Suck of the Dells
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
If a steamy, miles-long strip of motels, tourist traps, and quirky attractions sounds like a fever dream that could only happen in central Florida, listen closely. You can join three million leisure thrill-seekers, as we did, who jostle every year for a parking space and a motel room in -- Lake Delton/Wisconsin Dells. It's one of America's most over-the-top Tourism Meccas.
The Dells, as the towns are collectively known, distort the conventional laws of road trip physics. Attractions that we'd normally drive hours to see, even on a rumor -- a giant flamingo, a Castle of Terror, a Paul Bunyan Cook Shanty with "logging camp" food -- are dismissed here without a second thought. Sure, it'd only take a minute to stop, but who's got the time when there's SO MUCH ELSE TO SEE?
The natural beauty of the Dells -- the original reason that people came here -- is out of sight somewhere, behind the cacophony of signs and soaring ride superstructures. Try to glimpse it from your car and you're sure to ram into the back of a SUV sitting in the strip's frequent bumper-to-bumper weekend jam-ups.
Signature kidney-pounding "Duck" boats still grind their way through the Dells' lovely woodlands and plow into the river, for those who want to rendezvous with nature. The boats -- born-again WWII amphibious beach invaders -- are impossible to miss, parked along the shoulder of every Dells strip, tempting the bold. Military-style Army Ducks are especially intriguing, for those who may want to season their ride with visions of rolling into Fortress Europe or Commie Vietnam.
A walk along Highway 12 in flip-flops and bathing suit -- standard attire in the Dells -- gets you a head full of memories in a single afternoon. Tommy Bartlett's Sky, Ski, and Stage Show guards the southern approach along with the TB Exploratory, which houses a spare Mir space station. Deceased billionaire Bartlett paid cash and brought it from Russia to the Dells as a tourist attraction. Dr. Norman Thagard in blue NASA coveralls -- the first American Mir veteran -- speaks to Exploratory visitors through the magic of video, although no one here can tell us what the Mir is made of or how much it cost.
Closer to downtown, where the cruise strip clogs at night, are familiar Mecca pilot fish such as olde timey photo booths, wedding chapels, and U-watch fudge shops (The Dells pumps out more than two tons of fudge a day during the summer). More innovative fare is here, too, such as the Museum of Historic Torture Devices ("Nothing is More Frightening Than Human History") and Wizard Quest. Old standbys like Lazer Runner and Storybook Gardens pull 'em in year after year, while upstarts such as Monster Truck World and Ghost Out-Post fight to establish a following.
While the kids exhaust their energy at Noah's Ark (home of America's longest water coaster), mom and dad revel in the nearby climate-controlled thrills of the Ho-Chunk Indian Casino. The fun rolls on even after the summer season -- and give the Dells credit: with its northern latitude and claim to be the Water Park Capital Of The World, that sounds impossible. But the Dells simply moved its water indoors, creating the first indoor water parks and wave pools in America.
At times the Dells seems like a ravenous snake, swallowing tourists whole, digesting their lump of vacation energy and disposable income slowly over the course of several days. It periodically sheds its skin of failing or marginal attractions, and tries again -- and again. Xanadu, Home of the Future: razed and replaced by an erupting volcano! The low-tech (and beloved) Mass Panic: bulldozed and reborn as the exhaustively impressive Top Secret Inc.!
Big Chief Go Kart dumped its Indian motif for pagan mythology, and built three giant wooden roller coasters -- all named for Greek gods -- and an awe-inspiring 60-ft-tall wooden Trojan Horse. It was given hypnotic strobe light eyes and an elevated go kart track to cleave through its lofty belly. Then, exhausted, Big Chief and neighboring Treasure Island were absorbed into the vast Mt. Olympus Water and Theme Park, which operates year-round with the tallest and longest indoor water slides in the nation!
Even an accidental draining of Lake Delton wasn't enough to knock the fun out of the Dells, although it did beach the water ski show for a season.
Extreme World straps you into a bungee chair and fires you skyward. Next door, the former Haunted Viking Ship turned Alligator Alley challenges you to feed live reptiles. Zot the purple space monkey harasses visitors at the Looney Bin while the Dells 4D Special FX Theater warps their vision. There are gem mines, comedy clubs, helicopter tours, or maybe you'd rather hang out at the incongruous Wisconsin Opry dinner show while the Skyscraper, a two-bladed windmill with 80-ft arms and a seat at each end, spins its masochistic passengers end-over-end at 75 mph!
Is this the end of the world? No, it's just another day in Dells, our new millennium of fun.