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




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