From its earliest days as a fascinating tourism discovery some 150 years ago to its modern-day cache as The Waterpark Capital of the World!®, Wisconsin Dells has been largely powered by the ingenuity and work ethic of local families. Even today the majority of businesses in the Dells are owned by people who grew up in town, and that goes for most of the waterparks. So you’ll have to forgive the locals when they get a little superlative-happy. Let’s just say they earned it.
Rather than delivering a dry history lesson following that preamble (this is vacation, not school, after all), get a real feel for the community with this rundown of inventions, rituals, firsts and quirks. It even makes for a handy DIY history tour of major landmarks.
Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself uttering phrases like “Who knew?” and “Is that really true?” It happens all the time.
The indoor waterpark
The Polynesian Resort was the first property in the nation to introduce the indoor waterpark concept; that was back in 1989. It started with a sketch on a napkin after local business partners attended a waterpark convention in Texas. No kidding – the blueprint for the first indoor waterpark was actually hand-drawn on a napkin.
Today, the Dells has more indoor and outdoor waterparks per capita than anywhere else on the planet.
Noah’s Ark Waterpark is the largest outdoor waterpark in the country, sprawling over 70 acres.
The Wilderness Resort is the largest indoor/outdoor waterpark resort in the country.
Landscape photographer H.H. Bennett is credited with this feat, as evidenced by his 1886 “Leaping the Chasm at Stand Rock” photo of his son Ashley frozen in mid-air (the story goes that Mrs. Bennett was not aware this was going on). He also made Wisconsin Dells famous with his hauntingly beautiful images of the Wisconsin River and bluffs when he had them placed in train stations between Chicago and points north. His original studio still stands today on the main avenue and is a state historic site.
Scenic river tour - Take a boat tour of the Upper or Lower Dells or both. Learn the names given to the more unusually shaped rock formations. The Upper Dells tour offered by Dells Boat Tours® includes a shore landing at mystic Witches Gulch and Stand Rock where you see the famous dog leap (recreating the leap of H.H. Bennett’s son – see “Inventions” above). Other scenic river tour choices include the world-famous Ducks (see Only in the Dells below) and water-skimming jet boats.
Tommy Bartlett Show - This is one of the last professional water ski shows of its kind in the country. It’s staged Memorial Day through Labor Day on Lake Delton.
Only in the Dells
World’s largest fleet of WWII land-to-water vehicles. Known as DUCKS (military shorthand), this amphibious vehicle’s finest moment was D-Day, June 4, 1944, when more than 2,000 were put into service to deliver troops to the rough shores of Normandy, France. In 1946, a man by the name of Melvin Flath brought the first DUCKs to Wisconsin Dells and set up a tour company. Take a ride on both the Original Wisconsin Ducks® and Dells Army Ducks.
All 15 species of cranes. The International Crane Foundation is the only place in the world where you can see all 15 species of cranes, including the most endangered of all, the Whooping Crane.
Largest collection of restored circus wagons. Circus World's collection of artifacts is the largest in the world and includes over 210 original wagons displayed at what was once the winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. Circus circa 1900.
World’s first all-wooden looping roller coaster. The Hades 360° opened in 2013 at Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Parks. As if the loop wasn’t enough, the tracks also plunge underground, taking riders into complete darkness.
America’s first trap-door looping waterslide. That would be Scorpion’s Tail at Noah’s Ark Waterpark. For the country’s only indoor versions of the looping waterslide, head over to the Kalahari Resort Waterparks, where they literally had to raise the roof to make room for the slides. Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort jumped on the bandwagon, adding their own outdoor versions in 2012.
Minnetonka moccasins. This fashion footwear is now found in chi-chi stores from coast to coast, but it’s been a staple in the Dells for generations. Grab a pair, or two, at Winnebago Fine Goods & Gift Shop, Aunt Jenny's Got-It-All Store, and Parson’s Indian Trading Post.
Old timey photo. Three studios downtown let you pretend you’ve taken a step back in time: Capone's Original Old Time Picture Studio, Old Abe's Old Time Portraits, and Prof. Porter's Old Time Portraits.
