Splish Splash – Wisconsin Dells

Splish Splash – Wisconsin Dells

Randy Mink

Wisconsin Dells water park hotels invite families to stay and play

Like everything else at the new, African-flavored Kalahari Resort, its indoor water park mirrors the mystery and majesty of a distant continent. From tribal masks and thatched huts to murals of big game, the decor transports guests to jungles and savannas half a world away from the forests and farmlands of southern Wisconsin.

Under a massive glass roof, families frolic in a wave pool fed by a waterfall, float in tubes along the Torrent River, play water basketball, and hurtle down the Ripplin’ Rhino chute in four-person rafts. On the Tanzanian Twister, fearless sliders get “flushed” down a giant fiberglass “toilet bow!” at dizzying speeds. Small fry slither down a zebra-striped safari truck in Baboon Bay, while adults relax in leopard-print lounge chairs, whirlpool spas, and the Mud Hut bar.

In a resort town full of family-fun attractions, more and more elaborately themed water park hotels have become destinations in themselves. Year-round, Wisconsin Dells visitors can escape to Africa or medieval England, the Caribbean or South Seas, the American Southwest or Great Northwest. Summer is prime time at the Dells, but even in winter, it can be difficult to get a room at some of these high-energy resorts.

The safari at Kalahari (877-253-5466) starts in the four-story atrium lobby accented with bamboo, thatching, batik prints, and a splashing fountain with crane and elephant sculptures. The color scheme–gold, rust, tan, beige–reflects southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert. Spread out on the floor next to the Imports from Africa shop are handmade Zulu baskets ($12.95 to $540) and wood carvings. Inside the store are drums, drinking gourds, decorated ostrich eggs, Masai warrior shields and spears, zebra-tail fly whisks, and canes and bottle openers adorned with wart hog tusks.

You can outfit yourself next door at the Safari Clothing Company and pick up an Africa book at the Kalahari Outpost gift shop. One title is The Kalahari: Survival in a Thirstland Wilderness.

Oversized “elephant tusks” form the arched entrance to the Ivory Coast Lounge, which features live music by the fireplace. Ingraffia’s restaurant, overlooking the water park, serves up pastas, pizzas, and sandwiches, plus classy dinner entrees like pine nut-encrusted walleye fillet with key lime mayonnaise dipping sauce. Appetizers include raspberries and baked brie in flaky pastry.

Our party of seven chose one of the Kalahari’s Family Suites, which sleep up to eight persons. It had two bathrooms, two queen beds, a king, sofa sleeper, and two TVs. The patio fronted the outdoor pools; upper-floor rooms sport balconies.

African Queen Suites, also sleeping eight, have three TVs. Full-size Jacuzzis jazz up the Honeymoon and other specialty suites. Rates at the 272-room Kalahari ($150 to $500) include unlimited water park visits; non-guests pay $19.95 to enter the park.

For first-run movies, Kalahari guests hop across the parking lot to the 10-theater Desert Star Cinema, a sand-colored complex that resembles a desert fortress. A retail/amusement corridor eventually will connect the cinema and hotel.

Across the highway from the Kalahari is Great Wolf Lodge (800-559-9653), an imposing log structure with Alaskan/Yukon trappings. Walk into the four-story lobby and you’re confronted with mounted bears and wolves, a giant fieldstone fireplace, lodgepole pine furnishings, and moose- and elk-antler chandeliers. A buffalo head and bark canoe set off the Loose Moose restaurant.

Nearly all the furniture, wall hangings, and decorative rugs in the 309-room hotel, formerly known as Black Wolf Lodge, were handcrafted by top artisans from around the country.

Two cavernous log pavilions house Great Wolf’s indoor water park. In the 12-level TreeHouse, a bucket dumps 1,000 gallons of water on guests every few minutes. Outdoor facilities include a free-form pool and the twin Howling Wolf tube slides, our favorite waterslides in the Dells.

Families with young children like Great Wolf’s Kid-Cabin Suite, a room category that offers kids their own “log cabin” with bunk beds, a twin bed, TV with Nintendo games, and lookout window. A fake bearskin rug adorns the wall. On the top floor, Loft Fireplace Suites feature vaulted ceilings. As at all the Dells’ better hotels, in-room amenities include a refrigerator, microwave, wet bar, and coffee maker.

Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort (800-867-9453), another northwoods-style playground, occupies 310 acres of pristine woodlands. Its 18-hole golf course, Wilderness Woods, features rolling fairways lined with stately pines and tall oaks. The six-hole Little Links course is ideal for families with children who want to learn the game of golf.

Klondike Kavern, one of the hotel’s two indoor water parks, opened in 1999 with three big waterslides, a lazy river, and Gold Mine Mountain, an activity area with 60 play-and-spray features.

Overlooking the park is Glitter Gulch Mega-Arcade, with the latest in video games and a huge redemption center. Kalahari, Great Wolf, and other Dells family resorts also offer flashy arcades.

For small children (6 and under) who may be overwhelmed by Klondike Kavern, the Wilderness recently turned its original indoor water park into Baby Bear’s Fort Wilderness.

In winter a tunnelway leads from the hotel to the outdoor water park’s heated pool (83 degrees) and spa (95 degrees). Other cold-weather pastimes include cross country skiing, ice skating, and sleigh rides.

Besides 281 lodge rooms, the Wilderness offers 28 Vacation Villas and 24 brand new condominium units. Restaurants unveiled last summer were the upscale Field’s at the Wilderness and family-style Motherlode in the lobby.

The pirate-themed Treasure Island Resort Hotel & Suites (800-800-4997) offers indoor and outdoor water play areas, including an indoor children’s wave pool. The biggest draw, though, is free admission to adjacent Family Land, the Dells’ second largest outdoor water park (open Memorial Day to Labor Day). In non-summer months, hotel guests get exclusive use of Family Land’s year-round Bay of Dreams, a huge “tropical jungle” water park linked to Treasure Island by an enclosed skywalk.

Chula Vista Resort (800-388-4782), a Southwest-style property overlooking the Wisconsin River, is one of the Dells’ oldest resorts but has undergone a major transformation in the past two years. Its outdoor water park, Desert Oasis, was just expanded to three acres with the addition of a new 350-foot waterslide called Rattlesnake Run. Coyote Mountain, the indoor water activity area, is centered around Aztec temple ruins. Adults can unwind in a giant whirlpool with hot waterfalls. Cougar Crossing, a new pool offering an adventurous water walk, has been created for teens.

Chula Vista also has miniature golf, an 18-hole golf course, and volleyball and tennis courts. Of its 300 rooms, 240 have been constructed since 1997.

The 232-room Polynesian Resort Hotel & Suites (800-272-5642), which in 1989 became the first upscale Wisconsin Dells resort to offer a water park in the price of lodging, recently added Blackbeard’s Dark Tunnel Mystery Voyage, an adventure ride with animated characters and special effects. The $3-million expansion to its indoor park also included two waterslides and the Water-factory, a kiddie play structure with more than 80 interactive features.

Other top-notch theme resorts with extensive water play areas include Copacabana (800-364-2672), Camelot (877223-3557), Raintree (888-253-4386), and Wintergreen (800-648-4765).

For information on resorts and attractions, contact Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau, (800) 223-3557; www.wisdells.com.

COPYRIGHT 2001 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group