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What Makes Wisconsin Dells Unique?

A Dells Army Ducks tour in Wisconsin Dells.

For those considering a first-time visit to Wisconsin Dells, you may be wondering, why is Wisconsin Dells so popular? A lot has to do with Wisconsin Dells history, especially the history of Wisconsin Dells waterparks.

What Is Wisconsin Dells Known For?

A family at Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells.

While the word “unique” is overused and misapplied in many tourism circles, not so in Wisconsin Dells. The Dells is one of a kind, of that you can be sure. It’s the “Waterpark Capital of the World!®” Today there are more waterparks of every size per capita than anywhere else on the planet!

Yet, to fully answer the question, what is Wisconsin Dells known for, one must start with a look back at the history, legends, and lore.

Wisconsin Dells History

So, let’s go back, way back, to the Cambrian Period some 500 million years ago, when this community was the sandy shore of an ancient sea. Zip ahead to 19,000 years ago, when a glacier extended to within four miles of the area, never touching the Dells. When that glacier melted, it created Glacial Lake Wisconsin. When the last ice dam holding back the waters of the lake began to melt, the powerful meltwaters cut deep, narrow gorges and unusual rock formations into the soft sandstone in mere days. These are the same cliff formations visitors gaze upon today during scenic Wisconsin river cruises.   

The next page in the history of Wisconsin Dells is told through the Ho-Chunk, the largest Native American Nation in the area. The Ho-Chunk endured unspeakable hardship, being forced to leave their land starting in 1832 under the U.S. Government’s infamous removal policy. It wasn’t until 1873 that they could file claims to the land. Soon, visitors to the Dells area would learn of the rich history and culture of the Ho-Chunk through pow-wows and ceremonials. Today, the Ho-Chunk Nation holds title to 2,000 acres and remains steadfast in its dedication to preserve the culture.

What Is Wisconsin Dells Known For?

In 1856, the town was incorporated as Kilbourn City, in honor of the railroad’s president, and it wasn’t until 1931 that it was officially renamed Wisconsin Dells. "Wisconsin" is derived from the Native American word meaning "dark rushing waters," and "Dells" is an anglicized version of the French word "dalles," which means "layers of flat rock," used to describe the rock formations along the river that resemble stacks of pancakes.

H.H. Bennett's son leaps the famous chasm in Wisconsin Dells.

An early entrepreneur by the name of Leroy Gates, a logger and river pilot, had a hand in sealing the future of the Dells as a tourism town instead of the logging community it was when he started a rowboat tour business. Next came steamboat tours.

Then there’s the photographer credited with making Wisconsin Dells famous, Henry Hamilton (HH) Bennett. Considered one of the grandfathers of landscape photography, his other-worldly images of the river were displayed in passenger train cars running north from Chicago, creating a “buzz” for tourism in the Dells. Bennett’s studio, which still stands today on the main street in downtown Dells, is now a state historic site and a tourism attraction all its own.

A new way of seeing the river and rock formations came with the first Duck tours in 1946. For the uninitiated, a Duck is a WWII land-to-water vehicle, and today Wisconsin Dells has the largest fleet in the country. For those who like to sightsee from land, there’s the Scenic River Walk which starts right downtown.

History of Wisconsin Dells Waterparks

Waterpark acclaim can be traced to 1989, when the owners of the Polynesian Waterpark Resort decided to put a roof over their water attractions, creating the first indoor waterpark.

The world-renowned waterpark accomplishments have piled up since then:

A Lost Canyon Tour in Wisconsin Dells.

On land, you can find a looping roller coaster and one that goes underground at Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park, go-cart tracks aplenty, ziplines, mini-golf, a classic drive-in movie theater, fudge shops, indoor amusement parks, and old-timey portrait studios. Animal attractions, including Wisconsin Deer Park, Timbavati Wildlife Park, and Lost Canyon Tours with its horse-drawn carriage rides, are as popular as ever.

The next chapter of Wisconsin Dells history will be written this summer with the opening of the Elm Street Plaza, with a stage for free nightly entertainment and interactive water features including geysers and fountains. This will be the “it” spot for pop-up markets and seasonal celebrations too.

Why Is Wisconsin Dells So Popular?

In summary, the answer to why the Dells is so popular lies in all of the above. Generation after generation, visitors to Wisconsin Dells create new memories to last a lifetime, enjoying both modern waterparks and traditional attractions, while continuing to happily reminisce about days gone by.

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