Need Some Fudge? Visit The Wisconsin Dells, The Midwest’s Most Delightfully Tacky Resort Town

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.

A Kid Friendly Midwest Getaway: See The Freaks At Circus World In Baraboo

circus worldFive years ago, when my wife and I had our first child, our lives as travelers changed. We still hit the road just as often as before, but now we find ourselves seeking out zoos and playgrounds and children’s museums and a host of other kid friendly attractions that we never would have visited during our childless years. Most of the time, I acquiesce to the child-centric activities more or less kicking and screaming, and although I enjoy watching my kids have fun, 3- and 5-year-old boys aren’t exactly well known for showing gratitude and appreciation, so I sometimes wonder if the kid stuff is worth it.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, we treated our boys to the one kid-focused activity we’ve never tried before: a circus. These days, many of the larger traveling circuses perform in large arenas, which hold little appeal for me. I wanted to bring my kids to an old-school circus performed under a big top, and I found what I was looking for at Circus World, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, about three hours northwest of Chicago, and just 10 minutes from the tourist trap insanity of the Wisconsin Dells.

Baraboo is ground zero for circus enthusiasts. It was here on May 19, 1884, that the five Ringling Brothers – Al, Otto, Alfred, Charles and John – staged their first circus act. There were 21 performers, a small tent, a hyena and three horses in the act. Tickets cost 15 to 35 cents and they soon took their act on the road, pulling into small towns all across the country with their hand-carved circus wagons, advertising strong men, bearded women, ferocious animals and the like.

Circus World is both museum and circus, and before the circus started, we took some time to check out the museum, which tells the story of how the Ringlings turned their little circus into a global juggernaut. The Ringlings were the offspring of August Rungeling, who emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee in 1848. He changed his name to Ringling, married and had 11 children, three of whom died in infancy. The five brothers got into the circus act, with Al, the oldest, serving as the ringleader. He married a snake handler from Iowa and could balance a huge plow on his chin unsupported.

In 1918, the brothers bought out Barnum & Bailey, their chief rival, and the business evolved into a national railway show. They got rich and used some of their money to build lavish homes and other buildings, including the gorgeous Al Ringling Cinema, which still stands today in downtown Baraboo. (The museum doesn’t mention the fact that just one Ringling heir still lives in the Baraboo area today, and he’s in prison for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy.)

A stroll through the museum’s collection of old circus posters and the even more interesting hall of circus wagons gives one an idea of how un-politically correct circuses were back in the day. Any sort of deformity could be turned into an attraction – a short-armed man was called “Seal Boy,” and various posters advertised bearded ladies, East Indian dwarves, “Giraffe-necked” women from Burma, sword swallowers, an Egyptian Giant and a “Man Without a Stomach,” among many others.

In the pre-television era, going to a circus was a common form of entertainment, especially for people who lived in smaller towns. Popular circus acts became household names across the nation. For example, some 40 million Americans saw a gorilla from the Belgian Congo named Gargantua the Great.

After watching a magic show, we scored front row seats under the big top, and settled in to watch the show. The first act was a woman in her 50s or 60s who was dressed up like a pop star in oversized white sunglasses, a gray wig and a revealing, open-backed shimmery, sequined costume. She brought out “the world’s only performing Persian cat” and a slew of “Afghan dogs” that performed a variety of jumps, tricks and dances. It all seemed preposterous to me, but my sons, who were devouring an industrial size portion of cotton candy, were transfixed.

The dogs were eventually replaced by a comically effeminate Columbia contortionist wearing eye makeup and a three-sizes-too-tight gymnast costume. I had to avert my eyes as he contorted his body one way and other, looking as though he was about to break a limb at any moment and resisted the urge to leave altogether when he actually fit his entire body inside a small, clear box.

The next performer was a comically buffoonish character who did a slapstick routine revolving around his supposed inability to jump on a trampoline. I thought it was ridiculous, but when I looked over at my sons, they were roaring and squealing in delight. I don’t think I have ever seen them so happy.

