The little girl nervously grips a wafer cone tightly in one hand as a spindly-legged fawn approaches. The fawn ponders the cone for a second, then begins nibbling at the kibble inside. The little girl is so excited she drops the cone, spilling the kibble on the ground. Mother and daughter both giggle delightedly as they watch the fawn quickly sweep up every nugget of food with its pink tongue, then clop off toward the next cone-bearing child.
This type of scene has been playing out for decades at the Wisconsin Deer Park, one of the oldest establishments in the Dells. The 40-acre venue on Wisconsin Dells Parkway (aka “The Strip”) is home to more than 100 tame, white-tailed deer that nonchalantly wander around the wooded property among the viewers. The park also contains numerous other species of deer, plus animals such as elk, bison, emus and lemurs, all of which have steadily attracted both kids and adult visitors over the years.
The popularity of such a no-frills site may seem strange in today’s fast-paced, high-tech world, where it’s often the glitziest and the latest and greatest that capture people’s attention. But that’s not necessarily so in Wisconsin Dells. Yes, plenty of people flock to its ziplines, speed boats, roller coasters and, of course, world-famous waterparks. Yet many other visitors have a fondness for its more nostalgic spots—those places that bring a smile to your face because they remind you of simpler times.
BACK TO THE PAST
Like Wisconsin Deer Park, the Great Northern Railway is tucked into a wooded pocket of land just north of downtown Dells. The complex consists of a 15-inch gauge railroad, depot and picnic grounds. A ride on the train takes you three miles through the forest to the fictitious town of Western Springs, where the steam locomotive is turned around by hand for the return trip.
Although the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will disband in 2017, Circus World in neighboring Baraboo is still alive and thriving. One of Wisconsin’s 12 state historic sites and museums, Circus World contains an amazingly rich collection of circus memorabilia. One large building is filled with intricately decorated circus wagons and a circus wagon restoration center, while a museum tells the history of the Ringling Brothers, who made Baraboo their circus’ winter quarters from 1886 to 1918. Outside there’s a carousel, displays on circus music and animals, and a big top, under which one-hour circus performances are held twice a day May 19 through August 27.
For a true peek into the olden days, stop in at Parson’s Indian Trading Post. Still a functioning trading post, it’s an intriguing mix of Native American museum, Native American gift shop and souvenir joint. The museum section contains items like a Cheyenne cradle and porcupine-quill belt; there are also more than 2,000 arrowheads on display. The gift shop offers everything from fine turquoise and silver jewelry to Minnetonka moccasins and various tchotchkes. Make sure to take a photo of yourself by the teepee out front. At one point in time, it was the most photographed item in all of Wisconsin.
Movie fans can sit under the stars and take in a double feature at the Big Sky Drive-In, one of just a handful of drive-in movie theaters left in the state. Only firstrun movies are shown on the theater’s full-sized screens. The concession stand is famed for its Chihuahua sandwich and also sells hot dogs, pizza, grilled cheese and popcorn.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
In the Dells, many old-time restaurants have drawn in the crowds for generations, like Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty. Open for 60 years, it’s famed for its buttermilk doughnuts. Made on-site, they’re lightly dusted with sugar and good enough that people often wait in a (sometimes very long) line to purchase them. The restaurant is also known for its all-you-can-eat dinner, which begins at noon and is served in surroundings reminiscent of a lumber camp.
Don’t be fooled by the plain exterior of Denny’s Diner. The interior features an array of interesting and varied decorations, including a train chugging along the ceiling and a gorilla on a motorcycle. Denny’s serves breakfast and lunch, although guests often come just for the joint’s ginormous cinnamon rolls. One perk: Full breakfasts can be ordered to go. (But once you see the inside, you’ll want to eat in.)
The Dells has long been known for its fudge, and that still holds true today. Original Wisconsin Dells Fudge, as its name implies, was the first fudge shop in the area. Opened in 1962, the shop still makes its fudge using the same recipe. Flavors include turtle, double dark chocolate pecan and vanilla walnut, and all of the candy is cooked in small batches before being handpaddled and cut.
At Goody Goody Gum Drop, prepare yourself for visual and olfactory overload, as the main portion of the shop is filled with more than 1,000 kinds of candy, from inexpensive hard candies to elegant truffles. You can also purchase ice cream and hand-made gelato here.
For regular visitors, perhaps the most nostalgia-inducing dining spot in the area is the original Monk’s Bar & Grill in downtown Dells. A fixture on the street since 1947, the place is most famous for its Monk’s burger, a ground-chuck hamburger that’s cooked medium on a well-seasoned, never-washed grill, and served with grilled onions. There are plenty of other items on the menu too, but you’ll want to stick with this one.
CATCHING SOME ZZZZ’S
Drive past the super-sized resorts and on to Baker’s Sunset Bay Resort, where you can stay in a variety of lodging from hotel rooms to family-sized condos that sleep 12. Tucked on Lake Delton’s southern shore, the resort brings back memories of vacations from the olden days, with its sandy beach, free rowboat and kayak rentals, and nightly bonfires. Pets are even welcome in certain rooms.
If your memories are of more rustic vacations, Birchcliff Resort rents a variety of cabins. The sparsest come equipped simply with kitchenettes, outdoor grills and picnic tables. But others have more amenities, including full kitchens; there’s even a recently remodeled group lodge that sleeps 18 and has both a pool table and ping-pong table.
Camping fans should check out Holiday Shores Campground & Resort, which sits on a quiet spot along the Wisconsin River. The 195-acre property boasts 2,200 feet of river frontage and offers guests everything from basketball and volleyball to Frisbee golf and croquet. You can also rent a variety of watercraft: canoes, boats, Jet Skis, paddleboats and more.
If the kids are clamoring to stay at a waterpark resort, that’s okay. Hotels such as Atlantis, Grand Marquis and Skyline are like time capsules of the early waterpark days, as they feature modest-sized pools with small water features. Spend the night here, and you’re guaranteed not to wait in a long line to go down the slide.
DELLS BOAT TOURS: Glide along the scenic Wisconsin River on any of a variety of tours.
DUCKS TOURS: Both the Dells Army Ducks and Original Wisconsin Ducks offer guided tours on land and water.
THE DEL-BAR: One of the area’s favorite fine-dining spots, The Del-Bar opened in the late 1930s as a roadhouse specializing in char-broiled steaks. You can still enjoy steak here, and even the original dining room, which has been incorporated into today’s much-larger structure as the Garden Room.
THUNDER VALLEY INN AND THE FARM DINNER SHOW: Enjoy a farm-fresh meal, then take in a show featuring fiddle-and-accordion playing and singalongs. You can stay overnight in homey accommodations, too.
VINTAGE PHOTOS: Have your mug taken dressed as gangsters, Civil Warera folks and more.