You don’t have to leave the Midwest to catch a glimpse of the Roman Coliseum, the White House, the Kalahari Desert and the fabled windmills of Mykonos. Nope, all you have to do is take a road trip to the Wisconsin Dells, one of America’s delightfully tacky resort towns, where you can travel the world without venturing very far off the Wisconsin Dells Parkway.
I’ve lived in Chicago for years but have somehow managed to avoid visiting the Dells, the region’s quintessential summer weekend getaway place for families, until I finally experienced the place in all its tawdry glory while on a camping trip at nearby Mirror Lake State Park. Sophisticated city types mock places like the Dells, which is chock-a-block with mini-golf, wax museums, water parks and every conceivable type of tourist trap imaginable. But I have a soft spot for tourist traps. You could even call it a morbid fascination.
So I found myself cruising the Dells honkytonk strip on Memorial Day, notebook out, jotting away like a visitor from another planet. I wanted to take in a lumberjack show, while eating a “lumberjack meal” (whatever the hell that is) at a place called Paul Bunyan, but alas, I was told the lumberjacks don’t report for duty until the weather gets warmer. (Aren’t lumberjacks supposed to be tough?) How about a BigFoot zipline tour? Not for $89, I thought. The Polynesian Water Park, the Timbavati Wildlife Park, a 50-foot-tall Trojan Horse roller coaster and the “Top Secret” Upside Down White House all peaked my interest but I was too cheap to pay to bring my family of four into these places. (And why are there directions on the White House website for a place that is supposed to be “top secret?”)
I read in the local newspaper that tourists spend more than $1 billion dollars a year on these and other Dells attractions. But based upon my informal calculations, made while walking down Broadway, arguably the tackiest street in the Midwest’s tackiest town, I’d estimate that tourists spend at least two or three billion on fudge in the Dells each year, maybe more. Perhaps a local person can confirm this for me, and dear readers, please feel free to weigh in on this phenomenon in the comments section, but are there really five – count ‘em five – fudge shops on one side of this street? I don’t know if I was hallucinating, but in between lengthy, illegible missives on Captain Brady’s Showboat Saloon and a Feed-And-Pet-the Deer- joint, there is this comment in my notebook: “Four – no five fudge shops! On one block!”
I don’t know if any academics have ever delved into the phenomenon in a dissertation or published paper, but I’d like to know what came first – the fudge or the tourists? Do people want fudge while they’re on vacation or do they simply indulge in the stuff because it’s there? No clue, but if you want fudge, by all means, consider the Wisconsin Dells for your next holiday. You’ll be spoiled for choice.
Aside from the fudge, I’ve noticed that tourists also like torture museums, and the Dells has a sorry example of one of these places as well. I’ve seen torture museums in all kinds of touristy places all around the world. Most of them are obvious tourist traps, but when found in places where torture was once widely practiced, they at least make some sense. Now I’m not an expert on the criminal justice system of Wisconsin, but as far as I know, torture has never been a regular part of the Wisconsin Dells experience. That is, unless you consider sitting through hokey magic shows, “duck tours” or the Wisconsin Opry Dinner Show torture, which some might.
I took my kids to Circus World in nearby Baraboo, more of an old-school indulgence than the contrived, new fangled attractions of the Dells, but didn’t spend a dime on any of the tourist traps in the town. Next time, I plan to visit the Lost Mayan Temple, ride the Trojan Horse roller coaster, take in the lumberjack show and have some fudge, preferably while dressed like a gladiator inside the Roman Coliseum. If anyone knows which of the Broadway fudge shops is the best, please drop me a line.