Wisconsin, USA – Friday, September 2nd & Saturday, September 3rd, 2011
I like structuralism. I like being able to analyze beliefs and ideologies to find the underlying historical processes that account for their existence. I like Karl Marx and his thesis that the means of material production have historically defined the structure of society, including its language. I like Friedrich Nietzsche and his project of tracing the genealogy of morals, noting a dichotomy between “Master Morality” of good and bad, and Christian “Slave Morality” of good and evil. I like Sigmund Freud and how psychoanalysis can demonstrate that perceived “religious experiences” are explained by an unconscious desire for an all-powerful father figure. They tell me deeply revealing things about the structure of society, unmasking archaic dogmas that I never even realized were still there, affecting the basic nature of the way I think and relate to the world around me.
But sometimes I need to be hypocritical. Sometimes I need to say “fuck it” to philosophy, and indulge in the philistine pleasures that my unconscious, materially motivated mind is always pushing me towards. There are times – dark times – I need to pack my bags and do a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip in Midwestern consumerist hell.
Sometimes, I actually want to go to the Wisconsin Dells.
Hey, 3.1 million people annually can’t be wrong!
How a remote ecological destination (the Dells are named for the sandstone gorges that line the Wisconsin River) became host to an economically thriving metropolis of cheap amusements and tourist traps remains an even bigger mystery to me than what’s at the Mystery Spot. I guess the Wisconsin Dells were an inevitable outcome from a state whose proudest cultural accomplishments are cheese and the Packers; it was only a question of where. And a question of how many mini-golf courses can operate within three square miles of each other without over-saturating what the free market can bear. While part of my ego wanted to recoil in horror that there was a place not far from home where an endless array of billboards for Tommy Bartlett’s Water Spectacular received formidable competition from Circus World, stepping back further I realized that it’s the type of place that I suspect a number of international travelers would be delighted to discover: an uncensored glimpse into some of the most bizarre and unapologetic facets of American identity.
Although I was here primarily for the roller coasters, no trip to the Wisconsin Dells would be complete without a tour on the Wisconsin DUCKS.1 You know what they say: when in the Wisconsin Dells, do as the other tourists from Milwaukee do. Ever the stalwart traditionalist, I chose to experience the Original Wisconsin DUCKS over the competitors, assuming that the historical value of riding around in an amphibious WW2 buggy was a significant component of the tour’s overall quality. I also assumed that the originators would have staked claim to the best, most scenic routes of the Wisconsin river dells, although I was slightly surprised to find that, wherever they planned to take us, it wouldn’t be too far from the gaudy commercialism of the downtown Dells because their headquarters are stationed directly across from Mt. Olympus. I guess there aren’t many environmental concerns about commercial development being very close to the natural watershed, because five minutes after leaving the sight of Mt. Olympus’ endless concrete parking lot behind in an amphibious buggy we had reached our natural destination.
Our tour guide was a generally good natured, hard working fellow trapped in an eternal situation of recycling bad scripted jokes. (i.e. Did you know this river is the natural home of the Wisconsin state bird; the mosquito.) He always delivered his punch lines with a droll, dry irony that hinted at our mutual understanding that we all knew these were bad, corny jokes, yet we must all act our prescribed roles and laugh anyway. It was this unspoken acknowledgement that most of the natural humor came from anyway.
The DUCK ride itself was amusing if not a bit short. From departure to return the entire $25 tour was around one hour, counting the time near the end when he stopped the tour in the middle of the woods to give us a sales pitch for guide booklets and tips. There were a few hills and thrills to please coaster enthusiasts looking for a mid-afternoon retreat from the nearby wooden coasters, most notably when our four-wheeled vehicle dived nose-first into the Wisconsin River and Lake Delton, and we had a moment of odd realization: “Hey, I’m on a boat!” However, the real star of the tour was the Wisconsin scenery, and as tourists in a place as glitzy and competitive as the Dells we didn’t simply demand scenery, we demanded a spectacle.
“Hey, look! You can see an indigenous fisherman on the far bank!” We point and grab our cameras to snap photos of some middle aged guy casting off after digging out another beer from his cooler.
“Oh my God! That’s a real deer over there! Everyone be quiet and get out your cameras!”
Evidently, we’ll take whatever spectacle we can get. We’re Midwestern tourists, after all.
