Tommy Bartlett’s Exploratory, love of science

It’s mid afternoon on a weekday, and for a while I have dozens of games, lessons and challenges all to myself. My greeter is a robot named Celsius, who is showing his age but not a lack of enthusiasm.

Soon I am trying to tell time with a binary clock, then a clock of marbles. I size up optical illusions, test my alertness, bend my brain around tests of logic, detail and scientific principles. Many of the puzzles are built with simple household materials but cleverly camouflaged by paint or odd design to seem like more.

Although this maze of mental gymnastics is meant for preschoolers to teens, I could spend a full afternoon here, especially when nobody is witnessing reflexes, lack of grace or intellectual shortcomings. The average visit, to peruse 150-175 exhibits, lasts about two hours.

A “playground for your imagination” is how brochures describe this attraction, the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, in business since 1982. Its namesake, known as the P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney of the Wisconsin Dells, died in 1998.

“Tommy believed kids had to have fun first, and if they learned something in the process, that’s great,” says Mark Schilling, senior vice president and director of operations for Tommy Bartlett Inc., a company better known for its seasonal water ski shows (the 60th year begins May 27).

Mark began working here 40 years ago, parking cars and staffing the snack bar while others water skied. “It was quite an eye-opener to see how busy” life in the Dells could get, the native of small-town Galesville says.

The exploratory – built after Bartlett demolished his motel and pancakes-to-pizza restaurant – opened as Tommy Bartlett’s House of Tomorrow, a futuristic look at what daily living might involve with robots and androids at our disposal. Interpretations, through 16 animated household scenes, were based on “what was on the edge of science, but we couldn’t keep up with the pace of technology,” Mark explains.

Androids and their antics quickly appeared outdated, as did some types of special effects and the computer components of a glassed-in security command center, open to public view. A satellite camera view of Wisconsin, then a $200 or $300 investment, now costs nothing beyond access to Google Earth.

So the House of Tomorrow morphed into a science center two years after opening. Many diversions have held their staying power through the decades. That includes the Bridge of Fire, a static electricity generator built in the 1940s. It literally makes hair stand on end.

In 1997, an exact replica of the Soviets’ MIR Space Station was purchased from a Moscow museum, which made outer space a new springboard for Bartlett exhibits. Mark calls it “the last big purchase that Tommy was involved in,” and acquisition cost remains secret.

Visitors feel a strong gravitational pull and sense of imbalance when walking through the MIR. The vessel is one of only three MIR modules manufactured by the Russian government, and the only one whose interior core can be viewed by average people.

The Bartlett purchase was large enough to require a building addition. Other acquisitions –full-size replicas of Sputnik and the Mercury Space Capsule, astronaut suits, an ejection seat and much more – also play up the space theme.

Elsewhere, exhibit additions stay noticeably more affordable. “We try to concentrate on simple ideas,” Mark says, and new puzzles or illusions appear each year. Most require straightforward work by a carpenter, electrician or other staff.

A newly added kaleidoscope is made of PVC pipes, for example, and this plumbing material also at the core of the colorful “Pipes of Pan,” a makeshift musical instrument.

Projects typically come from Mark’s ideas, occasionally gleaned from unlikely places. Inspired by an old tavern trick: a puzzle about balancing a dozen nails on the head of an upright nail.

Whatever is added must have structural resilience while engaging and challenging up to 100,000 visitors per year.

Mark says his list of ideas is never exhausted; “it’s just a matter of how much you want to get done.” A growing priority is to devote more attention to the Bartlett story and artifacts, as the number of visitors swings wildly in the competitive Dells environment.

“We have absolutely nobody on some days,” Mark says, “but it all works out. School groups come in the spring,” and traffic hits a peak in summer, although “we’d love to get more science groups here.”

The Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, 560 Wisconsin Dells Parkway North, Wisconsin Dells, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; hours expand in summer. Admission is $12 ($9 for ages 6-11, $9.50 for ages 65 and older). For more: www.tommybartlett.com, 608-254-2525.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.