It wasn’t the six-story climb that unnerved me, even though I’m afraid of heights. Instead, it was stepping into the coffin-sized capsule and watching the lifeguard shut me inside. Before I had a chance to scream or hyperventilate, the trap door beneath my feet slid open and I was flying down a near-vertical chute. Seconds later, I skidded to a splashy halt. I’d just survived a ride on the Cosmic Drop.
The waterslide is among the six most terrifying in Wisconsin Dells, a town devoted to water play — and thrills. Because there is no shortage of scary slides, the area’s visitor bureau polled the six largest waterpark resorts — there are more than a dozen in town — to determine which of their slippery rides has the highest bailout rate. Which ones cause the most people to chicken out while waiting in line or milliseconds before taking the plunge?
But were these rides truly frightening? And which of the six was the scariest of them all?
I was determined to find out. So on a sizzling 90-degree day in June, I braved all six. Then I rated their scariness on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being not too petrifying and 5 being bone-chilling. I also threw in a wedgie ranking for good measure. (For the uninitiated, serious speed slides almost always result in a significant swimsuit shift.)
Here is what I found.
Cosmic Drop, Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort
The bright red Cosmic Drop treats you to a five-story, or about 50-foot, free fall. Riders can hit speeds of up to 30 mph. The ride is definitely unnerving, mainly due to the claustrophobic effect of being encapsulated momentarily before you hit the open air. A “3-2-1” countdown adds drama.
“You’ll see a lot of people get into the capsule, then get right back out,” said Brandon Schindler, aquatics director, adding that the bailers are “all ages, shapes and sizes.”
Fear Factor: 4
Wedgie rating: 3
Demon’s Drop, Mount Olympus Water & Theme Park
The Demon’s Drop provides riders with a sheer 85-foot drop. But the slide does not have a capsule. Instead, you lie down in the chute, cross your arms and legs, and scooch yourself over the edge.
“The scariest part is climbing these stairs,” one man told his companion.
The ride’s seven-story climb is problematic if you’re not a fan of heights. Far worse, though, is having to launch yourself off a precipice, especially when compared with standing in a capsule and having someone else do the dirty work. In the end, the Cosmic Drop’s claustrophobic capsule cancels out the horrors of launching yourself, so these first two rides are equally bone-chilling.
Fear Factor: 4
Wedgie rating: 5
Durango Drop, Chula Vista Resort
Like the Demon’s Drop, the Durango Drop is a near-vertical slide that you ride feet-first. You must also push yourself over the edge and into the abyss. But the slide’s drop is a mere 52 feet vs. the Demon’s 85, rendering it not quite as terrifying and a good introduction to scary slide-riding. Still, the self-launching is difficult.
Fear Factor: 3
Wedgie rating: 2
Howlin’ Tornado, Great Wolf Lodge
The most unique of the scary slides, the Howlin’ Tornado is an indoor raft ride for up to four people. The raft takes you down a 45-degree drop and into a six-story funnel, where you, your friends and your raft fly up and down its walls before plunging down a final tunnel and into the splashdown area.
“People who ride backward find it the most terrifying,” said Ryan Shearier, aquatics manager, as they can’t anticipate the ride’s dips, twists and turns. Bailouts typically come when riders begin to queue up and pass a window showcasing the ride’s steep chute and massive funnel, which sit outside the resort. “When people see it from here, especially at night, they have second thoughts,” Shearier said.
While the ride is exciting, traveling with others dials down the apprehension. Sitting in a supersized raft also provides a sense of protection and prevents the dreaded wedgie. This is the best of the six for scary-slide newbies.
Fear Factor: 2
Wedgie rating: 0
Scorpion’s Tail, Noah’s Ark
The 10-story, 400-foot-long Scorpion’s Tail features a searing inaugural drop via a capsule with a trap door, followed by a forceful ride upside down through a curlicue before you’re delivered to the finishing chute. A wealth of signage along the way warns riders that they face potential severe injury if they can’t maintain the proper riding position the entire time. Other postings alert you that you could get stuck in the loop portion and need to make your way to an escape hatch.
Climbing 10 stories is difficult if you’re afraid of heights, although the ominous warning signs are more unnerving. And, of course, stepping into a capsule is always tough. While this ride is hair-raising, it’s also the roughest ride of the bunch. I banged around in the chute and, like others, received a snoutful of water near the end.
Fear Factor: 5
Wedgie rating: 4
Screaming Hyena, Kalahari Resort Waterparks
If you want to induce near-hysterics in riders, it’s all in the details. And the Screaming Hyena pays attention to them. The six-story indoor ride is a steep plunge that originates in a capsule, much like the Cosmic Drop and Scorpion’s Tail. As you’re climbing up to the ride, you hear the rhythmic thumping of a heart, which becomes louder with every step. Once in the capsule, there’s a 3-2-1 countdown with the heartbeat still audible. And then you’re off.
Chad Nagel, water park manager, said the Screaming Hyena can propel riders as fast as 35 mph, and you can experience 1.5 G’s near the end. When I climbed out of the chute at the end of the ride, I was trembling — a first — leading me to dub the Screaming Hyena the Dells’ scariest slide of all.
Fear Factor: 5
Wedgie rating: 5
Melanie Radzicki McManus, of Sun Prairie, Wis., writes frequently for the Star Tribune. She recently hiked the Superior Hiking Trail; follow the journey at startribune.com/feelingsuperior.