Just to be clear, our first trip five years ago to the Waterpark Capital of the World (otherwise known as the Wisconsin Dells) was not my idea. I imagined huge plastic tubes, moms yelling, and kids screaming. Then I imagined me, squeezed into a bathing suit, dripping chlorine, tromping over soggy carpet to my family's hotel room.
It turns out I was right about what to expect, but I was wrong about how much I would enjoy it. Done well, a winter trip to an indoor water park can be a seriously fun, physically active family vacation at a time of year when the weather often conspires to keep us inside.
It was my kids who wanted to go there, of course. Based on their friends' reports, they thought of the Dells as a Disney World within reach, a watery wonderland not too far away, designed expressly to make them happy. (It's a four-hour drive from our home in Minneapolis.) My husband, Walter, was a middle school band director at the time, with a skyscraper-high threshold for noise and chaos -- which meant he was game, too. So we dug out our bathing suits and headed for the Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort for a long weekend investigating whether water parks were for us.
We chose Wilderness, one of the priciest of the more than 20 indoor parks in the Dells, for several reasons. Friends gave it high marks for offering the most water attractions for children of various ages. Its open layout makes it easier for parents to watch their kids. And when you're too waterlogged to take another turn on the flume, you can try its almost overwhelming menu of indoor activities, including laser tag, three arcades, and the 30,000-square-foot, four-story play area.
My kids loved the Wilderness Hotel from the moment we stepped up to the reception desk. Like a log cabin village scaled for Paul Bunyan, the huge resort boasts cathedral ceilings, moose antlers, and gift shops selling everything from swim goggles to agates to old-fashioned candy sticks. Peter, Henrik, and Luisa (then ages 8, 5, and 3) strutted around like they owned the place, exploring the different lobbies, then finding their way back to our surprisingly spacious room.
As for the four indoor water parks at Wilderness, they far exceeded my children's most daring fantasies. While you can certainly spend an entire afternoon happily paddling in a wave pool, the kids all were eager to try the more daunting options, which combine the swoops, dips, and spins of a roller coaster with the refreshing fun of a day at the beach. To my surprise, I found myself laughing and cajoling my kids to try even more challenging rides.
But my favorite moment occurred when Henrik and I swam through an opening in the wall of an indoor pool into an outdoor hot tub. It was night and probably 20 degrees outside -- so cold I could see steam rising off his little, wet head. But the tub felt like a huge, warm hug against winter. "I love it here," he said, climbing onto my lap as he looked up at the stars. In that moment, I did, too. And I knew we'd be back again.
If you go: Winter weekday rates start at $99 per night and include a double queen room for four and passes to all Wilderness water parks. wildernessresort.com; 800-867-9453
For the full experience, consider a stay-and-play park. Two of the best chains are:
Kalahari Resorts in Wisconsin (shown at right) and Ohio
Indoor surfing and raft rides meet The Lion King at this Dells favorite. Although there's plenty for even the littlest waders, Kalahari gets rave reviews from older kids and grown-ups who love thrill rides. Prices start at $139 per night for a room for four, including water park passes. kalahariresorts.com; 877-525-2427
Great Wolf Lodge in Ohio (shown at right), Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Ontario
Another Dells classic, Great Wolf has ten other North American lodges. Besides all the water attractions, most offer a variety of dry activities, from MagiQuest, an interactive, live- action game, to story time in the lobby. Some rooms have beds in "log cabins" and "caves." Prices vary by location. greatwolf.com; 800-559-9653
Originally published in the December/January 2013 issue of FamilyFun