A Family Watery Wonderland at the Dells

Slip and slide your way to the Water Park Capital of the World for a vacation full of action-packed entertainment.


The Wisconsin Dells has long been a favorite Midwestern family destination, filled with kitschy attractions and a fudge shop on every corner. It’s still that, but now it’s also the undisputed water park king of the world.

The Dells’—and the world’s—first indoor water park opened at the Polynesian Resort Hotel & Suites in 1989. Today, the Dells is home to the largest concentration of indoor water parks (20), the longest indoor leisure river (Kalahari Resort’s Zambezi River), the biggest outdoor water park (Noah’s Ark Water Park) and is the U.S. resort with the most square footage of indoor water parks (counting the three water parks at the Wilderness Resort, which total 250,000 square feet).

The Tommy Bartlett Show

Getting wet and eating fudge are only two reasons to head to the Dells, about 50 miles north of Madison, Wis. My family of veteran Dells-goers—it’s a tradition that started in 1956 when my parents spent their honeymoon there—has plenty of favorites, including, sadly, one that won’t be around this summer: the Tommy Bartlett Ski, Stage & Sky Show.

A Dells staple for 55 years, the Tommy Bartlett show will omit the best act—a classic water-ski and daredevils-on-water show—after torrential June 2008 rains caused a wall in the man-made Lake Delton to collapse, and the lake to drain into the nearby Wisconsin River.

While engineers figure out how to rebuild the lake wall, the Bartlett company has expanded its stage show of on-land daredevils, contortionists and other circus-type acts to fill the entire 90 minutes. The sky show, a laser-light routine, 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 to see the stage and sky show this year.

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

Rest of the Best

Most of the Dells was unaffected by the lake disaster and subsequent flood, including another Bartlett operation called the Exploratory. We discovered this treasure quite by accident. As we headed out of town after a visit years ago, we saw a sign for Robot World and couldn’t resist. Now called the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, it still has all the great hands-on science stuff that always keeps my kids enthralled for hours. Details are at General admission is $11.50, $9.20 for seniors 65 and over, and free for children ages 5 and under.

Another family favorite, the Original Wisconsin Ducks, are a good way to see a feature of the Dells that isn’t often promoted in travel stories or marketing documents: its incredible natural beauty. The Dells is nestled alongside the Wisconsin River, which is bounded by soaring sandstone cliffs. While the tour guides tell entertaining tales of Native American lore, a ride in one of these amphibious relics from World War II is fun in itself. You jolt along a rugged trail through the wilderness, then slide into the 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 re-routed, including a drive by the broken lake wall, until the lake is repaired and refilled.

On those sultry summer days at the Dells, there’s no place my family would rather be than Noah’s Ark water park. The place boasts 47 water slides (several of which accommodate inner tubes big enough for families of four), two huge wave pools, two endless rivers, four children’s play areas and an activity pool, along with amusement rides, mini-golf and an arcade. (I have managed to hide that last bit from my children. Who wants to stand around an arcade when you could be outside splashing in the water? My son, of course.) The Web site offers an all-day pass for visitors 48 inches and taller for $29.69 or $26.39 for those ages 55 and over, and children 47 inches and shorter. Children ages 2 and under are free. (For more information on Dells activities, read our article on family thrills and relaxation.)

Head Indoors

While it’s nice to be outdoors during the warm July and August months, the summer season is short in Wisconsin. So it makes perfect sense that much of the Dells water fun happens indoors.

At the Dells, one water park is more massive than the next and each year brings the opening of yet another expansion, or cooler slide. It can be tough to figure out which one is right for your family.

When the kids were little, I hated huge water parks. I’m usually not a Nervous Nellie mom, but water parks can be so crowded and frenetic that unless my husband was along so we could divide and conquer, I worried constantly that one child would slip under the water while I was holding up the other. The key to my peace of mind was either going to parks with kids of roughly the same age who liked to do roughly the same things so I could hover nearby and keep an eye on all of them at once, or taking along another adult to be in charge of one age group while I herded the other.

Before heading to the Dells, spend plenty of time on the resort Web sites, poring over the water park amenities and maps to determine whether it’s a place that will work for your family. If you have a little one that needs constant watching, choose one of the smaller water parks. If the older kids insist on a big park, look for one with a splash area that is centrally located so the older kids can touch base regularly. Check whether the slides have height requirements and look for ones that accommodate two- or four-person inner tubes if you have a child likely to need some hand-holding. Many resorts provide life jackets for little ones for free or a small fee.

Dells Deals

The Wisconsin Dells is a model of entrepreneurial spirit. Although you can increasingly find the big chain names here—there’s a Starbucks and a Dells-themed McDonald’s—the majority of the resorts, hotels, fudge shops, restaurants and attractions still are individually owned and operated, sometimes by the third or fourth generation of the founding family. And these entrepreneurs understand about cross promotion. Any time you’re checking out, look for a stack of coupons next to the register. Chances are good you’ll find one that offers a buy-one, get-one-free deal for breakfast or a few bucks off a ride on the Ducks.

And never go to the Dells without first checking the Web site, It lists deals, offers hints on how to save money and provides direct links to virtually all of the hotels, restaurants and attractions at the Dells. (For more information on Dells hotels and restaurants, read our article on family lodging and dining.)

Finally, consider a trip now. As the Dells tries to recover from the Lake Delton disaster, businesses are offering an array of half-price deals to lure customers back to the No. 1 tourist attraction in Wisconsin. 


Related Articles

Family Lodging and Dining in the Dells

The Dells: A Mix of Family Thrills and Relaxation

Baraboo Celebrates the Circus 

Destinations: Wisconsin Dells

Themes: Amusement Parks, Family Travel

Activities: Parks and Playgrounds

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