Next, we were introduced to Spirit, the “world’s smallest performing show pony,” as the PA system blasted the ludicrous “My Little Pony” theme song and an older woman in a garish Hungarian folk costume led Spirit around in circles.

The final act of the afternoon was easily the most preposterous. A woman wearing a feathered Indian headdress and a far-too revealing sequined costume brought out a host of little monkeys on leashes and proceeded to coax them into jumping from platform to platform, 20 feet up in the air. Her male counterpart was a Greek looking man with a unibrow who looked like Pete Sampras might if he lives to be 110. When the monkeys dawdled, he whacked them on the asses to get them to jump, and after they’d done their standard jump a few times he said, “Now we’re going to see if they can jump 12 feet. We hope they can make it!” I was rooting for the monkeys to go on strike, but it didn’t happen.

The monkeys made it and while the whole farce seemed exploitative and just plain dumb to me, I couldn’t deny how much my sons had enjoyed the spectacle. On the way out, we filed past a guy holding a huge snake, asking $10 for a photo, and my 5-year-old son, Leo, was uncharacteristically grateful.

“Dad,” he said. “Thank you so much for taking me to the circus!”

$56 A Night To Pitch A Tent? Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

tentSince when did camping become expensive? I live in Chicago and have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching places to camp over the Memorial Day weekend in the last two weeks. If I had planned ahead, booking a campsite would be quick and easy but we tend not to plan very far in advance, which makes travel during holidays complicated and sometimes expensive.

We wanted to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin this weekend, but alas, there are no tent sites available on a weekend there until August 30 (!) and a host of other state parks in that region, including Mirror Lake, Rocky Arbor, Buckhorn, Governor Dodge, Lake Kengosa, Wildcat Mountain and others, are also sold out for the holiday weekend. Most of the state parks in Wisconsin charge just $12-15 per night for tent sites, though they have a three-night minimum stay on holiday weekends and a $9.70 reservation fee.I checked into some private campgrounds around Wisconsin and was floored by some of the prices. A place called Baraboo Hills wants $56 per night for a basic tent site with water and electric (the most primitive site they offer) and they are actually sold out. And other more basic campgrounds are nearly as pricey – at Fox Hill the price is $41 per night, Jellystone Park Campground in Fremont wants $45 for tent sites, the KOA-Wisconsin Dells charges $40 and up and Sherwood Forest will set you back $43, plus 10.5% sales tax. Most places have a three-night minimum for the holiday and most, even some of the priciest ones, are sold out.

Capitalism can be an ugly thing when you’re trying to plan a last minute trip on a holiday weekend, along with 8 million other Chicagoans and at least a few million Cheeseheads. The bottom line is that the camping season in this part of the country is very short, and comparatively few people camp during the week, so campgrounds have to make their cash on the few peak weekends they have to work with.

Last summer, I stayed at a private campground near Devil’s Lake that charged twice the price of the state park, which was sold out. And although it was adequate, it wasn’t as nice as camping in the park itself. Private campgrounds often offer a lot more amenities than the state or national parks, like swimming pools and play areas, but if you’re just looking to commune with nature, you’re often paying more to camp at a place that may not be as beautiful and serene as a state or national park.

But while Wisconsin clearly underprices their state park campgrounds at just $12 or $15 a night for most basic tent sites, Illinois prices some of their parks much more aggressively. I looked into camping at Starved Rock State Park, near Ottawa, in the north-central part of the state, but they charge $35 per night for a basic tent site with a three-night minimum on holiday weekends, and were sold-out anyway.

Neighboring states charge less to camp in their state parks this weekend – Indiana charges $20, Michigan $14 and Iowa as little as $9. But every park with positive reviews on Campfire Reviews and other sites within a 3-4 hour radius of where we live seemed to be sold out for this weekend, even though the forecast looks iffy for most of the region. I thought I’d hit paydirt when I found a tent-site at a place I’d never heard of called the Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area in Kewanee, Illinois, but before I clicked the reserve button I noticed the fine print: there was no way to drive to this tent site. With a wife and two little boys in tow, I don’t think we’re up for trekking out to a site with our coolers and gear in tow, so it was back to the drawing board.

