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Every January in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., the resort community better known as “The Waterpark Capital of the World!®”, there is a little tradition the local visitor bureau likes to call the official release of what’s new for the coming year. Given everything that’s debuting in the Dells for 2012, frankly it might have been easier to chronicle what’s not new. But, in the spirit of keeping the tradition alive, here is the rundown of new waterpark rides, attractions, accommodations, restaurants, shops and outdoor adventures for the new year.
Big Waterpark News
Starting outdoors, Noah’s Ark Waterpark, America’s Largest Waterpark, is debuting Quadzilla, a $1 million family mat racer slide that stands 47 feet tall, with lanes that run 323 feet long. How can that be, you ask? Because the four slides making up this ride are literally braided and twisted together, a first-of-its-kind for this community. Riders will plunge head first on Quadzilla, reaching top speeds of just over 20 mph. If you do the math, that’s 24 seconds from top to bottom. The lanes start out enclosed, but as you race to the bottom, they become open lanes so you can see who’s winning in the side-by-side competition. As you crest over vertical curves and gain even more speed toward the bottom, be prepared to experience a feeling of weightlessness.
At Kalahari Waterpark Resort Convention Center, they’ve literally raised the roof to install two indoor Super Loop waterslides, the first of their kind in the world, the Sahara Sidewinders. These slides stand 65 feet tall, which meant extending a section of the roof to accommodate the added height. You’ll even be able to see the top of these slides from the interstate. Riders will step into the slide and brace themselves as a trapdoor opens below their feet, sending them rocketing at speeds up to 25 mph. Kalahari also installed an additional free fall slide for the really adventurous called the Screaming Hyena. While the new slides will be a hit with tweens and teens, the toddlers have not been left out, as the resort has opened a new kid’s play zone called Tiko’s Watering Hole, with more than a dozen kiddie slides and interactive African animal figures – think grey-crowned cranes doubling as squirt guns. A rain tree gushes water as if it’s raining for added squeals.
Heading back outside, the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort is adding two new water tube-style slides, one that loops and one that jettisons riders straight down, both with trap doors to get the free fall started. Riders can reach speeds up to 40 mph thanks to maximum G force. Both of these behemoths will be in the Glacier Canyon Lodge section of the sprawling resort, the country’s largest combo indoor/outdoor waterpark property.
Over at Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Parks, their archeological crew has “excavated” the $3 million Lost City of Atlantis, a gigantic outdoor water fortress that covers over three acres. This new archeological find will be easy to spot at a whopping six stories tall. Tailored for all age groups, the Lost City of Atlantis will feature a monster dump bucket and seven water slides including a bowl ride, boomerang slide, family tube slide, kids’ water slides and a geyser blasting water over 160 feet.
The new splash pad at Sherwood Forest Camping & RV Park proves waterpark fun doesn’t have to be limited to just waterpark resorts. This zero-depth attraction is festooned with rainbow water arches, squirt cannons and geysers.
New Ways to Be Entertained
There is a really nice variety of new indoor attractions this year starting with Wild Fun Zone, located downtown Dells and offering indoor bumper cars with spinning action, 3-D black light mini golf, a laser tag arena that takes the shape of a space cave, virtual roller coaster ride and mega arcade. Look for the huge gorilla on the top of the building to find this place.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum has added a “shrunken head alley” featuring a half-dozen actual shrunken heads. Next door at Wizard Quest, a new character by the name of Professor Oodlesmack has been added to the quest displays. His eccentric hobby is creating new flavors of popcorn, so naturally there is an Oodlesmack Popcorn counter attached to Wizard Quest, with more than 40 different gourmet flavors. Plus, the Dells 4D Special FX Theater, on the same block, has two new films this year that will make you feel like you’re in the movie.
There’s just something about oversized gadgets that gets kids, and adults, engaged. At the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory – Interactive Science Center, you can lift a 3,000 pound car off the ground using an oversized lever. This new hands-on exhibit is located right outside of the front entrance to the Exploratory. Head inside and you’ll find two other new exhibits – one, a musical experiment called “Dancing Sands” and the other a “Square Wheel” that actually rolls. Side note – the Exploratory is also celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2012.
Jeremy Allen’s Grand Illusions magic show now has a theater all its own on Stand Rock Road and, to mark the move, Allen has added two new David Copperfield-type escape illusions. You’ll also see four new white tigers making their stage debut.
