Set in a region shaped by Ice Age glaciers, the Wisconsin Dells is finally seeing the booking thaw following the recession that began four years ago, as exciting new attractions and amenities boost the destination’s overall appeal among leisure travelers and groups.

“The booking window is being forced back out,” says Tifani Jones, director of sales for the Wisconsin Dells CVB. “In 2008 it got shorter, planners were getting permission for meetings and contacting us late.”

Tourism has been a major part of the region for more than 150 years, and though it was built around leisure travel, the Dells is seeing substantial growth in meetings and conventions, as well as in the amateur sports sector, according to Jones.

Jones also says the geographic draw of the Dells is slowly expanding beyond the nearby population centers of Chicago and Madison and neighboring states like Iowa.

“We are seeing more business from farther away than we have traditionally experienced, as far away as St. Louis and other parts of Missouri, and we are deploying marketing efforts to foster that growth,” she says.

MIDWESTERN HOSPITALITY
While the Dells is sprawling—straddling four counties and attracting approximately 3 million annual visitors—the permanent population of the city is just over 2,000, and much of the area’s charm comes from the friendly feel of the mom-and-pop shops and other family-owned businesses, ranging from lodging establishments to the retail outlets that still dominate a significant portion of the industry.

“This is truly a community of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial spirit,” Jones says. “Many of the facilities are run by the families that built them and this makes it a great environment for meetings.”

The Del-Bar Supper Club has been owned and operated by Jeff and Jane Wimmer for more than 25 years. Originally a log cabin with room for only six tables, it now welcomes groups of up to 105, serving classic steak and seafood to almost 500 people a night.

The developers of the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort can trace their family history in the region back to the late 1800s. The property grew from a small riverboat tour company and now boasts more than 1,100 lodging options, a championship golf course, a luxury spa and the Glacier Canyon Lodge Conference Center, with 56,000 square feet of meeting space.

Two of the Dells’ other large waterpark and meeting facilities, the 740-room Kalahari Waterpark Resort & Convention Center and the 640-room Chula Vista Resort, are also still family-owned. Kalahari offers a 100,000-square-foot convention center and Chula Vista has more than 200,000 square feet of function space.

Fun, family-oriented activities and affordability have always been the Dells’ biggest draws.

“Groups allowing attendees to make the Dells part of their family vacation encourages more people to come,” Jones says. “We have so many offerings and are always a good value.”

NEW ON THE SCENE
This year has seen the addition of several new recreational opportunities, especially at the Dells’ trademark waterparks.

Wilderness Territory’s Lost World Outdoor Waterpark will debut two new, five-story-tall trap-door extreme water slides this summer.

Kalahari added two new 65-foot Super Loop slides to its waterpark that will send riders travelling at speeds reaching 25 mph. The new slides required the park to literally raise its roof to accommodate them. Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Parks opened the $3 million Lost City of Atlantis outdoor water fortress, featuring seven slides, new rides and a giant geyser, and Noah’s Ark Waterpark debuted the $1 million Quadzilla racing slide.

One of the destination’s newest group attractions, the Lost Voyage boat expedition, began running last summer and offers visitors a uniquely quirky experience on the 430-mile-long Wisconsin River that mixes history, the region’s natural beauty, storytelling and sleuthing. According to the legend, a sightseeing boat named The Badger disappeared along the river in 1943. The passengers were never seen again, but the boat mysteriously reappeared on dry land. Problem-solving and cooperation play a key role in the attraction, and large groups can be broken into teams as solve the myster.

According to Amanda Glime, assistant manager of Dells Boat Tours, the fictional script was originally created for their Halloween tour and grew into its own attraction with a large mystery component and an active associated website, as well as YouTube and Facebook pages where participants can find additional clues. The 90-minute adventure can easily be bought out and customized for groups, and event and reception spaces are available.

“We can be very flexible with groups, if they need to run multiple trips depending on the group size, or want their own boat,” Glime says. “We also have a building and tent near the canyon trail that can be rented out. It is definitely a unique way to see the river and walk through the canyon. It’s very hands-on.”

Another new aquatic adventure is the P.T. 109 Boat Control excursion, which draws on the history of the Wisconsin River and showcases the sandstone rock formations that originally put the region on the map. Passengers are transported on a tour in an original World War II vessel. The same company operates the amphibious Dells Army Ducks tours.