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Plunge down an extreme water slide. Fly across the water in a jet boat. Watch a magician levitate an audience member (maybe it'll be you!). Or laugh until you cry at the antics of circus clowns.
You don't have to go to California or Florida for big-time fun. Water adventures, scary rides, glitzy acts, and a fair amount of kitsch are just a day's drive from Chicago at Wisconsin Dells, the "Coney Island of the Midwest."
What's more, you won't go broke taking the family along. Attractions cost less than half the price of Disney, Universal and other brand-name theme parks. And they're all conveniently located along Wisconsin Dells Parkway (a 3-mile stretch of Highway 12).
Your biggest challenge will be choosing which park to visit. But not to worry. Scattered among the two-headed-goat museums and carnival-type sideshows are some real treats. We've scoped out the newest and hottest things to do in the Dells (with some old favorites sprinkled in):
So what if the ocean's 1,500 miles away? The Dells has the largest concentration of water parks in the U.S., and they add new rides or remodel almost every year. You can ride on the stuff, splash in it, and even shoot it out of cannons.
If you're traveling with little ones, point the car toward Treasure Island Resort. There, you'll find two parks: Family Land, an outdoor attraction with gentle rides including the always popular kiddie bumper boats (motorized inner tubes), and Bay of Dreams, an indoor complex featuring Hispaniola Bay, a "zero-depth" pool surrounded by waterslides, geysers, and a 35-foot pirate ship.
Take the older kids a few blocks down the highway to Noah's Ark Family Park, the largest water park in the country. Daredevils are already buzzing about the Point of No Return. Brave souls can race each other down this extreme body slide on 10-story, 70-degree angle tracks.
Water parks may be The Dells' hottest attractions. But old-fashioned amusement centers are far from washed up.
At Extreme World, you can bungee jump from a 130-foot tower, then take home a video to show everyone how crazy you really are. Their oldest daredevil to date was 77. If you prefer "extreme" thrills at ground level, feed one of the live gators at Alligator Alley.
On rainy days, take cover at Tommy Bartlett's Robot World and Exploratory, next door to the attraction's thrill show amphitheater. Robots lead the tours here, and young Einsteins can play with lasers or make their hair stand on end by entering electric fields. Your little cosmonauts can tour a real Mir space module (one of two the Russians built that never went into orbit).
Feel like indulging in some of the Dells tackier offerings? Check out the American UFO Museum. Your youngest might be too freaked out, but 9- to 14-year-olds will get a creepy kick out of the Roswell alien autopsy and the Star Wars and Alien movie monster displays. An exhibit on alien abductions is straight out of the supermarket tabloids. Fun fact: Wisconsin is second only to New Mexico in UFO sightings.
Surrounded as it is by man-made amusements, it's easy to forget that Mother Nature created The Dells' first tourist attractions. Prehistoric glaciers sculpted the local sandstone into amazing rock formations along the Wisconsin River, now called "Cow in the Milk Bottle" and "Witches Gulch."
A dam divides the 15-mile stretch of scenic riverbank into two areas, the Upper and Lower Dells. There are several ways to see these amazing rocks along the river.
This isn't a place that rolls up the sidewalks at 8 p.m. So before you go, make sure to book seats for some of the best acts in town:
Type of trip: Theme parks, outdoor adventure, scenic drive
Best for ages: 2 and up
Ideal trip length: Day trip to a long weekend
Distance: Milwaukee (124 miles), Chicago (196 miles), Minneapolis (217 miles)
Best time to go: Late spring. July weekends are mobbed.
Weather: Spring arrives late. 69/44 degrees in May, 78/54 in June, 82/59 in July, 80/57 in August.
Lodging: Resort hotels and campgrounds are among your options.
Treasure Island Waterpark Resort 1701 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy Phone: 608-254-7766
Noah's Ark Family Water Park 1410 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy Phone: 608-254-6351
Extreme World 1800 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy Phone: 608-254-7565
American UFO Museum 740 Eddy St. Phone: 608-253-5055
Mark Twain Upper Dells Tours Dells Ducks Tours, 1550 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy Phone: 608-254-6080
Original Wisconsin Ducks 1890 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy Phone: 608-254-8751
Dells Boat Tours 11 Broadway Phone: 608-254-8555
Dells Experience Jet Boats River Bay Rd. Phone: 888-JET-DELLS
Holiday Shores Watersports and Boat Rentals 3901 River Rd. Phone: 608-254-2878.
River's Edge Boat Rental S1196 County Hwy A Phone: 608-254-7707
Blue Canyon Native American Visitors Center Wisconsin Dells Pkwy (Canyon entrance opposite Bartlett's Robot World) Phone: 608-253-9994
Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show, Robot World, and Exploratory 560 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy Phone: 608-254-2525
Rick Wilcox Theater 1666 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy Phone: 608-254-5511
Contact: Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau 701 Superior St. Phone: 800-223-3557
Pizza Pub 1455 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy Phone: 608-254-7877 Note: In this centrally-located restaurant, the pizza buffet and huge salad bar are a bargain, with reduced prices for kids. But if you're too pooped to pop, they'll deliver a piping hot pie right to your hotel room.
Monk's Bar 220 Broadway Phone: 608-254-2955 Note: This is where locals have been coming since 1947 for the best burgers in town. Don't be put off by "Bar" in the name; it's a great place for kids.
Baraboo Candy Company Outlet Hwy 12 (across from Ho-Chunk Casino), Baraboo Phone: 800-967-1690 Note: This is the place for Cow Pies -- gooey piles of chocolate, caramel, and pecans that will undoubtedly end up as a permanent design on your backseat if you let the kids eat them in the car.
Traffic alert: Highway 12 (the Wisconsin Dells Pkwy) gets very congested on summer weekends, particularly around midday and late afternoon. If you can't avoid the weekend, budget extra time for back-ups.
Money-saving tips: Although most of the big attractions at the Dells are 50 percent less than those at Disney, Universal, or other big theme parks, they do add up. Here are some strategies for trimming your bill:
The circus is always in town in Baraboo. Ringling Brothers' "Greatest Show on Earth" got its start here in 1884; today, Circus World Museum, on the site of the old Ringling headquarters, continues the tradition.
See the world's largest collection of wildly ornamented antique circus wagons, sparkling costumes, and posters -- not to mention Big Top summer performance with a singing ringmaster, clowns, animal acts, jugglers, and trapeze artists. The daily, horse-powered loading of circus wagons is another crowd-pleaser at this 50-acre National Historic Landmark. Every July, the entire circus piles aboard the Great Circus Train and chugs off to Milwaukee for the Great Circus Parade.
426 Water St., Baraboo, 608-356-8341.