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‘For grownups who miss recess’

Although Wisconsin Dells is one of Wisconsin’s oldest tourism destinations, it has a hip new image as the self-proclaimed Waterpark Capital of the World. More than 20 parks filled with more than 15 million gallons of water resonate with shouts and screams from mammoth slides, wave pools large enough to surf on and even roller coasters.

The variety of attractions in Wisconsin Dells include the H.H. Bennett Studio, above, the Tommy Bartlett Ski Show, below, and boat tours of the distinctive sandstone formations that originally made the area famous, bottom.

“We have the largest concentration [of water parks] in the nation,” said Melanie Platt-Gibson, director of marketing and communications for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau, “from little toe-tickling, zero-depth pools to adrenaline rushes with water roller coasters.”

Flying with the birds

Cranes are among the most interesting and endangered birds on earth. Groups visiting Wisconsin Dells have the rare opportunity to see all of the world’s species of cranes in one natural setting and to learn about world-renowned efforts to save them.

“It is the only place in the world that people can come and see 15 species: the entire family of cranes,” said Ann Burke, director of public relations for the International Crane Foundation just outside Wisconsin Dells.

The 36-year-old foundation focuses on captive breeding and reintroducing cranes into the wild. It has gained notoriety from news coverage of its efforts, which include staff members dressing in crane costumes while raising young cranes and using crane-costumed pilots in ultralight aircraft to guide the young birds on migration routes from Wisconsin to Florida.

“With a group, we have a dedicated guide with them the entire length of their stay,” said Burke. “As they [guides] take them through, they tell about the biology of cranes, some folklore and legends around the world, why they are so revered, and they talk about our programs internationally to benefit cranes and wetlands.”

Burke said the hour-and-a-half to two-hour tours tend to be very interactive, with lots of questions from visitors.

“There are level walking paths, all paved, and you are surrounded with what vegetation in southern Wisconsin was like prior to European settlement: tall-grass prairie,” said Burke. “And it’s all full of native birds and butterflies.”

And, of course, there are the cranes. “Cranes are very territorial, so each species has its own pen and display,” said Burke.

The newest exhibit, which opened in late June, features the four migratory cranes of Africa — the blue, the wattled, the gray crowned and the black crowned — each in its own specially designed wetland.

There is also a family education center with displays and a nature-themed gift shop.
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And with many of the parks being indoors, the fun goes on year round.

However, Wisconsin Dells has not become youth-obsessed.

“We definitely embrace the family destination image,” said Platt-Gibson. “Yet, at the same time, we have always continued to talk about the Dells for grownups and motorcoaches. There are great opportunities and activities for grownups.”

Platt-Gibson said new research shows that a fourth of Wisconsin Dells’ 3 million annual visitors are 55-plus. Many are drawn by the Dells’ traditional attractions, such as shopping, downtown fudge shops, boat tours of the area’s distinctive sandstone formations and entertainment such as the Tommy Bartlett Ski Show.

However, “groups do enjoy our water parks,” she said. “They are built right for active adults. A lazy river is ideal for some, there are larger tube rides, and some enjoy getting up on the Kalahari surf rider and trying their hand at that.”

One of the CVB’s marketing slogans is “Wisconsin Dells is for grownups who miss recess.”

At the beginning

No matter your activity level, a good place to start a visit to Wisconsin Dells is at the H.H. Bennett Studio downtown for an overview of the area’s rich tourism heritage. The museum is located in the original photography studio of Bennett, whose 19th-century pictures of Wisconsin Dells’ intriguing scenery made the area famous.

“He had a very rich landscape outside his back door, and he turned them [his photographs] into post cards and marketed them in Chicago,” said Platt-Gibson.

The first visitors rowed their own boats upriver. Today, a wide range of options are available for viewing the unusual bluffs, canyons and formations on the Wisconsin River, which were divided into the Upper Dells and the Lower Dells by a century-old hydroelectric dam.

There are nearly two dozen choices among traditional riverboats, jet boats and the World War II-era amphibious Ducks.

“The river cruise remains one of the favorites. It takes you back to why Wisconsin Dells became famous,” said Platt-Gibson.

The unusual formations of flat, layered sandstone were created from the soft and porous rock by the melting waters of glaciers.

“The different formations go from towering Chimney Rock to Hawk’s Beak to Baby Grand Piano,” said Platt-Gibson.

