Wisconsin Dells: Wilderness Hotel




As a kid, I remember visiting Wisconsin Dells nearly every summer – with friends, with family, with anyone who would take me. Certain memories burned deep, like eating off a griddle at Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty, feeling my stomach drop on the Kowabunga at Noah’s Ark, and posing for old-time photos with high school girlfriends (when wearing a feather boa and rockin’ a gun holster did wonders for my self-esteem). I have a distinct recollection of the downtown trinket shopping, the troves of mini golf courses, the endless line of candy stores, the Army Ducks, the themed hotels –  the kitschy, kid-friendly, tourist trap that is Wisconsin Dells.

As a kid, this place is like Disneyworld. As an adult, this place is…well, expensive and sorta cheesy. But if you’re down for paying 1/20th of the price you would pay to go to actual Disneyworld, while still creating the same types of memories for your little ones (the smiles are worth every penny – I promise), this city is a must-visit. Plus it takes less than four hours to get there from Minneapolis and doesn’t require a plane ticket.

When growing up, I remember a lot of running around during these vacations. We would stay at a hotel off the main drag and drive to the waterparks, then drive downtown and hunt for parking and repeat the process the next day until we were broke, sunburned or so exhausted we couldn’t take another step. It was fine and as kids, we sure didn’t know any different. Now, as adults with young kids of our own, I look back and wonder how my parents managed to stuff that much patience and sanity into their suitcases. Well, it’s 2015 and I’m happy to say that, during our visit to Wisconsin Dells a couple weeks ago, our patience and sanities were saved by The Wilderness – a beautiful resort in the heart of the Dells that hosts eight waterparks, arcades, zip lines, pottery painting, play areas, mini golf, ice cream, pizza, lazer tag…the list goes on. No need to leave. No need to drive. No need to do anything but relax in your swimsuit and soak in the memories.

the wilderness wisconsin dells

What is it?

The Wilderness Hotel is part of the full 600-acre resort and is America’s largest waterpark resort. We stayed in the hotel, but other lodging options includeGlacier Canyon Lodge, Wilderness on the Lake, villas, condos and cabins. The hotel offers suites (with whirlpools and fireplaces), as well as double, queen and king options. What I really liked about this vacation was that my family didn’t have to leave the grounds at all to be fully entertained from morning until night, thanks to their four indoor waterparks, four outdoor waterparks, ropes and mini golf courses, zip lines, bumper boats, wave pools, go-karts, a painting studio, and so much more! Their waterparks are guest-exclusive, which is awesome because it keeps the crowds to a minimum, plus there’s something for everyone – from kiddie splash pads to family tube rides to tall, windy body slides. Of course, it’s located in the city 0f tourists, so don’t expect it to be inexpensive, but it was one of the cleaner and more well-equipped hotels I’ve stayed at in the Dells and I would absolutely stay again…probably when I’m not pregnant because, dang, it’s huge and you will walk. A lot.

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Fit for what ages?

This is the best part, you guys! I have a three- and six-year old and there was plenty for them to do. I saw tweens, teens, toddlers, bachelor parties and grandparents all having the same amount of fun at this resort. With small kids, do consider the walking. To get from one waterpark to another can be a bit of a trek and you might wind up carrying something much heavier than just your towels and sunscreen (read: your child). The resort does offer shuttle services but we found them semi-confusing and not too terribly timely. Of course, our kids are bred to be impatient, so there’s that.

There are definitely water areas more fit for young ones (with lazy rivers, splash pads, and zero depth slides), and I really like that the website sections those out for you under the “Lil Squirts” tab on their Waterparks page. Each ride has height restrictions, but I was shocked at how lenient they were, honestly. Here’s a convenient guide to ride restrictions should you want it. Life jackets are available for free at every waterpark as well.

I break down each waterpark we visited below in the “Tips” section too in case you prefer to read my firsthand experience with my own two rascals.

Older kids will like the arcades, the rope course, the go-karts, mini golf and lazer tag. There are more than enough big slides for the adventurers and plenty of littler slides for the more cautious. Of course, each kiddie area seemed to include one of those giant multi-gallon dump buckets. You’ve been warned. Of course, what kid isn’t going to love a hotel bed and leaping from one to the next? We reserved a poolside room with a great patio overlooking the Lake Wilderness Waterpark and they l-o-v-e-d sitting out there sipping their juice boxes and talking about their days. As for the adults? We just loved listening to them sip their juice boxes and talk about their days. As a parent of kids, you know what you’re signing up for if you go. You will be holding them, watching them, swimming in ankle-deep pools and probably doing nothing more than eyeing up the swim-up bar from a very long distance, but it’s worth it to see them in their happy places!

the wilderness wisconsin dellsthe wilderness wisconsin dells

How much are we talkin?

