During these uncertain economic times, savvy travelers are downsizing their vacation plans and sticking closer to home. This bodes well for destinations like the Wisconsin Dells, a tiny tourist area long known to Midwesterners as a great, if kitschy, summertime escape. The recent addition of several state-of-the-art theme parks and resorts has transformed this once-fading destination into "The Waterpark Capital of the World." There's plenty here for grown-up travelers, too, from spas to championship golf courses, making the Dells a worthy contender for that next great escape.
Dells 101The Dells made national news in the spring of 2008 when heavy rains caused manmade Lake Delton to breach its shores and overflow into the Wisconsin River, taking several vacation homes with it. But resorts and attractions like the popular and long-running Tommy Bartlett Show continued without missing a beat, and repair and refilling of the lake are on target for the 2009 season. The area known as the "Wisconsin Dells" encompasses the towns of Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton, as well as some nearby smaller towns and state parks. The Dells are conveniently located within driving distance of Milwaukee, Chicago and the Twin Cities. The small-town setting means limited public transportation, so a car rental is a must if you're not driving directly. The original downtown area is laid out along the Wisconsin River that gave the Dells region its name (from a Native American word describing the layered rock lining the river banks). Now known as the Dells River District, the downtown area reflects a bygone era of souvenir and fudge shops. But the addition of a new River Walk Trail and updated attractions and eateries are aimed at the influx of visitors to the area resorts, which are located primarily along the main highways both in and out of town.
Year-Round Family FunThe Dells and "family-friendly" have been synonymous for more than a century, but summertime held court as not only high season but also pretty much the main season for a visit. However, the recent addition of several full-service resorts -- including Great Wolf Lodge, Wilderness Resort, Mt. Olympus and the Kalahari Resort -- allows families to visit any time of year.
With rustic decor and cozy accommodations ranging from standard rooms, suites, condos or even cabins, these resorts feature perks like indoor waterparks, craft rooms, arcades and interactive play areas. There's even a 15-screen, first-run movie theater and a new indoor amusement park at the Kalahari. These year-round digs allow an escape from winter blahs without having to cough up airfare to a faraway, crowded tropical destination. For a summertime visit that brings kids closer to nature, there are also several campgrounds and cabins nestled among the area's many woodsy waterfront retreats.