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Summer Under Glass
Can't Afford the Caribbean? In Wisconsin Dells, the Indoor Water Parks Are Good Enough to Fool the Kids

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Other natural attractions also have survived the tourism assault unscathed. Most notably, the International Crane Foundation has preserved wetlands and grasslands where it raises 15 species of cranes for release into the wild, and the foundation welcomes visitors with an inclination toward nature.

But for decades, Wisconsin Dells has been mostly about manufactured attractions. Over the years, developers wooed tourists with amusement parks, death-defying water ski shows, and, eventually, outdoor water parks. All 18 indoor parks have outdoor sections open in summer. There are three more open to the general public that are outdoors only, including what is arguably America's largest -- Noah's Ark. One of the signature rides there: the Point of No Return, a 10-story slide that shoots riders down in just five seconds.

Problem was, until a few years ago, the tourists disappeared come fall and didn't return until spring.

In 1990, the Dells had a 100-day peak season and an annual hotel occupancy rate of 40 percent. Today, thanks to indoor water parks, the season is 365 days a year. Annual hotel occupancy rates range around 80 percent and routinely hit 100 percent on weekends and school holidays year-round. The area with 5,000 residents now hosts 3 million visitors a year, most of them coming for the water park experience, according to the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.

The idea to enclose water parks for year-round use set off one of the hottest trends in hotel and resort development. Five years ago, there were 18 indoor water parks in the United States large and varied enough to legitimately claim the title. Today, there are about 100 in the United States and another 100 or so in Canada, according to the World Waterpark Association. And that's not counting the hundreds of hotels that have expanded and enclosed their pools, added some slides and claimed they have an indoor water park.

Among the 18 indoor water parks in the Dells are three behemoths -- the Kalahari Resort, Great Wolf Lodge and the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort. Both the Kalahari and Great Wolf have been busy replicating themselves with somewhat smaller versions. Among the new properties built by Great Wolf is a namesake that opened last spring in Williamsburg.

As I will learn during a two-day tour through the Dells, the three largest water parks -- those that are worth a trip halfway across the country -- all share certain features. No matter which you choose, you are guaranteed multiple swimming pools of various depths. There will be a pool with basketball hoops and volleyball nets, and a pool with floating pads and ropes that kids can hang onto while attempting to walk across the water -- good practice for careers as Marines or Navy SEALs.

All three compete like mad to find new ways to play with millions of gallons of water. They dump it and shoot it and spray it, jet it into geysers and waves, and pump it with the force of fire hydrants to propel you through thrill rides.

The biggest surprise during my visit: Neither the smell of chlorine nor the noise is overwhelming. And although I've arrived at a busy time, I don't feel crowded. These huge domed areas are big enough to absorb people, noise and even the smell of chlorine.

Kalahari

I start my mega-park tour at the Kalahari, which, as the name suggests, has an African theme. In the sprawling lobby under a multi-story ceiling, you can get your picture taken with real live tiger cubs, or buy authentic African art and handicrafts. The place is like an indoor boardwalk, where you can get a caricature drawn, a tattoo or a sugar high from fudge and caramel apples at the Sweet Hut.

The arcade has more than 100 video games. You can sit in rocking chairs to watch first-run films, with wall-to-wall screens and digital surround sound, at the 10-screen movie complex. There are kid-friendly restaurants and a more elegant choice with live entertainment. The day spa is upscale, with peaceful New Age music, and should you have need of a ballroom or conference center, it's got it.

The main attraction, of course, is the water parks, indoor and outdoor.

A 920-foot lazy river meanders around the 125,000-square-foot, glass-enclosed complex. You can swim against the current, or let it carry you around and around.

That's more to my taste, but to prove I'm not a wuss, I take on the FlowRider.

Two 85-horsepower, jet-propelled motors blast tens of thousands of gallons of water over a smooth surface, creating up to 300 waves as high as five feet every hour. The faux surfing experience, invented by a California company called Wave Loch, is available at more than a dozen outdoor water parks in the United States, but this is the first indoor FlowRider.

