Today’s kids (and many grown-ups) go wild for water parks – and no place has cashed in on the craze more than the Wisconsin Dells. It’s the self-proclaimed “Waterpark Capital of the World.” (For real. The Visitor & Convention Bureau actually registered the phrase with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2006.) But the numbers might back up the claim. Between outdoor and indoor parks, the Dells boasts more than 200 waterslides, tube rides, racing slides, wave pools, lazy rivers, surfing machines, and other water amusements.
And that isn’t the only way to get wet ’n wild in the Dells. For those who prefer their water adventures non-chlorinated, nearby Lake Delton offers a variety of boat, pontoon, and Jet Ski rentals.
But this water wonderland is just the latest iteration of the Wisconsin Dells. The area’s tourism industry has reinvented itself several times over the years in its efforts to keep the crowds coming back for more.
In the early days, before the waterslides, lumberjack shows, Duck boat tours, Dells boat tours, and water ski stunts, visitors came to the Wisconsin Dells simply to soak up its natural beauty. As far back as 1856, local entrepreneur Leroy Gates led visitors on boat tours of the Wisconsin River (in what were then wooden row boats) to get a close-up view of the area’s deep, glacially formed gorges and stunning sandstone cliffs.
Modern-day nature enthusiasts can still find quiet spaces to marvel, hike, or hunt at nearby Roche-A-Cri State Park to the north and Devil’s Lake State Park to the south. But few, if any, quiet spaces remain in the town of Wisconsin Dells itself.
The changes began more than 150 years ago, spurred by the distribution of photographs taken by Civil War-veteran Henry Hamilton Bennett. Bennett suffered a hand wound during the war and was unable to return to his job as a carpenter. He instead developed a passion for photography, becoming a pioneer in nature and documentary photography. Local boosters used his landscapes as promotional tools, distributing them around the country.
Bennett managed to cash in on the boom that he helped create. He opened his own photo studio and took souvenir photos for tourists. Today, the H. H. Bennett Studio is an historic site and museum where visitors can see Bennett’s storefront as it would have looked in 1875, learn about the history of the photography, and, of course, have their portraits taken.
But the area surrounding the studio has changed dramatically. Today, within a few blocks of the old studio, visitors can also find at least two competing old-time photo studios, several fudge and souvenir shops, and a Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The nearest water park is two blocks away.