Choosing where to lodge in the Wisconsin Dells turns out to be a bit of an art form. You could decide to stay in any old cheap motel you find on Expedia for the entire length of your visit, but then you might not get as much value for your dollar as possible. For our two nights we ended up staying at two separate hotels located down the street from each other, each priced around $70 to $80 per night (tax included). One was the Santorini Village owned by Mt. Olympus, and the other was the very pink Flamingo Motel right next to Noah’s Ark water park. You see, Mt. Olympus hotel properties (there are many, some more expensive than others) give each person in your party n+1 free admission tickets to the theme park, n equal to the number of nights you’re booked (so you can visit the park both the day of check-in and check-out). Mathematically it can be even cheaper to get a hotel room than to buy your tickets without accommodations, although this isn’t necessarily cheating the system since Mt. Olympus openly advertises this fact.
Now, given that we were fixed for tickets to Mt. Olympus after only one night’s accommodation, there was clearly no point to spend both nights at the Santorini Village. So a bit more searching turned up the Flamingo Hotel, where a one night’s stay of $75 (bookable only by telephone) granted two free tickets to Noah’s Ark water park… a $74 dollar value; plus a book of 15-20% discounts to numerous area attractions and restaurants, including the Original Wisconsin DUCKS and Timber Falls Adventure Park. It turns out a weekend trip to the Wisconsin Dells can be done on the cheap provided you’re willing to do a bit of strategic planning (and move your bags from hotel to hotel). This was good for us because we easily made up the difference in restaurant bills.2
As I recall from my previous visit to the Wisconsin Dells in 2005 food options were not many or varied. Whether a number of new establishments had developed in the six intervening years or if we simply sucked at scouting out decent restaurants back then, we found a drastic change in fortunes this time around. One place we ate at, a combined bar and restaurant called the House of Embers, seemed to suggest the latter hypothesis (that we sucked at finding restaurants in 2005) as it had clearly not received significant update since its hayday in the 1960’s; in fact I think the restaurant may have been airlifted from Phoenix, Arizona when it last appeared with Chevy Chase wearing white leather loafers in National Lampoon’s Vacation. Flashing neon out front with incandescent mood lighting inside, stacked stone fireplaces and walls, lots of cream and pastel coloring, and shag everything everywhere. Upon entering the austere and mostly deserted establishment we inquired if there was any dress code (we both had on shorts and coaster t-shirts). There wasn’t. And you know what else: the food was pretty good.
While a more popular eating establishment for tourists might be the expansive Moosejaw Pizza & Brewing Co., we found the best place to eat in town was actually a short drive outside of town at the Cheese Factory Restaurant. The menu is exclusively vegan and vegetarian which might raise a red flag for red-meat-eating, red-blooded, red-state Americans like us,3 but it’s worthwhile when you remember that, in Wisconsin, cheese counts as a vegetable. We both ended up ordering the signature Big Cheese Sandwich, “a grilled double decker of Wisconsin sharp cheddar and Swiss cheeses with Roma tomatoes on sourdough bread,” apparently famous ever since Rachael Ray filmed a Food Network episode there. The restaurant itself was a pleasant retreat from some of the more garish features along the Wisconsin Dells Parkway, with an old-timey ice cream and soda bar. Although perhaps a little too eager to be perceived as nostalgic and quaint, the desserts alone, a raspberry cheesecake and a “Cloud 9” (White chocolate mousse with Devil’s cake center, served with raspberry sauce), were worth the detour from the coasters and water slides.
No weekend roller coaster trip to a tourist hotspot would be complete without a brief side visit to a nearby FEC to ride a children’s roller coaster to add to my count. Knucklehead’s Bowling & Indoor Amusement would fit the bill for the Dells. It’s starring attraction, the Miner Mike roller coaster, having no maximum height restrictions for riders willing to pay the $3.00 fee. I casually mentioned to the operator as I handed over my token that this would count as my 564th different roller coaster, apparently under the assumption that for whatever reason that fact wouldn’t make me appear quite as weird as if it had only been my fifth. But he too fancied riding coasters, even having a short conversation on the demise of the Big Bad Wolf as he checked lap bars.
The coaster itself, while nothing to write too many paragraphs about, was a bit of an oddity by virtue of the fact that it’s perhaps the only indoor terrain roller coaster I can think of. After a short curved lift and bunny hop, the ride dives down an inclined slope, Phantom’s Revenge style, to a lower level in the indoor complex, where at the bottom we encounter a small helix that can actually produce some pretty sharp lateral forces. The train climbs back up the slope into the station, where we’re sent around several more times so as to get our three dollar’s worth.