In just three and a half hours you too can be in the fabulously tacky Wisconsin Dells, one of my favorite places on earth. (Don't forget to take a break in Janesville on the way up and check out the gigantic fake cow!) Take the Wisconsin Dells exit and brace yourself. You'll think you died and went to heaven (or hell, depending on how much you enjoy trashy American pop culture). From go-carts to bumper boats, corny mazes to wonder spots, wave pools to Indian shows, country music to circus museums, drive-ins to junk stores, biblical gardens to casinos, this crazy tourist trap is really quite wonderful, especially in the off-season, when rooms are $25 and nobody's there. Chris and I even spent our honeymoon there. So where do I begin?
Well, I certainly haven't seen and done everything, but a good place to start is at Parson's Indian Trading Post and Museum (370 Wisconsin Dells Parkway; 608-254-8533), two miles south of the Dells on Highway 12. As soon as you pull into town buy yourself a funky hat to remind yourself you're on vacation. The museum is true to its name, displaying expensive hand-tooled leather crafts, Indian instruments, and intricate beadwork; the store part sells cheapo souvenirs, like giant plastic combs, $2 bow and arrow sets, and squirt guns. You can't miss it; it's the place with the big concrete tepee out front. It's chock-full, so be prepared.
Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum (115 Broadway; 608-253-7556; $5.50 adults, $3.30 children, kids under five free) is a must see. I've been to quite a lot of these museums, and this one ranks among the top. The film (on video of course) of Robert Ripley's travels around the world is both informative and bizarre. Presented in a little sit-down theater as soon as you walk in, this movie contains never-seen-before footage of the man behind the legendary Sunday comic strip. The exhibits include animal hair balls, a shrunken head, 250 varieties of barbed wire, a six-legged cow, grasshoppers dressed in pussy willow outfits, model heads of plate-lipped and giraffe-necked women, fake gravestones with real epitaphs like "Here lies an atheist: All dressed up and no place to go," and video monitors throughout showing crazy footage of people like the guy who can blow up a balloon with his eye.
Now right next door to Ripley's is the Wax World of the Stars (105 Broadway; 608-254-2184; $4.95 for adults, $2.95 children, kids under five free), where you'll be greeted by Bill Cosby, Lucille Ball, and George Burns enjoying a cocktail together. Other wax wonders include Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Paul Newman, Cher, Elvis, Alfred Hitchcock, and Kenny Rogers. John F. Kennedy joins Abe Lincoln in the Lincoln box at what I think is supposed to be Ford's Theatre. My favorite exhibit, however, is an eye-level plastic case containing only the heads of famous people, such as Jimmy Carter, Hitler, Cleopatra, and LBJ. Tourists are invited to sneak around and stick their heads into this exhibit through special holes and blow their loved one's mind. It's fun to watch and take pictures. Skip the bookstore though. I was looking forward to adding to my collection of postcards of wax-museum figures, but all they had were dumb novelty gifts like giant erasers that say "I make big mistakes."
Just down Highway 12 is the cute little town of Baraboo, rated 54th best small town in America last year. This was once the winter quarters of the famous Ringling Brothers circus (1884-1918), and it's just bursting with circus history. On the town square is the Al. Ringling Theatre (136 Fourth Ave.) Built in 1915 by the eldest Ringling, this red-plush, gold-lined architectural masterpiece (designed by Rapp and Rapp) has the nickname "America's prettiest playhouse" and is a sight to behold. It's almost a sin to see such lousy contemporary films like White Men Can't Jump projected in this majestic palace, which was declared a historic landmark in 1976. Unfortunately, these are the only types of films shown here, though they sometimes hold special live shows (clowns, mimes, Ronnie Milsap, etc). Tours and organ demonstrations are given daily at 1 PM ($2 for adults, $1 for children; 608-356-8864 or 608-356-8080).
But the number-one attraction in Baraboo is the Circus World Museum (426 Water St.), the largest circus museum in the whole world! Displayed in many of the original winter-quarters buildings, where elephants were trained and costumes were sewn, are more than 150 colossal hand-carved circus wagons from all over the world, dating back to the 1800s, as well as original sideshow banners, circus posters, historic photos, documents, clown memorabilia, calliopes, carved miniature circuses, mannequins of sideshow freaks, and an original circus train car you can walk through. And if that's not enough, they put on an impressive little one-ring circus under the big top twice a day (11 AM and 3 PM), complete with ringmaster, live circus band, animal acts, acrobats, clowns, and popcorn. It's really quite beautiful so make sure you give yourself at least half a day to see it all. (Open May 7 to September 5; 608-356-0800 or 608-356-8341.) If you can't go in for some reason (it's $10.95 for adults, $9.95 for seniors, $5.95 children, kids two and under free), have a picnic on the banks of the Baraboo River across from Circus World. It's peaceful, beautiful, romantic, and you can time-travel back to those magic days when traveling outdoor circuses were not a thing of the past.
