Otheron made me do it. I’m not a roller coaster fan and had no intention of trying out the newly reconfigured Hades 360˚ at Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Parks in Wisconsin Dells. The original Hades was crazy enough, shooting you underground, in the dark, at speeds up to 70 miles per hour. Now, after a bit of reconstructive surgery, the beast spirals you upside down along the way, too. No way was I getting on that thing. But then I bumped into 10-year-old Otheron Reed.

Otheron was standing near my daughter, Maura, waiting to try out Hades. I was simply in line to keep Maura company. Otheron admitted he was nervous about his pending ride. “I’m scared about the noise, and I think it’ll break when I’m on it,” he said softly. Yet he calmly remained in line, awaiting his fate.

Me, I wasn’t even going to ride, yet my heart was pounding and my palms were sweaty.

Suddenly the gates swung open, revealing a shiny, red coaster sporting a line of empty seats. I scrambled across the nearest car and flung myself onto the dismounting platform on the far side, afraid the coaster would somehow ensnare me if I tarried too long. Moments later Maura and Otheron vanished with a thunderous clatter, leaving behind a fading trail of high-pitched screams.

Before I had time to slow my pounding heart, Hades was back, zooming to a screeching halt in front of me. The ride had taken 2 minutes and 11 seconds. I scanned the cars for Otheron. There he was, slowly climbing out. He wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t crying, either.

“How was it?” I asked.

“It was cool,” he said thoughtfully, “but it hurt my rib a little when we went upside down.”

I was so touched by Otheron’s bravery that I wanted to give him a hug. Instead, I gritted my teeth and waved Maura back in line. “I changed my mind,” I said. “I’m going on.”

Wisconsin Dells remains one of Wisconsin’s most popular tourist destinations. Last year, visitors spent nearly $1 billion playing there. That’s partly because the community, made up of the city of Wisconsin Dells and the village of Lake Delton, keeps drawing people back with expansions, new attractions and renovations like this ride.

For the 2013 season, Hades 360˚ is just one of those new offerings. Across the road at Noah’s Ark, the Flow Rider attraction “Surfing Safari” — which serves up surf-worthy waves for bodyboard rides — debuted several weeks ago. (Kalahari Resort’s indoor waterpark has had one for years.)

New shows are touch of magic

Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty just unveiled a lumberjack show. This spring, workers constructed a performance stage with a pond next to the restaurant, plus bleacher seating for 575. Two daily shows are offered, featuring 11 different lumberjack events such as logrolling, ax-throwing and pole-climbing. Professional and collegiate athletes will be competing — yes, “lumberjacking” is a sport.

On the Wisconsin Dells Parkway North, known as the Strip, Timbavati Wildlife Park is gearing up for its first “real” season. Although the park, located on the grounds of the former Riverview Park & Waterworld, opened as a stand-alone attraction last year, its offerings were sparse: mainly a train that chugged past areas under development and two giraffes you could feed by hand.

This year, Timbavati is nearly up to full speed. The train still winds around the grounds, but now carries passengers past a wide variety of animals: white tigers, lions, zebras, ostriches, camels, reptiles and the impressively splotched clouded leopards. Wildlife shows are held daily, and guests can enjoy camel rides, pig races and a petting zoo with exotic baby animals. A small karting track is part of the park, too.

Farther down the Strip, the venerable Tommy Bartlett’s, a staple attraction since 1952, has added FlyBoard stunts to its evening water ski shows. A FlyBoard is a bizarre, futuristic piece of equipment that looks like a jet-propelled snowboard coupled with weird hand-sprayer gadgets. Powerful jets propel the performer skyward, where he can do flips, twists and other impressive maneuvers.

If you like the rather magical FlyBoard, pop over to Rick Wilcox’s. Wilcox, a master illusionist, is unveiling two new tricks this season. In one of the illusions, billed as the “first of its kind in the world,” Wilcox appears to cut his assistant-wife into nine pieces. In the other illusion — which may give prospective show-goers pause — Wilcox makes an unsuspecting audience member disappear. (No, the audience member isn’t secretly in on it. Really.)

Resorts up their game

Because many visitors come to the Dells to stay and play at a particular waterpark resort, the resorts have to keep pace with changing customer preferences, too.

At Wilderness Resort, a new zero-depth “sprayground” was recently unveiled. Part of the resort’s New Frontier Outdoor Waterpark, the tot-friendly play area features spraying fountains, ground geysers, water jets and a spraying water bug.

At the Kalahari Resort, the new Mud Hut was opened in the indoor waterpark. The spacious “hut” includes Wisconsin’s only swim-up bar, with seating for 12, plus an indoor/outdoor hot tub. The resort’s indoor theme park changed things up a bit, too, adding a laser maze, 5-D theater and toddler ropes course. But the most exciting renovation may be the addition of Revolution 360, an eight-person, pendulum-type ride that flips and twirls riders around. (Hint: Ride with an empty stomach.)

H.H. Bennett, the legendary 19th-century outdoor photographer whose photos of the area’s natural beauty caused Wisconsin Dells to become a vacation hot spot, might not appreciate all of the changes to his beloved Dells. But surely he’d be pleased to know many tourists still make an effort to get on the water and see the dell formations that so captivated him from behind the lens.

Dells Watersports has been renting all sorts of watercraft since its opening in 1979. Three years ago it began offering paddleboard rentals at its main Lake Delton location, where it also offers lessons. (A beautiful slice of quiet Dell Creek conveniently runs behind the business.) This year, it also offers paddleboard rentals at Mirror Lake State Park. Employee Steve Holmes, who has lived and worked in the area for years, says visitors seem to be slowly moving toward more outdoorsy activities when they visit.

I enjoyed my paddleboarding, but nothing compared to the thrill of Hades.

Like Otheron, I survived my maiden voyage on the roller coaster, although Maura snickered when we viewed the photo that was taken as we plunged 134 feet into the tunnel. The picture showed Maura whooping with glee, hands waving high above her head, while I sat with my eyes closed, slumped into her shoulder.

“You look dead,” she laughed.

Hours later, shortly before the park closed for the day, I surprised Maura (and myself) by leading her back to Hades. When the seats were filled and we were cleared to go, I led the group in a loud cheer. And this time, I kept my eyes open the entire time. Just for Otheron.


Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelancer writer in Sun Prairie, Wis.