How Did Wisconsin Dells Become the Waterpark Capital of the World?

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Wisconsin Dells is a town like no other in Wisconsin.

While driving you can see a replica of the Greek Colosseum with a hotel inside, a tourist attraction built to look like an upside-down White House, and the famous water slides that twist and turn to create a skyline unique to the Wisconsin Dells.

It’s a place where Wisconsinans and countless others have gone to spend summers and weekends. But how did it become the original and beloved tourist destination known as the Waterpark Capital of the World?

Members of the Ho-Chunk Nation have lived in and around the Dells of Wisconsin for centuries, according to Dave Rambow, local historian and site manager of HH Bennett Studio and Museum, a historic site in the Dells.


“Their stories tell of the formation of the Dells by a serpent traversing the land to create the river, its channels, its fish and its wildlife,” Rambow said in an email.

The Ho-Chunks’ homeland stretches from Michigan to Illinois. But at four points between 1844 and 1873, the United States government attempted to forcibly evict all Indigenous peoples, including the Ho-Chunk, trying to push them to places farther west, reported Wisconsin Public Radio.

“After each trip, the Ho-Chunks would walk back to their country,” Rambow said in an email.

Chief Ho-Chunk Yellow Thunder and his band were forced out of the area in 1840, according to the Sauk County Historical Society. Chief Yellow Thunder twice returned to the Wisconsin Dells area, but both times he was detained and forced to leave.

Then, in 1849, trying a new strategy, Chief Yellow Thunder successfully purchased a 40-acre farm near the Wisconsin Dells. This land served as a gathering place for returning Ho-Chunk members and ensured “Ho-Chunk’s connection to their ancestral lands today,” Rambow said.

When it was founded in the late 1850s, Wisconsin Dells was originally called Kilbourn City.

“The man who founded the town and is responsible for putting it here was a man by the name of Byron Kilbourn,” Rambow said, adding that Kilbourn was a railway tycoon. “He was not a modest man, so he founded this city in 1857 and gave it his name.”

At the time, Kilbourn City was a small logging and timber community.

The town’s name was changed to Wisconsin Dells in 1931 to make it easier to find tourists who had already begun to flock to the area, Rambow said.

The transition to tourism began when a logger and river pilot named Leroy Gates had what Rambow called an “Aha! moment.”

Gates got his start in 1849 working on a lumber raft, guiding logs across the Wisconsin River from northern Wisconsin through the Dells en route to other states to be sold.

“He started showing his skills,” Rambow said. “He had a top hat and a coat.”

In 1857, Gates turned his knowledge of the Dells waterways of Wisconsin into a business of rowing boat tours, Rambow said, providing the few customers he could squeeze into his boat with ongoing “fancy stories.” of road.

The popularity of rowing boat tours grew so much that, by the 1870s, tours were offered daily by several different tour boat companies; and in 1871 the first steamboat excursion came to the Dells.

One of the big draws for tourists was the natural beauty of the banks of the Dells with their rock formations.

“We have these amazing otherworldly shorelines,” Rambow said, referring to the khaki-colored sandstone rocks and cliffs found with streaks on the Dells waterways.

Tourism in the area flourished further with the help of Henry Hamilton (HH) Bennett, a former carpenter from the Dells, who returned to the town in the 1850s after seriously injuring his hand during the war American civilian.

“He came back with no job, didn’t know what he was going to do, then he bumped into our friend Leroy Gates,” Rambow said.

Bennett rented a small photography business from Gates and began taking portraits and landscape photos of Wisconsin Dells. Bennett put prints of his photos on passenger train cars and donated sets to libraries, publicizing the Dells across the country.

Wisconsin Dells’ first waterslide opened in the 1970s, said Rhonda Parchem, director of marketing and communications at the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau.

But, Parchem said, the real innovation came when Polynesian Water Park Resort decided to put a roof over its facilities in 1989, giving the Dells its first indoor water park.

“The fact that we can offer an option to swim, splash, slide down waterslides year-round in Wisconsin has really been a game-changer,” Parchem said. “As more and more water parks were developed, it really gave us a point of differentiation from other destinations in the Midwest.”

When it comes to the title of “Waterpark Capital of the World,” Parchem points out some bragging rights, saying:

More than 200 water slides and 16 million gallons of water power are among the Dells’ most beloved attractions.

Noah’s Ark is America’s largest outdoor water park, spanning 70 acres with numerous slides, including one that loops, a lazy river, and a log boardwalk.

Wilderness Resort is America’s largest combined indoor-outdoor water park, featuring a 180-foot-long waterslide, bumper boats, wave pool, spa, and golf course.

Kalahari Resort is Wisconsin’s largest indoor water park, with a 250-foot-long waterslide, a wave simulator for boogie boarding and indoor surfing, and lessons to teach you how to swim like a shark or mermaid.

“Today, we still have more water parks here of all sizes per capita than anywhere else on the planet,” Parchem said.

About 4 million people visit the Dells each year, according to the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. The group estimates that those visitors spent around $857 million in 2020, down just over 29% from 2019, when the region grappled with a pandemic-related drop in tourism. The bulk of this expenditure is for accommodation, followed closely by food and beverages. According to the group, tourism supports more than 12,600 jobs and generates about $31 million in state taxes and $45 million in local taxes.

Rob Cunningham, a band teacher who now lives in Madison, grew up in Wisconsin Dells. Cunningham said his family owned a small 10-room motel in town, and in the 1970s two pilots came to stay with them, working as helicopter pilots for tourist trips in the summer.

“My brother and I loved to come down and watch these helicopters take off and land, and one day when they were a bit slow, one of the pilots asked if we wanted to come up for a ride,” Cunningham recalled. “So we did. Which…my parents had no idea we did that. And I know they mentioned that we shouldn’t get in cars with people we didn’t know. not, but I don’t think they ever mentioned a helicopter.

Kristen Day, an instructional designer in Hartford, grew up as a seasonal camper heading to the Dells with her family every weekend during the warmer months.

“It’s just such a different environment,” Day said. “I know it’s touristy and there’s a lot going on there, but for me it’s nature, it’s the river, it’s history; all those things that sort of make it Old Dells.

Now an adult, day camps in the Dells on weekends between April and October with her husband, who works part-time as a racetrack chaplain in the Dells.

Stephanie Elkins of WPR’s “Morning Classics” recalls a trip to the Dells becoming a rite of passage for nieces and nephews who would come to visit.

“Kids were relaxing, lighting up and laughing outside on perfect summer nights,” Elkins recalled.