Planning a Wisconsin Dells Mini-Vacation for Toddlers

With the arrival of the new school year, you might not be thinking about vacations anymore. But if you’re part of a “toddlers and under” family, like me, this is actually a perfect time to plan a little getaway!

The crowds have thinned out dramatically, but the weather is still beautiful, and many places are offering late-season discounts.

The Dells is an obvious choice for a mini-vacation here in Wisconsin, but most of the big ticket activities are geared toward older kids. Is it worth planning a trip up there with toddlers?

In my (recently battle tested) opinion: YES!

dells mini vacay for toddlers

Last month, we spent a few days in the Dells with our 3- and 1-year-old boys, and we had a blast. I was nervous about the trip, since my husband was going to be gone for a big chunk of the daytime hours at a conference, leaving me alone to wrangle the two boys AND try to do fun activities with them. But everything went surprisingly well—so well that I couldn’t wait to get back and share it with all of you!

Here’s a little breakdown of what we did (plus a few things we would have done with more time) and why they’re awesome for toddlers!

Where to Stay

We stayed at Great Wolf Lodge, and I was SO impressed with their toddler-friendliness! (Falicia also wrote about her family’s experience at Great Wolf earlier this year – check it out!)

20150811_173010

First, there’s the amazing indoor/outdoor waterpark. Here are a few of the things we loved most about it:

  • Kid life jackets (free to use on site)
  • Multiple zero depth entry pools, including the indoor wave pool (both of my boys LOVED this!)
  • A separate baby pool area with a mini slide, completely closed off with a latched gate (perfect for a mom who’s alone with a baby + toddler!)
  • Look Mountain: a (very slow/easy) tube waterslide with no height minimum for the passenger, so toddlers of any height can ride with parents (life jackets are permitted too)
  • Hawk’s Beak: mini body slides ending in a kiddie pool
  • Raccoon Lagoon: an indoor splash area just for littles, with slides and ride-on spraying jet skis (my oldest son’s FAVORITE!)
  • Fort Mackenzie: a multi-story interactive treehouse with plenty of spraying and a gigantic dumping water bucket (the bucket was scary for my toddler, so don’t forget to keep an eye on it if you’re in the same boat!)

20150810_183509

20150810_115226

20150810_115309

In addition to the amazing waterpark, Great Wolf offers these other toddler-friendly options:

  • PJ story time in the lobby (daily at 8 PM)
  • The morning Wolf Walk (daily at 9 AM)
  • Crafts and games in the Cub Club
  • Arcade and ice cream shop

20150809_195411

20150809_182737

Other great hotel options:

Kalahari

Wilderness

What to Do

1. The Riverside and Great Northern Railway Train

20150810_165713

This mini-train carries you on a scenic 25-30 minute loop through the forest. It’s perfect for your train-loving toddlers—ours absolutely LOVED it!

20150810_165809

At the halfway point of the trip, everyone gets off the train to watch the conductor turn the train around on a manual turntable. Pretty thrilling stuff!

The train runs every hour, on the hour, as long as they’re open (daily hours vary by season). Tickets are $12 for adults, and kids 3 and under are FREE!

20150810_172927

There’s also a cute gift shop with a play train table and all the Thomas paraphernalia you could ask for—great for killing some time before the train arrives!

2. Knuckleheads

This is basically a giant indoor amusement park, with trampolines, rides, and an arcade. It’s mostly geared toward older kids, but I was surprised to find some great options for toddlers too.

Our 3-year-old was able to ride a go-kart with his dad (no height minimum for passengers, although kids must be at least 3 years old) and it was just $7 for both of them.

20150811_175225

There’s also a flying tiger carnival ride with no height minimum and no age requirement—$3 for kids and chaperones are free.

Depending on your toddler’s adventure level, you could also try out the jumping pillow or Ball-O-City (a 4 story soft play area with slides).

3. Pirate’s Cove Family Fun Center

Pirate’s Cove is most known for its mini golf course, but it actually has lots more to offer. We went there one morning to blow off steam at their huge FREE park.

20150811_105028

This is a great spot—right next to a large parking lot (and an ice cream shop!), and surrounding by nice picnic areas.

20150811_105928

Once you venture down into the Family Fun Center, you can find peddle go-carts for ALL ages (there are even ones with baby seats in the back for infants!), a jumping pillow, and a sand castle area.

