Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Monday, March 1, 2010

Save money at Wisconsin Dells & water parks

I was talking with Floridians last week who were puzzling over Minnesotan's love affair with indoor water parks. This time of year--as it's finally nudged past 11 degrees--I would go to an indoor water park just to peel off long underwear, wool socks and turtlenecks. Not to mention bulky sweaters that make me feel as svelte as Frosty the Snowman. There's also this "We're in this together" camaraderie with Midwest water parks. Go to Florida with pasty winter skin, and you risk blinding the locals. Go to an indoor water park, and, hey, we're all solar-challenged.


If you're ready for an steamy oasis of fake tropics and ecstatic, shrieking kids, here are
a few tips for saving money and making the most of visiting the Midwest's indoor water parks:

  • Aim for a mid-week visit if you have toddlers and can take advantage of the often-cheaper rates and lighter crowds.
  • If traveling mid-week, make sure the park is open. Some smaller ones close mid-week in the off-season and larger ones have to do occasional maintenance work (such as waxing slides for maximum speed).

  • Watch for coupons and online specials, especially in large resort areas such as Wisconsin Dells. (That's the Wilderness Resort's wave pool pictured above. With a clear roof, you'd never know it's indoors.)
  • Plan ahead. The most economical and least crowded months to go are May and September. The last week in August is good, too. Wisconsin kids go back to school before Minnesotans.
  • Try one of the smaller water parks, usually 10,000 to 12,000 square feet, if you have preschool children or toddlers. Save the big guns--tummy-flipping slides and gotta-scream rides--and the big budgets for later. You can get nickle-and-dimed by all the big resort kiosks (or feel mentally battered by incessant begging). Think hair-braiding, fake tattoos, toys and gadgets and those blingy arcades. This is an ideal time to motivate older kids to earn and save an allowance.
  • Most water parks allow a limited number of non-guests in for a day fee. Adults, even if they stay out of the water, usually need to pay admission as well. Always call first for availability in case general admission tickets are sold out.
  • Take extra swimsuits so you don’t have to wear a wet one for a second trip to the park. Bring a cover-up for walking through hallways, which tend to be cool, and waterproof sandals. Those flip-flops or Crocs are hard for us to remember in Sorrel season, but you don't want to risk someone swiping expensive shoes or soaking nice leather.
  • Bring quarters for lockers if you need them.
  • Feed kids well before heading to the park or be prepared to shell out for snack-bar food. It's more nutritious, cheaper and easier to slap together a PBJ and slice up some apples in a hotel room. And how many moms want to go dining elsewhere with water park hair, no make-up and kids without patience for any quick fixes? Did I mention bringing a baseball hat?
  • Take a waterproof camera (a disposable one should work) or risk ruining a regular one when some kid aims a water cannon your way. We have a shockproof, waterproof Minolta model, but it shoots better photos of eels in the ocean than kids shooting down a slide.
  • Have a pre-determined meeting spot in case anyone gets lost.
  • Pack waterproof Band-Aids in case of scrapes.
  • Most parks do not allow water toys or floaties, but they do usually provide life jackets, which offer both parents and non-swimming kids some peace of mind.
(Above photo: The Edge at Duluth's Best Western.)