The litter box both repelled and taunted us. Tucked into the corner of the crazy-cat-lady-themed escape room, we knew it held secrets.
My daughter, Kylie, and her friend, Natalie, were already assessing the explosion of granny decor and knickknacks before our guide Tony even uttered, “You have an hour,” and left the room.
Natalie gamely launched into the litter with a scoop and sang out, “I got it!” Carefully arranging a handful of fake turds, she spelled out our first escape code.
“Oh, good. Cross ‘solving fake-poop clues’ off the life list,” I thought. But I also grinned at the comical, full-throttle drive of teens on a mission.
Tony stayed in touch with a few hints when we got stuck. I couldn’t keep up with the girls’ verbal patter and quick pace when pouncing on new combination locks or puzzles, but I freed a few stuffed cats and felt gratitude for the goofy downtime after an intense stretch of high school.
Taking an offseason girls’ trip to Wisconsin Dells is a great way to dodge the crowds and streamline the overwhelming number of summer attractions packed into this vacation hot spot on the Wisconsin River. Without the crush of peak season, there are still plenty of weatherproof amusements in the Dells.
The cat-lady escape room, part of Elusive Escape Rooms, left our teens hungry for more problem-solving, so we added Wizard Quest to our plans. The fantasy-themed interactive attraction jockeys for attention along Broadway in downtown Wisconsin Dells, with turrets and a menacing dragon out front. It sits next to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which triggered oddball memories from a previous trip with its souvenir snow globes featuring a two-headed calf.
Being next to Ripley’s makes hanging out with fake dragons, mermaids and elves at Wizard Quest seem far less weird. I didn’t need to worry that our kids had outgrown this attraction, last visited when they were in elementary school; finding a hidden passage was way cooler than following the game. Programmable iPads make it possible to adjust the various “quests” to age groups and skill levels.
The 13,000-square-foot, two-level space comprises four kingdoms — air, earth, water and fire — that have changed over the years. We entered through a tunnel of light and found a slide to zip down to the foot of a Hobbit-worthy chateau. Chasing clues, we crossed bridges, ducked into hidden passages, protectively held out our arms through the mirror maze, and tried to remember where we had last spotted an elf, a bit of treasure or an essential artifact among seashells.
Afterward, the new Grateful Shed Truckyard catered to different palates: street tacos for one teen, cheese curds and grilled cheese for another, sushi for a third. We tucked into a revamped Volkswagen van retrofitted for dining, then marveled at nostalgic, fun details such as upper-level steps wrapped in license plates, a bar covered with VHS tapes and an entire retrofitted Greyhound bus hanging from the ceiling.
We wrapped up the evening with the main attraction at the Dells: the chance to happily trade cool-season clothing for a swimsuit and flip-flops. Wilderness Resort’s Wild WaterDome claims the largest indoor wave pool in the nation, with swells rolling through every few minutes.
We floated through the lift-and-drop of the wave pool with heads tilted back, looking up at the dark sky through the clear roof. I watched parents toting fishbowl-sized fruity drinks or lounging and thought ahead to the next day as the pool quieted down after its cycle of waves.
“I hope we’ll see sunshine,” I wished out loud, seriously craving the blazing warmth of sunlight. “I bet we could get a sunburn.” Somehow that doesn’t sound so bad.
Things to do
Elusive Escape Rooms, one of at least four escape attractions in the Dells, is recommended for ages 10 and up, with themes ranging from potions and double agents to a grisly murder (1-608-678-2388; elusiveescaperooms.com).
You can breathe in the salty air (minus the ocean) at Kalahari Resorts, which has added halotherapy with a salt cave at its spa. The sprawling and polished water-park property also has an indoor adventure park and arcade that’s been rebranded as Tom Foolery’s. It’s open to the public and good for the tween crowd (1-608-254-5466; kalahariresorts.com).
Grown-ups on spring break can escape kids and enjoy a digital detox with a stay at Sundara Inn and Spa, a nationally known adults-only wellness destination that wrapped up a $9 million expansion in 2019. The property includes indoor and outdoor pools, an indoor sanctuary with replicated rock formations, a salt room, new suites and treatment rooms, and hiking trails through its 100-acre forest. Common areas are designated electronics-free (1-888-735-8181; sundaraspa.com).
The Wilderness Resort, the largest of the Dells’ water-park resorts with room for 8,000 guests, has been making improvements since last fall, including new laser games and Camp Social, a new food hall. Take Flight, an aerial ride like the Mall of America’s FlyOver America or Epcot’s Soarin’, is slated to open this summer (1-800-867-9453; wildernessresort.com).
Where to sleep
Another large water-park resort, Chula Vista, has some units overlooking the Wisconsin River. Some guest rooms feature prints from H.H. Bennett, a late-1800s photographer whose pioneering stop-action shots including his son jumping dramatically from one sandstone tower to another drew national attention that turned the Dells into a tourist attraction (1-608-678-3119; chulavistaresort.com).
Roughly four blocks from downtown, the River Inn takes a boutique hotel approach with 73 rooms, some with riverfront views. The Vue, its riverside restaurant and lounge, serves crêpes, walleye po-boys and shoyu ramen (1-608-253-1231; dellsriverinn.com).
Where to eat
In addition to the Grateful Shed Truckyard (1-608-253-0588l; gratefulshedtruckyard.com), Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub ranks among our favorites with brats on pretzel buns, a wurst sausage sampler with spaetzle (German dumplings) and red cabbage, plus a lineup of craft sodas (honey-sweetened root beer, orange cream and seasonal fruits), hard ciders and craft beers (1-608-253-9109; sprechers.com).
Wisconsin Dells is about 210 miles from the Twin Cities, via Interstate 94 until it merges with Interstate 90.
Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau: 1-800-223-3557, wisdells.com.
A St. Cloud-based freelance writer and photographer, Lisa Meyers McClintick has been writing travel features for the Star Tribune since 2001.