Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Joys of Summer #4: Family vacation

     One irony of this column is the boy who yawned at Times Square now lives in Greenwich Village.

     WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis.—When we took the boys to New York City earlier this year, they were not impressed. "Big deal!" the 6-year-old snorted, standing amidst Times Square's strobing, Blade Runner advertisements and crush of humanity.
     "I want to stay in the hotel room!" the 4-year-old later whined, sprawled in front of the TV.
     The city didn't make much of a mark on the boys. At home, they never mentioned New York and seemed not to recall they'd even been there.
     Now, the Dells, that's another matter. Our past visits were sources of constant fond reminiscence, coupled with urgent pleas to return.
     So here we found ourselves, once again, in the parking lot of Tommy Bartlett's Robot World. The boys surge forward, like bloodhounds nosing a fox.
     "I love Robot World!" the older one exuded.
     "Robot World is the coolest place!" shouted the younger.
     I shambled after, smiling sheepishly at my wife. Once, we vacationed in Paris, in New Orleans, in Martinique. Now, we're at the Wisconsin Dells, staying at the Wilderness, "America's Premier Waterpark Resort," an enormous hive of water slides and game rooms.
     What amazes me most is that I like it. I'm happy here. The bone-deep cheesiness of the place does not depress me, as it once would have. Maybe it's maturity, or resignation, I'm not sure which.
     This is our third trip to the Dells, and the ironic pose needed to shield myself for the first two trips is no longer necessary. I am genuinely excited to breakfast at Mr. Pancake. And the reason I am excited to eat at Mr. Pancake—you might not see it coming—is they have really, really good pancakes. Big and fluffy and homemade. The kind that take the sting out of a 186-mile drive.
     Sure, Robot World is a hodge-podge of optical illusions culled from a defunct science museum, salted with a smattering of low-rent robots of the lightbulb-and-garbage-can variety. But you know what? The boys liked it better than the Statue of Liberty.
     The Dells are an unfolding of hidden delights. Perhaps the biggest concentration of 1950s motels in the world—squat structures straight out of Nabokov, with names like Twi-Lite and Flamingo, heralded by achingly cute neon signs ("FREE TELEVISION"), ringing pools whose curving slides are a question mark as to how these places can still exist in the shadow of all those new mega-water parks such as the Wilderness. (They survive, I eventually realized, because the water-park hotels are so expensive that they've priced themselves out of the market for families that need to pay $50 or so for a room if they want to have anything left over for go-kart racing and roller-coasters and bungie jumping and rides on the Ducks.)
     We even glimpsed a bit of the natural beauty that got the Dells going as a tourist attraction in the first place, 100 years ago. Like most tourists, we didn't bother seeking nature out, but it found us in the most unexpected place: the entrance walk to Tommy Bartlett's Water Thrill Show, which turns out to be a cathedral of enormous pines, hushed and cool and not at all what you would expect to usher you into the inner sanctum of Wisconsin kitsch.
     I had never seen the Thrill Show before, perhaps because it struck me as the Seventh Seal of Midwestern, middle-class bourgeois Hell. I'd see the show, and before I knew it I'd be eating bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches and collecting Hummel figurines. Besides, I thought the kids would be bored by water skiing.
     They weren't. They loved it, at least the first half. The show is an oddly self-referential affair, a celebration of the history of water skiing and of its own history--the various forgotten world's fairs the show participated in (Seattle 1962!) and, of course, Tommy Bartlett, the radio announcer who swiped the idea of a water show from Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., and brought it back to the land of clear spring waters.
     The boys liked the speedboats and clownery, and I savored the show as a pure form. One doesn't get much chance to see a chorus line of gals doing the can-can on water skis, never mind a flag-waving pyramid streaking by to "The Stars and Stripes Forever."
     We even experienced "A Wisconsin Moment." My wife wanted to take the boys to a fancy restaurant, so we got dressed up and went to the swank eatery attached to the resort--"Field's of the Wilderness," they call it. It had the trappings of sophisticated dining--the handblown wineglasses, the tuxedoed staff, the three forks. But instead of the forks being different sizes--dinner, salad and appetizer--they were a trio of hefty, heavy dinner forks, identical in size. Maybe that isn't enchanting to you. But, for me, it really was the highlight of the trip. Three big honking silver forks, one after another, triplets, next to the plate.
     It's the kind of thing that melts in with the other memories--like the boys joyously tubing down fake rapids, or pitting themselves, feverishly, against the arcade games--to form the image of a summer vacation. Ancient Greece is gone, but the civilization that is Wisconsin is still there, waiting for anyone bold enough to explore.

                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 12, 2002


  1. Reading this has given me a renewed appreciation of the Wisconsin Dells. Been there many times, and kind of took it for granted.
    Yes indeed; it’s much more than a kids’ water park/play area.

  2. I’ve successfully avoided even thinking about going to Wisconsin Dells, but I love the three sturdy forks and realize that I might have missed out on something valuable.


  3. Tommy Bartlett had an interesting life. Got into radio in his teens, staff announcer at WBBM, pilot, flight instructor during WWII, and then back into radio, where he interviewed passengers at Chicago's extremely busy railroad terminals. The show was called "Welcome Travelers"...and it was one of the first radio programs I remember listening to as a kid.

    Tommy Bartlett not only popularized water skiing as a sport, he helped established the Wisconsin Dells as a tourist and vacation destination. But my parents had zero interest in the Dells. My sister and I were never taken there. We went to the beachfromt resorts in South Haven instead. Maybe they felt uncomfortable because (in their eyes) it might not have been Jewish enough for their "Skokie" tastes and West Side backgrounds. Too much bologna and mayonnaise up there.

    And when I reached adulthood, of course I wanted to no part of suburban culture. So I've never experienced the Dells, or the "Midwestern, middle-class, bourgeois hell" of the Thrill Show. I've bypassed it many times on road trips to Minnesota. Ya, sure, you damn betcha! It all sounded so tacky..but maybe it's just tacky enough to be retro-spiffy and cool. Could it be that I've been missing something all these years?


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