The Wisconsin Dells area (typically referred to as just The Dells) is a tourist-focused region along the Wisconsin River, roughly one hour north of Madison, Wis. The word Dells comes from French and refers to the narrow and beautiful sections of this river. I was able to take a riverboat cruise on the Wisconsin River, and it was explained that a natural dam had formed holding back tremendous amounts of melted glacial water, and when that dam broke, the water surged through the Wisconsin River, and the river carved a channel through the rock in as little as a few days through erosion. What is left is a unique and beautiful landscape that has attracted visitors to the area for more than 100 years.
While the scenery is truly beautiful, Ive never come across a more family-centered destination with more things to do, short of Walt Disney World. The Dells are the self-proclaimed water-slide capitol of the world, and its for good reason. While there are several large water amusement parks, most of the hotels and resorts in the area have their own collection of water slides. I stayed at the Chula Vista Resort which has not only an outdoor water park, but an indoor water park as well! And when you stay at Chula Vista, the water park passes are included in the cost of your room. The amenities don't stop there, either. The resort is located on the Wisconsin River and Chula Vista Resort has installed a great scenic river walk. Other amenities, like a spa, an 18-hole golf course, outdoor hot springs, a 4D Action Cinema, video game arcade, 18-hole mini golf and more are all available right at the resort. Chula Vista has many types of rooms available as well. Everything from three-room condos to more standard hotel rooms are available, and all include unlimited access to the water parks. I found the prices to be surprisingly low and provided incredible value considering the water park passes.
The Dells are not limited to small islands of fun at the numerous resorts; there are all types of attractions in the area. I would highly recommend the riverboat tour. Its a great way to see the natural beauty of the river. I went on the Original Wisconsin Ducks tour (), where you ride on retired WWII-era vehicles that can drive on land and also move through water like a boat. The drivers narrate a tour as you drive around the Dells area and down the river for a short cruise! It was the perfect length tour of roughly 30-45 minutes, and you get a great balance of some history of the area with the fun of cruising around in something the size of a tank.
There are two other water parks that really stood out that would be worth your time to check out, the Kalahari water park () and the Mt. Olympus resort (). Kalahari is an African- themed water park resort that features an outdoor park and Wisconsins largest indoor park. Mt. Olympus is a Greek-themed resort that claims to be the worlds largest theme park and water park resort (they offer traditional theme park rides like a roller coaster along with an indoor and outdoor water park). Through the Dells area, they are more than 200 water slides available and a large chunk of them are either at Kalahari or Mt. Olympus.
While water-themed, but not a soaking adventure, the Tommy Bartlett Show (), which has been around for more than 60 years, offers chills and thrills with their outdoor entertainment show. Water skiers perform all sorts of tricks, including a three-tier human pyramid. They made the show extremely entertaining and quite funny with clowns even getting in the action. Another area worth checking out is the historical downtown area. Parking is no problem at all, and there are several great shops and restaurants within a few blocks. Worth a peek is the H.H. Bennett Studio () which chronicles H.H. Bennett, who photographed the region extensively in the late 1800s and owned a studio in the Dells.
While many of the resorts offer rooms with full kitchens, one of my favorite things about traveling is going out to eat, and the Dells offer great opportunities with every turn. There were several cant miss restaurants that I recommend, like Paul Bunyans Northwoods Cook Shanty. We had breakfast there, and the pancakes, skillet potatoes, ham and sausage were flowing. Their famous buttermilk donuts have a light dusting of sugar, and cant be topped. Sprechers Restaurant & Pub is a German-themed restaurant that offers traditional German fare along with some more modern options like a Cheese Curd Burger! Also available are a multitude of beers and sodas that they make, and which were quite delicious. I tried a flight (a small amount of several beers) and was definitely impressed with the beer and the choices - definitely worth a stop. Not too far away is another great breakfast stop called Mr. Pancake Restaurant. And as you guessed, there is one definite item for you to order, pancakes! While other breakfast items like french toast or omelettes are available, your mind will have to decide between a multitude of flavored pancakes. Chocolate chip, blueberries, apple, peach and so on. They have just about anything you could ever want! One of the meals I was most impressed with was actually at Chula Vista Resort, at the Kaminki Brothers Chophouse. I settled on the 24-ounce Porterhouse, a Tom Collins, and a shared a side of their famous, fully-loaded mashed potatoes. I actually felt a bit of accomplishment being able to successfully walk back to my room after that meal. If you want steak on your trip to the Dells, then you have to go to Kaminski Brothers ().
Now that you are excited and ready to go to Wisconsin Dells, I'm sure you are wondering how to get there. While most Texans are up for almost any road trip, I wouldn't recommend the 19-hour journey. The best option is to fly in to Madison, which is right at an hour south of Wisconsin Dells. While no direct air service exists, there are options on United via Denver or Chicago, or there is a nonstop flight from Dallas on American Airlines. As the Dells is up the road from Madison, a rental car will be required, but I honestly believe you would have needed one anyway to get the most out of the Dells.
A final suggestion would be to check out the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau web site () where you can get all of the latest information on activities happening in the Dells and even order a vacation guide. I'm still amazed by all of the wonderful activities and fun that you can have in the Wisconsin Dells area. There are a huge variety of places to stay, restaurants to eat at, and water slides to ride! The other impressive part is that so much of it is weatherproof as well, with indoor theme and water parks available even in case of inclement weather. I can, without hesitation, recommend the Wisconsin Dells area to any type of family because of the great variety of attractions (and a break from the Houston heat!) and it should definitely be on your short list for your next vacation.