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Splash around in Wisconsin Dells
By Kathleen Ostrander

The world's waterpark mecca, Wisconsin Dells, is a five-hour drive from Springfield.

In 1946, boat trips to Witches Gulch landing and the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial on World War II boats known as DUKWs (or "ducks") was the big thing in Wisconsin Dells. Since the 1950s, the Tommy Bartlett ski show has wowed visitors to the area. But it was Stan Anderson's idea in 1994 that kick-started the waterpark wave.

Anderson, the owner of the Polynesian Resort Hotel, put a roof over his water attraction and created the indoor waterpark and the rest, as they say, is history. If a trendy, upscale vacation is in order and Paris is out this year, don't overlook the Dells.

For the past several years, the Dells has been remaking itself and adding upscale attractions for widespread appeal.

If waterpark resorts aren't your cup of tea, try a golf villa at Chula Vista Resort or a private, adults-only spa villa at Sundara Inn & Spa. Sophisticated and richly appointed, they are also available for rental and ownership, so a villa as a second home is a real possibility.

Wisconsin Dells can boast three championship golf courses in three square miles. It's almost unimaginable that a community of just 20 square miles could have three championship golf courses. If Chula Vista is booked, reserve a tee time at Wild Rock Golf Club or Trappers Turn Golf Club.

Italy, France and the Napa Valley are renowned for their contributions to the wine industry, but a half-hour's drive from the Dells to Prairie du Sac puts a traveler into fine wine country. The historic Wollersheim Winery was established in the 1840s by Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy. Nestled in the picturesque hills overlooking the Wisconsin River valley, it features buildings with incredible character, outdoor seating with views to the vineyard, lovely gardens and a new tasting room that was just added last year.

The new kid winery on the block is in Wisconsin Dells. Get in on the cutting edge of fine wine and visit Tourdot Winery. Several restaurants in the Dell's have wine lists and architecture that garnered their inclusion onto the pages of Wine Spectator magazine. Book a visit to Field's at the Wilderness or the Del-Bar to be with the 'in' crowd.

There are a number of spa offerings at the Dells, including the Rhapsody Spa at Lake Delton. There are six other spas including the Eden Therapy Day Spa. Try a therapeutic massage, hydrating facial or relaxing body wrap. There are individual and group packages at the spas.

There are also tempting shopping opportunities available including the Tanger Outlet Center. There are 60 designer stores at the center including Polo Ralph Lauren, Coach, Nike, Harry and David, Adidas and Calvin Klein Underwear.

The boutique shops should not be ignored. With water, water everywhere, you would expect an enormous soap store and you won't be disappointed. The Dell Prairie Soap Co. offers more than 100 varieties of soap made with fragrant essential oils and botanicals, all made on site.

Two new boutiques recently have opened downtown. Burl & Boyd is a high-end apparel store featuring resort wear for women and men. Artistic Expressions Gift Gallery carries jewelry, ceramics and textiles from artists around the country. Budding artists can try their hand at pottery wheel art at the Paint It! Pottery Shop in downtown Dells. The staff there will take care of firing it in their kilns and will have it ready for pick-up or shipping in a day or two.

Try your hand at a game of chance at the Ho-Chunk Casino. Will it be blackjack, poker, craps, bingo, off-track betting, slot machines (they have 2,400), or video poker?  High-rollers can try their luck at the high-stakes blackjack room.

Wisconsin Dells already gives visitors more than 80 restaurants to choose from. At the new Italian restaurant, Carvelli's Pizza & Pasta House in downtown Wisconsin Dells, diners can watch pizza being made in the exhibition kitchen. Tug's Kitchen, part of the Showboat Saloon enterprise, offers a spicy menu with some unexpected entrees including gourmet burgers, gumbo soup and po-boy sandwiches. It has indoor and outdoor seating.  

There's also a sampling of tasty tidbits from some of the area's most well established eateries: Ishnala Supper Club, a restaurant that appears suspended over Mirror Lake.. It's accessible by a bridge from Mirror Lake State Park, and visitors can walk in from the trail. Syno's Café, next door to the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, has added an outside deck. House of Embers turns 50 this year. Buffalo Phil's Pizza & Grille is bottling its own spicy barbecue sauces, so guests can grab one for the road. And Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Co. claimed a silver medal for its Dells Chief Amber Ale at tthe Great American Beer Festival.

The Waterpark Capital of the World is adding a twist with indoor amusement parks.

