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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How You Spent Your Summer Vacation

Every season of the year comes clothed in memories of seasons past and summer's memories often involve family vacations. Maybe you were one of those lucky kids who flew to Orlando or Anaheim for a vacation - but the closest I ever got to spending summer with a large mouse was in the Wisconsin Dells.

Love 'em, hate 'em, the Wisconsin Dells and adjoining Lake Delton are part of the childhood lore of many a Chicagoan. (I suspect many a Wisconsinite, too, but on the other hand, maybe they escaped to Michigan...) In my case, it's even a part of my pre-history - my parents, now married 51 years, honeymooned in the Dells. Like death and taxes, a summer trip to the Dells was inevitable in our household. A Dells vacation meant swimming in Lake Delton all day, building sand castles, eating bologna sandwiches and drinking Fresca on the beach.

At night, freshly scrubbed, we headed into town. The downtown area of the Dells is to a small child what Vegas must be for the addicted gambler: where shall I spend my money tonight? Miniature golf? Skee-ball? Arcade games? Roller coasters and go-karts? Toys and t-shirts and faux Native American paraphernalia of every kind? As much as I adored those lazy days on the beach, the warm nights in the Dells were magical to me. Families would spread out on the park benches and sidewalks in a state of Dairy Queen-induced bliss. More families packed the rustic restaurants and taverns, throwing peanut shells on the floor and often listening to a local strum his guitar while singing pop songs. Very late in the evening, my siblings and I would return to the beach, giggling and goofing around under a starry sky reflected in the calm lake water.

That was, oh, 20 or 30 years ago. Believe it or not, my family still makes a pilgrimage to the Dells almost every summer, although I won't be joining them this year. The giant mice are still there, clutching enormous wedges of cheese. There is now a towering Trojan horse on the main motorway, but the entire downtown area still smells like fudge and leather moccasins - and sometimes beer and onions. As the years roll by, I find more and more people whose summer vacation memories, like mine, are full of a funny mix of sand, water, fresh air, rock formations and a heaping dose of carnival kitsch. Judging from the surge of new construction in the Dells and Lake Delton areas, the trend shows no signs of stopping. It's a short drive, it's relatively inexpensive, and if you're bored in the Dells, well, there's probably no hope for you. :)

How about you? Did you spend your childhood vacations in the Wisconsin Dells? Have a funny or poignant story to share? Post it here! Did you visit the Dells this summer? How was it?
Do you, like me, miss the cinnamon rolls at the old Patio restaurant?
Please write in and share your experiences - we'd love to hear from you.


  1. Every summer, my wife insists on stopping in the Dells on the way to the in-laws houses (in MN) so we can have breakfast at Paul Bunyan's. All you can eat pancakes, sausage, eggs and donuts, eaten off of tin plates. If that doesn't say "Dells", nothing does. Oh, and enjoy the mandatory gift shop on the way out (the only way out).

  2. Right after graduating high school, myself and three friends were excited to test our new independence before all going off to college. So we took a road trip to Wisconsin Dells. Such rebels we were. But what a great time we had! I still remember go karts, the Wonder Spot, which did all these weird gravity illusions that were awesome, and having an Old Time picture taken of us dressed as saloon girls. Great cheesy fun.

  3. Yes - it seems every restaurant in the Dells has a gift shop of some sort and given how long the wait for a table can be, I've spent a lot of hours perusing the North Woods knick-knacks and phony Native American items, all made overseas, of course. Paul Bunyan's has become very disappointing - it used to be a relatively inexpensive place where a family could get a lot to eat, and the food was decent quality. We decided to have lunch there 2 years ago and were stunned by the high prices and small portions (yes, they claim it's "all you can eat," but you'd have to ask for refills many times to get what I would call all I could eat!), and there was nothing special about the food. We always preferred a restaurant in the downtown area called the Patio, that had fabulous homemade macaroni and cheese and amazing cinnamon rolls. Alas, it has been gone now for several years.

  4. I'm vaguely embarrassed that I've made enough trips to the Dells to have at least three of those old-timey sepia photographs - my sisters and I dressed as early American settlers, one of me in that same saloon gal garb, and my personal favorite, me as a gangster moll.

    I'm not sure when the Dells crossed that line separating tacky-bad from kitschy-cool, but for me it was when alternative duo The Handsome Family started performing songs about the town.

  5. The Dells are completely cheesy (no pun intended) but where else can you ride horses, rollercoasters and water slides within a few short miles of each other? It's great!


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