WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. -- I don't like roller coasters, so I don't know why I thought I would like a roller coaster experience soaking wet and in the dark. But my husband persuaded me to try ''Fantastic Voyage" at Wild West Waterpark, one of three indoor parks at Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort here in the Dells.
Up, up we climbed, clutching our yellow raft, my fear rising with each set of stairs. At the top we dropped onto the raft and promptly hurtled into a dark tunnel of water, careering up the walls, dropping precipitously and without warning, and splash-landing in a pool with water jets spraying us on all sides. Once my husband and the lifeguard pried my fingers off the raft handle, I stumbled into the wave pool and let the man-made surf toss me about for a while. When the feeling in my hands returned, I trained a water cannon on my companion.
We had come to Wisconsin to see the famous Dells, that 7½-mile stretch of the Wisconsin River lined with fantastic rock formations, steep canyons, and towering cliffs carved into the soft sandstone banks over millions of years. ''Dells," we learned, comes from the French word ''dalles," meaning layers of flat rock.
We discovered, however, that the Dells is famous for another kind of water power as well. This 18-square-mile area comprising the city of Wisconsin Dells and the village of Lake Delton, with a year-round population of just 4,000, bills itself as the water park capital of the United States, boasting 18 indoor parks and three outdoor centers. Each lays claim to some kind of superlative: Noah's Ark, on 70 acres, is America's largest outdoor park. Kalahari Waterpark Resort & Convention Center, at 125,000 square feet, is the country's largest indoor park. Family Land and Bay of Dreams at Treasure Island Waterpark Resort combine for more than 1.3 million square feet of indoor/outdoor water park, making Treasure Island the country's largest water park resort.
It is an odd contrast: the river's natural handiwork, imperceptibly continuing, and the ingenious human harnessing of water coursing through every manner of slide, fountain, pool, funnel, and projectile with people of all ages wearing practically nothing in the dead of winter dripping and shouting from one ride to the next.
Natural beauty, water parks, and a fortuitous location midway between Chicago and Minneapolis make the Dells the premier Midwest family vacation spot, said Steve Shattuck, marketing director for the local visitor and convention bureau. More than 2½ million guests visit annually, most driving up to six hours from the Midwest and south central Canada. The Madison airport is less than an hour away.
Americans' increasing tendency to combine business and recreation has fueled the growth of the large, indoor water park resorts, said John Chastan, director of sales at Kalahari. Chastan said 40 percent of Kalahari's business comes from the convention side, and the water park is the number one draw. Because all resort amenities are built into the room rate, he said, ''It virtually costs no more for someone attending a meeting or convention to bring the family along and turn it into a vacation. And clients tell us they see a 15 to 20 percent increase in attendance" when they offer a family-friendly location.
Tim Guillama's children can't wait for the next ''Better Building Better Business" conference. The Guillama children -- Garrett, 12, Corinne, 11, and Ashley, 9 -- joined their mother, Tina, and father at the Kalahari for two days in February.
''They spent the whole time at the water park," said Guillama, who owns Prairie Construction in North Prairie, Wis., ''and they talked about it for three days afterward. I got to work, and they got to play."
It was ''definitely the water park" that persuaded his family to join Tom Bawolek of Five Star Energy Corp. at the February conference, said his wife, Sandy. ''If he even considered not going, he'd get pressure from us," she said. Children Michael, 18, Sarah, 9, and Jake, 7, found plenty to do, she said.
It was landscape photographer Henry Hamilton Bennett who first lured tourists to the Dells in the late 1800s. His three-dimensional stereographic images of the area's stunning scenery found their way into Victorian parlors coast to coast. In capturing the Dells on film, Bennett invented stop-action photography with the homemade, rubber band-powered shutter he called the ''snapper."
On a boat tour through the Dells, visitors can see some of the landscapes Bennett made famous. Thanks to a dam built in 1909, the scenic stretch of river is divided into the Upper and Lower Dells. We took the Upper Dells tour, a little more than two hours long with two shore landings. We glided past dark sand beaches on one side of the river and sandstone cliffs on the other; by Blackhawk Island, owned by the University of Wisconsin and where there are samples of every tree that grows in the state, our guide said; and through the ''narrows," an area only 52 feet wide and 90 feet deep.
We disembarked at Witches Gulch, where a boardwalk snaked between high cliffs, the passageway sometimes only 3 feet wide. Trapped water was covered with green pine pollen, and we had the sense of walking in a damp cave.
Our second stop was Stand Rock. Legend has it that while perfecting the shutter, Bennett made his 13-year-old son, Ashley, leap 5 feet from one rock summit to another multiple times until he got the perfect shot of the boy in midair. Today, a German shepherd stands in for Ashley, reprising the 1888 jump across the rocks, while tourists try to capture the image -- which is nearly impossible with today's shutter-delayed digital cameras. It was interesting to see the rock formations up close, with descriptive names such as ''Toadstool Rock" and ''Visor Ledge," and touch the soft, gritty stone.
The H.H. Bennett Studio & History Center in downtown Wisconsin Dells re-creates the photographer's studio as it existed in 1908.
Dining options in the Dells run the gamut from the German-inspired Essen Haus to the vegetarian Cheese Factory to the upscale Field's Steak House. There is a noticeable lack of chain operations. Shattuck said virtually all the businesses in the Dells are locally owned, which helps keep the area family-friendly.
In addition to luring conventioneers, the water park resorts are positioning themselves as ideal spots for family events, such as reunions, Shattuck said. The Wilderness resort offers ''entertainment cabins" that sleep up to 20 people. Hardly cabins, these huge log chalets offer five or more bedrooms, multiple baths, whirlpools, massive fieldstone fireplaces, gourmet kitchens, and an entertainment room with stadium seating -- and, of course, free shuttle service to the water park.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.