The inside scoop on Wisconsin Dells waterparks

Mention the Wisconsin Dells to the 40-something crowd and the name is likely to conjure up an image of sunny summer days, Tommy Bartlett’s Water Show and cheap turquoise jewelry. Mention the name to the younger generation, and they are more likely to see huge slides, lazy rivers and long days of fun at indoor water parks.

Winter these days is prime time in the one-time summer-only resort area three hours northwest of Chicago. It’s a place to relieve high-pitched winter cabin fever.

But which water park is right for your family?

The Chicago Parent staff did the research so you don’t have to. What follows is our view of the six largest and seven smaller indoor water play areas, along with the reactions of our kids, who range in age from 5 to 13. This is strictly the indoor venues; we didn’t consider the outdoor conterparts.

Before you go, here are a few things the tourism brochures won’t tell you:

  • Bring your own beach towels because the pool towels are too small to dry anything.
  • Bring your own food and drinks. Despite the signs that say no coolers are allowed, they were a dime a dozen inside the water parks. Virtually all the rooms have refrigerators and many have microwaves as well.
  • Don’t pay full price. There are numerous Wisconsin Dells Web sites, check them for coupons good for restaurants, hotels and other attractions around the area.
  • Make sure the kids shower-with soap-every day. The overly chlorinated water irritates sensitive skin.
  • Bring a cover-up and flip-flops to wear from your room to the pool. In the larger resorts it can be a very long, chilly walk to the pool.

Room rates quoted here are for the smallest room available in September.

Chula Vista Theme Resort

4031 River Rd. (800) 388-4782, Cost: Double queen, -0. Best ages: All ages. Kids say: “There weren’t enough water slides, but I could really swim.” Parents say: “It was a manageable size-we could sit in one place and keep an eye on the kids in both the shallow pool with the slides and the deeper swimming pool.” General comments: This resort is located off the Dells “strip” in an idyllic setting along the Wisconsin River. The indoor water park kept the kids entertained for hours, despite their complaints the water slides weren’t big enough. The best part of the indoor park was having a real pool big enough for swimming, not just a lazy river or a torrent of water slides. We all had a great time splashing around and then relaxing in the oversized hot tub.

Great Wolf Lodge

1400 Great Wolf Dr. (800) 559-9653, Cost: Double queen, 9. Best ages: All ages. Kids say: “It was great. We could stay here forever.” Parents say: “Where did they go? We’ll be here forever.” General comments: The water park is overwhelming and the kids loved exploring every inch of it. There are bells, whistles, slides, tubes, inner tubes and enough water doohickies that it’s entertaining for big and little people. With children under 5, you have to watch them carefully but there are enough places to keep a close eye on them. This is built for both big and little people to have fun. On the other hand, the two rooms are so filled with mazes and tubes, I spent two hours trying to find the three boys one afternoon. But I was able to calm down at the spa.

Kalahari Resort& Convention Center

1305 Kalahari Dr. (877) 253-LION, Cost: Double queen with sleeper, 9-9. Daily rates to the water park only are available. Best ages: All ages. Kids say: “I want to live here and never go back to school.” Parents say: “Absolutely fabulous.” General comments: The water park is huge. It would be most relaxing to be there with older kids who don’t need constant watching, but there is plenty for small kids to do, too. The park includes many really great slides, a lazy river, a play area, a wave pool and enough chairs for everyone. One of the slides even wends its way outside and back in again. You can easily spend days here and never hear the words “I’m bored.” The hotel boasts everything you could need under one roof. An ice cream shop, a coffee shop, gift shops, a large game room, a spa, many restaurants and beautiful artwork are all part of this hotel experience. We even had a pizza delivered to our room.

Treasure Island Waterpark Resort, Bay of Dreams Indoor Waterpark at Family Land

1701 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy. (800) 800-4997, Cost: Double queen, -. Daily rates to the water park only are available. Best ages: 7 and up. Kids say: “Those slides are so tall.” Parents say: “Those stairs are so tall.” General comments: The first thing we noticed is that the chair area is on a different level than the water. You can’t sit and watch while the kids play because you can’t be close enough to them. The very tall slides are fun, (shorter kids can’t ride alone), a play area for tots, a lazy river and a wave pool (in a separate room) are all part of this park. This resort is best known for its huge outdoor water park.

