The Wisconsin Dells is an outrageously excessive wonderland for kids, but it’s possible for adults to stay amused, too, while never entering a waterpark.
How so? Let’s count four ways.
The area’s newest attraction, Broadway in the Dells, just opened with an intense and energetic musical revue by a dozen performers. They were hired from around the nation.
“As good as Broadway in New York,” we were told, while being shown to our seats. That is a slight exaggeration, but fun choreography, at least a dozen changes of beautiful costumes and frequent on-the-money solos/harmonies make this dinner theater a winner.
It also is good value – an uncommon phrase to attach to the Dells during the heat of the tourist season.
A $36 ticket ($12 for a child) buys two hours of entertainment, preceded by a four-course meal (spinach/artichoke dip with pita bread, salad with citrus vinaigrette, an entrée of both chicken and beef with potatoes and vegetable, apple crisp for dessert). Coffee and tea are included; alcohol, soft drinks and gratuities are not.
Our group of six rated the meal “great” to “not bad for being mass produced.” About one-half of the 700 seats were full on a Saturday night.
The production is about Broadway shows, 1950s record hop hits and patriotic favorites. Costumes and music styles ranged from choir robes and gospel to the shortest of leathery shorts and steamy jazz. Choreography veered from wholesome to seductive, athletic to playful.
There are evening and matinee performances; no shows on Mondays. For more: www.broadwayinthedells.com, 888-998-7469.
A Tanger Outlet mall is another new draw for tourists, and three-fourths of the 60 stores in this first phase of development (on former greyhound racetrack property) have opened. The grand opening will be Aug. 14-27.
Many of the brands – Bass, OshKosh B’Gosh, Van Heusen, Samsonite, Jockey – won’t be new to bargain hounds who shop the outlets at Johnson Creek, Oshkosh or Kenosha. Exceptions include a Disney Store Outlet, Skechers shoes and The Fudgery confection shop. Build-A-Bear, for making customized teddy bears, opens next spring.
The exterior looks like a fort, and the interior has an open-air design that buffers shoppers from rain and snow more than outside temperature. For more: www.tangeroutlet.com, 800-409-1603.
A good, casual dining spot that is easy to overlook is Ravina Bay Grill & Bar, situated on a relatively quiet finger of Lake Delton. The setting is rustic, and the patio view is of the Tommy Bartlett Show water skiers.
“The view is on the house,” the Ravina website notes. A sparse crowd for the 1 p.m. Saturday water ski show – both at Ravina and the Bartlett grandstand – surprised us. It was hard to judge whether the skiers had more paid spectators or onlookers in pontoon and other boats, which hovered nearby to see the show for free.
Ravina is a place of odd humor, too. On the dinner menu is the $9 R.K. – Road Kill Spectacular, a 12-ounce chopped steak with grilled onions and other fixin’s.
Businesses routinely compete to be the first, best or largest in the Dells, and Ravina refuses to be left out. “Home of the world’s largest umbrella,” says the menu, and it is big enough to cover dozens of patio customers.
For more: www.ravinabay.com, 608-254-2680.
One of the area’s most private and romantic dining spaces is a table for two at the Omar Sharif Room in Wally’s House of Embers. Two is all the room holds.
A publicist arranged for a $75 gift certificate, which we considered overly generous, but our two entrees (a rack of lamb, crab/shrimp stuffed filet mignon) and two glasses of wine totaled $90.
So this is a destination for a special occasion, and the Sharif room is a former closet that few people used for hanging coats, so it was converted. It is a pleasantly private space, with billowy satin fabric draped over the ceiling, cozy and upholstered booth seating, warm mauve walls and several framed scenes from “Dr. Zhivago.”
Leopard-patterned curtains separate you from other diners, the waiter always knocks before entering, and more than 500 couples have gotten engaged here.
The Obois family has operated the House of Embers since 1959; its chefs are grads of the Culinary Institute of America, and that expertise is evident. This was a fine meal.
There is a $10 charge for dining in one of three private spaces. The Bogart Room seats two to four people, and the Valentino Room accommodates four to eight.
For more: www.houseofembers.com, 608-253-6411.
Devil’s Lake State Park, the International Crane Foundation and the H.H. Bennett Studio & History Center are among the area’s other long-standing and excellent attractions that don’t require visitors to wear a wristband. For more: www.wisdells.com, 800-223-3557.
Last, a word about contingency plans. Our group pursued one on short notice, after the two-bedroom condo that we expected (with extra sleeping space in a living room) turned into a room with two beds and a sofa sleeper.
That would have worked for just the girls, we decided, but not our configuration of three couples. Property management apologized for the mistake, but all of its condos were occupied.
So we ended up at the Hwy. 12 Internet Café, in search of three reasonably priced rooms on a Saturday night, at the height of the tourist season. Hotwire.com listed just one property, about 10 miles away, and we gambled on it. The cost was $52 per night, and the trade-off – we discovered upon check-in – was the lack of nonsmoking rooms and a poorly maintained whirlpool.
Since Hotwire lists room cost, amenities and general location, but the not the property name (until after you make a reservation), we knew there would be a pool – but it turned out to be indoors and reeking of chlorine. We were glad to see signs for a sundeck and patio bar, only to discover the deck was old chairs on a slab of rooftop, and the patio bar didn’t exist.
Accommodations were clean, and the rate included an acceptable continental breakfast.
What we would have loved, but couldn’t find on short notice, was a nice little Mom and Pop place, with clean accommodations and a small outdoor pool. Plenty of these places exist in the Dells area, and they could use more of our patronage, but it’s hard to know which are of great quality.
If you have suggestions, please let us know. We’d love to tell others.