The Art of Attractions - October 2018


Through the years, the addition of indoor water park attractions and resorts, like Great Wolf Lodge and Chula Vista Resort, has transformed the Wisconsin Dells into a popular vacation spot. (Credit: Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau)

Come Inside, the Water’s Fine

“Basically, it all started as a ­mistake.” 

That’s what Tom Lucke, the former co-owner of the Polynesian Resort in Wisconsin Dells, told me when I asked him about the role he played in helping to ignite the indoor water park phenomenon.

The Dells has long been a popular summer vacation spot. But up until the mid-1990s, you could roll a bowling ball down the city’s Broadway during the winter months, and it likely wouldn’t have hit anything. Now, vacationers are flocking to the area’s attractions year-round—including the bowling lanes at the Kalahari Resort. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Lucke shared his story with me many years ago when I visited Wisconsin Dells to get a firsthand look at how the Midwestern hamlet transformed into the self-proclaimed Water Park Capital of the World. Frustrated by the dearth of visitors in the offseason, the Polynesian’s owners thought they might be able to drum up business by purchasing attractions designed for outdoor water parks and placing them in the hotel’s indoor pool. The hope was that the water attractions might entice some customers to come during the shoulder months of June and September. 

WISCONSIN DELLS VISITOR AND CONVENTION BUREAUModest by today’s standards, the interactive play area included a small slide and a few sprayers. The hotel installed them in late 1994. Through word of mouth, visitors started beating a path, with bathing suits in tow, to the Polynesian in the winter of 1995. And they kept coming. And coming.

“The place went nuts,” Lucke recalled with a grin. All of a sudden, the Polynesian was the place to be in the winter, spring, and fall, as well as the summer. “We thought, ‘Hmm. Maybe we’re onto something here.’”

In quick order, other enterprising Dells hoteliers began building their own indoor water attractions. Then came the mega-sized indoor water park resorts, including Great Wolf Lodge, the Chula Vista Resort, the Mt. Olympus Resort, and the Kalahari Resort. Lucke himself went on to help develop the Wilderness Resort, one of the Dells’ largest. The indoor water park concept spread, first throughout the Midwest, then across the country and around the world.

It’s an idea that makes so much sense, you wonder why nobody thought of it earlier. But Lucke didn’t think of it either. He just, er…lucked into it.

The tried-and-true can be great. But don’t be afraid to experiment with something new. You’ll never know when you might stumble upon the next big thing.

I’ll see you at the water parks. I’ll be the one relaxing in the indoor/outdoor hot spa on a wintry day.

A lifelong park fanatic, Arthur Levine has been writing newspaper and magazine travel features about the industry he loves since 1992. He’s been the Theme Parks Expert at (formerly since 2002, and is a regular contributor for USA Today.