Two people at a time can take a turn surfing the waves on the FlowRider, and my bad luck teams me with a teen who obviously spends all his spare time at the Kalahari. I jump headfirst into a fast-moving stream of water, lying flat on my boogie board and hanging on for dear life.

A surge of water propels me forward until I meet another surge aimed at me. Together, the two forces crest into a wave. The teen gets on his knees and surfs the wave. I cling to the board in a prone position. You know your turn is done when you lose your fight against the water, crash into the wave and are catapulted into deeper, slower water.

I repair to the Monsoon Saloon within the water park to recover before taking on the Master Blaster.

The Master Blaster is a screaming jag of terror that is billed as the only uphill water roller coaster in the United States. You sit in a raft, and a raging torrent of water with the force of three open fire hydrants pushes you up an open incline, then drops you down an open chute, then pushes you up again, and down. Four 60-horsepower engines shoot 5,600 gallons of water a minute through the Master Blaster, and you hang on until the ride ends by plunging you into a diving well.

I would like to compose myself by spending the remainder of my trip in a gentle wave pool or lazy-river tube. But my vocation demands that I see if the other parks can frighten me even worse.

Great Wolf

As its name suggests, Great Wolf has a rustic but luxurious lodge feeling, with big stone fireplaces and walls of giant logs. It, too, has multiple restaurants, a spa and shops. Its 64,000-square foot indoor play area includes 10 water slides, seven pools, a lazy river, kiddie bumper boats, a rock-climbing wall and a four-story treehouse with suspension bridges, webbed nets for crawling and 60 different ways to shoot water at your friends and family.

Great Wolf has particularly extensive dry play areas. A four-story playhouse called Wiley's Woods next to the water park features dozens of video games, bridges and mazes to crawl around, and ball pits. For younger kids, the Cub Club includes crafts and storytelling.

That, apparently, was not enough. Next month, Great Wolf will debut an addition that will double the current indoor water park, adding eight more water slides and two pools.

I go straight for Great Wolf's biggest thrill ride: the Howlin' Tornado. The six-story funnel ride requires at least two people per tube, and as I gaze at the ride, thinking maybe I won't have to do it after all, another lone woman asks me to ride with her.

We descend an enclosed staircase and are soon careening up and down the sides of a 65-foot-wide funnel, dropping 30 feet every second, then being catapulted back up the sides of the funnel for a few seconds until the next stomach-wrenching drop hits. This ride won the Best New Waterpark Product Award at a convention of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, which means in my book it's the worst of all possible ways to experience sheer terror and have to pay for it.

I have an entire night to recover before heading to my next resort in the morning.

Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort

The Wilderness is in some ways the most classy of the three biggest parks, sitting as it does along the shores of Lake Delton, and is the only one to include a golf course. Located on 310 acres, the resort also offers ice skating and cross-country skiing on groomed trails.

The Wilderness competes with the Kalahari for the title of America's Largest Indoor Water Park. The debate about which is larger centers on the fact that the Kalahari's indoor park is under one roof, but the Wilderness resort currently has three separate parks, only two of them linked by indoor corridors.

Another section, the 65,000-square-foot Wild KingDome, is slated to open either next month or in early April. Wilderness also recently debuted two new thrill rides. The one that sounds most intriguing: the Cannonbowl, which drops riders 45 feet through a tunnel slide into a giant bowl where they are spun around and oscillated up and down the sides of the bowl, then propelled through a corkscrew slide and into a pool.

During my visit to Wilderness, I stop first at the resort's Wild West Water park, a 70,000-square-foot park with two unique rides. First, the Surge, a wave pool with a twist: When a bell sounds, people on decks above the wave pool can shoot water cannons onto the people below. The biggest ride, the Fantastic Voyage, shoots you down a twisting tunnel in a five-person raft.

A second, 65,000-square-foot park called Klondike Kavern offers, among other things, a 500-foot-long lazy river, two 500-foot tube rides, pools, lounging areas with televisions and, on the upper deck, a laser tag arena.

I end my tour at Baby Bear's Fort Wilderness, a 22,000-square-foot water park designed for kids 6 and under. I recover from my earlier traumas on the scary rides by stretching out in one of the parent-size whirlpools. Baby Bear's, it turns out, is at the end of the day just right.

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