I kept looking and finally found a site at the Roche-A-Cri State Park in Central Wisconsin. I couldn’t find a single review from anyone who’s camped there online, there are no showers and we got the last tent site available, located right next to a pit toilet, but it’s a bargain at $14 per night ($12 per night for Cheeseheads, three-night minimum stay).

If you’re looking for a place to camp this weekend, I highly recommend you use the city search function on the Reserve America site, since it allows you to see what’s available near a given zip code or town. And check back frequently, because cancellations do pop up. Also, check You Tube, because there are plenty of helpful campers out there who have documented what the various campgrounds in the Midwest look like.

Be prepared for three-night minimum stays and prices that might be higher than you’re expecting. And if you want to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin next Memorial Day weekend (May 23-26, 2014), mark your calendars – you can book starting on June 23 of this year. But please don’t, because I’m certain I’ll forget and will be scrambling to find a place to camp (and complaining about high prices again) at this time next year.

Drink, Pray And Polka In Underrated Milwaukee

milwaukee brewing companyIt’s Friday night and I’m at a brewery tour in Milwaukee drinking beer. Good beer – not the mass-produced crap that Milwaukee is famous for. Tom Martin, our guide at the Milwaukee Brewing Company, takes a moment to state the obvious for the benefit of out-of-towners like us.

“We have a drinking culture here in Wisconsin in case you haven’t noticed,” he says, standing beside an imposing stack of 50-pound barley sacks. “You can get caught driving drunk with a child in your car and it’s still only a misdemeanor here.”
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He’s joking but the point registers. According to Trulia, Milwaukee has the second most bars per capita in the country, just a hair behind New Orleans, with 8.5 bars per 10,000 households. (And unlike the Big Easy, all the bars in Milwaukee cater to locals.) But Forbes named Milwaukee America’s drunkest city and, according to USA Today, the state of Wisconsin has the highest percentage of binge drinkers in the country and ranks fifth in total number of breweries with 112.


milwaukeePerhaps the good people at the Milwaukee Brewing Company had these statistics in mind when they created their brewery tour. Brewers ordinarily make patrons suffer through long, boring tours before they deign to offer a chance to taste their product and even then, they might serve just one full beer or a few tastes.



But tonight, our tour started with free beers, and then there were two beer breaks during our hour-long tour before we were sent back to the bar for a half-hour long open bar to cap the experience. And did I mention that our $10 ticket also entitled us to two tokens that are good for even more of their beer at area bars? Welcome to Milwaukee.

If you want to compile a short list of America’s most underrated cities, start with the places that have lost population over the last 50-100 years. Philadelphia, St. Louis, Buffalo and Cincinnati all had a larger population 100 years ago than they do now. And Milwaukee and Richmond were more populous in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now.



These are seen as declining cities – yesterday’s news – but I think these are six of the most underrated urban destinations in the country. All of these cities are brimming with history, culture and style but none are overwhelmed with tourists.

A year ago, I opined that Richmond might be the country’s most underrated city, but after a recent visit to Milwaukee, I might be ready to change my vote and not just because I like beer. In the winter, the place has a vacant, almost haunted vibe. It would be easy to conclude that the place is dead but keep looking. The city is synonymous with bad beer and the television shows “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” but if you take the time to get to know this inviting city and the unpretentious people who live there, you’ll discover that it’s one of America’s best-kept secrets.