Here’s where I might lose you: Wisconsin Dells ain’t cheap. Well, some of the attractions, museums and souvenirs are definitely cheap, but I’m not talking cost. Let’s start with the hotel though…

The Wilderness lodging rates completely depend on the time of year you go. Summer is (obviously) their busy season, so we spent almost $300/night on our room since it was mid-July. But I will say, we definitely got some great use of their outdoor waterparks, which were far cooler than the indoor ones. Come August, it looks like you can get a room for as low as $200/night and fall and winter months drop that yet another $100. So it’s cheapest to go during the cold months. Check the website for specials and discounts too. Admission to all the waterparks is included with your stay, but almost everything additional costs additional. From painting pottery to riding go-karts and bumper boats to playing mini golf, you will be paying per activity and that, my friends, adds up.

That being said, if you have kids who would enjoy these kinds of extracurricular adventures, I strongly encourage you to spend the $25-30 and buy the Wild Fun Pass (all indoor) or the Extreme Fun Pass (both indoor + outdoor). These include one admission each to a variety of the on-site activities and you will save money if you purchase the pass instead of paying-by-adventure. For example, bumper boats is $4/person and mini golf ranges from $3-7/person. If you do both of these activities with your kid and toss in a few arcade games, you’re already almost spending what you would’ve on the price of one fun pass. Now that I’ve said all that, if you can get away with bringing kids who are pleased as punch just swimming in the pools and jumping on the hotel beds, more power to you and you will save a lot of dough.

Couple of personal opinionated sidenotes: The Art Major in me really enjoyed painting pottery with my kids at the Polka Dot Pots studio in the Klondike Kavern wing. Yes, we spent $40 on two hand-painted cereal bowls, but we also spent almost two hours being creative and colorful and getting messy and it was a highlight for me! Sometimes expensive is worth it. The Lazer Maze, on the other hand, cost $7 (thankfully it was on our Extreme Fun Pass) and was 2 minutes of dodging laser beams in a 10×10 foot dark room. While the concept is awesome, we just felt this one wasn’t worth the money Of course, it’s the one my son still talks about, so that’s worth something. I thought the Ropes Course ($9 for 30 minutes) was well worth it and the ice cream cones at Pistol Pete’s were overflowing and impossible to finish.

Once you have all the hotel money schtuff figured out, it’s time to venture into the city of Wisconsin Dells. Repeat after me: Money Pit (also unique, odd, memorable, and as retro as it comes). I talk about this more in my “Tips” section.  Make a point to stop at the Visitors Center on Superior Street to pick up some great pamphlets, maps and the very helpful and necessary coupon books.

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Want some tips?

Wisconsin Dells is a place every kid remembers because it’s so dang weird. Quirky. That’s the word! Upon arrival into the city, I suggest taking a drive down Wisconsin Dells Parkway and Broadway to take in this quirkiness. You’ll see an upside-down building with a dinosaur coming out of the wall. You’ll see a giant gorilla and octopus arms protruding from the top of another building. You’ll see boats with wheels buzzing around on the streets (these are called Army Ducks and they are pretty cool). You’ll see a deer park, a gem mining company, a haunted house, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a Wizard Quest fantasy game, and more candy stores, fudge shops, moccasin signs and old time photo booths than you can shake a stick at!

Now, here’s the thing: They all look really amazing. And some of them are pretty cool. But some of them aren’t! I advise against the gem mining, the Timbavati safari, and anything that looks too kitschy or overdone, because mostly you will not get the bang for your buck (and it’ll be a lotta buck!). I enjoy Goody Goody GumDrop, the Deer Park and Tommy Bartlett’s Science Center and – when my husband was seven – he loved a good Army Duck ride. But of course, to each their own and if you have the money to spend, do it and enjoy yourself to the nines! Also, save money by swinging into the Visitor & Convention Center on Superior Street downtown and grabbing a coupon book or two. And downtown parking is free, so that’s a plus!

For food, we were impressed by Moosejaw Pizza, Uno’s Pizzeria (we like pizza), High Rock Cafe and Mac’s Mac n’ Cheese Shop. Pre-kids, my husband and I enjoyed a phenom meal at House of Embers, so if you’re feeling fancy…

the wilderness wisconsin dells

If you’re staying at The Wilderness Resort, check-in is 4pm and check-0ut is 11am, but you can arrive as early as 11am and stay as long as you wish on your last day to play in the waterparks. This was great and we definitely took advantage of those extra hours! Upon arrival, you will receive a wristband that lets folks know you belong here (since the pools are guest-exclusive) and we wore ours throughout the entire stay. Should you need to remove yours, or have a child with sensory issues, you can cut it off and exchange for a new one at the front desk anytime. You will also get a towel card for each guest. When you receive your towels from the cabana area, hang on to those suckers because each towel that does not get turned in at the end of your stay will result in a $25 charge. You can exchange your towels for dry ones at any time, but just don’t lose them.

The hotel has three floors – the first floor has vehicle traffic and the second floor has foot traffic (this is where the skyways are), so third floor was ideal. There is WiFi, but no continental breakfast available. There are a couple coffee shops and baked goods on-site, but this venture can require quite the morning walk if you’re not in the right wing of the resort, so if breakfast in bed is your thing, maybe invest in some donuts or cereal bars and fill your fridge with milk and iced coffees from the gas station before you arrive.

