Water Park Fun in Wisconsin
Indoor and outdoor Attractions Make the Dells a Year-Round Destination
When Becky Gussel moved to Wisconsin Dells 12 years ago to help run a local campground, the area was busy during summer, but a rather sleepy place the rest of the year.
It’s a different story today, thanks in part to an ongoing marketing campaign by the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau, which is actively promoting the area as a year-round destination in addition to being the “Waterpark Capital of the World.”
This is no exaggeration.
The Wisconsin Dells area has more indoor and outdoor water parks than anywhere else with a combined total of more than 200 water slides, the highest concentration of water-themed amusement parks on the planet.
Wisconsin Dells also has the world’s biggest water parks, including Noah’s Ark water park, a 70-acre park with 3 miles of water slides, and Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort, with 500,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor water park space.
All of this is a dramatic transformation for the Dells, whose original tourist draw was a series of scenic sandstone bluffs along the Wisconsin River. The area is also the ancestral home of Ho-Chunk Native Americans, who were once called the Winnebago by French fur traders. The Ho-Chunk staged Wild West shows and cere-monial dances for tourists in the early days, but now focus their attention on the Ho-Chunk Casino Resort on the outskirts of Wisconsin Dells, which has become one of the top casino destinations in the Midwest.
Wisconsin Dells’ focus on water parks began in the 1970s and early ’80s, but the transition into a year-round destination really started in 1989 when the Polynesian Resort Hotel & Suites covered its water park, creating the first indoor water playland. The concept was so successful that other hotels copied the idea and, in the process, began converting the Dells area into a resort hot spot where families could enjoy the famous water slides no matter the weather.
The net result has not only been a dramatic increase in the number of visitors year-round, but a lengthening of the busy summer season.
“The indoor water parks definitely stretched the season,” said Romy Snyder, executive director of the Wisconsin Visitor and Convention Bureau. “It expanded a 100-day season into a 365-day season.”
Even campgrounds, which typically have to close by late October or early November when they shut off their water for the winter months, are seeing a lengthening of their tourist season.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of campers in May and June compared to the way it used to be,” said Gussel, who now co-owns and operates Sherwood Forest Camping & RV Park, adding, “We’ve steadily seen the numbers go up in the fall shoulder season as well.”
And as Wisconsin Dells has become more famous, it has seen growth in the number of accommodations, from 3,000 hotel rooms 20 years ago to more than 9,000 today. The number of campsites, meanwhile, has grown to nearly 3,200.
And campgrounds have also gotten into the water attraction business, either by adding splash pads and water play features or by developing more elaborate water attractions.
In 2005, Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Wisconsin Dells became the first campground in the Jellystone chain to develop on-site water attractions, including a water playground with four water slides, an activity pool with 25 interactive features and a hot tub.
Brent Gasser, the park’s owner, said the improvements increased business by close to 40 percent.
“Our main clientele is families with children through age 15 who love our extensive recreation and the special events we offer,” he said. “However, we also have grandparents traveling with their grandchildren in motorhomes who love our large Red Carpet Camp Suites. Plus, we are located on Mirror Lake and offer boat rentals as well as golf cart rentals and mini golf.”
Other campgrounds with water features include the Wisconsin Dells KOA and Gussel’s Sherwood Forest, which has both a swimming pool and a large splash pad for small children.
“People who travel with toddlers and young children prefer a smaller water park, while teens and tweens often want more action and adventure,” Gussel said.
The Dells’ rising popularity as a tourist destination is also leading to more campgrounds. The Ho-Chunk Hotel and Casino debuted Hocak Houisa Chi’ Nuk RV Park, a 49-site campground, two years ago and, since it’s open year-round, people even camp when it’s snowing. Nehomah
Thundercloud, a senior public relations manager for the casino, said six sites are winterized and the campground has 33 pull-through sites that can accommodate the largest of motorhomes.
And while pets are not allowed in the Ho-Chunk Hotel, they are allowed in the RV park, whose amenities include hot showers, Wi-Fi and full hookups. Guests are also welcome to use the casino’s indoor swimming pool and wellness facility.
Looking to the future, Gasser said he’s developing a promotional partnership with Cruise America, the Phoenix, Ariz.-based RV rental company, to bring visitors from China and other countries into Wisconsin Dells.