In the mid-1800s, river pilot Leroy Gates, maybe the first tourist guide in the Wisconsin Dells, began rowboat tours of the unique views of the Wisconsin River. “I have purchased a pleasure boat,” read his 1856 advertisement, “for the purpose of penetrating the numerous occult caves of the dells.”
Today, the Wisconsin Dells (150 miles east of Rochester just off I-90) is a year-round mix of natural beauty coated in crass commercialism. Today, the Dells is home to 8,000 hotel rooms, 90 attractions, 80 restaurants, and 9,000 seasonal workers (2,500 of them lured from overseas).
Here, among Wisconsin’s rustic wood and water realm, you will find the highest allowable concentration of kitsch and tourist trappery. And while The Wonder Spot (“where gravity has gone awry”) and Wax World of the Stars (“see a wax likeness of John Travolta!”) closed last year, that hasn’t even made a dent in the 90-plus attractions that include Tommy Bartlett Exploratory (“see the Russian space station Mir”), Top Secret (“The White House has been turned upside down!”), the Museum of Historic Torture Devices (“Nothing is more frightening than human history”), and two old-timey portrait studios. The list goes on and on. But you get the picture. And, if you don’t, here’s one more example. The Dells has something called Dick Clark’s Ultimate Rush, which is some sort of bungee jumping device.
The region's rock formations (seemingly shaped like chimneys, birds, even people) and other natural wonders have inspired tourists for centuries. Nearby, the 9,000-acre Devil’s Lake State Park—a rock climbing hotspot—features quartzite bluffs, some as high as 500 feet. A sandy beach edges the glacial lake. One of the Dells trademarks, Stand Rock, is a flat-topped, T-shaped rock outcropping along the Upper Dells of the Wisconsin River. Stand Rock was popularized in an 1886 stop-action photo by early Dells chronicler H. H. Bennett, which depicted Bennett’s son Ashley leaping the five feet from one high and precarious sandstone perch to the next. Jumpers recreated the scene for boat tourists until the 1930s. Now dogs make the jump. Which just about says it all for the Dells: A beautiful rock formation. And dogs make the jump.
With nearly 20 indoor waterpark resorts, including the nation’s first (the Polynesian), Wisconsin Dells is king of the industry. They claim to have—and these things are always up for discussion—the world’s largest outdoor waterpark (Noah’s Ark), the nation’s largest indoor waterpark (Kalahari), and the world’s largest combo indoor/outdoor waterpark (Wilderness).
More than any other human being, Tommy Bartlett created the tourist mecca of Wisconsin Dells/Lake Delton. Until 1952—the year 0 BT (Before Tommy)—the Dells had been a bucolic summer vacation retreat for hot Midwesterners, full of buggy cabins and fishermen. Tommy Bartlett turned it into a tourist gold mine. His tools were fast boats, attractive girls on water skis, and bumper stickers. The show was an instant hit in the sleepy Dells, and everyone who attended the show found a Tommy Bartlett Dells bumper sticker slapped on their car when they returned to the parking lot. Soon people knew something was afloat in The Dells, and they began making the quick trip by the thousands, then tens of thousands. A mecca had been born. Tommy Bartlett died on September 6, 1998. He was 84. Fittingly, he passed away on Labor Day weekend—the end of the tourist season. (from Roadside America, www.roadsideamerica.com.)
On D-Day, over 2,000 of the Army's new model D.U.K.W. amphibious transport trucks—“Ducks’ to the GIs—drove off the landing ships, propellered through the choppy waters of the English Channel and drove, again, onto the beaches of Normandy to unload troops and supplies. Today, the Original Wisconsin Ducks (608-254-8751 www.wisconsinducktours.com), retrofitted with bus seats, carry 300,000 annual tourists (on 45 Ducks) on an innards-shaking eight-mile trek down Hop Along Hill and through Fern Dell (with 27 varieties of ferns), into the Wisconsin River splashdown at Echo Point, over the Sand Bar then up and down Roller Coaster and Suicide Hills.
At 31 feet long and 8 feet wide and weighing 2.5 tons, the green-and-white, six-wheel drive vehicles have been a Dells classic since 1958. The tour is chock full of schtick and bad puns (whenever we look behind us the college kid tour guide says something about looking out a duck's rear end), and a great way to take in some of the natural sights, like Pulpit Rock (a rock shaped like a pulpit), Baby Grand Piano (a rock shaped like a baby grand piano) and Hawk’s Bill (a rock shaped like the bill of a hawk).
But, in an area originally famous for its natural beauty and long ago overrun by tourist trappery, the Dells Ducks bring together the best of both worlds. And you get to hear that line about looking out a duck’s rear end.
One more fact: Area shops sell two tons of fudge. Per day. And maybe that, after all, is all you really need to know.