Pack a waterproof bag to lug your stuff from room to waterpark to another waterpark and another waterpark. We kept towels, hotel keys, some cash and sunscreen in that bag the entire stay and it did us well. Lockers are available, but we never used one. We found a shaded table and put our trust in the people of Wisconsin and, to no surprise, they were all very trustworthy. Plus, everyone else had their crap everywhere, so I wasn’t too afraid of someone stealing my plastic insurance company knapsack from 1997.

Pack socks for the play area (they sell them for $3 in a vending machine too). The Timberland Play Park is located in the Wild West wing and kept my kids busy for a really long time! They have a foam ball area and a lot of climbing options for kids ages 12 and under, and it’s free!

While there are plenty of on-site food options, I would recommend trying out all the fun and unique restaurants throughout the Dells because there are some cool options you can’t find anywhere else!

If you forgot to pack something, the hotel is less than a mile from the outlet mall and a bunch of other little shops and gas stations.

the wilderness wisconsin dells

Now, the main reason we all do the Dells – the waterparks! 

The Wilderness has eight waterparks (four indoor, four outdoor) and the water in all of them was relatively warm. The double tubes for the bigger slides had netting in the bottom of one of the seats so smaller kids could accompany their parents without fear of falling through the hole. And the height restrictions were not so rigid that the brave-but-short couldn’t enjoy themselves. The guest-exclusivity is key because, even though we were there on a 90 degree Saturday in July, the lines were never long and the pools never felt crammed. The bottoms of the pools left me with blisters, but maybe that’s what happens when you spend eight hours a day in a pool anywhere?

Lake Wilderness (outdoor):
I was very pleased that we chose to stay in the wing with the Lake Wilderness waterpark because it was the best one for my kids’ ages. Lake Wilderness offers a zero depth area and two medium-sized slides that my six-year old used religiously. Just big enough for him to feel brave, but small enough that we didn’t need to worry. We did the family tube ride a couple times and played a little water basketball. There are bathrooms, a small cafe with grilled food and a bar for drinks and, of course, a shop selling water toys. If you’re tired of the outdoors, you can venture inside the building to the Wild West waterpark.

Wild West (indoor): 
This one has a gigantic kids play area (a bit intense for really little ones) and also hosts the bumper boat rides. There are some body and raft rides as well as the infamous Black Hole slide. The kids area was perfect for my six-year old but his three-year old sister was more hesitant and fearful of all the sprayers. A grill and frozen treat stand offered refreshments here.

Klondike Kavern (indoor): 
This one is basically the exact same as Wild West, but includes a lazy river and the play area is slightly less intense. This one offers pizza and a deli-to-go.

New Frontier (outdoor):
This waterpark also had some medium-sized slides, but they were shorter than the ones at Lake Wilderness. It also had some tube slides, a zero-depth area, a lazy river and a splash pad. I liked this one a lot too, but it was really spread out. If you have really little kids, this might be the best option for you. Enjoy a drink from the saloon or another bar & grill.

Wild WaterDome (indoor): 
My favorite indoor waterpark, this one has a glass ceiling (ahhhh, sunshine) and a monster wave pool that makes monster waves! Seriously, hang onto your kids. It’s so fun but can get crazy. My daughter loved when the waves would stop (about every 10 minutes or so) because she could touch and splash around without needing an adult to carry her. There’s also a small zero depth play area for toddlers and a family raft ride that looked cool. This was the ideal spot to find a chair and relax because the sun shines brightly through the ceiling and a nap could easily happen in one of their comfortable lounge chairs. This place also has the margarita swim-up bar (must be 21) and a bar & grill option.

Lost World (outdoor): 
If you take the long trek to the Glacier Canyon side of the hotel, you will get to the Lost World waterpark. It’s really big! And it’s meant for really big people as well (referring to age). If you have teenagers, this is the one to visit with its thrill slides and dark tunnels and trap doors…whew. I was not impressed with the options for little ones here, but I suppose it’s only fair and I’ll appreciate it in 15 years.

The only two waterparks we didn’t get to were Cubby’s Cove and Cubby’s Outdoor. Check those out online to see if you’re interested. We simply ran out of time and sunscreen!

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Hours and Location

511 E Adams Street | Wisconsin Dells, WI 53965

The outdoor waterparks are open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Check-in is at 4pm and check-out is at 11am. Parking is free and there is plenty of it. Simply pull up to the main entrance and check in and get the map to your room. Did I mention this place is huge? The waterparks all seemed to shut down when the sun was setting or before, so get your swimming in during the peak hours.

The hotel is located less than a mile north of Hwy 94 just past Great Wolf Lodge, Kalahari and the Outlet Mall.

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  • James
    09/03/2015 at 10:35 pm

    Wisconsin Dells is a perfect place I ever visited

  • Allison Jordan
    05/05/2016 at 9:41 am

    We are planning a trip this summer. I was reading your great review. I was wondering if you purchased a fun pass for your 3 year old.

    • Nicki
      05/12/2016 at 11:28 pm

      Have so much fun! We got the passes for free, however I dont’ think we would’ve purchased one for her because a lot of them were just too “old” for her, but she did enjoy a number of the activities. I would’ve just purchased them individually though, personally.