Diving Into the Dells: A Wisconsin Watepark Vacation

Eduardo Diaz had heard a lot about Wisconsin Dells, but had never been there himself. He was somewhat skeptical, in fact, about whether the trip would measure up to all the hype. Nonetheless, he resolved to take the weekend family trip with a fully open mind.

“What I liked least about the trip,” he said upon the family’s return, “was having to leave. This is the best fun I’ve had in my whole life!”

Not only did 12-year-old Eduardo have the time of his life, but his 6-year-old brother, Christian, and their parents, Marina and Raul Diaz, had a great weekend, too.

“We weren’t sure what to expect,” says Raul. “I didn’t think the place would be so big and I didn’t know if the whole family would have a good time.”

“Also,” added Marina, “we aren’t always comfortable with our English and worried that language might be a problem.”

As soon as the Diaz family arrived in the Dells, however, their varied misgivings seemed to melt right away. After checking in to the hotel, the Diaz’s first Dells excursion was for dinner at Buffalo Phil’s Grille, a mammoth cowboy-themed Tex-mex restaurant promising “everything under the Southern sun.”

The spacious lodge-like facility was equipped to handle small family feasts and private parties of up to 300 people. In fact, with a seating capacity for more than 2,000 people, Buffalo Phil’s is one of the largest restaurants in the entire state of Wisconsin.

The service was swift, the staff was friendly and the large portions of food were flavorful. In between ordering and eating, the family had plenty to look at, from the oversized fireplace mantel lined with cowboy boots to the walls full of “wild wild west” memorabilia.

“I liked that Phil’s place,” said young Christian, “but the stuffed grizzly bears were a little scary.”

After their meal, they ventured next door to Knuckleheads, a family-oriented arcade and bowling alley that shares grounds with the restaurant.      

Back at the lobby of their hotel, the Wilderness Resort, Christian tried to convince his family to bypass their rooms and go directly to the water park. “I’ve been ready for this all day!” he exclaimed, tugging at his shorts to reveal the waistband of his swimming trunks.

Ultimately, little Christian permitted the rest of his family to change into their swimsuits as well. From the Wilderness lobby to their rooms, and from their rooms to the indoor water park was, indeed, a hallway maze. Marina said she felt a small pang of anxiety that, with their less-than-perfect English, they’d misunderstood the directions. When she saw other families huddled in the hallways, equally confounded by the hotel’s layout and directions, she realized it wasn’t a language barrier at all.

“They just needed better signs telling people where to go,” she said. “When they get the new signs, it would be a good idea to print them with more than one language, too.”

Once they arrived at the Wilderness Resort’s water park, Wild West Frontier, Christian and Eduardo immediately snagged inflatable inner tubes and headed for the wave pool. They laughed and splashed, braving the pool’s huge, simulated ocean curls. Outside the wave pool was a water activity area, with slides and sprayers and a monster-truck-sized bucket hanging overhead that periodically crashed down gallons of water upon whomever was fortunate enough to stand beneath, including the Diaz boys.

Eduardo soon spied another component of the park designed for older kids and adults, with bigger rides and slides and more daring fun. Raul and Marina enjoyed watching the boys play and taking an occasional dip themselves under the water sprays. More importantly, the Diaz parents were more at ease with all of the high speed slides and tousling water waves after observing how well-staffed the water area was.

“With all of the kids running around here,” Raul recalled, “one of the lifeguards noticed that Christian was still in the pool playing when Eduardo was getting out. The lifeguard called to Eduardo and said ‘hey, don’t leave your little brother.’”

The Diaz family visited two other parks during their weekend stay: the Wilderness's Klondike Cavern and the Chula Vista Resort’s Los Rios. All three parks had similar features – slides, sprayers, tubes, wave pools, age-appropriate thrills. Of the three, however, both boys agreed that Chula Vista was their favorite. “I liked the Mayan and Aztec theme a lot,” said Eduardo.

Raul and Marina preferred Los Rios for different reasons. “I liked that we were able to see more brown faces,” Marina said bluntly. “There were more Hispanics and African Americans mixed in to the crowds there, and I felt a little more comfortable about the resort because of that.”

“Having a chance to go to three different parks, we were able to see how similar they actually are,” Raul commented. “That was good, because now I know it’s okay to relax at the water park at your resort, and not spend extra money on other park admissions because you’re worried there might be something your kids are missing.”

At the same, the Diaz parents realized their kids would, indeed, be missing something if they didn’t venture off of the resort properties. So, in between their splash excursions, the family experienced several classic attractions of Wisconsin Dells:

Original Wisconsin Ducks – This incomparable adventure by land and by water allows you to experience the scenery and history of the Dells from inside refurbished WWII amphibious carriers.

Tommy Bartlett Exploratory – Explore more than 150 hands-on science exhibits, ranging from mind-boggling puzzles to virtual reality games.

Top Secret – Visit a spy-themed fun house with an exciting “whodunit” twist.

Trading Post – One of the last of the Dells’ original attractions features Native American cultural displays and unique mementos of Dells lore.  

“There was a whole lot of fun stuff to do, but there wasn’t enough time to do it all!” Eduardo summarized. “The only thing I can think of to make the trip better,” agreed Christian, “would be to come with some of my friends.”

Raul and Marina also enjoyed their introduction to Wisconsin Dells. In addition to all the classic features they’d heard about – waters slides, Duck rides and the interactive entertainment – they were pleasantly surprised at all of the grown-up fun they discovered, too. They had a few moments to peek into some of the Dells’ time-honored eateries and watering holes, such as Monk’s Bar, Paul Bunyan’s Northwoods Cook Shanty and Denny’s Original Classic Diner (not the chain).

“I would definitely come back,” said Marina. “We all had a good time, not just the kids. Next time, though, I’d like to make my way to the Outlet Mall!”

“I think Christian is right about bringing friends,” Raul chuckled. “Staying in the resort condos instead of a regular room made the weekend more affordable, and our friends would like the way we cut back on restaurant bills by stocking up on groceries.”

Whether they return with old friends or plan on making new ones, the Diaz family agreed that Wisconsin Dells had lived up to its reputation. Together, they look forward to returning to the Dells and beginning a family tradition.

Learn more about the Dells' waterparks, including the gnarliest rides, and find out which other attractions made Wisconsin Dells famous.