Wisconsin Dells, Wis., has long served as a Midwest tourist destination. Its natural scenic sandstone cliffs and rock formations have enticed visitors for more than 150 years.
But only in the last decade has the small burg in central Wisconsin, population 2,707, branded itself after its most ubiquitous, man-made feature: “Waterpark Capital of the World.”
Fun seekers can avail themselves of 200-plus waterslides, including the world’s tallest: the 10-story Scorpion’s Tail and Point of No Return. It boasts the largest outdoor and indoor/outdoor combination parks, as well as the state’s largest indoor water park.
Wisconsin Dells partners with Lake Delton, its similarly sized adjoining village to the south, to attract families from among the 50,000 residents within its 20-mile radius. Further, though, the municipality’s burgeoning reputation for seemingly endless family fun draws more than 4 million visitors a year from all across the nation.
“We like to remind visitors that the area has more than 90 attractions” other than water parks, though, said Bianca Johnson, marketing and communications manager for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. “In fact, if you spent eight hours a day visiting different attractions, it would still take 33.75 days to experience all of them.”
Johnson noted the family-friendly theme of the town’s draw.
“The attractions have experience in catering to the family. And when we say family, we mean toddlers, grade schoolers, teens, parents and grandparents.
“In addition, we have a huge variety of accommodations. Options range from charming motels tucked throughout downtown, to mid-sized properties with mid-sized water activities, to water park resorts, to huge vacation villas,” she said. “As you can imagine, there are options available for all sorts of vacation budgets.”
Johnson attributed Wisconsin Dells’ success to a trinity of factors.
“The perfect storm comes from the incredible scenery that first began to draw visitors, the unique concentration of risk-taking entrepreneurs that helped create our water park boom and the relative affordability that Wisconsin Dells offers its guests as a smalltown Midwestern city.”
Johnson also lavished kudos on the town’s business community.
“We are incredibly lucky to have such a competent and creative class of business owner in the Wisconsin Dells area,” she said. “These owners are the ones investing their time and money into their water parks, attractions, accommodations, restaurants and shops.”
Annual town-wide festivals include a classic car show, autumn harvest and microbrew festival, wine walk and “Taste of the Dells.”
Though the town government’s role in promotion and marketing is “fairly limited,” its contribution is invariably cooperative and readily offered. The municipal administration approves permits, provides police presence, directs traffic, closes streets as needed and gives 90 percent of the area room tax to the visitor and convention bureau.
Not complacent with its success, the bureau commissioned international tourism development expert Roger Brooks to study the downtown area and craft suggestions for development, particularly to capture the lull times during weekdays and the off season from October through March. The August 2014 report, which can be found at www.dellstourismdevelopment.com, eyes a primary goal “to increase visitor spending in both Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton by 30 percent over the next five years.” It offered 43 recommendations slated for execution through 2018, including:
- Building a public market and amphitheaters with 200-plus days a year of programmed events • Widening downtown sidewalks and improving traffic flow
- Developing a public plaza with built-in sound system, movie screen, splash pad and skating rink
- Erecting two parking garages and removing parking from the pedestrian-heavy sections of downtown streets
- Painting the downtown area’s train trestles (No words allowed)
- Installing free public Wi-Fi service
- Reworking sign ordinances and sprinkling the downtown with benches and flowers
- Establishing a trolley system to circulate visitors among downtown attractions
- Renaming the Dells River District as the River Arts District to “sell the reason why people should visit”
Johnson offered advice for other municipalities seeking to leverage their assets to craft a world-renowned reputation.
“We would first encourage community leaders to look around and catalog any existing assets,” she said. “Does the area thrive on a particular business industry? Are people already visiting for a particular tourism reason? Are there business owners willing to take risks and invest in their industry or in building attractions and accommodations?
“A destination can have the flashiest tagline and logo around,” she cautioned, “but if there is nothing tangible to back up the promise of the brand — whether you are attracting talent to live and work in your area or hoping to attract visitors to spend dollars — all the marketing in the world won’t translate to significant and sustainable economic development.”