Wisconsin Dells is a tiny town with an insane number of waterparks. There are more than 20, both indoor and outdoor, massive and pint-sized. This is one of the reasons the Dells is one of the Midwest‘s top tourist destinations. Noah’s Ark, one of the larger waterparks, has some of the nation’s most unique rides. One is the Scorpion’s Tail, the first nearly-vertical loop slide built in the U.S. Another is the 58-foot-tall Hurricane, the tallest waterslide in America. Wisconsin Dells’ largest waterpark resorts, such as the Kalahari and the Wilderness, also have pretty cool rides. The Kahalari’s Zip Coaster, for one, shoots you along banked turns, dips and freefalls at speeds up to 20 miles per hour.
But while Wisconsin Dells is the waterpark capital of the world, it offers so much more. With +90 attractions — most of which are not waterparks — it would take more than a month to see them all.
Action-minded folks like the area’s go-karts, speedboats, ziplines and roller coasters. Others enjoy its museums. They explore wide-ranging topics like Native American culture (Parsons Indian Trading Post), the Ringling Brothers Circus (Circus World) and the history of the Dells as a tourist site (H.H. Bennett Studio). Outdoors lovers like the area’s easy access to camping, hiking, canoeing and horseback riding. Those who enjoy live shows are fans of master illusionists Rick Wilcox or Jeremy Allen. They also like the area’s lumberjack show and theater, where you can see a Broadway musical.
Wisconsin Dells was once a bust for those who like to shop, filled largely with t-shirt shops and candy stores. That’s not true today. Now you’ll find jewelry stores, a leather-goods shop, art gallery and the Outlets at the Dells. Not necessarily a shopper’s paradise, but enough to keep shoppers happy.
Foodies, take heart. The dining scene continues to evolve. Plenty spots offer casual fare such as brats, burgers and pizza. But many restaurants serve fine Italian cuisine, hand-cut steaks, fresh seafood and homemade vegetarian fare. Fawn Creek and Wollersheim Wineries are also part of the mix, as is the Driftless Glen Distillery and Port Huron Brewing Company.
And what would a vacation be like without the chance to relax at a posh spa? Wisconsin Dells is home to a fair number of smaller day spas, as well as the popular Sundara Inn & Spa.
Just as impressive as its wealth of entertainment, dining and shopping is the vast array of lodging here. You can stay at everything from 22-person log homes, condos and mom-and-pop motels to cozy inns and sprawling resorts.
The Dells has something for everyone:
Classic Wisconsin Dells … Top things to see and do in the Wisconsin Dells
Dells for Adults … Grown-ups can have fun in Wisconsin Dells, too
Wisconsin Dells for Outdoors Lovers … Hiking, horseback riding, water sports, golf and more
Wisconsin Dells on the Cheap … Money tight? No problem with these budget-friendly ideas
Wisconsin Dells with Young Kids … Family-focused activities for younger kids
Wisconsin Dells has long been known as a summertime destination. After all, it got its start as a tourist site in the 1800s when visitors took boat rides along the Wisconsin River to gaze at the beautifully sculpted “dells” rock formations lining the waterway.
The attractions that subsequently sprang up over the next 100 years were also rooted in warm weather and the outdoors, such as the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Show, Noah’s Ark waterpark and the Original Wisconsin Ducks rides. Because of this, for much of its early history the Dells operated at full throttle from Memorial Day through Labor Day, then largely shut down, as attractions closed for the winter and restaurant and motel owners headed South.
But in the mid-1990s the Dells’ first indoor waterpark opened, and things rapidly changed. Now the majority of local hotels and motels have an indoor waterpark, whether pint-sized or massive. Many restaurants and motels stay open year-round. And indoor amusement parks, museums and other enclosed attractions have come to town to help keep you entertained during a spring, fall or winter’s visit.
So when is it best to experience Wisconsin Dells? Summer still wins, as that’s the one time you’ll get to sample everything available. But if you’re looking mainly for an indoor waterpark experience, any time of the year works.
If this is your first visit to the Dells, five days will allow you to sample just about everything you’re interested in without racing around. But it could lead to a bit of sensory overload, as the area is a bit Las Vegas-esque. Three full days is probably ideal.
Memorial Day through Labor Day is high season. Much of the rest of the year is low season, with exceptions. Spring break, which varies each year but is generally mid-March to early April, is a popular time for the indoor waterparks, so prices will spike up then. Ditto for many of the holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s. Portions of September and October can be busy as well, as there are various fall festivals then, plus many Halloween-themed activities. November is generally a slow month.