The formations are different on the Upper Dells and the Lower Dells. The two-hour tours of the Upper Dells include stops at Witches Gulch, with its narrow passageways and canyons, and Stand Rock, made famous by Bennett’s photo that captures his son in midair jumping to the rock. Today, specially trained dogs leap the five-foot chasm from the main cliff to the rock ledge.

The hourlong tours of the Lower Dells, where guides tell stories about the ghost town of Newport, the once-vibrant logging era and Native American history, do not have stops.

There is no commercial development along the river, which is very clean, although it has a dark tannin color.

Another way to see the Dells is on the quarter-mile RiverWalk downtown. “It opens up gorgeous views of the Upper Dells,” said Platt-Gibson. “You stroll right along the edges of the cliffs. It is views that were not available until they created the walk several years ago.”

Give me a refill

It was a somber moment for residents of Wisconsin Dells when they watched helplessly as all 246 acres of man-made Lake Delton, a centerpiece of the town’s tourism industry, flowed into the Wisconsin River in less than two hours.

On June 9, 2008, a torrential rain of up to 18 inches caused the lake to breach its earthen dam, washing away five houses and a small forest of trees, and leaving the popular Tommy Bartlett Ski Show and several resorts along the lake high and dry.

“It was a catastrophic event,” said Melanie Platt-Gibson, director of marketing and communications for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.

However, state and local governments and local businesses immediately began a concerted restoration and refilling effort, and “the lake this year is refilled and fixed,” said Platt-Gibson.

On the one-year anniversary of the disaster, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle presided over a ceremonial rededication of the lake that included decorated boats on parade and performers from the Bartlett show doing their famous flips and jumps.

Resorts and boat rental businesses around the lake lit tiki torches, luminaries and bonfires for a celebratory evening light show.

The RiverWalk is part of the River District, which includes shops and nightly entertainment during the summer.

Platt-Gibson said Wisconsin Dells’ shopping opportunities are a mix of the Tangier Outlet, with its discount brand-name shops, and locally owned boutique shopping downtown at stores such as Artistic Expressions, with works by regional artists; the distinctive Dandelion gift shop; and Burl and Boyd’s high-end resort wear.

Another way to see the area is aboard the Ducks, authentic 21-passenger amphibious vehicles that were used during World War II. Two companies — the Original Wisconsin Ducks and the Dells Ducks — provide duck rides from mid-March to early November.

The eight-and-one-half-mile land-and-water tours weave through narrow gorges and woodlands and feature thrilling splashdowns in the Wisconsin River and Lake Delton, accompanied by informative and humorous commentary by the drivers.

“It’s such a great way to see the actual Dells and hear some local folklore and how this community grew,” said Platt-Gibson.

You can also take a half-hour horse-drawn carriage ride through a mile of sheer rock and sandstone walls in Lost Canyon.

Old is new

Wisconsin Dells has one of the longest-running, live outdoor entertainment shows of its kind in the country. And it is all brand-new.

The Tommy Bartlett Ski Show, which has been a popular feature on Lake Delton since 1952, returned to the water this spring after being limited to onshore acrobatics most of last year after the lake overran its boundaries and drained dry (see sidebar).

“They presented a brand-new water show this year,” said Platt-Gibson.

The revamped show still has all of the daring water-ski stunts that have made it so popular over the years, with plenty of flips, jumps and its famous human pyramid of skiers, along with many new elements and a new show theme.

“The water is back this summer, so we’re kicking it up a few notches by adding a variety of new water elements into the mix, such as more personal watercraft stunts, specialty skis and pops of pyrotechnics, all wrapped into a whole new choreographed, themed ski show,” general manager Tom Diehl said in a release at the start of the season.

For the past decade, husband-and-wife illusionists Rick and Suzan Wilcox have offered thrills of a different kind at their own theater.

“He is a master illusionist with sleight-of-hand and large illusions,” said Platt-Gibson. “He has added a classic Houdini escape trick with a twist: He escapes jail and ends up being outside holding the keys.”

For evening musical entertainment, the 30-year-old Wisconsin Opry has a mix of country, gospel and bluegrass, and the Crystal Grand Music Theater has a regular schedule of top-name performers.

Grownups who miss recess can return to their youth in a variety of ways in Wisconsin Dells.