Top Things to Do on a Budget in the Wisconsin Dells
Because up to 5 million annual visitors flow into the Wisconsin Dells, you'll find an overwhelming number of places clamoring for your vacation dollars. Go ahead and splurge on big resorts with on-site water parks if your kids are happy jumping, sliding and splashing the day away, but you can usually save money by traveling midweek and dining off-property. You can save even more by seeking smaller resorts, throwback attractions and enjoying the area's natural beauty. Fringe benefit, especially in pandemic times: avoiding the biggest crowds. Here are our picks:
Devil's Lake State Park
Don't miss the cool rock formations and heady overlooks with bluff-top hikes at the popular Devil's Lake State Park. If you can return for fall when maples morph to electric reds and yellows, it's even more spectacular.
Big Sky Twin Drive-In
Make it an old-school family date with a trip to the Big Sky Twin Drive-In. Two double features run every night starting at 8 p.m. throughout the summer, and you can get hot dogs, pizza and cotton candy with your bucket of popcorn. Adult admission $10; children under 11 are $5.
It's best to avoid weekends and midday, but you'll find plenty of people-watching, window-shopping and a nice stroll along the river if you head for the Riverwalk downtown.
Wisconsin Deer Park
The charming 40-acre Wisconsin Deer Park has welcomed families for more than 50 years with a wooded four-block amble past bison, horses, llamas, emus, elk and lemurs, plus a chance to get close to and feed some of the exotic and domestic deer. While it's $16 for adults and $11 for kids 3 to 11, you'll find it less expensive—and a nice change of pace—from area water parks.
We love the colorful cabins, friendly vibe and tucked-in-the-woods Up-North feel at Birchcliff Resort. If you crave water park thrills, specials can include discounts on Noah's Ark tickets.
Don't confuse this Lake Delton cafe with the national chain. Elvis in the front window offers the first clue to the nostalgia inside Denny's Diner, with walls packed with midcentury souvenirs, including Superman in a phone booth and even a TV playing Little Rascals. Even without the lively decor, we'd go back for the big, gooey cinnamon rolls.
Several of the Dells' midcentury motels have been nicely kept up and go easy on the budget. Fitzgerald's Motel, a two-story with candy-red doors, has built a fan base for its warm welcome and slice-of-America feel. It's on the quieter end of downtown but close to the action.
Skip a fancy night out at a steakhouse and opt for MACS' retro chic and casual dining that celebrates Wisconsin's cheese with sandwich melts, wedge salads and new riffs on homey macaroni and cheese.
Mirror Lake State Park
Three miles from the Dells, Mirror Lake—named for its calm lake that reflects a wooded shoreline—offers a quiet retreat. Bike, boat, canoe and kayak rentals are offered; the lake also has a beach.