Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
As we neared the main entrance to Noah’s Ark a selection of classic rock playing over the park’s loudspeakers could be heard, already signaling this place was a drastic improvement over Mt. Olympus with its brain dead loop of teenie pop tunes, and we hadn’t even gotten our all-day wristbands yet. Noah’s Ark Water Park is advertised as the largest water park in the United States (although I’m curious how exactly they measure that claim), and it’s also probably the only major amusement property in the Wisconsin Dells area that has its act together in terms of management and customer service. There’s still plenty of greenery surrounding the midways, the slides and infrastructure all appear to be properly maintained, and the employees are mostly all friendly and efficient. Rather than force an appearance as a big-budget theme park where it doesn’t work, Noah’s Ark feels far more natural, taking time to find a clever and original name for their slides rather than slapping an expensive but purposeless façade over the front. Maybe water parks are just an easier business to manage than dry mechanical theme parks, but despite the absence of any top ten wooden roller coasters I found Noah’s Ark to be the easiest park to enjoy in the Wisconsin Dells.
Not that I’m nearly as an astute a critic on water slides as I am on roller coasters. Perhaps part of my perception was shaped by the fact that visiting a major stand-alone water park was a relatively uncommon experience for me, and so I derived extra pleasure simply from the novelty that it wasn’t just another amusement park. For various reasons I’ve been adverse to water throughout my life. My mother, who for whatever reason became interested in astrology when she was young, insists it’s because I’m a Leo and Leo’s are associated with fire and fire signs are incompatible with water signs… and I frankly don’t know what to say to that. Can’t I simply dislike something without it being a cosmological event?
Nevertheless, I’ve had interest in water parks and their close relationship to theme parks for quite some time, even if that interest rarely expressed itself in the act of donning a bathing suit and trying them first hand. Water slides require an emphasis on the subtleties of layout that roller coasters, with their multitudes of technological gimmicks and high thrills, can sometimes avoid. A water slide designer had a much greater degree of freedom to experiment with a diversity of layouts, different sequences of curves, drops, helices, and tunnels, and can do so without the burden of exorbitant fabrication and construction costs that beset roller coaster designers. I also like the openness and immediacy of the water slide experience. Although coasters can go upside down at faster than highway speeds, I often feel overly protected inside the cars. In a water park it’s just you and maybe a piece of foam or inflated rubber, and when you push yourself off the edge of the chute the experience doesn’t just happen, it happens to you. Even traditional limitations of water slides, such as the fact that water can’t go uphill and it’s hard to thematically integrate a fiberglass tube, are slowly being removed.
I had never been on an uphill water coaster before, and Noah’s Ark’s Black Anaconda, ProSlide’s first experiment with uphill waterslide technology and also still the longest water coaster outside of Santa Clause, Indiana, seemed like a good one to start with. It’s also one of the few water coasters built using ProSlide’s original conveyor belt technology before they switched to HydroMagnetic launches to propel the rafts uphill (water coasters built before ProSlide entered the market used a patented water jet system), so I was curious to see how that works.
We climb a tall tower in the center of the park, where a small toboggan-like raft awaits us. It starts with a steep, long drop all the way to ground level, and then a conveyor belt kicks in to yank us back uphill into the first tunnel. These conveyor belts move extremely fast, turning on only when the raft is approaching and then turning back off once it has passed. Combined with the slickness of the toboggan raft, it feels more naturally like a coaster than it does a conveyor belt, and overall I thought the technology was quite effective for its simplicity. The one-quarter mile long layout features a lot of repetition, switching back and forth between segments of open-air inline hills and valley, and then simple 180° turnarounds in enclosed tubes. I believe one enclosed section might have a helix or S-bend in it, but other than that it’s a fairly simple layout. It finishes with a reenactment of Jon Voight’s scene from the movie Anaconda, as we’re regurgitated out of the serpent’s mouth into a splashdown pool.
I really wanted to like Black Anaconda, and was anticipating it to be the best ride in the park. It has that potential, but after three rides I concluded I couldn’t quite enjoy it because it was simply too wet. Now I know that sounds like a stupid criticism for a water slide (what’s next, am I going to complain the wave pool is also too wet?), but hear me out. On all the uphill conveyors there are these little fountains that squirt water onto the belt. I’m not certain if these serve any functional purpose or if they’re just there for fun, but some of them are aimed a little too high and they’ll shoot a fairly concentrated stream of water straight into your ears and eyes. Furthermore, there’s a lot of water pumped into the flume at the entrance to most of the enclosed sections (there might be some waterfall effects as well, I can’t remember), and with the toboggan being launched at twenty to thirty miles per hour these hit the raft and up into your face really hard. It was almost impossible to open my eyes to see what was going on for the majority of the ride, which simply made it hard to enjoy. It’s a great ride if you need your nasal cavity cleaned out (seriously…) but otherwise I’d recommend to bring goggles and to plug your nose.