MIR space station. This 43-foot-long piece of Russian space hardware is on display at the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory – Interactive Science Center. It was acquired from a Moscow museum in need of cash. It’s the only MIR exhibit in the world that you can step inside.
A house on a rock. Built atop a chimney of rock, The House on the Rock is a complex of rooms all chock-a-block with mind-boggling collections including the world’s largest carousel. It was built in the 1940s by eccentric architect and overly zealous collector Alex Jordan and is located just a short drive from the Dells.
Believe-it-or-not oddities. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum is an “odditorium” of interactive galleries that pay tribute to the odd and strange. Shrunken heads, anyone?
Monk’s burgers. The owner of Monk’s employed “aroma marketing” – venting the smell of burgers and fried onions onto the sidewalk – to lure in hungry tourists when he opened the downtown joint in 1947. It still works today.
Fudge. For sweet tooths, there is the double joy of watching fudge being made andthen eating it. Confectionary shops line the downtown, which has a boardwalk feel to it.
Fried cheese curds. It’s Wisconsin, say no more. A staple on the appetizer menu of most restaurants in town.
Microbrews. Ditto to above statement, it being Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Co., Port Huron Brewing Company and Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub of Wisconsin Dells are a fine trio of establishments to try.
Brandy and Wine. Wollersheim Winery, established in the 1840s by a Hungarian nobleman who went on to be known as the founder of the California wine industry, offered its first batch of all-Wisconsin brandy last year and it sold out immediately. Must be because it’s the key ingredient in the state’s most popular mixer, the Old Fashioned. Wollersheim has national wine awards to its name too. There’s also Fawn Creek Winery with a vineyard carved out of a pine grove.
Supper Clubs. In Wisconsin it often means a cocktail at the bar, relish tray to start the meal, homemade rolls and breads, a great entrée (usually a steak or seafood), and irresistible dessert, all served by talented wait staff. Great examples here include the Del-Bar, House of Embers and Ishnala Supper Club which is open seasonally on Mirror Lake.
Frank Lloyd Wright Connection
Two restaurants. The Del-Bar and Field’s at the Wilderness, both fine dining establishments, were designed by a protégé of the master, with the Del-Bar being classic Prairie-style and Field’s offering a more contemporary interpretation.
Seth Peterson Cottage. Built in 1958, this tiny 880 square foot cottage on a bluff overlooking Mirror Lake was the first Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in the country to be available for public overnight rental. Sadly, FLW died before it was completed and Seth Peterson, the home’s commissioner and a fan of Wright’s from an early age on, never lived in the cottage due to an untimely death at age 24.
Waterpark Capital of the World!® With waterparks in all shapes and sizes and more than 200 waterslides, no other destination comes close to Wisconsin Dells status in this category.
Spring Break Capital of the Midwest. The indoor waterparks provide a feel of the tropics for family spring-breakers.
Mini-Golf and Go-Kart Capital of Wisconsin. These could be in the “Rituals” category too, with both activities offered outside and inside.
Showboat Saloon. This 100-year-old establishment in downtown Dells has long been purported to be haunted by the ghost of a past resident named Molly who liked to open and close doors and fiddle with appliances on the second floor so much that the owners stopped renting out the upstairs apartment.
Leroy Gates Some in the community say the ghost of lumber rafter turned riverboat captain Leroy Gates, R.IP. 1895, haunts the waters of the Wisconsin River to this day. It was back in 1856 that he took out an ad declaring he had purchased a boat for the purpose of touring occult caves of the Dells – a premonition of things to come perhaps?
Belle Boyd Famous Confederate spy Belle Boyd died during a visit to the Dells – she was in town to present a dramatic narrative of her spying adventures when she suffered a heart attack. She’s buried in the Wisconsin Dells Spring Hill Cemetery, where her ghost is said to wander the graveyard.
Small Town, Big Tourism
19.5 square miles. Yes, that’s all it is.
5,600 permanent residents. And that’s including both the city of Wisconsin Dells and the village of Lake Delton (locals fondly refer to the combo as “the Dells”).
Nearly 10,000 Number of hotel rooms and other overnight lodging options, more than any other destination in Wisconsin.
Four million. The number of estimated visitors each year.