If blowing a lot of your hard-earned money appeals to you (obviously I'm not a gambler!), the Winnebagos run a humongous casino called Ho-Chunk Casino (two miles east of the Dells on Highway 12; 800-746-2486). Open 24 hours a day, this brand-new building is always packed to the gills with locals and tourists. The constant electronic racket drove me bananas, but I lasted long enough to blow $23 on the nickel poker machines. When it was all over, I wished I'd spent the money on tickets for one of the fabulous little shows at the Wisconsin Opry (a quarter mile south of I-90 on Highway 12, Lake Delton; 608-254-7951), which has been featuring live country music since 1979. It's held in a barn, and you'll get a real Hee Haw feel, a Milly's Orchid Show-style painted backdrop, and egg cartons on the walls for sound insulation. There's also a flea market and a country cookout before the show. It's run by the Dickinson family (Cindy and Virgil), who play music in the nightly shows (one of their sons plays a mean saw). But best of all are the special shows they bring from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville (last year they had such living legends as Kitty Wells and Bill Monroe). The Dickinson family is the opening act at the special shows, along with a comedian who wears a big triangular chunk of Swiss cheese on his head and unfortunately isn't very funny. This summer's special-show schedule goes like this: July 31, Jett Williams and the Drifting Cowboys; August 7, John Hartford; August 14, Dixieland Jazz; and September 11, Riders in the Sky.
If antique malls are your passion there's a great one right where Highway 12 meets Highway 23, the Our Gang Antiques Mall (14 Munroe St., Lake Delton; 608-254-4401). More than 20 dealers of mainly baby boomer-type collectibles--postcards, toys, records, games, old photos, dolls--make these two floors fun to explore even if you don't buy anything. Last time I was there I found an original Tom Jones concert program for $5 that I could just kick myself for not buying.
Haven't had enough? The Saint Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in the Dells is just a hop, skip, and a jump away (217 Washington St.; 608-254-4011; 9 to 6 Monday through Saturday). It's not very big, but it's cheap! If you like hunting for small, under-a-dollar treasures like sunglasses, wallets, hats, records, handkerchiefs, and plastic Kleenex holders, then you'll like this little shop. One time Chris bought an answering-machine tape for a quarter and spent the rest of our vacation driving around the Dells listening to some woman named Trish try to figure out why Dick was never home. They also have clothes, a few pieces of furniture, and a piano.
There's an even better Saint Vincent de Paul Society thrift store in Baraboo (100 South Boulevard; 608-356-4649; closed Sunday). They recently moved to a new location, but I hope they didn't clean up too much because this is my favorite junk store in the Dells area. It's not hard to kill two hours and walk out with three full grocery bags for under $20. They have baby clothes for a penny apiece.
If you still haven't had your fill of bargain hunting, look on the map and find Reedsburg. It's about a half hour away and has three great antique malls within three blocks of one another--and the drive there is beautiful.
Hungry? Try the grilled-cheese sandwich on whole wheat from Culver's (560 Wisconsin Dells Parkway; 608-253-7727; there's also one in Baraboo with a drive-up window). Vegetarians are safe with the grilled cheese, cole slaw, and onion-ring combo. There's something called a Butter Burger for meat eaters. Great menu, clean environment, and thick chocolate milk shakes make Culver's my favorite lunch spot. For dinner, Mexicali Rose (on Wisconsin Dells Parkway next to Storybook Gardens; 608-254-6036) is my top choice, with decent prices and terrific margaritas by the glass or pitcher. There's an outdoor patio where you can watch bungee jumping (100 yards away) while you dine.
There are lots of smorgasbord "all you can eat" lumberjack-type places to eat breakfast, but I never want to get that stuffed first thing in the morning. So I always go to Denny's Diner (also where Highway 12 meets Highway 23 at the stoplight; 608-254-7647) for one of their homemade hot cinnamon rolls with icing dripped all over it. Denny's isn't anything fancy--the salt and pepper shakers are eight-ounce Coca-Cola bottles with holes punched in the caps (they still serve Coke in eight-ounce bottles if you ask), and the owner is trying to sell his 1970 Chevy Chevelle (with a side of slaw and choice of potato) for $5,500 by running a full-color picture of it on his menu. Denny's is one of the few places that's open year-round, and the waitress even seemed to remember that my husband drinks decaf and I drink regular. A big stuffed (fake) gorilla with a banana in its mouth hangs from the ceiling on a motorcycle, and a toy train goes around a little track high above the counter. (Open 6 AM to 8 Memorial Day to Labor Day and 6 to 2 PM the rest of the year.)
