Natural charm and man-made thrills in Wisconsin Dells

2013-07-19T00:00:00Z 2013-07-19T09:43:03Z Natural charm and man-made thrills in Wisconsin DellsRobert Blaszkiewicz, (219) 852-4314

It's only been in recent years that the Wisconsin Dells has remade itself as "The Waterpark Capital of the World."

Before a parade of water-gushing slides sprouted up along the landscape, it was the natural rock formations along the Wisconsin Rivers that drew visitors from throughout the Midwest.

A four-hour drive from Northwest Indiana, the Dells' primary draw these days is the ever-expanding watery playground shown on TV ads. But beyond the thrills and spills, an undeniable charm can still be found in a relaxing "Duck" ride.

And that's probably the best way to do the Dells -- mixing old school and new school and exploring the odd corners. Yes, the cheese factor for some of the attractions is undeniable, but we are in Wisconsin.

New school

The dominant player in the Wisconsin Dells area has become the waterpark resort, featuring indoor playgrounds that have helped attract tourists year-round.

Some of the largest aren't actually in the Dells, but in adjacent Lake Delton. Heading into the area on Interstate 94, visitors will first encounter the African-themed Kalahari Resort, which in recent years added an indoor theme park to go along with the water park.

Across from the Kalahari is the Great Wolf Lodge. The more compact waterpark and attentive lifeguards are well suited for families with younger children. We particularly enjoyed that it was only open to resort guests, which meant shorter lines for many of the slides.

Just down the road, the sprawling Wilderness Resort has something for everyone with four indoor and four outdoor waterparks, a zip line, huge arcades and laser tag. The lodging ranges from standard hotel rooms to vacation homes that can accommodate multiple families.

Chula Vista Resort is a little ways off the main drag and enjoys more scenic surroundings to go with indoor/outdoor water parks and an 18-hole golf course.

One of the fastest growing resorts is Mt. Olympus Water and Theme Park, which you can't help but notice for the Greek theming, including the huge Trojan Horse along Wisconsin Dells Parkway. Mt. Olympus also boasts one of the hot new rides of the summer, Hades 360, billed as the world's first looping wooden roller coaster.

Though smaller than the others, the Polynesian Water Park Resort can claim its title as the area's first indoor water park, opened in 1994.

Plenty of kitschy hotels line the drive into downtown Wisconsin Dells, many include passes to local parks, such as the Dells' largest outdoor waterpark, Noah's Ark. We recommend heading there at opening to beat the crowds that fill the park by midday and enjoy a shorter wait for slides like Scorpion's Tail.

I should take a moment to describe this latest flavor in water slides (there's also a version at Wilderness called Lunar Loop). Not for the claustrophobic, the rider begins by stepping into a vertical capsule where a 3-2-1 countdown leads to a trap door release down a tube and through a nearly vertical loop. Before you know it, you're at the bottom after a thrilling ride.

Old school

No trip to the Dells is complete without spending some time on or along the Wisconsin River. Here, glacial waters carved sandstone formations that have been dubbed with names like Hawk's Beak, describing their likeness.

Luckily for visitors, the Dells offers plenty of boat tour options, including the famed Ducks. For the uninitiated, the Ducks are vehicles salvaged from the military after World War II that can travel on land and water. Drivers will show off that feature during tours with splashdowns from roadway to river.

Teens may enjoy the faster pace of a jet boat tour, but be warned: You will get wet. Other tour companies offer dinner cruises along the river. And for the adventurous, the Lost Voyage attraction offers a haunted mystery tour after dark.

Sticking with water, you may not see as many Tommy Bartlett Show stickers on the back bumpers of station wagons these days, but they're still doing two shows of water ski stunts daily on Lake Delton.

For animal lovers, Wisconsin Deer Park has been around more than five decades, where visitors can hand feed the tame deer wandering the grounds. Nearby, Timbavati Wildlife Park features the more exotic -- giraffe, zebra, kangaroo, white tiger, lion, ostrich and more -- along with a vintage train ride.

And no trip to Dells is complete with at least one visit to the Downtown Wisconsin Dells area. Lined with gift shops, galleries and oddball attractions, like the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, the storefronts beckon tourists. For something a bit more highbrow, stop at the H.H. Bennett Studio, showcasing the work of the landscape photographer whose work first brought attention to the Dells.

After browsing T-shirts, stopping for fudge and snapping pictures, continue to the Downtown Riverwalk. The picturesque walkway showcases the views of the river from atop the bluff, perfect for a relaxing sunset stroll.

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