Kalahari Waterpark Resort Convention Center has opened a 110,000 square foot indoor amusement park, Kalahari Indoor Theme Park, with an array of activities and rides including a six-story Ferris wheel, laser tag, a ropes course, go-karts, mini-golf, golf simulators, 24 lanes of bowling, DJ booth and dance floor, and arcade.  A walkway connects the indoor theme park to the rest of the resort complex.  At the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort, there's new dry-land development. They've just opened two indoor, 3-D, black-light mini-golf courses. The first is called The Wild Abyss and features aquariums with live eels, jellyfish, sea horses and sharks.  There's even a stingray touch tank.  The second course is pirate-themed and is appropriately called Wild Buccaneer.

A similar wave of development has hit the outdoor parks. Noah's Ark Waterpark is getting set to debut "Curse of the Crypt," a haunted house scary enough to be recommended for tweens through adults. Over at Riverview Park & Waterworld, they're bringing back amusement park favorites like the tilt-a-whirl, scrambler, a carousel, a train and a glass house.

Other entertainment venues include the Dells 4D Special FX Theater with a new double feature; Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum with new interactive exhibits; and Wizard Quest, a life-size labyrinth wizard rescue game with new wizard-ing ways.  On the most-active end of the entertainment spectrum, there's Pirate's Cove Family Fun Center, where kids can pedal go-carts on two racetracks, jump up and down on a giant jumping pillow and try their best dunk shot with a game of trampoline basketball.

You can add sports to your vacation with JustAGame Fieldhouse. It was originally built as a place for area teams to get some extra court time and a new venue for tournament organizers to consider. Coaches like the facility, especially the wood floor, and parents and kids loved the location in Wisconsin Dells. It didn't take long for the Fieldhouse to fill its schedule with basketball, wrestling, gymnastics and volleyball tournaments. At last count, owners Dave and Joy Royston estimate they're now hosting about 70 per year

The Wisconsin Dells Center is a huge sports facility under a bubble, ideal for volleyball, gymnastics and indoor soccer. They're so serious about what they do that they even bought an entire field's worth of artificial turf from the Indianapolis Colts. Again, tournaments began pouring in, as did players and families from all over the country.

The Poppy Waterman Ice Arena brings in its share of hockey tournaments and figure skating competitions. Outdoors, a number of parks and the high school fields support youth softball and baseball tournaments. Game Day USA will be returning to the Dells for another schedule of games this summer.  There's also a formerly private resort that's now open to the public - Perlstein Resort and Conference Center that's a veritable sports core, with tennis courts, volleyball court, soccer field and baseball field.

If you feel the need for speed, try the Dells Raceway Park's Driving Experience. Visitors climb into a ready-to-race super late Model Stock Car and take a lap around their 1⁄3-mile paved oval.

Just outside the city limits is the International Crane Foundation. A new exhibit will house the four majestic cranes of Africa - the blue, wattled, gray crowned and black Crowned. The Foundation is a nature preserve located just outside the city limits, and it's the only place in the world where you can see all 15 species of cranes. This new exhibit is scheduled to open June 20.

Bring on the clowns. A short drive out of town in a quaint little community known as Baraboo. There you'll find a national historic landmark - Circus World Museum. The Ringling Bros. Circus was founded in Baraboo in 1884 by five Ringling brothers and, naturally, they named their property in Baraboo "Ringlingville."  This compound along the Baraboo River served as the winter quarters for the troupe. The buildings date from 1897 and, while they are the largest surviving group of original circus structures in North America, the museum's collection of circus artifacts may just be the largest in the world.

It includes more than 210 original wagons and an exceptional collection of thousands of circus ads and posters. You can't miss the Buffalo Bill Wild West poster which measures nine feet high by 70 feet long. During the warm weather months, take in a performance in the Hippodrome, see live animals and daydream about what it must have been like to be a circus performer all those decades ago.

All aboard for the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in the town of North Freedom. Stroll museum exhibits of steam locomotives that date back to the 1880s and then hop aboard a restored steel coach for a 50-minute ride through the countryside.

How about some horsing around at Lake Delton? Add a horse-drawn wagon ride at Lost Canyon Tours, located on the south shore of Lake Delton to your itinerary. The mile-long tour gets you up close and personal to cliff-walled gorges.

For more information - and there's a lot more - visit www.wisdells.com.

Story published Friday, March 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 2 )

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