Because 5 million annual visitors flow into the Wisconsin Dells like a tidal wave, you'll find an overwhelming number of places clamoring for your vacation dollars. Go ahead and splurge on big resorts with on-site water parks if your kids are happy jumping, sliding and splashing the day away, but you can usually save money by traveling midweek and dining off-property. You can save even more by seeking smaller resorts, throwback attractions and enjoying the area's natural beauty. Fringe benefit: ditching the biggest crowds. Here are our picks:
1) Devil’s Lake State Park Don’t miss the cool rock formations and heady overlooks with bluff-top hikes at this popular state park. If you can return for fall when maples morph to electric reds and yellows, it’s even more spectacular. (608) 356-8301,
2) Big Sky Twin Drive-In Make it an old-school family date with a trip to the drive-in. Two double features run every night starting at 8 p.m. throughout the summer, and you can get hot dogs, pizza and cotton candy with your bucket of popcorn. (608) 254-8025;
3) Downtown RiverWalk It’s best to avoid weekends and midday, but you’ll find plenty of people-watching, window-shopping and a nice stroll along the river if you head into downtown Dells.
Courtesy of the Wisconsin Dells Convention and Visitors Center.
4) Wisconsin Deer Park This charming 40-acre wildlife park has welcomed families for more than 50 years with a wooded four-block amble past bison, horses, llamas, emus, elk and lemurs, plus a chance to get close to and feed some of the exotic and domestic deer. (608) 253-2041;
5) Birchcliff Resort We love the colorful cabins, friendly vibe and tucked-in-the-woods Up-North feel. If you crave water park thrills, specials can include passes to nearby Lost Rios at Chula Vista Resort. (608) 254-7515;
Photo courtesy of Birchcliff Resort
6) Denny’s Diner Don’t confuse this Lake Delton cafe with the national chain. Elvis in the front window offers the first clue to the nostalgia inside, with walls packed with midcentury souvenirs, including Superman in a phone booth and even a TV playing Little Rascals. Even without the lively decor, we’d go back for the big, gooey cinnamon rolls. (608) 254-7647;
7) Fitzgerald’s Motel Several of the Dells’ midcentury motels have been nicely kept up and go easy on the budget. Fitzgerald’s Motel, a two-story with candy-red doors, has built a fan base for its warm welcome and slice-of-America feel. It’s on the quieter end of downtown but close to the action. (608) 253-1651;
8) MACs Skip a fancy night out at a steakhouse and opt for retro chic and casual dining that celebrates Wisconsin’s cheese with sandwich melts, wedge salads and a dozen new riffs on homey macaroni and cheese. (608) 678-2300;
9) Mirror Lake State Park Three miles from the Dells, this park—named for its calm lake that reflects a wooded shoreline—offers a quiet retreat. Bike, boat, canoe and kayak rentals are offered; the lake also has a beach. (608) 254-2333;
10) Dells Lumberjack Show It’s worth the ticket price to see flannel-clad lumberjacks compete at speed chopping, log rolling and pole climbing, with plenty of audience input and family-friendly antics. (608) 254-8717,