Our Kind of Town: 40 Years of Vacationing in the Wisconsin Dells

A Midwestern family marks four decades of trips to the waterpark capital of the world — a beloved destination that has become so much more than an escape from the Chicago ‘burbs.

The first time I heard someone use summer as a verb – without a hint of irony – was when I worked at Vogue magazine in New York. One colleague’s family summers in Nantucket, and another’s in Martha’s Vineyard, where they bike, sail and indulge in a good jigsaw puzzle on rainy afternoons.

Amelia with an old Family Land billboard in the back, 1990; photo courtesy of Amelia Mularz

“And you, Amelia?” she asked. “Where do you summer?”

“Well, I suppose I… summer… in the Wisconsin Dells,” I offered. “The Wisconsin Dells is…” I took a deep breath; this would take some explaining. It’s difficult to sum up an area where the pinnacle of natural beauty — a five-mile stretch of sandstone rock formations carved by glaciers 15,000 years ago — meets the zenith of man-made amusement. That is, assuming most would agree that waterparks, go-kart tracks and Aqua the waterskiing clown (he’s part of the Tommy Bartlett show) are the height of human entertainment. I would.

“So, it’s known as the ‘Waterpark Capital of the World,’ but it’s so much more than that. It’s kind of like Las Vegas, but for kids. There are all these theme hotels — a Greek mythology one, another that’s inspired by African safaris… and it has all sorts of attractions: a year-round haunted house, elaborate mini-golf courses, a wizard scavenger hunt, a place devoted to shrunken heads and other oddities. Well, actually, there might be a couple places with shrunken heads, now that I think of it. Know what I mean?”  

They definitely did not know.

I have tried to explain the Wisconsin Dells to dozens of friends on both coasts and abroad, and I’m often met with patronizing bemusement, as though I’m detailing some bizarre fever dream and they’re only playing along to be polite. Ok, Amelia. Tell us again about the place with the upside-down White House…

My family started vacationing in the Wisconsin Dells in 1978 — this summer marked 40 years. Then, it was just my parents and my oldest brother, Greg, who was born that year. My brother Tommy came along two years later, I was born two years after that, my brother Michael three years later, and in 1989, my sister, Marina, made our five-kid Dells crew complete.

Tommy and Amelia at Storybook Gardens, 1985; photo courtesy of Amelia Mularz

I have a hard time referring to what we did as summering because such a word implies passive luxury — an auxiliary indulgence. What we did was necessary. Our trips were an annual pilgrimage to worship in the land of lazy rivers, souvenir moccasins and fudge shops. Each year, we piled into my parents’ baby-blue Volkswagen Vanagon, carrying the weight of another year — work, school, puberty — and made the two-and-a-half-hour journey “up north.” There’s a cheese shop called Ehlenbach’s in DeForest, Wisconsin — about 40 minutes before we hit the Dells — that remains to this day a requisite pit stop. We like to pose for a pic with Sissy the Cow out front, peruse the souvenir shot glasses and pick the cheese, sausage and Cow Pies that will be our main source of sustenance. For a while, Ehlenbach’s had a prized hunk of aging cheese they displayed in a glass case. Coincidentally, the cheese was the same age as me, and I enjoyed checking in with my cheddar counterpart each summer; my soul queso and I reached adolescence together.

The moment we actually made it to town — my dad flipping on his turn signal for that glorious exit from the highway onto Wisconsin Dells Parkway — all car squabbles were squashed, all indignities suffered during the trip forgotten. Greg coined a term for the overwhelming surge of excitement we each felt upon arriving in the Dells: he called it a booblesnap. Later, we’d describe having a booblesnap on Christmas morning or the last day of school, but the booblesnap was really all about the Dells.

We had our go-to attractions: a day at Noah’s Ark water park, ambling through Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the wax museum. Every few years we’d take a ride on a Duck, just to make sure the amphibious vehicles retained their age-old charm. The Tommy Bartlett water-ski show was another big event, though we only got actual tickets once or twice. Most years my parents took us to a restaurant on the opposite side of Lake Delton so we could get a peek of the water skiers for free.

We’ve marked the passage of time by watching attractions come and go. Fort Dells, the frontier-themed amusement park from the 80s, is now a McDonald’s; Storybook Gardens, where kids could ride a miniature locomotive and meet Little Bo Peep, closed in 2011; and for Xanadu, the “foam house of tomorrow,” it turns out tomorrow didn’t last past the early 90s.  

All the kids and their mother at Dells Mining Co, 1997; photo courtesy of Amelia Mularz

Over the years, we’ve grown up and moved around the country. I took off to New York and later LA; Tommy and Marina also settled in southern California. Greg joined the Army, which took him to Iraq and Germany, while Michael stuck closer to home and moved from the ‘burbs to Chicago. As a result, many of our trips have transitioned from summer to Christmas, the only time we’re all in one place. Visiting the Dells in the winter has added new attractions to our repertoire, including Ho-Chunk Casino (it’s never too cold for slots!) and shopping in downtown Baraboo (the Village Booksmith puts many of the paperback peddlers in NYC and LA to shame). In a small way, my family’s time in Wisconsin has been immortalized. In the early 2000s, Bowman Park, just off the main strip in downtown Dells, sold commemorative bricks as part of a fundraiser. Greg bought one on behalf of our family and had it inscribed with this message: “Our kind of town – Mularz crew.” It’ll be there for posterity, or at least until the park gets bulldozed for an additional shrunken head museum.

The whole family at a souvenir photo spot, 1985; photo courtesy of Amelia Mularz

Today, Marina is in her late 20s and the rest of us are in our 30s. Greg would have turned 40 this summer. However, like the shifting landscape of the Dells’ attractions, change has come to our family, too. Greg died in October 2015. After serving in the Army, he went back to school and became a social worker, helping fellow veterans, as well as firefighters, suffering from PTSD and addiction. In the end, my brother died of the very thing he was helping others battle. He worked in a rehab center, and as I once told my mom, it’s a bit like getting a job at Paul Bunyan’s all-you-can-eat buffet and then dying of starvation.

The Thanksgiving after we lost Greg we took an emergency trip to the Dells. There’s been a lot of noise recently about emotional support pets — dogs, cats, even peacocks. My family might be the first case for needing an emotional support waterpark. We stayed at Wilderness on the Lake and ordered a full turkey meal with all the fixings from a local grocery store (formerly Zinke’s, now Maurer’s). We spent the majority of the trip in our three-bedroom condo, or what I called it, our grief cocoon. Not one of us put on a bathing suit or ventured downstairs to the indoor waterpark. We didn’t have it in us. But it was a great comfort to know it was there.