It’s a city where the Friday night fish fry is an institution, a place where sausage is elevated to an art form, a community where every neighborhood has a church that even an atheist would want to visit, a metropolis defined by its taverns and people who aren’t too cool to the do the Chicken Dance, and good, yes, good beer. Go ahead and tour the Miller and Pabst breweries if you must, but when you’re ready for the good stuff, check out the tours at Sprecher, Milwaukee Brewing Company, and Lakefront Brewery, which also has a killer Friday night fish fry complete with live polka music (see video below).




basilica of st josaphatStart your Milwaukee tour at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, which opened in 1901 to serve the largely ethnic Polish community in the Lincoln Village neighborhood. The basilica is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the interior is as beautiful as any place of worship in the country (see video below).

You can see the domed basilica from miles away but you could easily miss the St. Joan of Arc Chapel (see above), which dates to the 15th century but was moved to the campus of Marquette University in 1966. (The chapel was moved from near Lyon, France, to Long Island in the 1920s before its move to Milwaukee.) It’s worth the effort to find this place – as soon as you step through the big wooden doors and feel the bluish glow of stained glass, you’ll feel like you were visiting an ancient church in rural France.



If you want a flavor of old Milwaukee, the city, not the beer, take a stroll through the lobby of the Hilton City Center, which was built in 1927 and is still loaded with vintage charm. Check out the German bars and sausage shops on Old World Third Street and then, to get a feel for some of the outlying neighborhoods, cruise over to Brady Street or Murray Hill on the east side, or Bay View or Walker’s Point on the south side. Definitely have lunch at Milwaukee’s Public Market in the historic Third Ward and, if the weather is good, don’t miss the Estabrook Beer Garden. There are great neighborhood bars everywhere, but Wolski’s is one old-school watering hole that everyone washes up in at one time or another.


I think of Milwaukee as a venerable old town but the city’s premier attraction is modernity personified. The Milwaukee Art Museum has an impressive collection of art but the real attraction here is the Quadracci Pavilion, a stunning, futuristic annex built by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 2001. Even if you don’t want to visit the museum, take a walk into the pavilion or dine at Café Calatrava downstairs for gourmet food and a sublime view. The building’s Brise Soleil wings open and close during the museum’s opening and closing hours and the wings also flap at noon each day.




milwaukeeEach time I visit Milwaukee from my home base in Chicago – which was once called a “pompous” Milwaukee – I feel like the city is a less expensive, more laid back, and more manageable version of the Windy City. And I think that Badger state residents have more pride in their state than any other place in the country, with the possible exception of Texas. There’s a cohesive culture in Wisconsin that revolves around beer, brats, cheese, the Packers, the Badgers, fish fry, supper clubs and 1,000 other things that make this state unique. Milwaukeeans will tell you that they are content to keep their hometown a well-kept secret, but there’s always an empty barstool somewhere in town, so stop by the next time you thirst for something different.



[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]


Midwest Weekend Getaway: Baraboo And Devil’s Lake State Park In Wisconsin

devil's lake state parkChicago is a world-class city but there are many occasions when those of us that live here want out, at least for the weekend. And while the city is a terrific flight hub, quick and dirty road trip options are limited, especially if you’ve lived in the city for a long time and have exhausted most of the choice destinations. A few years ago, my wife and I took a hiking excursion to Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake State Park, about an hour northwest of Madison, and vowed to return for a camping trip one day.

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We finally got our chance the last weekend of September, and were blessed with glorious sunny weather and blue skies to complement the changing leaves. Planning a camping trip for a family of four feels like preparing for war though, and three hours into the drive with our are-we-there-yet sons, ages 3 and 5, our nerves and patience were shot.

It was about 5:30 p.m. and we were hoping to score one of the first-come-first-serve tent sites at Devil’s Lake State Park, as all their reserved spots were full. We were blindly following our GPS to the park when Julie, our friendly Australian GPS navagatrix said, “Turn right onto the Merrimac Ferry.” We were all excited to be only 10 miles away from the park and thought we’d be there in 15 minutes, but all of the sudden we were sitting in a fairly long line of cars waiting to get on a ferry.

