Wis. Dells makes splash with waterpark wars

It’s been one big surge of development after another in the Wisconsin Dells, because of its indoor waterpark wars.

About 1.1 million of the Dells’ 2.5 million visitors per year come from September through April, says Bonnie Sierlecki of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. Since 1993, visitor spending has grown 305 percent during these off-season months.

Kalahari Waterpark Resort became the leader this winter with the recent opening of a $12 million, 58,000-square-foot addition to its indoor waterpark (it previously was a mere 67,000 square feet). So now up to 4,000 people can be accommodated at one time.

It is one of 18 Dells properties that have indoor waterparks, spewing 18 million gallons of water over and into 590,000 square feet of slides, pools, raft routes, roller coasters, water plunges and waterfalls.

If you think the big splash is just a big deal in the Midwest, consider this: The Dells has the highest concentration of indoor waterparks of any destination in the world.

“No one is even close to rivaling the number and the magnitude of the facilities we have here,” Sierlecki says.

Aquatics International, a publication devoted to the public and commercial pool market, declared the area “water capital of the world” in 2000. The World Waterpark Association featured Dells waterparks in its June 2002 magazine, referring to it as a pioneer for such development.

Only one indoor waterpark in the world is bigger than the Kalahari. It is the 5-acre (217,800-square-foot) facility at West Edmonton Mall, Alberta, Canada, which also is home to the world’s largest shopping center.

After the 125,000 square feet at Kalahari are three other Dells properties that are the heaviest hitters worldwide: Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort, Treasure Island Waterpark Resort and Great Wolf Lodge.

The indoor waterpark is a relatively new competitor for tourists. The first opened at the Dells’ Polynesian Resort in 1989, and Sierlecki says the first big wave of development was in 1995. Kalahari didn’t even enter the picture until 2000.

“Ten years ago, Wisconsin Dells was primarily considered a blue-collar family destination,” Sierlecki says. “With the emergence of the indoor waterparks, and particularly the high-end resorts, the area is able to appeal to a much greater range of visitor.”

It’s helped make the area a congested year-round destination instead of a just a summer vacation spot. Overnight rates — from around $70 midweek at modest properties, to more than $200 at elaborate resorts on weekends – typically include waterpark admission.

Daily passes for visitors sometimes are available for about $25-35. Some properties, like the Wilderness, take pride in limiting waterpark access to overnight guests. Others, like The Wintergreen, market themselves as small and thus less intimidating.

So the spin varies, and various news accounts indicate that waterpark expansion isn’t over — in the Dells or elsewhere.

In Dubuque, Iowa, a 25,000-square-foot indoor waterpark opened in December, as a part of the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark. Called a luxury hotel, it is part of a $188 million project to develop the city’s Mississippi River banks. Promotional room rates start at $99, including waterpark admission. Call (866) 690-4006 or go to www.grandharborresort.com.

For the truly adventurous, H20asis is to open in Anchorage, Alaska, this month. It’s just an indoor waterpark, though, with no attached lodging. For more, call (888) 426-2747 or go to www.h2oasiswaterpark.com.

Developers of Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City, Mich., have included a 38,000-square-foot indoor waterpark. It is to open in March. Call (231) 941-3600 or go to www.greatwolflodge.com.

And back at the Dells, a 70,000-square-foot addition to Wilderness Hotel will open in March, increasing its indoor waterpark size to 150,000 square feet. That will make it bigger than the Kalahari, won’t it?

The ever-diplomatic Sierlecki notes that this will be the third indoor waterpark at Wilderness Hotel, so it will become the biggest indoor waterpark resort.

Kalahari will retain the title of biggest indoor waterpark, for now.

For more about the area, call (800) 223-3557 or go to www.wisdells.com.

Major tourism development in the Dells isn’t all wet. At the Great Wolf Lodge, a 20,000-square-foot interactive dry park opens this winter. It’s a way to acknowledge that Dells tourists don’t want to be in the water all of the time.

Curtis Brown, general manager, says Wiley’s Woods can cater to all kinds of groups – elementary school field trips to family reunions. Guests will wear wristbands that contain a computer chip, to record points when specific actions and maneuvers are accomplished.

“It’s like being inside your own pinball machine, and you’re driving it,” Brown says. Play levels can be programmed for toddlers to teens, and their parents. A player’s coordination, accuracy, quickness and strategic moves all can have an impact on the final score. The winners will get prizes.

Browns says activity can be programmed to last one or two hours. “We’re particularly trying to fill the void that comes up right before or after dinner,” he says. The dry park also will include a dining option that is similar to the Chuck E. Cheese pizza chain for children.

Indoor waterparks are but one way to keep smiling during winter in Wisconsin. What other notable, seasonal entertainment options exist?
Tell us about a great winter festival, activity, hideaway or getaway that you can get to with a tank of gas. Suggestions may involve outdoor or indoor activities.
Just sum it up in a sentence or two, but be specific. Try to include a phone number and Internet address for whatever is recommended. Please also include your city of residence and daytime phone number.
To participate in this reader write-in, send a note to roads@charter.net or Midwest Features Syndicate, PO Box 259623, Madison, WI 53725. The deadline is Feb. 1.
One person will receive a one-night stay at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, 509 W. Wisconsin Ave., plus indoor waterpark privileges for up to five people. Total value is $160.
This downtown Milwaukee Hilton, www.hiltonmilwaukee.com and (414) 271-7250, was billed as having the first urban indoor waterpark. Its 20,000-square-foot Paradise Landing, which opened in September 2000 and has a Jamaican theme, is evidence that not all of Wisconsin’s big splashes of development are confined to the Dells.