What's making a splash at the Dells this year? New landlocked offerings, from 3-D golf to laser tag.
Tim McManus negotiates one of the segments on the ropes course at Kalahari's new Indoor Theme Park in the Wisconsin Dells. A new 110,000-square-foot amusement park connects the resort to a neighboring movie theater and restaurant, creating a sprawling, mini universe of indoor fun.
The temperature outside was well below zero, but I could feel beads of perspiration starting to form on my back, thanks to the heavy, tight vest I was wearing -- not to mention the sprinting, squatting, twisting and turning I was doing to evade the lurking figures trying to shoot me. "Great shot!" a robotic voice suddenly called out. I'd successfully nailed someone with my laser gun. It turned out to be 15-year-old Callie, my daughter's friend, who was unfazed by her sudden death. "Thanks a lot, Mrs. McManus," she said good-naturedly, patiently waiting five seconds until her gun was active again -- the penalty for getting shot.
Unfortunately, my glee was short-lived; as I crept along an empty path, I felt my vest vibrate, the sign that now I'd been hit.
Minutes later, ushered out of the dark, labyrinthine room, my family compared notes. In my inaugural try at laser tag, I'd gotten 47 hits in 10 minutes, well above everyone in our group except my 19-year-old son, Tim, who had 48. "Gosh, Mom," said my daughter, Maura, when she saw my score. "You're like some psycho killer."
Before I could suggest a second round, everyone clamored to try the next attraction at Kalahari's new indoor theme park in Wisconsin Dells.
King of the large Dells resorts, the Kalahari last winter contained a 125,000-square-foot indoor water park, nearly 800 guest rooms and suites, a spa, a convention center and more than a few places to nosh and shop. This winter, it also boasts a 110,000-square-foot amusement park that connects the resort to a neighboring movie theater and restaurant, creating a sprawling, mini-universe of indoor fun that doesn't require a swimming suit.
Young kids enjoy the carousel and large, interactive dry play structure. Others are drawn to the six-story Ferris wheel; bowling alley; 18-hole miniature golf course, complete with a 25-foot waterfall; laser tag arena; climbing wall; ropes course; two full-swing golf simulators, and a two-story go-kart track. A sports bar -- dance floor included -- caps the offerings.
With two kids in college and one a high-school sophomore, my family believed we'd outgrown the Dells. But we couldn't resist the lure of checking out an indoor amusement park, especially when it was 20 below zero. So there we were, heading toward the go-kart track.
Unlike outdoor go-karts, whose gas-powered engines loudly grumble and sputter, these indoor, battery-operated karts were sleek and amazingly quiet. We climbed in and sped around the track.
It's all about the competition
The Kalahari's indoor theme park isn't a new Dells concept. Two years ago, Knuckleheads Bowling & Indoor Amusement Park opened near Great Wolf Lodge, just across the road. The two places are quite similar. Knuckleheads also features a bowling alley, rides, a go-kart track, arcade games and a kiddie play area. But Knuckleheads is definitely aimed at the pint-sized crowd. It offers three rides specifically for kids 36 to 39 inches tall, and its seven other "big kid" rides aren't that much more extreme. The go-kart track is smaller and less intimidating than the Kalahari's, although Knuckleheads' 4-D theater and bumper cars are great additions for kids and adults alike.
The Wilderness, another one of the large Dells resorts, has long had a spacious arcade strategically placed next to Timberland Play Fort, an immense, four-story, dry interactive play structure. Four years ago, the Wilderness added a small laser tag arena, one of the resort's most popular evening activities for guests. In January, it opened the Wild Buccaneer, a 3-D, black-light, nine-hole miniature golf course, and it has been hosting an average of 400 guests a day.
The Wild Abyss, an ocean-themed mini golf course scheduled to open mid-March, will feature five immense aquariums (the largest will measure 16 by 10 feet) with clown and lion fish, moray eels, moon jellyfish, sea horses and sharks. A stingray touch tank will be next to the ninth hole.
When we played the Wild Buccaneer course, the 3-D glasses we donned made the pirates, skeletons and other objects inside the blackened room appear to be swaying around us. The first hole actually looked like it was floating, which made it maddeningly fun to try and line up your swing. I had a blast, even though I was reduced to using my golf club as a cane, tapping it in front of me to make sure I didn't trip on a step that wasn't really a step (or vice versa).
While waiting in Kalahari's go-kart line, we were entertained by watching others attempt the rope course across the room. Towering 25 feet high, it features 22 different rope segments, each roughly 25 feet long and spread over two levels, that test your balance, strength and nerve. Some appeared fairly easy, such as the segments that resembled wooden balance beams. Others looked, well, rather insane -- such as the segment featuring eight giant loops of rope hanging down in gently swaying U's. The minute you stepped on a loop, it began swaying precariously.
My family decided we had to try the ropes next. We climbed a set of stairs and faced our first course: a fairly easy-looking balance beam with one hand railing for good measure. Despite the fact that I was harnessed in, the beam wasn't too narrow and a sturdy railing was nearby, my heart started pounding and my palms began to sweat.
Section by section, I picked my way across the various courses, hanging on for dear life to my "slider" -- the rope connecting my harness to the track above. The slider was beginning to burn my palms, and I still had the third level left. When I got to those U-shaped swinging ropes, I was forced to let go of my slider in order to grip the sides of the U's, and I suddenly discovered it was much easier to navigate the segments without clinging to the slider. I almost danced across the rest. (Well, in my own mind, anyway.) When I finished, I was triumphant -- and relieved to get back on solid ground.
We spent an entire afternoon in the theme park, and all of us thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The only thing we hadn't been able to try was the mini golf course, but that's OK. We need to leave something for our next trip. Because we haven't outgrown the Dells after all.
Melanie Radzicki McManus lives near Madison, Wis., and frequently reports on attractions in Wisconsin Dells.