Wisconsin Dells: Traditional Family Fun

Wisconsin Dells is one of my family’s favorite vacation places.  Close to our home in Chicago’s south suburbs, and with plenty to offer kids and parents alike, it’s a great place to spend a long weekend or part of a week’s vacation.

We took the drive up in mid-April this year.  My children, ages 7 and 11, were off school on Easter break, and my Wife and I had managed to schedule a few vacation days to take them.  As is tradition on our family vacations, we surprised the kids on the morning we left with the good news.  They knew we were going soon, but keeping the actual date secret meant a good night’s sleep (theoretically) for all involved.  The next morning, we ran for a quick breakfast, then plopped the kids in the backseat of my big Chrysler for the drive up north.

The journey to the Dells continues to be a bit of a challenge, with construction on most of I-90 North (the Jane Addams) from the Rockford exit to near the State Line (40 miles or so).  It probably added half an hour to our 3 ½ hour trip this year, but when the project is finished in 2016 it could well reduce travel time to less than 3 hours.

The first thing you notice on exiting onto Highway 12 in the Dells is the truly huge funnel structure that makes up part of the Howlin’ Tornado at Great Wolf Lodge.  Seeing the funnel always excites the backseat crew, since Great Wolf is our usual destination when we go to Wisconsin.




Check-in at Great Wolf is typically a painless experience, then it’s off to drop the suitcases, change into swimsuits, and run down to the water parks.  We spent nearly all of our first day swimming.  It was still pretty chilly outside when we left home, so the indoor water parks at Great Wolf were really the only chance we’d have to get wet this early in the Spring.

Seeing the massive bucket dump at the Fort Mackenzie park for the first time is something I’ll never forget, and watching it now is like reading a “welcome back” sign.  Great Wolf keeps the queue lines down, and the crowds to a minimum, by allowing only resort guests and their visitors into their water parks.  This excellent policy means our kids can ride the water slides till they wear out, but also requires frequent long climbs up the staircases of the tallest rides for Mom and Dad, the latter often carrying whatever inflatable tube the ride requires.

Everyone loves Slap Tail Pond, the indoor wave pool that’s the largest in the indoor water parks.  The sound of wolves howling (I assume it’s electronic) announces the start of the wave action every 15 minutes or so, and with waves up to three feet high, it’s fun to body surf into the shallows.  A word of caution:  the pool bottom in the shallow beach area is a bit rough, and sliding along on your bare stomach or back could mean a few souvenir scratches to take home.  On this trip, we got to watch a practice rescue by the guards in the wave pool.  I was impressed how quickly they shut down the waves and got to the “drowning” teen, if not by his acting skills.

Resort service is really above average, with an attentive and professional staff, life guards everywhere, and a good selection of reasonably priced food.  Hotdogs and fries at the water parks is a fun treat between swims, and there are plenty of restaurants with kid-friendly menus in the vicinity of the resort.

I’ve been going to the Dells since I was younger than my kids, and many of the attractions I remember are still there, if somewhat updated.  The Wisconsin Ducks, though, remain closest to my earliest memories of them.  We took the Ducks’ tour on the chilly morning of our second day there.



The Ducks don’t run as often early in the season as during the summer months, about every couple of hours depending on how many people are waiting to ride.  We were the last to enter a full boat, and it was nice to be surrounded by other warm bodied mammals as we began our trip through the forests.

I really respect the young people who drive and narrate these tours, learning the numerous gears and handling these 60-year-old, 8-ton monsters safely, all the while keeping things light and fresh with continual banter.  Admittedly, most of the jokes sound the same from one tour to the next, and having a sense of humor about the Chicago Bears is pretty much expected of passengers, but the views are spectacular and entering the water from any type of wheeled vehicle is a novel experience.  It was windy and cold on the Wisconsin River, but well worth the discomfort to see the Baby Grand and Hawk’s Bill rock formations along the tall banks.




The campy jokes of the drivers always remind me of similar comedy bits I’ve heard on Disney’s Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom in Florida:  “Remember, if you have small children, please keep them ….”  [pause for laughter].

The hour tour was soon over, and with a last look at Duck Dock we drove the short distance back to Great Wolf.  There are literally dozens of other attractions in the Dells, including power boat runs on the rivers and lakes, water shows, and numerous exhibits.  This trip, though, we kept to the Ducks’ tour, our resort area, and a few restaurant meals. Another couple of hours of swimming followed by pizza in our room rounded out the second day of our trip.

Once again on this visit, the kids talked us into buying the resort’s Paw Passes, giving them access to MagiQuest along with stuffed animals, candy, and other treats.  They’re a good deal if you plan on buying a few souvenirs anyhow, and MagiQuest is fun for kids, if only for the 4-storey playground they get to explore.  Aside from several more hours of water park time, our third (and last) day there also included a stop at MagiQuest and a visit to Tanger Outlet Mall, both within walking distance of Great Wolf.