Outdoor Recreation and Adventures
Vertical Illusions, known for its inspiring Wisconsin River kayak and rock climbing adventures, is now offering an Eco Zip Line Canopy Tour. You’ll zip off the top of Chimney Rock, a 500-foot bluff affording 120-mile views, and then travel along 15 tree-to-tree zip lines without ever touching the ground. For winter visitors, Vertical Illusions offers a 40-foot frozen waterfall climb.
If you like zip lining, there’s a good chance you’ll also like the new adventure ropes course located inside the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort. It’s called the Northern Lights Sky Ropes Course and it’s perched 30 feet above the mega arcade in the Wild West region of the property. Wearing a full-body safety harness, you’ll climb your way around 42 challenges with varying degrees of difficulty.
Big Chief’s Go Karts is new, with enough uphills and downhills to make you dizzy. A hairpin turn is thrown in for good measure.
Lost Voyage, a nighttime adventure on the Wisconsin River that takes participants on a mystifying scavenger hunt of sorts in search of a mythical (or is it?) tour boat that vanished years ago, has new chapters planned for this ongoing conspiracy mystery. Look for clues online, in the ticket center lobby and as you enter Cold Water Canyon on foot and interact with characters you meet along the way.
For baby boomers and older, the first thing that probably comes to mind when they hear “P.T. 109” is the movie by the same name that dramatized President John F. Kennedy’s WWII experiences during which he captained a PT boat. Now, it’s also part of the moniker for a Wisconsin River tour of the Upper Dells glacial park. The P.T. 109 Boat Patrol sightseeing excursion is narrated, drawing on both history and legend of the river, and showcases the sandstone rock formations.
This is just about ESPN-worthy news. JustAgame Fieldhouse has completed a huge addition to its facility, adding two regulation high school courts that can be reconfigured to a regulation college court with seating for 2,000. No sooner were the floorboards in place than the announcement came that JustAgame had been selected by the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association as the site for the 2012 All Star Games, bringing 200 of the best Wisconsin high school players to the Dells.
Anniversaries and Reunions
The Tommy Bartlett Show is marking the 60th anniversary of its iconic water ski show with reunion performances the weekend of June 30-July 1, inviting skiers back to celebrate with the current cast of “Livin’ the Dream.” Retro ski acts are making a comeback too, featuring the ski tricks that made the show famous the world over. Other special events and appearances to mark the occasion will be sprinkled throughout the summer.
Both Swiss Maid Fudge and Wisconsin Dairyland Fudge are marking their 50th anniversaries with sweet specialties that will only be available for the anniversary year.
Wollersheim Winery is celebrating its 40th anniversary of being in business, although the land’s use as a vineyard dates back to the 1840s, with tours, events, displays and wine releases. Already a national historic site, Wollersheim was also recently bestowed with an historical marker from the county’s historical society.
A Little Food, A Little Wine
Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub of Wisconsin Dells brings to town its casual style dining, micro-brews and gourmet sodas made by its own Sprecher Brewery. The cream soda is a must, as is the root beer.
Fawn Creek Winery has introduced two new wines. The Kilbourn Red is a cranberry-flavored Shiraz; one dollar from the sale of every bottle is donated to the Kilbourn Volunteer Fire Department of Wisconsin Dells. Cabin Fever is a backberry-flavored Merlot and is billed as a seasonal wine to help cure the doldrums of Wisconsin winters.
Insider Shopping Finds
Downtown has a new shopping experience in women’s apparel – it’s a boutique called Alpha Beta Karma. This store has the feeling of a Parisian flea market meets So Ho boutique, thanks to the owners’ frequent buying trips to bring in fashion, jewelry, footwear and accessories from both east and west coast designers.
The third downtown newcomer is Thirty Below Leather, selling an ever evolving inventory of purses, gloves, hats, wallets and belts, and the best part is that every item in the store is $30 or less.
For anyone into gardening, Wisconsin Landscaping & Garden Center will lure you in with their solar gazing balls, glass bird feeders and garden art. If you’re in Wisconsin Dells on a celebration vacation and would like flowers delivered, their floral department is at your service.
Finally, Ho-Chunk Gaming – Wisconsin Dells has added a new recreational vehicle park to its complex. It’s called Hocak Houisa Chi’ Nuk Luxury RV Park, which translates to "Ho-Chunk Parking Village." This three-season addition has 49 spaces with amenities like Wi-Fi, water, sewer, electric, fire pits and picnic tables, along with a comfort station with showers and a guest laundry facility.
If you’re still looking for other things to do in the Dells, then you are not only ambitious but clearly a diehard fan, so have at it by logging on to the official web site, www.wisdells.com. There you’ll find complete listings of waterparks, attractions, restaurants, retail, lodging and service choices.
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 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.
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.
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.
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