Next to Black Anaconda was a pair of slides called the Stingray. These appear to be early predecessors to the famous Tornado funnel slides, consisting of nothing but a steep drop into a big half-pipe using a two-person face-to-face tube. This was actually quite fun, especially going over the edge of the drop backwards where there’s a moment of butterflies in your stomach. The two-person tube seems to hold its momentum better than the big cloverleaf rafts with their broad surface area, which meant we got a least three or four decent moments of hang time in the half-pipe before the still water collected at the bottom brought us to a wet stop. You have to haul your own tube up the very narrow staircase, which limited our will to ride this to only twice during the day, despite the short line.
The nearby Jungle Rapids body slide must have been one of the first slides built in Noah’s Ark, as told by its weathered wood frame, faded blue fiberglass chutes, and hand painted panel signs. You take a simple foam mat and wrap your body with it pig-in-a-blanket style, and then slide down. Couldn’t be more basic, right? However, the two slides that I sampled on this complex each displayed a very different personality. The first was a rather slow collection of dips and helices that took its time in returning me to the pool. The second, after a short enclosed turn, featured a large drop that catapulted me with somewhat alarming force into a final set of helices, spitting me out into the pool mere seconds later.
Around the corner is the discovery of a collection of slides set upon a hillside. The most eye-catching of these is the Scorpion’s Tail, a recently opened Aqua-Loop slide with a trap door chute that looks absolutely crazy. I would have loved to have seen if it stung as fiercely as it looked, but alas it was the only slide that was closed during our visit. However, the radical design has caught on in the industry and there are plenty more being built around the country, so I wasn’t too concerned that I’d never get a chance to try one.
As a consolation prize, The Point of No Return was open and thrilling riders. A speed slide with the sole function to drop you from a very tall height to very fast speeds with a very wet finale, it was perhaps a little hard to justify climbing ten stories of stairs for a slide that would last only ten seconds no matter how scary those seconds would be. Noah’s Ark had some fun by sprinkling several signs that notify us of “points” along our ascension:
“This is the point where you ask how much farther it is”, “This is the point where your hands start shaking”, “This is the point when you begin feeling dizzy”, “This is the point when your swimsuit becomes extremely soiled”, and so on (although maybe not in those exact words), until the inevitable final notification sign at the top.
Although the slide itself might last mere seconds, the minute or two spent at the top waiting for your turn can certainly make up for it. Settling into the flume trough on the precipice of a 100 foot plunge so steep you can’t see the bottom, and realizing that I’m responsible for pushing myself over the edge, created so much suspense that the slide that followed was almost anticlimactic. It’s basically the same psychological thrill as any drop tower, only I’ve not been on so many of these speed slides yet that I’ve turned utterly indifferent to the whole experience.
A couple of smaller, older speed slides flank the side of the big tower. Called The Plunge, this pair of double dip chutes requires that you go down face first on a mat. I honestly didn’t care for this riding position at all; it requires you bend your spine backwards in a very unnatural position to get your face out of the water, and this can be kind of hard to do on a steep decline. Once was more than enough on that one. This would be their last season, replaced in 2012 with a ProSlide KrakenRacer named Quadzilla.
Finally, another set of family raft slides known as Kowabunga are placed along with the rest of the single-person speed slides. Unlike most slides of its type which are a series of curves and shallow dips, these consist of three straight drops, each a bit larger than the last. It’s relatively tame and slow compared to the other body slides in this complex, but it manages a very high capacity (the second flume wasn’t even needed for today) and is fun for what it is. They require at least three people in a raft, so if you’re alone or in a pair expect to be sharing a ride with the folks standing next to you.
I should mention that Noah’s Ark has a very strange walkway layout. The entire front side of the park is open admission to anyone, although of course you need to show your wristband to ride any of the slides. Walking up to it from the original parking lot (if you get there early or it’s a light day), there’s a building with tickets, lockers, and a small store, and right next to it are the entrances to several of the major slides, without so much as a gate or welcoming entrance midway to set the tone or force patrons to exit through the gift shop. To get to the rest of the park, however, you must take a rather unintuitive shortcut through a narrow water play area, where someone will check for your wristband to let you through. I’m not sure how this doesn’t create a large bottleneck during peak season, but apparently it works for them. The rest of the water park beyond this section is laid out in a more traditional midway arrangement, but even here I got the impression of a park that was added upon in layers without much regard for how future attractions would integrate. I don’t mean this to sound like a criticism; it’s kind of charming, actually (unlike Mt. Olympus’ backwards infrastructure you’ll probably still find something fun to do if you take a wrong turn), but just make sure you have a look at the maps set up throughout the park if you need to get from point A to point B in a reasonably efficient manner.
Moving back in this direction, we find a small island of slides surrounded by the Endless River, a basic oval-shaped lazy river with very little in the way of extra features. The first of these slides are the creatively named Slidewinders, which resemble the similarly archaic Jungle Rapids experienced earlier, only they have a few more twists and turns and mats are not required. Again, I enjoyed the simplicity of these slides and the ability to compare layouts to one another to decide which is best. There was no clear-cut winner here, as all three of the main slides resemble each other quite closely… although if I recall the slide closest to the top of the stairs may have been marginally faster than the others.