If it's haunted houses you're after, the Ghost Outpost (633 Wisconsin Dells Parkway; 608-254-2127; $3 admission) wins the prize, though I must admit it doesn't have much competition. The Dungeon of Horrors (325 Broadway; 608-254-2980) is too scary and dark, with real people lurking behind the walls and curtains to scream and bang on things when they sense you coming. (They aren't allowed to touch you though. I found this out ahead of time, because I was recovering from a broken rib and wanted to make sure I wasn't going to reinjure it! This injury was also the reason I wasn't able to go on any water slides or bumper boats, in case you're wondering.) The Haunted Mansion (112 Broadway, downtown Dells; 608-254-7513) does have some impressive hi-tech holograms.
One mile southeast of Wisconsin Dells on Highway 16 is the Big Sky Twin Drive-In Theatre. My philosophy is, if you're going to spend money on one of those terrible Hollywood films you might as well do it at the drive-in under the stars. You can use your car radio or the drive-in speakers. There's a big snack bar and two features nightly, rain or shine (so get those wipers fixed too). Open mid-April to mid-October ($5 for adults, $1.50 for children; 608-254-8025).
I've often thought about ordering a pizza at my motel and then sneaking it into the drive-in (sometimes it's impossible to get vegetarian meals at these snack bars). The Pizza Pub (218 Broadway; 608-254-7877) has great pizza with a large variety of toppings and delivers free, even to your campsite. It's a popular place in the area, and you're sure to find coupons for $1 off kicking around your motel.
Ya know those road signs with the leaping deer on them? Well, they should put them on the road that takes you to the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial (four miles north of the Dells on Stand Rock Road). We had entire families of deer run out in front of our car, which scared us to death! It's a gorgeous drive, but be careful. Since 1929 Wisconsin Indians have been entertaining tourists by performing dances in an outdoor natural amphitheater along the shores of the Wisconsin River. I found the experience moving and enjoyable, despite the commercial overtones and expensive ticket price ($8.50-$11.50, children eight and under free). A lot of the fun was just being out in the woods among the rock cliffs, crackling fires, tepees, tom-toms, and mosquitoes (Wisconsin's state bird). No pictures are allowed during the actual ceremony, but at halftime everybody's invited to come down and pose with the dancers. My favorite part of the show was when the chief mysteriously appeared way up high in the woods with a microphone and demonstrated nine ways to fold an Indian blanket. You might want to bring your own blanket (and fold it any way you want!) as it can get chilly up there in them woods. Shows run from mid-June to Labor Day (8:45 nightly; wheelchair accessible; 608-253-7444). You can even take a boat there; they leave from the Upper Dells Boat Landing at 7:45.
Don't be fooled by the neat old 50s sign that says "Have a Swig With Nig." Based solely on the coolness of their sign, we ventured into Nig's Bar (201 Broadway; 608-253-6911). It was packed with jocks and sports-bar types, and the music was so loud I couldn't hear myself think. But the beer was cold. The most intriguing thing about Nig's was how close some customers were sitting to the dart game. I was expecting to hear a scream any minute and turn around to see someone with a dart in the forehead!
If you want a beer I suggest getting a six-pack to go at Zinke's Shop Rite (216 Washington; 608-254-8313). With a name like Zinke's, how can you resist? You're bound to end up in there anyway for film or potato chips or pencils before your trip is over. Everyone does. Then take the beer back to the Chippewa Motel (1114 Broadway; 608-253-3982) and drink it in the whirlpool. It's a nice motel with decent prices, especially during the off-season when you can get a room for as little as $25 (as low as $68 in the summer). They have a huge indoor pool that's convenient if the weather is on the cool side, and I have always had a nice time there.
Another great little motel is the Star Motel (1531 Wisconsin Dells Parkway; 608-254-2051), not to be confused with the Star Motor Inn just a few doors down. You can swim in the outdoor pool and watch the bungee jumpers you saw while drinking margaritas at the Mexicali Rose. The Star also has an indoor pool, sauna, Jacuzzi, and cable. Its prices are similar to the Chippewa's ($30 in the off-season, $70 during the summer). There are more than 100 motels to choose from, so feel free to shop around. I don't think you'll find any place cheaper than the motels I suggested, unless you decide to camp at one of the Dells' many campgrounds--which is something I've always wanted to do.
If you're on a real tight budget and hate crowds then the off-season is for you. My husband and I have gone up there many times and had a ball! One thing we really enjoy is bringing a portable record player so we can listen to all the records we just bought at the junk stores back in our motel room. Once we took it into the pool area and had our own private pool party!
Did I forget to mention they have a lot of water parks up there?