I don’t often advocate a shopping excursion during vacations, but on this occasion it was a good break from all the water activities.  Tanger has some top notch places to shop, and prices well below anything I’ve seen online or at our local malls.  I figured we had enough trunk space to carry some extra packages, and so for a couple of hours picked through clothing and toys to find a few things we normally wouldn’t have bought, but could use at home.

We had dinner our last night in the Dells at Buffalo Phil’s, literally located just a short walk across our resort parking lot.  It has the unique feature of delivering your food by train, so has become a “must stop” for our kids.  When not running burgers and homemade root-beers out to waiting customers, look for the train to pass by with stuffed animals or toy vehicles aboard.  So long as the kids on the neighboring tables don’t make a grab for your food (or the engine), table service via model train is a fun way to enjoy a meal.

I guess the last night of a vacation is a mixed blessing for any family.  The sadness of leaving is hard on young minds.  I take the band-aid approach:  get it over with quickly to reduce the pain.  Having packed most of our stuff the night before, the next morning we were only a few doughnuts and a couple of coffees away from the drive back.  We had a somewhat longer trip back, again due to road construction, but made it home in the early afternoon to unpack and unwind.  The kids were happy to be off another week on school break.  Their Mom and I, not so much, but we returned to our jobs with the kind of memories that make long afternoons at work quite a bit more tolerable.

And reading my emails the next morning, I guess I wasn’t surprised to see one from Great Wolf Lodge, asking when I planned on coming back.  Maybe in the Fall?

I just won’t tell the kids yet.



– Pete Murphy                May 2014




The Newfoundland Ferry



I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.  At the age of 3, I emigrated to the U.S. with my Parents and infant Brother, settling in the far south suburbs of Chicago, in the same Village where my Aunt and Uncle lived.


I have few memories of my time in St. John’s before moving to the U.S., but many more of my trips to Newfoundland during my childhood.  Airfare being out of reach for my Father, those visits began with a long car trip through the U.S. and half of Canada, then on into Nova Scotia.  It was there that we left the mainland for The Rock, crossing on the Newfoundland Ferries:  from North Sidney, Nova Scotia, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland.


Our earliest trips, in the late 1960’s, took four or five days.  From Chicago north to Detroit, over the Ambassador Bridge (or under the companion tunnel) to Windsor, Ontario, then east on the Trans-Canada Highway through Quebec and New Brunswick, and finally Nova Scotia.  We drove big Fords for the most part, and in those early years stopped most nights to sleep in roadside motels.


This was, of course, long before GPS systems, as satellites themselves were in their infancy.  Traveling by car wasn’t quite as routine or predictable as it is now, and we had many adventures along the roads between Chicago to North Sidney.


Getting lost was not uncommon, since few road maps included every road you could find yourself on.  Meals were also hit or miss, but I remember some great little diners, with uniformed waitresses and the best apple pies in the world.  The big burger franchises hadn’t yet forced these roadside Mom & Pop restaurants out of business.


Finding a service station was also tricky.  Dad usually started looking around the half-tank mark on the fuel gauge, and his solemn rule was never leave the highway unless you could see the gas station from the exit.  Even then, it was a search for whatever station would take your gas card.  Gas prices were still pretty low, and we always got an oil check and window wash from an attendant when we pulled in.


Arriving in North Sidney, Nova Scotia, was an exciting time.  The ocean crossing awaited us, and the seaside Town smelled of salt air and diesel exhaust from the huge engines of the dockside ferries.  By the time we made it, we usually had reservations on whatever ferry was in port and heading to Port Aux Basques.


Not always knowing our planned departure time, Dad usually called from a roadside payphone when we were less than a day from North Sidney.  Most times we were lucky enough to get a cabin for the 12 hour crossing, on one of the big Canadian National (CN) Marine Ferries, with names like William Carson, Leif Eiriksson, and Ambrose Shea.*


Our first look at the boat we were to make the crossing on usually came when we neared the ferry parking lot.  Whether on a bright sunny day, or a cool early Spring night, the images of those vessels is something I will never forget.


The ferries were massive, holding 4 decks of cars, trucks, and even trains.  Purpose-built for the crossing, I remember distinctly the dramatic white superstructures of the ships, with the red-orange CN smokestacks atop the tall decks.  I remain awed by the sheer power and majesty of these behemoths, waiting in their docks to brave the fathomless seas.  They appeared, then as now, equal to the task.