Summertime temperatures are generally in the 70s to 80s (21-27 C.), with stretches into the 90s ( 32 C.). It’s often humid, too. Nighttime temps are generally in the mid-50s (13 C.). June is the rainiest month, with an average 4.7 inches (11.9 cm) of rain.
It’s cold and snowy in the winter. January is the coldest month, with an average high of 27 (-3 C.) degrees and low of 7 (-14 C.).
The Dells holds various events and festivals throughout the year. Some of the most popular are below. (Events are always subject to change.)
Automotion, a classic car and truck festival held in May
Taste of the Dells, a food festival in early June
Waterslide-athon, a waterslide-based fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House in neighboring Madison, Wis., held in mid-June
Wo-Zha-Wa Days, an autumnal celebration held in mid-September
Fall Festival Weekend, a fall blow-out event in mid-October
Wisconsin Dells is located in the Central Time Zone.
To check the local time in Wisconsin Dells, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (on the second Sunday morning of March at 2 a.m.). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (on the first Sunday morning in November at 2 a.m.), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except Hawaii and most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’
Wisconsin Dells is a very casual place. You will be fine dressed in jeans, t-shirts, shorts and athletic shoes in the vast majority of places. However, there are some fine-dining spots where you might feel more comfortable wearing business casual attire. Also, some establishments may require you to wear appropriate footwear (e.g., not flip-flops) and dress (e.g., more than a swimsuit).
If you’ll be spending time at the waterparks, make sure to pack some type of pool shoes or sandals that stay on your feet. Many are quite spacious, and if you walk around all day in bare feet or flip-flops, your feet might get sore. Other good items to pack for waterpark visits include sunscreen, a pool towel, glasses strap, hat, sunglasses and some type of waterproof coin/bill holder. Women who are modest might want to wear a pair of athletic shorts over their swimsuit, as many waterslides will give you a wedgie.
If you plan to go horseback riding, you’ll need long pants and shoes with a heel.
Some attractions (e.g., The Wilderness’ Timberland Playhouse) require socks.
Spending time in Wisconsin Dells, especially with a family, is not cheap. In summertime, even rather basic lodging can start around $200/night. Attractions are pricey, too; figure most will be about $15-$25 per person. A wide variety of dining options exist, so that helps keep costs in check. There is also a well-stocked local grocery and summer farmers’ markets.
You can always find discount coupons for the Dells. Many of the smaller motels include free passes to the larger waterparks (indoor and outdoor) with your stay. Several attractions are owned and operated by the same entity, and there are often group discounts if you purchase multiple tickets. For example, Dells Boat Tours operates several boat tours, plus the Original Wisconsin Ducks, Jet Boat Adventures, Ghost Boat and Sunset Dinner Cruise. The Dells’ Passport to Savings discount card lets you save up to 35 percent on attractions. And a lot of the larger resorts offer discounted stays on sites such as Groupon.
It never hurts to ask about discounts, either. Some hotels will throw together discounted Super Bowl packages at the last minute, for example, if their rooms aren’t filling.
While prices are generally lower in fall, winter and spring, there are many exceptions. The holidays can see price spikes, for example, and spring break (mid-March to early April) is a more expensive time to travel.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Open the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. You need to apply for membership and download the app in advance. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8 to10 per hour; gas and insurance are included. Foreign drivers can apply and you don’t need to pay a monthly fee if you’re an occasional driver (from $25 per year for a membership).
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (10 cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and 1-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.
Most bell staff receive $1 to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2 when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes & Resort Fees
In Wisconsin, the combined total for state and local taxes on all retail goods and services varies from 5% to 6.5%, depending on where you are (it’s 6.5% in the Dells). In general, cities have higher taxes than rural areas do. Taxes are not usually included in display prices, unless otherwise stated.
Lodging tax also varies by location in Wisconsin, ranging from 0% to 8%, with some exceptions. The Dells is one; its lodging tax is 11.5% This tax applies whether you are staying at a private vacation rental, a bed-and-breakfast, or a full-fledged hotel. Taxes are not usually stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory nightly “resort fees” being charged by an increasing number of hotels. Sometimes this fee covers internet access, parking, and a few incidentals, while at other times it’s merely a surcharge for amenities that should be free. Beware that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.
NOTE: The biggest piece of advice on tipping when you’re visiting Wisconsin Dells is to be aware that many tour guides in will practically beg for tips. Many employ a system where, right before the tour ends, they will pass out, say, postcards as a “gift,” then ask you to “show your appreciation” for them as you exit. Some guides will make much of the fact that they’re poor college students. One attraction posted a large sign at the end remind you to tip your guide.
