Wisconsin Dells – The Vegas of Central Wisconsin

For this year’s family fun trip, we jumped in the car and headed northwest for the Wisconsin Dells.

Why the Dells? It’s the “Waterpark Capital of the World,” of course.  Waterslides and funnel cake are the foundation of memories that last a lifetime.

Our trip was a surgical, two-day, incursion. My feeling was that if we hung around for a third day of Wisconsin Dells tourism, the available entertainment options would narrow to a depressing short list of lesser-quality tourist traps like the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum and the upside-down White House.

Night one found us going to the Tommy Bartlett show, a Dells mainstay. The Bartlett show promised a water show with fast boats, acrobatics, and juggling. I expected it to be a textbook tourist trap, and complete waste of money.

The Tommy Bartlett show is tucked away at the end of a densely forested area. Here’s the entrance, complete with girl-mulletted attendee:

Once we took our seats, here’s what we saw:

The center ramps were used for (really impressive) ski and boat jumps. The ringed apparatus on the right was for “wheel walking,” a feat of insanity and incredible precision wherein a man and woman walked inside and outside of their respective circles while the apparatus was in motion.

The first hour of the Tommy Bartlett show was centered around water stunts; flips, twists, and jumps by teams of water skiers who relied on Swiss timing and balls of steel.  My jaw dropped, my hands clapped, and I found myself completely falling for the show. In fact, my only complaint (a minor one at that) was that the emcee spoke in a “radio voice” which was completely bogus and distracting from the show.

Along the lines of family fun, the Bartlett show included a water clown. While the more jaded adults in the crowd were likely praying for the clown (“Aqua”) to pratfall into a boat rotor, I appreciated his ability to keep the younger theatergoers engaged. An hour can be a big time commitment for the under-six set.

After an intermission, the show moved on to the non-water events. First, the wheel walkers. While they were cool to see, their performance made me antsy. I legitimately expected one of them to tumble to their doom right in front of us, which led me to map out an “emergency scenario” of how to shield my children’s eyes and ears once the walkers’ bodies hit the pavement.

Juggling followed wheel walking. The juggler was a master of his art, tossing machetes around like styrofoam packing peanuts.  His act made me nervous, too, though he seemed more confident than the wheel walkers.

A Filipino family of acrobats followed. I can’t really describe what they did, other than to say they juggled each other with their feet. The level of fitness and trust they all seemed to have is nothing short of superhuman.

The show ended oddly with Dieter Tasso, an aging juggler/comedian who told black-and-white-television jokes for a flatscreen-HD age. His style of comedy and timing was born of a different generation (“my ex-wife was a great housekeeper; when she left me, she kept the house”). It was the sort of act that I could imagine my grandparents paying to see back when they were courting in the 1940s.

I started clockwatching within minutes of Tasso’s arriving on stage, but stopped once I realized with great shock that my children were absolutely dying during his routine. Tasso had them in stitches.

In truth, Tasso’s act is the sort of performance that gets funnier after you see it, like some of Saturday Night Live’s more enduring skits. I found myself more amused in retrospect than I ever was during the performance.

The Tommy Bartlett Show was a total surprise, a for-real, all-ages gem. I’d go again.

Day two started at the Dells’ legendary Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty, home of a kickass all-you-can-eat breakfast.

The beauty of Paul Bunyan’s is that you don’t have to wrestle with a buffet line — the waitstaff simply turns on the glutton spigot and lets the food pour out. Within minutes, we had a round of donuts, biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, pancakes, hashbrowns, and link sausage/kielbasa sitting in front of us. One round was plenty, though it made me happy to know that I could’ve had more.

It’s worth mentioning that the service as Paul Bunyan’s was far better than expected. The fresh-faced, eager-to-please, older teens taking the orders and running the food were enthusiastic, helpful, and considerate.

From breakfast, we went up the road to Noah’s Ark, the largest waterpark in America. Nestled on an expansive stretch of land, deceptively larger than one would think while driving by, Noah’s Ark earns its premier waterpark reputation by offering a great breadth of rides and activities for all ages, from safe “lazy river” tubing to the frightening-looking “Scorpion’s Tail” (which I flatly refused to go on). Unlike a trip to Great America, I never felt crowded at Noah’s Ark, despite how packed the place was. The park’s mapped out to allow for the crowd flow to move through easily, and for visitors to comfortably drop anchor anywhere along the way.

After six exhausting hours, including five run-throughs on something called “Flash Flood” (a wooden coaster that generates the largest splash of water I’ve seen outside of Deep Impact), we left Noah’s Ark; the sun and running around had taken their toll.

Once I got to the car, I was sick to my stomach and felt lightheaded. By the time I got back to the hotel, I was shivering. Minutes after that, I was looking up “sun poisoning” on WebMD. Yep, despite my best sunblocking efforts, I was poisoned by our yellow sun — the very opposite of what happened to Superman.

I didn’t let sun poisoning stop me from taking my family out to dinner at Famous Dave’s in downtown Wisconsin Dells. Pulled pork on white bread is my siren song, a muse that causes me to dismiss saner judgement.

For the record, that’s jalapeno mac & cheese in the upper left. It brought me immense amounts of joy.

I spent the rest of the night in bed, teeth chattering, drinking water to rehydrate, and wondering why SPF had so dramatically forsaken me.

This morning, we started the day at Mr. Pancake (the men just call him “sir”).

Mr. Pancake is no Mr. Bunyan, but the portions were generous and the service was nice.

From there, we went to Pirate’s Cove to play miniature golf.

While it’s true that miniature golf can be found all over Illinois, the course looked too nice to ignore:

After what can only be described as a full-blown miniature golf humiliation at the hands of my children, we headed off to the go-kart track. There are so many go-kart tracks in the Dells, it seems wrong to visit the Dells and not go go-karting at least once.

On the highway back home, I started to think about how much I appreciated the Dells. It’s a family-friendly Vegas, beating in the heart of the midwest. There are long-running shows that play to new crowds every night (Tommy Bartlett, magician Rick Wilcox), attractions for the adults (“Wisconsin Dolls” is the cleverly-named strip club in town), and buffets and cocktails on every block. Add a few resorts (Kalahari, Chula Vista) to the Dells’ culture, and the only differences between it and Vegas seem to be intense heat, casinos, vacationing bros, and the visibly wealthy.

Pat Benatar is playing the Kalahari this week, and Three Dog Night is coming soon. If I were entrepreneurial (and rich), I’d build a venue where the upside-down White House currently stands (that attraction can’t last forever), and book performers for multi-night stands there … just like Vegas. Imagine Cheap Trick doing their “Magical Mystery Tour” shtik twice daily for the month of October. Consider the thrill of going to see Penn and Teller after a day of riding waterslides. Think about the possibility of Violent Femmes accepting nostalgia’s embrace and reviving their career in their homestate of Wisconsin, playing to sold-out nightly crowds of pancake enthusiasts.

Viva Wisconsin.


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