As soon as we pulled in, more cards pulled in the line right behind us, so it wasn’t possible to back out, and the GPS indicated that any detour would be time consuming. At first, I was irate because I thought we’d have to pay for the ferry and was concerned that by the time we found a campsite, we’d have to erect our tent in the dark.

merrimac ferry wisconsinMy wife asked the two cars in front of us how much the ferry cost but alas, they were also following their GPS’s as well and were just as clueless as we were. But the ferry turned out to be free, the line moved quickly and we took the opportunity to get out of our car and enjoy the fresh air and the views of the Wisconsin River. The odd thing is that almost everyone remained inside their parked cars; both in line and on the ferry itself, despite the fact that it was a beautiful early fall evening.

Tent sites at the park were all booked up but we made it to a more expensive and less salubrious campground a couple miles outside the park just before darkness fell. (Tip: book way in advance to get a $17 per night tent site at Devil’s Lake S.P.; it’s the best deal in the area by far) Nevertheless, we were still able to enjoy Devil’s Lake in all of its early fall splendor.

Devil’s Lake is huge. It’s a 360-acre lake that is flanked by 500-foot bluffs. In the late 19th century, the park was home to a number of resort hotels and a train line brought tourists in from all over the Midwest. These days, camping is your only option in the park itself but there are 29 miles of hiking trails to explore, including portions of the 1,000-plus-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail. I’m partial to the West Bluff trail, which starts near the north entrance to the park and offers a good workout and some incredible views down over the lake.

We were prepared to love Devil’s Lake, but the very pleasant surprise of the weekend was Baraboo’s eminently loveable old-school downtown, which features two good bookstores, one new, one used, a classic, circa 1915 cinema, a free zoo and a host of enticing restaurants and shops. The Ringling Brothers put the town on the map by basing their circus there and that legacy lives on at the Circus World Museum, which is part museum, part working circus.

barabooAs we lingered at a Saturday morning farmers market outside the town’s stately courthouse, an older man in a flannel shirt noticed my camera and asked if we wanted to know more about the town. The man, who introduced himself as Gary, was hanging out with his brother Rick on a bench, and I had the distinct impression that they sit there every day.

“Do you remember JFK?” Gary asked us.

“Of course,” I said, wondering where he was going with the question.

“He walked right up those steps over there and shook our hands here when he was campaigning for president,” he said as though the event had just happened recently.

After shooting the breeze with Gary and Rick, we checked out the Al Ringling Cinema, which was built for $100,000 in 1915, during the height of the silent film era. It’s a beautifully restored old cinema that still hosts live theater, movies and a variety of other events. I ambled in for a look and a woman named Charlene, who works there, told me that only one member of the Ringling family still lives in the area, and he’s in prison for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy.

Nevertheless, the town still clings to the Ringling connection – there are several Ringling Brothers banners posted around town, and it’s still a great place to visit. If you want to take an alternate route back to the Chicago area, consider a stop off in New Glarus, a handsome little town founded by Swiss immigrants from the canton of Glarus in the 1840s, on your way home. The town retains its distinctive Swiss character and is situated right off of the Sugar River State Trail, a really nice bike path.

We happened to be in New Glarus for their annual Oktoberfest, which on its final day featured, oddly enough, a roots and blues band but no German music. But they did have New Glarus Oktoberfest beer, which was a sweet way to end a glorious early fall weekend in Wisconsin.

IF YOU GO: The drive to Baraboo takes about 3-1/2 hours from Chicago, depending on traffic and where you start. We stayed at a private campground near the park, which charges $28 for tent sites or $31 if you use a credit card (almost double the price of Devil’s Lake State Park). I can’t recommend the place because the tent sites are very close to each other and the owner is a bit of a crank.

Try to get a spot at Devil’s Lake State Park itself, if you can. Reservations are hard to come by on the weekend, but each day they also set aside 54 first-come-first-served spots, so get there early. For good, inexpensive Mexican food with gigantic portions, go to Los Nopales, and try Jen’s Alpine Café for a very good, if time consuming, breakfast. It’s an old-school place right downtown that’s been around since the 1930s.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]