One step. Just one small step. That's all I needed to get started on one of my longtime dreams: zip lining. Yet my foot didn't want to move. Sure, I'd be stepping off a solid platform 45 feet above the ground onto ... nothing. Still, I silently argued with my foot. "Come on. I'm strapped into a harness and securely hooked onto the wire rope overhead. Plus, we're in Wisconsin, not some unregulated, far-off land. We'll be fine." But my foot ignored me, remaining stubbornly glued to the platform.
Then I looked up and saw my two daughters -- who had fought to be the first to zip -- waving at me from the next platform. The image of them giggling together about my fright was all it took to get my foot unglued; I nearly sprang off the platform, and away I sped.
The line made a deep, whining noise as I headed toward the girls, trying to remember, without much success, the steering instructions I'd been given. I slowly began turning myself in a circle, then straightened myself out in time to expertly land on platform No. 2, where my daughters greeted me with a few snickers. But I didn't mind. I'd made my first zip, and was looking forward to the next one.
As one of Wisconsin's largest tourist spots, drawing nearly 3 million visitors annually, the Dells has taken its own share of leaps into untried territory, beyond the famed water parks. In recent years, spas and laser tag have made their own splashes. The zip line that sent me flying past pines, an illusionist show complete with a white tiger, and a family-friendly interactive fantasy game are only the latest bids to attract new visitors -- and entice others to return.
For the Canopy Zipline, which opened last August at the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort, five cables, suspended between six towers, criss-cross the tree canopy over Lost Canyon (which really more resembles a shallow ravine).
The lines are different lengths and pitches; the longest and fastest is the fifth, which hurtles you along at speeds reaching 30 miles per hour. Since it's safe to operate year-round, the zip line is still open for hardy lovers of winter, albeit with restrictions -- you have to make reservations, pay ahead of time and have at least eight in your party.
While the Wilderness' zip line is big news -- it's one of only a few in the Midwest -- the resort also unveiled an outdoor go-kart track and mini-golf course within the last year, plus indoor bumper boats and two indoor, black-light mini-golf courses.
Game with dragons, fairies
The Great Wolf Lodge opened its own attention-getter in July: MagiQuest, an interactive game housed in the resort's old Wiley Woods space. The new game, aimed at families, uses state-of-the-art video and computer technology -- coupled with magic wands and paperback copies of the Ancient Book of Wisdom -- to create a mythical world where participants search for various runes on nine different quests. Two additional quests that incorporate portions of the resort are available to hotel guests only (anyone can pay to play MagiQuest).
Although the game is aimed at families, I found it rather confusing at first. You're given a mind-boggling amount of instructions, then sent to watch an introductory video (which the kids ignored, because they were too busy trying to see what they could zap with their wands). But the challenging portions of the quest, whether planned or inadvertent, make it attractive to older kids and adults. During a recent visit, plenty of grown-ups were dashing around the 20,000-square-foot, four-story facility.
For those who can't get enough of the game, an online version will debut soon, said Great Wolf Lodge spokesman Steve Shattuck. And it will probably prove popular. "Parents are finding their kids are spending more time playing MagicQuest than in the water park," he said.
Two tips for gamers: Wear light clothing, and bring reading glasses if you need them. You get really hot dashing up and down four flights of stairs over and over, and the clues in the Ancient Book of Wisdom are in a small font, making them difficult to read. It doesn't help that the facility is dimly lit (many people huddled in the bright stairwells to read the clues).
Magic with white tiger
Several miles north at Chula Vista Resort, Jeremy Allen's Grand Illusions has been playing to packed audiences since its July opening. The show takes place in a Mayan jungle-themed space, melding magic and comedy in a fast-paced, one-hour performance.
At first glance, the set-up seems rather curious. The "theater" is actually a small room on an upper floor of the resort with banquet-chair seating. Some snacks and drinks are for sale at tables set up in the hallway, along with show-related items. Staff will also fetch you drinks from the bar. Allen freely walks in and out of the room beforehand, attending to last-minute details a stone's throw from the patrons starting to queue up for admittance.
But this almost amateur atmosphere evaporates once the show begins. Allen's good. And funny. And you quickly realize the venue's brilliance -- the close quarters make it seem like everyone in the audience is onstage with Allen, and everyone gets a bird's-eye view of the action. (A new, larger theater is planned, but it will be relatively small to retain this personal feeling.)
Allen's signature trick is producing a white Siberian tiger onstage, reminiscent of Vegas' famed Siegfried & Roy show. "We're just getting started here," he said, noting that his adorable, fuzzy tiger cub with the piercing blue eyes will be joined by two other white tigers later this year. The resort is also building a state-of-the-art tiger habitat so visitors can view his growing cat population during the day. "I'm one of only seven illusionists in the world who work with tigers year-round," said Allen. "And I want to be the best show in the nation."
On the waterfront
A ride set to debut at Noah's Ark Water park this Memorial Day weekend could well return everyone's attention to the water. The Scorpion's Tail, a 10-story-tall body slide, will be America's first looping tube water slide, plus the tallest and largest of its kind in the world. Riders will step into a phone-booth-type enclosure, only to have the bottom quickly drop out, swooshing them through a 45-degree loop-de-loop tube. The ride will rocket people along at speeds up to 40 miles per hour, which I know from years of water park experience will result in a significant wedgie when you're finished. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Melanie Radzicki McManus lives near Madison, Wis., where she keeps an eye out for new attractions at Wisconsin Dells.
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