You can’t really talk about budget destinations from Chicago, without mentioning the Wisconsin Dells. The Dells are a 3 hour drive from Chicagoland. The area itself is best described as “middle of nowhere”, about 40 miles north of Madison.
The Dells call themselves “the waterpark capital of the world”, and rightfully so – most of their hotels have built themselves around their own massive waterparks, and even the smallest motel will have at least one indoor pool.
There are two times of year in the Dells – Summer and “the rest”. Sure, you can visit the Dells in the period from November-April, but most attractions will be closed. That said, the downtime is when you’ll find the best deals at resorts in the Dells, and since the weather will suck anyway, it’s a great time to stay indoors and enjoy the amenities offered on-site. You’ll pretty much have to, because almost everything else will be closed.
Memorial day is when the Dells really comes to life – all the major attractions will be open, and most resorts will have their outdoor water attractions ready for the nice weather.Where to stay
Finding somewhere to stay in the Dells is probably the easiest part of your trip – the Dells are home to loads of different types of motels, hotels, resorts and megaresorts. Your choice will probably come down to budget and availability.
The large waterparks have 100’s of rooms, but even they fill up quickly in the Summer. A great resort to consider if you have younger kids, is the Great Wolf Lodge. The lodge has all the amenities of the larger resorts, but in a smaller and more friendly environment. That said, older kids will probably need some more excitement, so be sure to check out the Kalahari resort or the Wilderness resort. A great place to find hotels in the Dells is the website of the Wisconsin Dells visitor bureau.
If the upcoming weather forecast shows bad stuff on the way, you’ll appreciate being able to stay indoors in the larger waterparks. Just remember that some of the resorts do not allow non-residents to use their waterparks, so if you find yourself stuck at a hotel with a single pool and a small slide, you’ll need to go elsewhere for your fun.
Not everything in the Dells is targeted towards family fun – the Sundara Spa and Resort is an adults only spa with very upscale rooms and secluded villas. Of course, the resort offers full spa services, and the entire facility is located far away from the noise and distractions from the rest of the Dells. A perfect place for couples to relax.
Things to do in the Dells
If there is one thing the Dells does not have a shortage of, it’s things to do. In fact, during the Summer, there are so many attractions, that you can easily plan a 5 day trip and never be bored. Here are a couple of hightlights:
The Original Dells Ducks / Dells Army Ducks
The Dells is home to 2 different Ducks companies – The Original Wisconsin Ducks and the Dells Army Ducks. Both offer land/water rides in retired Army DUKW vehicles.
Rides on the Dells Army Ducks are not cheap – $23 for adults and $13 for kids, but if you order online, you’ll save $2 per ticket. Rides on the Original Wisconsin Ducks are $23 for adults, and $11.50 for kids.
The Ducks tour itself is fantastic – you’ll spend about half of the one hour ride in the forest, and the rest going up the river. The forest ride is pretty bumpy. The highlight of one of my rides was getting stuck on a sandbank, thankfully the companies have dedicated ducks to relieve a “stuck duck”.
Before spending money on the ducks – be sure to check out the other water rides offered in the Dells, for the same amount of money, you can take a jet boat ride or a slower river boat ride. The river boat tour is perfect for those with younger kids, or people who just want to relax.
Pirates Cove adventure golf and family fun center
Mini golf doesn’t get any bigger than the original Pirates Cove – this attraction has the largest mini golf park in North America, offering 5 different 18 hole courses on the side of a hill. At just $7.75 per round, it is very nicely priced. Mini golf fanatics can even buy a ticket for all 5 courses for $23. Kids under 5 play for free.
The family fun center offers good clean fun for families with kids – a bouncing pillow, pedal carts, jumping basketball and a sand/sun play area can all be enjoyed for just $6, or just $12.55 as a combination ticket with a round of mini golf.
The Downtown Dells area is your typical tourist village main street. It’s where you’ll find numerous t-shirt stores, chain restaurants and of course candy stores.
Sadly, many of the stores have recently closed, most likely more victims of the poor economy. That said, there is still plenty to do, as long as you resist the urge to buy tacky t-shirts or other stuff you’ll regret once you get back home.
Noah’s Ark waterpark
Noah’s Ark is one of several stand alone water parks in the Dells. The park offer over 40 different wet and dry attractions, including the longest water slide in the country. The park has been rated one of the best waterparks in the country by the Travel Channel for the past 8 years.
Admission to Noah’s Ark is $34.99 for adults and kids are 20% off. Children under 2 are free. If you need a second day, you can add that for $17.50.
Mount Olympus water & theme park
With almost 50 attractions, Mount Olympus is another “must visit” in the Dells. The park is split between a massive outdoor pool area and a large indoor pool/theme park. The park is hard to miss, thanks to its massive wooden coaster.
Admission to Mount Olympus is $39.99 for an indoor/outdoor combo ticket.
Circus World is just up the road from the Dells, in Baraboo. This attrac
tion is part museum and part fully operational circus. During the Summer months, you’ll find circus performances all day long. Younger kids can create their own performance in the original Ringling Bros. Elephant House. Of course, no visit to the Circus would be complete without popcorn, cotton candy and hot dogs from the Cookhouse Grill.
Admission to Circus World is $14.95 for adults, and $7.95 for kids 5-11.
Other things to see and do
Here are some of the other things to do when in the Dells – Just up the road from the Dells is the massive Ho-Chunk Casino, a 24 hour casino with over 2400 slot machines and tables. The casino even features daycare for parents who want to drop the little ones off for a couple of hours, while they lose their cash.
The Tommy Bartlett show has been entertaining Dells visitors since the early 70’s, and it was Tommy Bartlett himself who helped make the Wisconsin Dells the tourist destination it is today. Shows are held twice daily in the summer. Admission is $16 for adults and $9 for kids.
Tommy Bartlett also operates the “Exploratory“, which is part science museum, part kids museum. Sadly, the museum is quite outdated, and older kids will most likely not be too impressed with it. That said – the Exploratory is the only place in the world where you’ll find a real full size MIR space station, purchased by the facility from the Russians. Admission to the Exploratory is $12 for adults and $9 for kids.
Shopaholics will love the Tanger Outlet center located in the same area as most of the big resorts. The outlet is home to a Disney store, a Coach Factory Outlet, and even a Build-a-bear.
And finally, if the weather does not cooperate, check out the massive indoor amusement park at Knuckleheads or the recently opened theme park at the Kalahari resort.
If you really want to turn your trip into a road trip, then take advantage of some of the attractions on the way to the Wisconsin Dells – I recommend heading West when you reach Madison for a trip to the Cave of the Mounds and the House on the Rock. That same area is also home to Taliesen, the Frank Lloyd Wright landmark.
Here is a quick link to a map of the area: