By Scott Jacobs

The last time I visited the Wisconsin Dells was 1958. I was eight years old. I rode The Ducks through the scenic gorges. I watched in amazement as Buddy the Dog jump from one cliff to another high above the Wisconsin River. We stayed at a Howard Johnson’s and, on cool summer evenings, we walked down Main Street past taffy carts and souvenir shops where I threw a fit until my parents bought me a Davey Crockett coonskin cap.

Some things never change, although the Dells sure has. I was standing in line waiting to check into The Wilderness Territory, rifling through all the brochures for new attractions since my last visit, when my own son, only 5, bolted off into the gift shop and returned with a popgun rifle he really, really, really needed me to buy right now.

World’s Largest Waterpark Resort

It was Friday afternoon, crunch time in the lobby of The Wilderness, when most of the 800 rooms fill with families. They come for what is billed as the largest waterpark resort in the world – 250,000 square feet of water adventures – but that is only the brochure cover to a devilish array of video game arcades, go kart tracks, mini-golf courses, haunted houses, zip lines, laser tag and thrill rides, all under the roof of three inter-connected hotels known collectively as The Wilderness Territory. For children of a certain age, this is the closest they will ever come to Las Vegas for kids.

If we had come in the summer, we might have stayed in one of its 300 other cabins and condominiums alongside Lake of the Wilderness or on the grounds of its two adjoining golf courses. If my wife and I had left the little one at home, we probably would have enjoyed the purifying bath ritual or sandstone body polish at the world class Sundara spa next door.

But this weekend was all about the kid, so after I pried my son’s finger off the trigger and coaxed him off the floor, we made our way down the hall to our room. He ran ahead counting down the room numbers on the doors; I trailed along carrying the luggage.

In The Wilderness, guests carry their own luggage (which is one reason the resort offers accommodations for as little as $99 a night). But they also carry a map that is the essential guide to all the attractions, not to mention finding your room. Our progress down the hall is halting, slowed at times by marauding bands of teenagers just checking out the place and made perilous by a steady flow of little boys and girls in swimsuits and robes racing to the water park.

When we find our suite, it turns out to have two queen size beds and a flat screen TV on one side of a privacy wall; a small kitchen, sofa bed and second TV with a Nintendo controller on the other. Like most of the hotel rooms, it is designed for a family of four, which means the adult TV fires up to a menu of $9 movies on demand and the children’s opens on an array of video games at $5 an hour.

The Great Wave

With our gear put away, we set out to find the resort’s main attraction, the Wild Water Dome. Getting there meant wandering back out into the maze of hotel corridors. Wherever two halls converged, there were signposts pointing this way to “Dodge ‘Em City” and that way to “Polka Dot Pots” and over the sky bridge to “Klondike Kavern.” Each attraction, it seemed, had some wild west theme and  a crotchety old miner winkin’ at cha if you didn’t get the joke.

The Wild Water Dome is one of three indoor water parks. It consists of 70,000 square feet of wildness divided into three parts, each age appropriate. For the youngest, there is a toddler activity area. For the older teenagers, “Dueling Mammoths” – two four-story high water slides that snake out of the building in twisting plastic tubes and plunge riders back down a darkened chute into the waiting arms of attendants. And for everyone else, a “great wave” pool that looks on first glance to be one of those European public baths in the 1930s.

My son went immediately to the kiddie pool, turning knobs to control the overhead spray of water and building his confidence on mini-slides formed in the shape of frogs and tree houses. I grabbed an inner tube and ventured off to explore “the great wave.”

If you catch it at the right time, the great wave pool is a little like the boat dock at a Fox River saloon. It’s a party where nothing in particular happens. Dads steady their children on plastic rafts and teenagers drift about in water as tepid as a warm bath. Every 20 minutes, however, a huge underwater turbine kicks in and a succession of waves begins to roll out across the surface. The commotion lasts for eight minutes. Inner tubes and bodies fly in all directions. Adrenaline-juiced teens crowd forward toward the turbine to show their bravado. Lifeguards patrol the edges of the pool looking for heads that go under but don’t re-emerge. And when the wave subsides, everyone goes back to lollygagging around until the next wave hits––or heads to the refreshment stand.

Every waterpark appears to have at least two bars: one serves drinks from a poolside window, the other is a sitdown bar with widescreen TV’s carrying all the football action. Because the dome roof is made out of a special Foil Tec material that allows UV rays to penetrate, adults can sit out and tan on poolside lounge chairs or rent one of 20 cabanas that come with their own refrigerator, microwave, and widescreen TV.

Foraging for Food

After our first stint in The Wild Water Dome, we went foraging for food, an activity known outside The Wilderness as eating dinner. All trails lead to the buffet at the Wild Canyon Café where children eat free––because adults pay through the nose.

In keeping with the wilderness theme, stuffed animals are tucked into the restaurant rafters. Mountain lions, small bears, a moose head and beaver look down on the diners, many of whom are another native Wisconsin species, the Rodgers, identifiable by their green pelt, yellow armbands and the number 12 on their backs.  The buffet is the usual assortment of fruits and vegetables, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, boiled ham, sliced beef in gravy, and a dozen pastries for desert: all-you-can-eat dining at its best. We finished with only one spilled milk and returned to the room to play video games into the night.

Klondike Kavern

When we awoke Saturday, a cold drizzle filled the autumn air. But who cares? Everything we needed was indoors. We decided to follow the map to a new destination, Kondike Kavern, a second waterpark just past the Goody Gum Drop Sweets Shoppe and nigh unto the OK Corral Lazer Runner. The lure of shooting a real laser gun was too much for my young son, so he and I donned the vests and blasted our way through the blacklight of the battlefield. If he had his choice, he would have spent the rest of the day there. But that impulse quickly faded when he saw what came next.

Klondike Kavern is another cavernous indoor park (65,000 square feet) with two high speed body slides and “The Hurricane” – a tornado-shaped raft ride in which riders circle around the inside of a huge funnel until they splash into the pool. High atop Bonanza Bluff, an old oaken bucket about the size of an upside down Volkswagen Beetle gradually fills to the brim, then dumps hundreds of gallons of water on the kids below.

This seems to thrill the younger children who climb the bluff to go down the waterslides. But I notice that the adults gravitate more to Bonanza Brook, a lazy river that circumnavigates the deluge, where they can drift aimlessly along in inner tubes. Saturday turned into a day of discovery for my son as he moved from one water feature to another, his confidence growing, and the slides escalating in degree of difficulty. We tried out the bumper boats with the squirt gun cannons, Ransack Ridge and its bubbling water fountains, and the great wave again, this time venturing so close to the tumbling turbine my son ventured that this was probably the closest any five-year-old had ever dared to go.

Living The Dream

His favorite spot, however, turned out to be an indoor-outdoor hot tub called “Sulfur Springs.” There’s not much to do in Sulfur Springs. Gentle rock music creates a mood where couples, mostly teenagers, wade out through plastic curtains into a small pool surrounded by Styrofoam lava rocks. But doing nothing is apparently something my son is very good at. He slipped into the warm water and out into the pool, floating on his back with his eyes closed. I swam out to see if he was okay.

“What are you doing,” I asked.

“Living the dream,” he said.

And I guess that’s what we all want for our children: To give them a chance to live out their dreams. And that’s what The Wilderness provides, a safe and wholesome way to do it. It’s all kind of hokey, but it sure beats The Ducks. And in case you are wondering, yes, my son now has a gun. And he’s up for another trip to the Dells, any time you want to go.

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