Other ideas:

These are a few of the other activities that were on my list, but we didn’t have time to check out.

Where to Eat

If you’re in the Dells with a toddler, Buffalo Bill’s is a MUST. It’s a fun, kid-friendly restaurant where drinks are delivered by TRAIN.

20150811_182540

We waited a little longer to score a spot right next to a train, and it was so worth it. Our son was beside himself when the train stopped right next to him to deliver his apple juice.

This really was toddler heaven, with trains swooping around the room from all directions and kid shows on the TVs. At one point, one of the trains zipped by shooting bubbles. (Not necessarily an adult’s heaven, while eating, but the kids loved it!)

Of course, there is an extensive kids’ menu, but Buffalo Bill’s also has special allergy-free menus for peanuts, seafood, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, and gluten.

Other ideas:

Are you getting the mini-vacation itch yet??

If you’ve never done the hotel-with-a-toddler thing, here are a few quick tips to make the experience go smoother:

  • Bring some kind of white noise. We brought a large fan and positioned it between the “kid” side of the room and the “adult” side. This was HUGE, as we were able to putter around the room after the kids went to bed without worrying that every little sound would wake them up.
  • Invest in a room with a little separation. We got the family suite at Great Wolf, which had a living room with a partial wall separating it from the main sleeping area. We rearranged the furniture so we could tuck the baby behind the couch in his Pack n’ Play, then had our toddler on the floor on the other side of the couch. (Great Wolf also offers premium rooms with completely separate bedrooms, lofts, and really cute themed kids’ rooms.)
  • Consider springing for a room with a balcony. This might seem like an unnecessary luxury, but again: when you have very young kids, separation is critical to hotel success. A balcony offers a great option for adult hang-out time after the kids are down for the night.
  • Ask for a room with a mini fridge and microwave. These are pretty common in hotels these days, but not every room has them, so it’s worth checking it out in advance. It is so much easier to be able to prepare meals/snacks (especially breakfast) in the comfort of your room, rather than having to scramble to get to a restaurant with a hangry toddler.
  • Pack paper cups/plates AND/OR dish soap/cloths to wash your plastic stuff. Easy to forget—tragic to forget.
  • Bring entertainment for the adults. This is usually the last thing on your mind when you’re planning for a kids’ vacay, but it’s kind of depressing to get the kids to bed and then realize you have nothing quiet enough to do. Bring a book (and a mini light!), a laptop (possibly with headphones), or some other activity that requires minimal sound/light.

Q: Seasoned Dells travelers, what would you add to this list?

GIVEAWAY! {ENDED}

Great Wolf Lodge would like to offer one of our readers a complimentary one-night stay in a Family Suite at Great Wolf! The winner will receive a certificate valued at $250, which will expire on June 30, 2016.

Use the Rafflecopter below to enter. The contest closes next Tuesday, September 15, and the randomly selected winner will be contacted via email.

Good luck and happy toddler vacationing!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

47 Responses to Planning a Wisconsin Dells Mini-Vacation for Toddlers

  1. Steph P. September 11, 2015 at 6:49 am #

    In the dells we really like to go to the deer park. The little ones enjoy it they can get up close and feed them and walk through their “habitat”. They also have more than just deer. We really want to take the kids on the ducks too I think they’d love that!

    • Beth September 13, 2015 at 8:49 pm #

      My son loves his leap pad when we travel- we take frequent car trips to visit family and it’s the only time he gets it, so it’s always fresh and fun for him.

    • Kelly September 14, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

      Loved this blog! I know great wolf is wonderful; never knew how toddler friendly though..wish I knew these tips earlier this summer when we went there for a day! We loved the deer park ourselves. I can’t wait to go back and check out the park at pirates cove though and some of the restaurants and places mentioned 🙂

  2. Mary September 11, 2015 at 7:31 am #

    My travel tip is to get something new (coloring book, stickers) and give them on the plane or in car when needed. A good distraction before a meltdown.

  3. Abigail September 11, 2015 at 7:37 am #

    We have been thinking about going to the dells, thanks for the great info!

  4. Stacy Schulist September 11, 2015 at 7:39 am #

    I agree with a sticker book or coloring book when traveling. It keeps toddlers busy and distracted.

  5. Andrea September 11, 2015 at 7:42 am #

    My travel tip is to plan out a stop at a park when you are headed on a long car trip. Look up a couple parks along the way so you have options for a stop when your toddler is getting antsy.

