Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau

Dells Debut Offers A Ton Of Fun For Families With Tots

July 20, 2010

By Bobby Tanzilo
As published on OnMilwaukee.com

Recently it dawned on us. Despite being parents for about five years, we hadn't been to the Dells in a lot longer than that (if you discount one of us attending a bachelor party there). With kids in the house, that didn't seem to make any kind of sense at all to a Wisconsin family.

We wrote up a to-do list that was more than a little ambitious for a single overnight stay and with nary a consideration of the weather. Amazingly enough, a little planning went a long way and with one exception, we saw everything we had hoped to in our Wisconsin Dells debut.

If you're planning your first trip to the Dells with very little ones, you might find our itinerary and experience useful...

Timbavati Wildlife Park/Storybook Gardens

We're pretty kid-focused when it comes to planning trips, mostly setting aside whatever it is we'd like to do in favor of what we think the kids would enjoy. That was the philosophy in our approach to the Dells, too, with one exception.

We wanted to take the kids to Storybook Gardens based on childhood memories of it (and of a similar place I used to go as a kid in Lake George, N.Y.). But even in that case, we knew that at least one of our kids was familiar with many of the characters and nursery rhymes illustrated in this Dells landmark.

It's almost amazing that the nearly 60-year-old Storybook Gardens (and Timbavati Wildlife Park), 1500 Wisconsin Dells Parkway, is still going. The park is dotted with displays that present nursery rhyme favorites in three-dimensional glory. There's the mustachioed giant atop Jack's beanstalk and Humpty Dumpty ill-advisedly sitting atop a brick wall.

There are also a number of enclosures with wildlife on view -- everything from gigantic turtles to sloths and kangaroos. There's a great train that circles the property, a wildlife show, camel rides and more.

When we lost a stuffed animal along the tracks, I got a moment to hear a bit about the history of the park, which opened in 1956.

The folks that lease it now have been running it for about eight years and are working hard to make a go of it. You can tell it's not easy to run a traditional place like this in the Dells in 2010 -- there's a lot of glitzy competition for the tourist dollar -- but Storybook Gardens is still fun when there are young kids in the group and I'd recommend it.

Great Wolf Lodge

We had hoped to take a ducks ride on the Wisconsin River next, but the phone rang as dark clouds began to take shape in the sky above. Our room was ready at Great Wolf Lodge, 1400 Great Wolf Dr., right off I-94, and it was nap time (sadly, not for mom and dad), too.

The best thing about Great Wolf is that it solved two problems at once. We got a hotel and a selection of water parks all together in a single package.

The kids loved the Kid Cabin room we got because part of the large room was separated off into a log cabin with bunk beds. When they saw them, sleep was the last thing on their minds. They were ready for a deep woods adventure right in the hotel room.

Great Wolf also has three indoor waterparks and an outdoor one. There are restaurants, an arcade, a spa and more, all wrapped into a single, sprawling complex that means you could choose to never leave the lodge and still have a great time at the Dells.

Because it was our inaugural water park experience and our kids are wee, we had pretty much all our waterpark fun in the Bear Track Landing park, which had a kiddie area perfect for them and a nice wave pool that was fun for all of us.

But we also checked out the other waterparks and I bet next time, now that they've gotten a taste of waterparks, will love the Treehouse Island park, which has a range of awesome sprays, spurts and spouts to douse you from every direction. Spirit Island has a nice and not terribly daunting slide.

Then there's the Howlin' Tornado, which looked awesome for thrill seekers, but not like something to bring your toddlers into.

"The all-under-one-roof, weather-proof offerings at the large waterpark resorts are popular year-round, because they provide a full experience with no weather interruptions and they're a good value," says Carla Minsky, of Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau.

"Which is not to say that guests don't leave the resorts to experience the other attractions around town. Variety is still king and there are classic Dells' rituals that visitors enjoyed when they were young and like to re-create for their children."

When I tell her that taking our kids to a place we remembered going to as kids -- Storybook Gardens -- felt like a rite of passage, Minsky says, "Yes, we hear that a lot!"

Great Wolf Lodge Wisconsin Dells - Even the littlest kids can find waterpark fun at Great Wolf Lodge.

Goody Goody Gum Drop LLC & High Rock Cafe

Afterward, we spent the late afternoon and early evening out in downtown Dells walking around, hoping to see fudge being made at Goody Goody Gum Drop, 401 Broadway, the largest candy store in the Dells. No luck on the fudge, but we got some yummy dessert treats.

But first, we had dinner at the High Rock Cafe, 232 Broadway. We weren't sure what to expect here. At first we thought it might be diner food, but the nice yet casual eatery had a range of delicious sandwiches, salads and entrees -- I had a monte cristo with the most amazing broccoli salad.

Best of all, despite being a nice, adult-looking place, High Rock had a good kids menu and a staff that was fabulous with kids. Skip the gimmicks and get a great meal for the whole family here.

Back at the hotel, we splashed a bit in the water and hit the 8 p.m. storytime and the animatronic show in the Great Wolf lobby, which drew a large crowd and delighted all the kids present.

If mom and dad weren't beat, we might have perched on the deck for a drink and relaxation.

Downtown Wisconsin Dells Shopping - Goody Goody Gum Drop is the largest candy store in the Dells and the hazelnut truffles are quite good.

Paul Bunyan's Northwoods Cook Shanty

The next morning, up early, we weighed the differences between Mr. Pancake and Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty, opting in the end for the latter, which didn't disappoint. If you've been there, you know. If not, know that you don't order. Servers just bring everything to the table and this is not the time to think about diets or exercise. Especially since the first thing to arrive at table is donuts.

Paul Bunyan

Tommy Bartlett Exploratory - Interactive Science Center

Back at the hotel, we spent more time in the waterparks and had lunch in Great Wolf's Loose Moose Bar & Grill. Then, before leaving for home, we went to Tommy Bartlett's Exploratory Interactive Science Center to see the Russian Space Station MIR core capsule.

First we wound through the maze-like floors of hands-on science and technology exhibits and activities, which our overtired kids didn't appreciate as they likely would have at any other time.

Then we entered the small space that holds the capsule and some other related displays. It felt pretty odd to be standing in a space station and we couldn't help but note how small it was.

Little more than 24 hours after our arrival in the Dells, we got back on I-94 in the opposite direction and headed for home with our Dells debut and a lot of fun under our belts.

Thanks to those ubiquitous racks of brochures, we left armed with the start of another itinerary.

This one may or may not include the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in nearby North Freedom, the Circus World Museum in Baraboo and breakfast at Mr. Pancake. Carla Minsky, of the Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau also suggests the Wisconsin Deer Park.

What it definitely will include is a ducks ride, weather permitting.

The MIR Space Station

Story Highlights


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