Amid plastic palm trees, mechanized waves and shipped-in sand, sun-loving vacationers find genuine joy at Wisconsin Dells.
Under the dappled shade of a palm tree, I slid back into my lounge chair, closed my eyes and wiggled my toes into the warm sand. The sounds of splashing kids and crashing waves hummed like a summer lullaby until the roar of a motorcycle reminded me where I was: on a fake beach next to a four-lane highway at Wisconsin Dells.
I'd come to the Dells with two nephews, a great-niece and my mother for a three-day summer getaway at the Mt.Olympus Resort, which we picked out of the area's deluge of water parks because of its huge wave pool. The sandy beach with volleyball nets and a tiki-style snack bar near that pool were added perks.
We arrived on what seemed like one of the hottest days of the year. As we approached the resort, the children were wowed by the roller coasters and sky-high water slides that peek over fences beyond the freeway like lures. But once we actually bailed out of the car, the children had only one thing in their sights: Poseidon's Rage, billed as the Dells' largest wave pool.
By the time I'd pulled the keys out of the ignition, they had changed into their swimsuits in the Hotel Rome parking lot.
"Don't you want to see our room first?" I said, lamenting their lack of interest in the theme room I'd booked, with murals of the ancient sights of Greece painted on the walls and a pair of bunk beds designed to look like a chariot (if you squint).
The kids weren't intrigued. Instead, they dashed to the swells.
I was less enthusiastic. Every 90 seconds, an ominous 9-foot wave erupts from the back edge of a 1.5 million-gallon "ocean," gaining speed as it surges toward the pool's shallow end, hurtling everything in its path, including large adult men and lots of mirrored sunglasses, toward a concrete "shoreline."
I cringed to think of what would happen to my 60-pound nephews in that tangle of tropical-print bathing suits and sunburned flesh.
The thrill of crashing waves
The kids were cautious at first, staying in the shallow end of the pool as they tested the power of the wave. They soon found a comfortable spot toward the middle where they could jump into the cresting wave, body surfing as it carried them toward shore in a froth of chlorinated blue water. They loved it, and screeched with each successive wave.
I loved it, too. Under the guise of ensuring their safety, I joined them in the wave pool, and quickly realized that they were more than capable of handling the situation. Together we rode the waves, each time emerging with smiles.
As their uncle, I appreciated more than the thrill it gave us all. It quickly became clear that the kids were probably safer here, barring a cryptosporidium outbreak, than they'd be in a real ocean. There were lifeguards everywhere, and no sharks. I didn't have to worry that they might venture too far into the water or encounter a sharp rock or the kinds of dangerous rip tides that come with body surfing in the wild.
When I'd had my fill -- and lost my expensive sunglasses amid an underwater tumble -- I walked toward a big yellow sign with a red arrow pointing to one side of the pool. "The Beach," it said.
It looked more like a sandbox on steroids. A chain link fence kept beach balls from rolling onto Hwy. 12, and a low concrete wall separated the sand from the wave pool, where it would clog the filters. The view wasn't much to speak of, either. From my lounge chair, I had a clear view across the four-lane highway toward a Wisconsin Dells Ducks office, Alligator Alley and a store selling clearance-priced bikinis and hats.
The tacky factor was off the charts. Sunburned tourists sipped umbrella drinks and cheap beer on plastic lounge chairs under a half-dozen fake palm trees, their plastic fronds waving in the exhaust-saturated breeze.
Such fakery didn't interfere with our genuine enjoyment. With the kids in tow, we headed toward a tiki bar, where we sat on swings, sipping bright blue and red tropical blender drinks ($5.75 each!), reveling in the shade of the thatched roof. The kids and their grandma, sitting on their swings around the bar, joined hands and gently swayed in unison. It was a tender summer moment.
Refreshed from the break -- and fueled by the sugar -- the kids went back to the wave pool, and Grandma and I stayed on the beach, watching from the comfort of our lounge chairs.
Despite the seemingly endless number of games, rides and attractions at the Dells, this was our routine for three days. When not in the wave pool, the kids spent time on the beach, where they played their first pickup game of volleyball and built sand castles. I wondered whether the boys would hit pavement with their shovels -- the sand was shipped in from a nearby quarry and is less than 2 feet deep -- then watched a girl happily bury her brother near a larger-than-life styrofoam torso of a Trojan warrior.
Dells' other highlights
I had to pry them away from the water park to sample some of the Dells' other highlights, including the Wisconsin Duck tour, with its amphibious vehicles. We had a fancy steak supper, too, at Kaminski Bros. Chop House at the nearby Chula Vista resort, which has its own man-made beach.
Back at Mt. Olympus, we spent a couple of hours on the roller coasters and water slides for which Wisconsin Dells is so famous.
In the end, though, it was Poseidon's Rage that the kids loved best. I considered it worth a repeat trip, too.
Six month later, in the midst of a chilly winter day, my great-niece, Autumn, recalled the tiki-hut swings, the sweet summer drinks and the big waves, which made us all feel so happily weightless and free. Her enthusiasm reminded me that when it comes to creating great summer memories, it doesn't matter that the palms are plastic or that the sand and water never mix.
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376