Once checked in through the gatehouse, we parked our car in the long line of other vehicles waiting to drive on board.  The ferry lot was marked with lines to facilitate loading, and once our car was in line we had to leave it there until departure.


Most times, this afforded us the chance to walk around the nearby community of small restaurants and shops.  There was usually a subtle vibration in the air, as those big marine engines idled in port, waiting for their next trip across the North Atlantic.


Soon it was time to board, the ferry whistle echoing the quiet streets with notice of departure.  We hurried to our car, and with a thump of the steel ramp drove on board.  Dark and damp, the car decks were a hovel of activity, as each vehicle was parked close to its neighbors and chained down to the deck.  This was pretty important, as at the end of one crossing we learned that a VW bug had broken loose and smashed into a few of its nearby companions.


Next we walked the deck to the narrow stairs that lead up to the cabin levels.  We carried a few of our suitcases, but my Brother and I were too excited to notice these mundane details.  We were on board!  Heading topside, we couldn’t wait to look down the sides of the ship and into the water.


If the shore waters were a bit oily, once out of the harbor the big ocean rollers more than made up for it.  The rocking of the ship as we hit the open sea was subtle, but the long drop to the surface from the upper decks (as demonstrated by a quick shot of spittle) was awesome.  On some crossings, the spray made it up to even those dizzying heights, hitting my lips with the salt tang of water that had perhaps journeyed around the globe.


There is something both familiar and ancient in the taste of sea spray to me.  I can’t help but recall how we all once came from the sea, that it makes up the very blood in our veins.  Not the noticeably sour taste of the science experiments that all kids do to demonstrate dissolved solutions (and we’ve all tasted that concoction), but the more subtle reminder that this water covers most of the world, and transcends the fleeting taste it delivers on the lips.


Our cabin below was every bit as exotic as the seas above.  Once out of sight of land, we made our way downstairs to the tiny metal compartment that was to be home for the next half day.


On night crossings, we settled down in bunks, with heavy curtains to hold you in place if the ship started to rock.  Each bed had its own light for reading, and came complete with a flat pillow, tight sheet, and coarse woolen blanket.  Under the beds were those ubiquitous orange life preservers we hoped never to need.


In the morning, our bathroom was another new experience.  The tiny sink had a shower head attached to it, and with no tub or shower enclosure, you could spray water till completely soaked as the suds drained down into the middle of the room.  Small bars of red-wrapped CN soap helped us clean up, and then it was off to the galley for breakfast.


CN Marine had a well deserved reputation for excellent food in those days, and rumor had it that some very fine chefs opted for employment with the line.  I remember many great meals, including hand carved turkey and ham, homemade mashed potatoes, eggs cooked to order, and slices of chocolate cake.  Our meals on board were among the best we had on those vacations.


Back on deck, we watched as dim brown outlines above the dark water resolve into our first look at Newfoundland from the sea.  It is quite a site, and one that stirs the heart of every Newfoundlander.  Soon, though, we’d get the call to head back down to our cars and prepare for departure.


Our voyage nearly over, my Brother and I were usually so engrossed with seeing St. John’s that we little noticed departing the big ferries.  I do remember the dark of the lower deck turning bright when the cargo doors opened, and how my eyes hurt when we finally drove outside into the sunshine.


We usually left Port Aux Basques quickly, to rejoin the Trans-Canada and the long drive to Newfoundland’s Capital City.  My aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends were all there, waiting for our arrival and the endless visits it would entail.


Before one of these crossings, while in North Sidney, my Brother and I participated in the age-old ritual of a note in a bottle.  We had drained our glass-bottled sodas outside a small grocery store in the streets of town, and filled out notes giving our names, addresses, and that part of the sea we intended to launch our messages from.  We corked them and let them go late one night, in the middle of our passage.


I’d like to say here that we heard something of them in later years, but like so many things lost to the sea, we never knew what became of those bottles.  I guess I’ve thought of them over the years:  floating on the vast oceans, washed up on some nameless shore, or broken to pieces in a terrifying storm far from land.  These images never lessen my joy and wonder in crossing the ocean, and indeed, have made my voyages since then even more exciting.


Ships in the end are magical things, giving us the seas and landing us on distant and exotic shores.  Our earliest form of global transportation, they remain the fulfillment of our dreams of travel.  The opportunity of a sea voyage is something I don’t believe I could ever refuse.


–           Pete Murphy            May 2014


        This Article appeared in print in the August, 2014, issue of

        Downhome Magazine (Volume 27, No. 3) 



            When I think back on those long car trips I took with my Folks and younger Brother in the late 60’s and early 70’s, one of my fondest memories is of how we kept ourselves busy during the long miles.  Handheld computer games, even the simple ones like Mattel Football or Simon from Milton Bradley, were still quite a few years away.  The truly overwhelming assortment of distractions offered today by Kindle or iPad were beyond anything even NASA could conceive of in those years.  So, we enjoyed simple pleasures.

