At Wisconsin's watery playground, new slides, a ropes course and a Vegas-style nightclub amp up the thrills.
I carefully stepped across the thick, wooden blocks and in seconds I reached the platform. One "challenge" down, 41 to go. "You are so going to rock this," I told myself encouragingly as I got started on Wilderness Resort's new Northern Lights Sky Ropes Course. But a few easy challenges later, I came to a standstill.
From my perch 30 feet above the Wilderness' bustling arcade, I could advance onto one of three new challenges. But they all looked awful. No broad blocks to step along here. Instead, each route was a variation on a tightrope -- a tightrope! Two had looping ropes on either side for balance, but the loops weren't taut enough to be of much help. The third tightrope was dotted with little balls of wood, so you didn't have to step on the actual rope, but they were smooth, small and they looked slippery.
"Aunt Melanie!" I turned and saw my 10-year-old niece, Bridget, yelling at me from the balcony, where she was watching my snail-like progress. "Why do you keep wiping your hands?"
"Because they're sweating like crazy," I said -- but only to myself. I was hoping to impress Bridget with a dazzling ropes course performance. So I ignored her question, gave a cheery wave and gingerly stepped onto one tightrope.
Welcome to Wisconsin Dells, version 2012. A number of attractions and lodging options have opened since last winter, just in time for the summertime crush of thrill-seekers.
In addition to the challenging ropes, Wilderness Resort recently debuted two outdoor waterslides, the Lunar Loop and the Cosmic Drop. Those who dare to enter the Lunar Loop will swoosh up to 40 miles per hour through a nearly vertical spiral, while the Cosmic Drop releases guests five stories -- straight down.
The Kalahari also unveiled a trio of great waterslides this past winter in its indoor water park. The slides are similarly heart-stopping (and wedgie-inducing), as they drop riders nearly 60 feet. People fly by so quickly, in fact, that you can't snap a picture of them. But you'll catch their screams.
At Noah's Ark, the new sensation for 2012 is Quadzilla, a four-lane mat racer. That may sound a bit tame, but you race head-first, and the lanes don't resemble large slides, like most mat-racing rides. Instead, they're braided, twisting tunnels so you don't know who's ahead until you emerge and shoot to the finish.
Across the road from Noah's Ark, Mt. Olympus opened the Lost City of Atlantis, a six-story water fortress billed as the Midwest's largest water play structure. The Lost City offers rides and activities for the whole family, from an enormous dumping bucket and family raft rides to the ever-popular "Champagne Bowl Slide," where riders shoot down a slide and into a huge bowl, where they swirl around the sides before dropping out the bottom.
Mt. Olympus owner Nick Laskaris is behind some of the more notable, and noticeable, changes in the Dells in the past two years, not counting his new Lost City.
Wisconsin Dells Parkway, lovingly dubbed "The Strip," contains some of the Dells' most popular attractions, such as Noah's Ark, Tommy Bartlett's and Laskaris' Mt. Olympus. It is also home to many mom-and-pop motels. Laskaris began snatching up some of those that had been fraying, remodeling and reopening them as sister properties to Mt. Olympus and its main digs, Hotel Rome. The new properties, under the "Mt. Olympus Villages" tag, began opening last year. You can't miss them, as most have been repainted Mt. Olympus' signature Greek-inspired white with blue roofing and trim.
Laskaris' latest purchase was the Copa Cabana, beloved for its eye-catching pink hue and for the enclosed walkway over the Strip connecting its two halves. Laskaris left the walkway intact but painted the property white with blue trim, transforming it into a visual gateway to his properties.
Laskaris is perhaps most proud of WETT, a high-brow nightclub he opened last year, also on the Strip. Billed as a "Vegas-style" happening spot, it features a spacious dance floor with a DJ in the center, plus plenty of special effects like fog, lasers and professional dancers.
Tried and true in the Dells
Amid all the flashy, new offerings, some great places in the Dells can get overlooked, but shouldn't.
The Riverside & Great Northern Railway, hidden in a wooded pocket of land near the river, offers rides on a 15-inch gauge train powered by a steam locomotive.
As you chug along the tracks through the forest, you'll cross our nation's largest rail bridge for a quarter-scale train. Halfway through the ride, you disembark in the "town" of Western Springs, where you learn how steam locomotives work as the locomotive is manually turned around for the return trip.
Another quality spot hiding in plain view is Parson's Trading Post on the southern end of the Strip. Opened in 1918 as a real trading post (although not in its current location), its two low-slung buildings house an impressive American Indian gift shop and museum.
One building contains most of the museum items, collected by Duaine Counsell, Parson's former owner and the father of current owner Candy Lukasavage. You'll find items like a buckskin dress adorned with elk teeth, a hide scraper and a Cheyenne baby cradle. More than 2,000 arrowheads and 300 knives are also on display at Parson's, plus an interesting set of circus wagons carved by a Circus World employee in the 1950s. Cross the open walkway into the other multi-room building, and you'll find Minnetonka moccasins, fine jewelry (including turquoise and silver) and a variety of other items for sale.
The height of fun
At Wilderness, I managed to cross the tightrope. And once I did, it wasn't quite so intimidating to tackle the others. Yet my hands remained sweaty until the end, and my false bravado didn't fool Bridget. But that was OK. I'd wow her later by trying the Wilderness' new Cosmic Drop.
I don't mind being up high if it's just for a few seconds. And the thought of getting a cosmic-sized wedgie doesn't scare me. Not one little bit.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes about travel and fitness from her home in Sun Prairie, Wis.