Summer Under Glass
Sunday, February 19, 2006
A howling wind sweeps the parking lot, where hail is bouncing off compacted mounds of plowed snow. But inside the massive, glass-enclosed bubble where I am surfing a four-foot wave, it's always summer, forever 85 degrees.
Fact is, if you don't have the time or money to head to the Caribbean this winter, the indoor water park resorts of Wisconsin Dells have created a rough facsimile that's good enough to fool the kids. Actually, kids who love amusement parks -- bless their tacky little hearts -- will probably prefer the faux tropical world of the Dells to a truly exotic tropical locale. There are more games here, more inventive ways to experience water and more thrills. Plus, there are no bugs, no sand to get caught in bathing suits, no darkness simply because the sun has set, and no sunburns.
Or wait, there could be sunburns soon. One of the 18 indoor water parks in the Dells, as the area a two-hour drive northwest of Milwaukee is called, is in the process of erecting a new water park with a so-called Foil Tech roof that allows ultraviolet rays to pass through. The first such roof in the United States, it creates the possibility that you could visit here and go home bragging that you got your winter tan in a frozen wasteland just south of Canada.
The natural world holds no sway here. Winter has been conquered and co-opted. Areas the size of multiple football fields have been glassed in and filled with facsimiles of oceans, with rivers that flow around the perimeter at just the right speed for inner tubes, and four-story, gravity-defying funnels and slides with names like Howlin' Tornado and Master Blaster.
It's like being inside a reverse snow globe. You're in the idealized little world, and the swirling snow is kept outside.
And should the kids tire of the water -- parents report they often have to drag them out after eight or 10 hours -- the resorts of the Dells have massive indoor play areas, with giant video arcades, games including foam-ball-shooting cannons, climbing structures and crafts.
Then there's the town of Wisconsin Dells itself, which is like an ocean boardwalk without the waterfront. There are fudge shops, a circus museum, a Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum, an auto museum, a haunted mansion, karaoke bars, vintage-photo shops and attractions such as Wizard Quest -- an interactive fantasy game that has the kids running through castle mazes seeking clues.
Sure, you can find an indoor water park closer to home. If you have small children, or timid large children, seek out those places. But if you're looking for the biggest, best and most, the Dells is the place. The concept of indoor water parks was invented here, along with many of the rides. The Dells has the biggest indoor water parks in America, the most thrilling rides, the oldest and the newest indoor water parks, and the most indoor water parks in one locale.
Between the resorts and tourist attractions around them, the Dells is a kind of Las Vegas for kids, where time loses meaning, artificial thrills create excitement without real danger, and pleasure is manufactured in oversize doses. There is even a casino. But unlike Vegas, Wisconsin Dells is exclusively for families.
Rest assured: If something has been created to entertain kids, it's here. And if it involves water, it was probably invented here.
Waters of Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin Dells has been welcoming tourists since the 1800s, and visitors still come for scenic tours of the Wisconsin River and the massive sandstone cliffs that tower over it. Dells, a bastardization of the French dalles , means layers of flat rock, and for much of the year, sometimes even during winter depending on the weather, you can take a cruise beneath the towering dells.
It was here that renowned photographer H.H. Bennett revolutionized the field in 1886 with stop-action photography, famously capturing a shot of a man in midair, leaping between two tall cliffs.