Larger and more modern, the nearby Bermuda Triangle takes the same basic concept as the Slidewinders, but widens the chutes to allow for two-person inline tubes to pass through. Again, these were another enjoyable if not slightly indifferent diversion, although we failed to pick up as much speed as I’d anticipated. Most of the kinetic energy created by the dips seemed to transfer to rocking from side to side around the curves rather than forward momentum, although this did allow for a couple of good splashes over the edge of the tube.
The big ticket attraction in this sector is the Time Warp, a ProSlide Behemoth Bowl which would end up being the only attraction we’d have to wait more than fifteen minutes for due to its immense popularity. It turned out this popularity would be justified. We’re set off in a 4-person cloverleaf tube into a dark tunnel filled with zany warning signs about the approaching wormhole. Just as the tunnel gets really dark, our raft dives down a surprisingly long, fast descent, particularly thrilling if you’re going backwards. Inside the main bowl chamber there’s a crazy array of special effects and water jets flying everywhere so we’re totally disoriented (although unlike Black Anaconda we can look around without getting our eyeballs involuntarily cleaned), and at the center of it all is a fog-breathing Tyrannosaurus Rex.
On our first ride we were paired with two other reasonably big guys, so we got to spend a nice long time inside the Time Warp. Our second ride was with a mom and her young son, so without the added weight we got caught in the current flowing out the exit after only one-and-a-half spins. It’s a relatively short ride but the combination of the steep dark drop, the unpredictability of the bowl, and sensory overload thematic special effects, makes it quite easily my favorite slide at Noah’s Ark.
Dark Voyage is the park’s big, enclosed raft ride. I was looking forward to this one particularly after Time Warp proved to be such a success. It dominates the nearby area quite impressively, although the slide itself I didn’t think quite lived up to the promise. With a name like Dark Voyage I’d expect an experience that’s very dark and very long, and while it lives up to the first part of the name, the second part doesn’t quite deliver. The layout forms just a basic oval, with the splash pool, conveyer lift and loading platform taking up one of the oblong sides. There’s only about thirty seconds to enjoy the reverberating echoes and make faces at the people sitting across from you without them knowing, which to be fair is about equivalent to the Time Warp; yet Dark Voyage is also at a crucial lack of dinosaurs. One feature we did really like was that the Dark Voyage was the only major slide with heated water. My dad made it one of his favorites for mostly that reason.
Congo Bongo Rapids is another family raft slide, this one of the traditional beige half-pipe variety. Although it lasted longer than the Dark Voyage, that might have only been because it was a lot slower. The hillside location is nice, and it has this easy-going quality that makes me think it could be a huge amount of fun if you pile as many friends into the raft as possible, but don’t be expecting to get very wet on this one.
Reaching the back side of the park is a complex consisting of the Big Kahuna wave pool, the Adventure River, and the Bahama Falls, a trio of small tube slides that feed into the river. I tend to enjoy a good lazy river more than a good wave pool, so the Adventure River was where we’d spend most of the time relaxing, especially because it has a long course that’s far removed from many of the busier slide complex areas. We couldn’t get too relaxed, however, as there were periodically geysers and waterfalls that required paddling away from (or, perhaps depending on your proclivities, towards).
Way out in the furthest, remotest corner of the park is Black Thunder, a complex of four enclosed single-or-double tube slides. Two are a series of serpentine curves, while the other two don’t pussyfoot around and consist of two straight drops directly into the pool below. The speed slides are sort of wasted in the dark, especially as the sudden burst of kinetic energy must immediately dissipate when you hit the bottom ten seconds later, and you’ve got to contend with waterfalls over the exits which at 20mph can sting your face a little. The longer layouts were much better, similar in experience to Dark Voyage but perhaps even wilder, the in-line tube offering several high-banked turns without warning.
Returning to the very front of the park near the Wisconsin Dells Parkway (although not necessarily close to any of the park entrances) is a quasi-dry ride section. I say quasi-dry because, although filled with attractions more typical of a dry mechanical amusement park (including a children’s coaster I didn’t bother with), you probably wouldn’t want to change out of your swimsuit just yet. This was also the one place where the Noah’s Ark theme was present, most notably inside the small ark filled with memorabilia from the park’s history and its numerous awards (including Black Anaconda’s 2005 Golden Ticket Award for best new water park ride) and in the theme for their spillwater shoot-the-chutes attraction, Flash Flood. It’s been a while since I’ve ridden one of these basic splashdown designs at an amusement park (if I’m going to bother getting soaked, I need a more elaborate layout or theme to justify it), so I didn’t see any reason to avoid it at the water park.
It fits well with the rest of the water slides, a short, basic but effective thrill that’s basically all an excuse to find new ways to play in the water. A bit of anticipation builds up during the process of slowly climbing the lift and then rumbling slowly around the aerial turnaround (this part is almost more reminiscent of a roller coaster than water attraction), but it’s quickly defused with a simple drop into a reservoir that kicks up a lot of water. Nevertheless, my favorite part is this odd moment when the boat first lands and you can see and hear huge quantities of water crashing up over the front lip, but the moment when you feel the water is delayed by a couple of seconds as you wait for it to finally rain back down. And just like in the Bible, when it rains at Noah’s Ark, it pours.