Tipping tour guides is definitely a custom in the U.S., although it’s more common on half-day and full-day tours; many of the workers shilling for tips here are giving tours of just an hour. Plus the situation is a bit unusual because you’re not hiring a personal tour guide, nor are you on a tour as part of an organized group, where tips are pre-arranged. Still, tipping 10 to 20 percent of your ticket price is legitimate.
Most people traveling to Wisconsin Dells are coming by car, which is quite easy as the area is snugged against Interstate 90-94.
If you’re flying, the closest sizeable airport is the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wis. The Dells is a 40-minute drive from this airport. The nearest international airports are Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport (2-hour drive), Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (2.75 hours) and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (3.5 hours).
Virtually all visitors to the Dells arrive by car, whether their own vehicle or a rental. And once in town, they typically drive everywhere, too. However, you can get around on foot if you’d prefer.
If you’d like to avoid using a vehicle, it’s best to stay either in downtown Dells, on the Strip or on Wisconsin Dells Parkway South. If you stay in one of these areas, you can easily walk to most of the attractions in that particular area, assuming you’re in good health and fairly mobile.
Downtown Dells is basically Broadway, a one-mile stretch of road lined with restaurants, shops and attractions, plus a few small motels. A few additional motels, eateries and shops sit a block or two north and south of Broadway.
The Strip is a three-mile stretch of Wisconsin Dells Parkway North in between Broadway (technically Highway 13/23 at this point) and Munroe Avenue. This section of town is filled with larger attractions, motels and restaurants, although they’re much further apart than in the downtown section. Mount Olympus, Noah’s Ark and Tommy Bartlett’s are on this stretch. While walkable, much of it is quite hilly; you’re either walking up or down a long, steep hill for much of the mileage.
Wisconsin Dells Parkway South picks up at Munroe Avenue and winds two miles south down to Interstate 94. Again, clusters of restaurants, lodging and attractions line this section of the Dells area, although there are more hotels, resorts and restaurants here, and fewer attractions. The Wilderness, Great Wolf Lodge and The Kalahari — three of the major waterpark resorts — are all in this stretch.
While there is no city bus in the area, taxi service is available. Some places, such as Sundara Inn & Spa, offer driver services to certain local spots. A fair number of places also offer shuttle service to Ho-Chunk Casino.
Wisconsin Dells in south-central Wisconsin has long been a tourist destination for state residents and people throughout the upper Midwest. Today, people all over the world have heard of this area. And many come to visit.
In its earliest days as a tourist magnet — the late 1800s — most folks came to enjoy the beauty of the area’s dells formations along the Wisconsin River. The “dells” (a derivative of the French word “dalles,” or narrows) is a picturesque, five-mile gorge carved out of Cambrian sandstone, with many unique rock formations.
Over the years, various tourist attractions and amenities sprang up in town, luring more and more visitors to the area. In 1979 Noah’s Ark opened, with bumper boats and a go-kart track; a year later its first waterslide was added. Today Noah’s Ark is America’s largest waterpark, with three miles of waterslides.
But what really put the region on the map was the advent of indoor waterparks, which originated here in 1989 when the Polynesian Resort Hotel & Suites put a roof over its previously-outdoor Water Factory attraction to give families something to do when it rained.
Today the Dells is known as the Waterpark Capital of the World, and it’s no idle boast as the area has the largest concentration of waterparks and water playground properties in the world.
P.S. Although the area is referred to as Wisconsin Dells, or simply the Dells, it actually consists of the city of Wisconsin Dells and the village of Lake Delton.
The Wisconsin Dells area is a casual place. You will not be out of place in shorts and flip-flops almost anywhere you go, save for some fine dining establishments. The vibe here is decidedly laid back. That being said, tipping is still expected in restaurants and hotels, and will be aggressively pursued at some attractions.
The majority of dining establishments in the Dells area feature casual Midwestern fare, such as hamburgers, pizza, bratwurst, cheese curds and more. However, there are a nice selection of fine-dining establishments, plus eateries specializing in Italian, Mexican and Chinese cuisine, to name a few.
Christianity is the main religion in Wisconsin Dells. The area is home to Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, among others. For those who practice a non-Christian religion, such as Judaism, Islam or Buddhism, you will likely be able to find a place of worship in Madison, a city of about 250,000 some 40 miles to the south.
English is spoken in Wisconsin Dells. But if you come in summer, you’ll likely hear a wide variety of languages spoken. That’s because many young adults come from innumerable countries around the globe to work here.