aboard a go-cart and zip around one of the many tracks that line the main drag in the city, Wisconsin Dells Parkway ($7.95 adults, $6.95 kids).

For the real thrill-seekers, there’s always Extreme World, where you can bungee jump or hop on the giant Ejection Seat ride that requires you to sit on a chair attached to a giant rubber band, then shoots you straight into the air and leaves you bouncing around until your brain is completely scrambled (you can; I wouldn’t). Pricing is per attraction, such as $24.95 for the first rider on the Ejection Seat, $15 for the second.

Or visit Timber Falls Adventure Park where they “measure fun in screams per second.” By that measure, the Skyscraper Ride, which swings you 160 feet in the air at 60 miles per hour, pulling four Gs, must get a rating that’s off the charts. (Visit, where all-day passes, good for unlimited access to the coaster, log ride, bumper boats and four mini-golf courses, are $19.99; unlimited access boosts to $29.99 if you also want to ride the Skyscraper.)

Settling Down

The Dells are home some of the most imaginative and over-the-top mini-golf courses in the country, such as the five different 18-hole courses at Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf, with its 17 huge cascading waterfalls, mountainous terrain, sandstone rock formations, footbridges and pirate lore. Admission is $7.75 for ages 13 and up, $5.75 for ages 6-12, free for ages 5 and under.

A sentimental favorite at the Dells is Storybook Gardens, a collection of scenes depicting favorite childhood stories such as The Three Bears and Humpty Dumpty. The attraction, which had fallen into disrepair, was sold to new owners a few years ago. They have saved what they could and turned the site into an animal attraction called Timbavati Wildlife Park and Storybook Gardens. You can still see the storybook scenes, but the real attraction now is the ability to pet a giraffe or feed a baby zebra. Admission: $11.95 adults, $9.95 children ages 2-12. (For a side trip to a nearby circus town, read our article on Baraboo, Wis.)

The Tommy Bartlett Show

The Tommy Bartlett Ski, Stage & Sky Show, a Dells staple for 55 years, is just a stage and sky show this year after torrential rains caused the Lake Delton collapse. The lake drained into the nearby Wisconsin River, leaving the best part of the show—a classic water-ski and daredevils-on-water show—high and dry.

While engineers figure out how best to rebuild the lake wall, the company has expanded its stage show of on-land daredevils, contortionists and other circus-type acts to fill the entire 90 minutes. The laser-light sky show is part of the 8:30 p.m. performance. Experts expect the lake to be repaired and refilled in time for the 2009 season and promise that they’ll be back to mount a ski show in 2009—but only if enough visitors pay for the stage and sky show this year.

“The show will go on—on shore,” says Bartlett spokeswoman Andrea Novotny, adding in a plaintive tone, “We want to be here another 55 years.”

And don’t leave town without a stop at another Bartlett operation, and another favorite of my family’s: the Exploratory. We discovered the Exploratory quite by accident on a visit years ago. As we headed out of town, we saw a sign for Robot World and couldn’t resist. The center has a new, more sophisticated name, but it still has all the great hands-on science stuff that has always keep my kids enthralled for hours. Admission: $11.50 for adults, $9.20 for seniors 65 and over, free for children 5 years and under. 

Destinations: Wisconsin Dells

Themes: Amusement Parks, Family Travel

Activities: Hiking, Canoeing, Cycling, Fishing, Parks and Playgrounds, Sightseeing, Swimming

User Comments

Wisconsin Dells is where I had the best time of my life. I enjoyed a lot of things especially the waterslides in indoor and outdoor waterparks and the Tommy Bartlett show. I also enjoyed camping in one of their state parks and their sunset cruise as well as the Ripley's Museum. I look forward to going back to the Dells again.