Most summers we would load up the Ford LTD and head out on highway.  Two weeks away from home:  staying in motels (the best of these had pools), eating at diners, seeing the tourist sites, and spending many hours driving each day.  Aside from the occasional two day stop in a major city or destination, we lived on the roads.

Seatbelts technically came in most cars back then, but were simple lap belts that were soon buried under the seat cushions.  A useful weapon to swing in a pitched battle with my Brother during our legendary back seat wars, their regular use was largely discouraged.  These wars were always a conquest for more space, and usually settled with a hasty truce, after the third or forth threat from the front seat of “pulling over and coming back there” finally seemed imminent.  And so, we could sit up and look out the windows, lay across the back bench seat, or scoot down in the floor wells of our old Ford.  The floor was where we kept our toys and the best place to play, out of sight of Mom and Dad.

In the weeks leading up to vacation, it was a ritual to assemble the stuff we would bring to play with in the car.  Aside from the back seat, there was no other place to pack our playthings, so we had to pick toys that would fit and still allow room to play, fight, and sleep.  I kept several cigar boxes my Uncle had given me over the years, and filled them with toys, paper pads and pencils, books, and magazines, in preparation for the trip.  It was a meticulous process, and my first real experience with decision making.

Of course, we also played car bingo, 20 questions, I spy, and tried spotting the license plates from all 50 states (no surprise that Hawaii was the toughest to find).  But the tiny toys that filled many hours on the road for my Brother and I were tinkles.

I think my Brother and I coined that name, and it certainly doesn’t occur in this context anywhere else that I’ve found.  It’s probably derived from trinket, as mispronounced by my much younger self.  For us, it came to mean any small toy that would fit (with several others) in a cigar box.

These toys could include just about anything, from Crackerjack prizes to gumball charms, Matchbox cars, old campaign pins, souvenir pens, superballs, sliding puzzles, and magnetic corgi dogs.  Whether discovered in a parking lot, bought from a vending machine, or found at the bottom of a Crackerjack box, they made their way into a cigar box to tour the U.S. with us.

My very first collection, and from which all of my later collections would grow, was my tinkles collection.  They really did provide us hours of fun on the back floor of that old LTD.  I remember drawing a crude map on a blank sheet of paper, and then setting a magnetic corgi dog on top, while its twin brother on the bottom moved it through parks, farms, and cities.  Or taking apart the 3D plastic toy puzzle/keychain, bought for $.50 from a vending machine at a highway oasis, and then handing it up to the front seat for reassembly.

The souvenir pens were a treat, particularly the “floating” ones, where the Maid of the Mist sailed across the front of Niagara Falls, or the Disney Train crossed in front of the Contemporary Resort.  Tipping the pen the other way let you relive the experience, pretty much forever.

If you were lucky enough to find one (and talk someone into buying it), the mini slide viewers were one of the best tinkles around.  Sold as souvenirs at many of the places we toured, each was shaped like a camera or television, and looking through the small magnifier revealed a colored picture of the place.  It was a personal and private show you could enjoy whenever you needed a break from watching the road.

Nighttime in the back seat was special, with most of the traffic gone away.  It was quiet all around outside, and looking through the rear window revealed either the bright lights of tall highway lamps, or the soft glow of stars.  The AM radio up front was usually turned down, playing soft jazz or country western.  My coveted pen light was near at hand, and as long as I didn’t shine it up front or onto the roof lining (or directly into my Brother’s face), I was free to play with my tinkles so long as I could keep awake.  Shining the light through the little plastic and metal figures made them seem to move.  Worlds, cultures, and centuries came and went in the back seat of that lonely Ford, driving down the back roads at night.

Like all things from my childhood, taking tinkles along on car trips eventually came to an end.  Those I didn’t lose ended up in a cigar box in storage, like so many sad scenes from Toy Story.  But this story would be incomplete if I didn’t mention that some few were found and saved, and more than a few were picked up on eBay over the past couple of years.


I’ve shared them with my kids, getting them started on their own tinkle collections.  Although these simpler toys may have a tough time competing with iPads and Kindles, I think it’s worth the fight.

And today’s seatbelts are harder to swing as weapons in the back seat.


–           Pete Murphy     May 2014



Greetings intrepid reader!  After many years of mundane writing, I am returning to my passion for travel and journalism.  Here you will relive with me vacations of the past, during those less complicated years of the 1960’s and 70’s.  We will also find new destinations, and explore today’s travel from a sensory, and often reflective, point of view.

I hope you will consider this time well spent.  Now, let’s get moving!


Pete Murphy