Wilderness Hotel& Golf Resort

511 E. Adams St. (800) 867-9453, Cost: Double queen sofa, -9. Best ages: All ages (see below). Kids say: “I liked the water slides. They were really big. You could scream and you got wet.” Parents say: “Our kids (ages 7 and 9) were a great age for this. If they were any younger, I would be nervous.” General comments: The resort offers age-specific water parks-unfortunately, they are on opposite ends of the resort. Families with kids of similar ages were fine-they could stay in one park or another. But those with kids across a broad range of ages spent their days dripping wet and shivering as they traipsed from one end of the hotel to the other. The parents were worried about their little kids at the big parks and the big kids were bored at the baby water park. A new third indoor water park has something for every age but it would be impossible to keep an eye on everyone all the time. The new park has very large slides where up to four people can ride together. A big plus: the dry play area had something for every age group and gave the kids an afternoon break from the chlorine.

The Polynesian Resort Hotel& Suites

857 N. Frontage Rd. (800) 272-5642, Cost: Double queen, -5. Best ages: Up to 11. Kids say: “Not bad. Blackbeard’s Tunnel was OK the first six times.” Parents say: “Nothing spectacular here.” General comments: The whole place felt very utilitarian. Water park in one place, food in another once you go up the stairs and through the hallway and the towels in another place. There was nothing here that made you feel it was family friendly. This place looks like it has a heavy emphasis on the outdoor stuff. There are more contained places for smaller children.

Atlantis Waterpark Hotel

1570 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy. (800) 800-6179, Cost: Double queen, -5. Best ages: 11 and under. Kids say: “The pool is great, but the water slides are too small.” Parents say: “It’s so much less chaotic and relatively peaceful.” General comments: The hotel, with its kitschy themed suites (tropical volcanic suite and Neptune’s palace suite) has only 72 rooms, so it’s unlikely the indoor water park ever would get overly crowded. The water slides are right next to the big pool, so it’s easy to keep an eye on everyone. The hotel is next door to Noah’s Ark, the huge outdoor water park that is the Wisconsin Dells original.

The Camelot Hotel& Suites

1033 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy. S. (888) 946-3000, Cost: Double queen, -. Best ages: 10 and under. Kids say: “This is perfect for Marco Polo.” Parents say: “You can actually swim here and keep everyone in sight.” General comments: There are no bells and whistles here. Just a nice hotel at a good price with a pool, a slide and a water castle for little people. When we walked in my three boys had already been to one of the larger water parks and they were not impressed. Half-hour tops, they told me. Three hours later, I had to drag them away. They had fun just playing games. It was also lovely to actually be able to swim in a pool, something impossible to do in the big water parks. You are close to all the other hotels and can always get a day pass to the Kalahari if you need more excitement.

Antiqua Bay Waterpark, Howard Johnson

655 Frontage Rd. (800) 54-DELLS, Cost: Double queen, -9. Best ages: 6 and under. Kids say: “The big slide is fun.” Parents say: “Definitely for families with small kids only, but large enough that hovering is required.” General comments: Younger kids need to be followed around. The adult pool is a walk from the kid’s pool and offers nothing for the kids. The Web site is full of deals and packages, including meal vouchers and tickets to other attractions.

RainTree Resort& Conference Center

1435 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy. (888) 253-4386, Cost: Double queen w/sofa, -0. Best ages: 10 and under. Kids say: “The slide into the deep water is the best part.” Parents say: “Nice, safe, clean, relaxing, fun.” General comments: This would be a good choice if you have kids of various ages. There is enough here for both the under-5 group and the 6-10 age group, and it is the right size to keep track of everyone.

Wintergreen Resort& Conference Center

60 Gaffer Rd. (800) 648-4765, Cost: Double queen, . Best ages: 6 and under. Kids say: “It looks like it should be freezing in here.” Parents say: “Comfortable fun.” General comments: As a winter getaway choice, this hotel is better for families with little kids only. The indoor park does not offer enough to keep older kids happy for long, but the little ones were very content. The polar bear theme is cute.

Grand Marquis

840 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy. (800) 447-2636, Cost: Double queen, -. Best ages: 10 and under. Kids say: “Hey, you can play water basketball here.” Parents say: “The hot tub has a great view of the entire pool.” General comments: There are two pool areas here. A zero-depth play area in one room and a deeper pool with small slides in another. Walking a short distance between the two helped to hold the kids’ interest. “I’m tired of this pool let’s go to the other one now,” was part of the entertainment.

New Concord Inn

411 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy. (800) 348-2019, Cost: Double queen, -. Best ages: 10 and under. Kids say: “Hey Mom, catch me!” Parents say: “We love it here. This is a very relaxing place to spend time, no hovering required.” General comments: There is a deep pool for big people to hang in (with one large slide) and a separate small play area for the kids, all in the same room. You don’t have to drip walk anywhere to keep everyone happy.

Cindy Richards is associate editor, Sandi Pedersen is online and calendar editor, and Susy Schultz is editor of Chicago Parent. Between them, they took 11 kids to the water parks.

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