What to do

Big Sky Drive-in: Take cash, blankets, chairs and bug spray to enjoy the double features at this vintage drive-in with two screens, plus popcorn, burgers and more. Open early May through late September ($5-$8; 1-608-254-8025; www.bigskydrivein.com).

Hit the beach: If you prefer non-chlorinated water and sand, you can find a public beach on Lake Delton. Even better (especially for the bonus of stellar hikes): Devil's Lake State Park, about 20 miles from the Dells ($10 for the state park; 1-608-356-8301; dnr.wi.gov. See "Midwest Traveler," above.

Lost Canyon tours: Boats from land-and-water "ducks" to showy jet boats clamor for tourists' attention, but a horse-drawn wagon trip through gorges and Lost Canyon mid-April through October offers a nicely paced throwback charm ($5.25-$10.25; 1-608-254-8757; www.lostcanyontour.com).

Wisconsin Deer Park: This seasonal attraction (mid-April through October) has been in Wisconsin Dells for more than 50 years with a paved four-block meander through wooded pens to see and feed more than 100 deer. There are a few other animals such as lemurs and piglets. Early-season visitors can view the fawns ($10-$14; 1-608-253-2041; www.wisdeerpark.com).

Where to sleep

Black Hawk Motel: Staying here doesn't require giving up the iconic Dells water park experience. Rooms include free passes to Noah's Ark outdoor water park or the indoor water park at Chula Vista. They also offer guests coupon books to help keep costs down on other attractions and dining. Rooms range from double queens to small cottages with kitchenettes and a large guesthouse that's good for gatherings (from $54; 1-608-254-7770; www.blackhawkmotel.com).

Ambers Hideway: Near Black Hawk north of downtown, this two-story budget motel provides passes to Chula Vista water park and Kalahari theme park (from $77; 1-855-879-2623; www.ambershideaway.com).

Shamrock Motel: This green-accented two-story budget motel with its own pool sits across from Noah's Ark (passes included for guests) and next to Hot Dog Avenue and Mr. Pancake, a plus for parents of picky eaters (from $55; 1-608-254-8054; www.shamrock-dells.com).

Where to eat

Denny's Classic Diner: It can get crowded and they take only cash in this small cafe in Lake Delton, but it's a fun, kitschy trip with Elvis in the front window, an ape on a bike riding above tables and "Little Rascals" playing on a TV. Take some of their big, tasty cinnamon rolls to go (1-608-254-7647).

MACS Macaroni and Cheese Shop: New last year, this affordable downtown eatery takes gooey mac-and-cheese and tops it with barbecue pulled pork, taco meat and other hearty fare to elevate a Dairy State staple (1-608-678-2300; www.macandcheeseshop.com).

High Rock Cafe: If you crave some of the Dells' best food (savory seafood, gourmet salads and veggie risotto cakes), but need to convince the kids, hook them with the homemade Kit Kat or cheesecake with Pop Rocks for dessert (1-608-254-5677; www.highrockcafe.com).

Ishnala: If you can afford a dinner splurge, this historic Dells destination takes diners back to Wisconsin's supper club heydays. Order an Old-Fashioned and admire the Norway pine that grows right through the log restaurant with stellar views of Mirror Lake (1-608-253-1771; www.ishnala.com).

More info

Wisconsin Dells Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-223-3557; www.wisdells.com.

Lisa Meyers McClintick