  6. Jenny B September 11, 2015 at 8:30 am #

    We will plan out parks to stop at on long rides. Also, I’ve discovered this year that like anything else the more the kids are used to long trips the better they are at it.

  7. Heather Kandiko September 11, 2015 at 9:04 am #

    The deer park in WI Dells is fun for little ones. Also stop at the outlet mall!

  8. Amanda September 11, 2015 at 9:40 am #

    A favorite is one of the water parks or knuckleheads!

  9. Allison September 11, 2015 at 10:01 am #

    Great post! Buffalo Phil’s was a huge hit with my son as well.

  10. Jean September 11, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

    Took my son to mt Olympus for the first time this year and he loved it!!!

  11. Sara McNallie September 11, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    We like Knuckleheads. It has something for everyone in our family!

  12. Linsey September 11, 2015 at 9:10 pm #

    We are hoping to get away to the Dells this winter. Thanks for all the great tips!

  13. Abby September 11, 2015 at 9:14 pm #

    I like walking around downtown and seeing everything and of course getting ice cream 🙂

  14. megan butler September 12, 2015 at 11:11 am #

    Dear Park is great!

  15. Tara September 12, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

    We always, always, always bring food healthy enough to be considered “dinner” in a pinch. granola bars, string cheese, yogurt, etc. even though our little one is a great eater, sometimes she gets overwhelmed in restaurants and its nice to feel like we have options!

  16. Kelly September 12, 2015 at 4:54 pm #

    We love going to the indoor waterparks in the Dells and can’t wait to take our little girl there when she is a bit older. I love how many great options Great Wolf Lodge has for the little ones!

  17. Paula September 12, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

    Great tips. Thanks! I second the fan. And having a fridge in your room is a must.

  18. Teresa M. September 13, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    We love the Kalahari, but this makes me want to try something new by staying at the Great Wolf Lodge!

  19. Rikki September 13, 2015 at 8:07 pm #

    We always make sure the kids get outside time/exercise before we get in the car for a road trip. It is so easy to get so caught up in packing and loading the car that it is easy to forget to burn off energy before getting in the car; however, this makes for a much more pleasant trip for all. I’m also not above providing lots of snacks on airplanes to keep the peace.

  20. Theresa September 13, 2015 at 8:09 pm #

    we love the Kalahari bc our little one loves to swim! <3

  21. Karen S. September 13, 2015 at 8:11 pm #

    we love just walking around… And of course the outlet mall 🙂

  22. Anel September 13, 2015 at 8:12 pm #

    Traveling with a toddler mean you travel with snacks, distractions, and a few favorite movies!

  23. Erin V September 13, 2015 at 8:20 pm #

    We love mini vacations to the dells! We are in Sauk Prairie, so it is super easy! My 5 and 2 year old boys have always enjoyed the trips too! Great ideas

  24. Jennifer W September 13, 2015 at 8:28 pm #

    A great place to make a road trip to is Pleasant Prairie, WI to the Jelly Belly Factory. I have been there before but I am excited to take my son there soon. They have a little train ride that you ride on around the factory and then at the end you get to taste some candy. So much fun for little kids.

  25. Emily September 13, 2015 at 8:30 pm #

    Love the dells! Makes a great ‘non toy’ Christmas gift too 🙂

  26. Rachel k September 13, 2015 at 8:35 pm #

    So excited to check this place out! Great tips for a mini getaway with toddlers!

  27. Jennifer A September 13, 2015 at 8:36 pm #

    We love hanging out at the Waterpark. Mini golf and enjoying all the delicious food options.

  28. Kirsten September 13, 2015 at 8:36 pm #

    When driving to the Dell’s from Madison, we always stop at one of the many Culvers on the way!

  29. Hannah September 13, 2015 at 9:45 pm #

    We always keep a favorite CD in the car for our daughter. We don’t play it outside the car so its a treat when we travel.

  30. Lisa September 13, 2015 at 9:48 pm #

    We did a Sells mini-vaca (just adults, prekids) a few years ago. The Deer Park is awesome! There is a horse drawn wagon tour through the canyon that is fun & the reptile/alligator house would be super fun with older kids.

  31. Lachele September 13, 2015 at 10:28 pm #

    We were in the Dells with a much younger toddler (still a baby really), and it is a great idea to head back with our 2 1/2 year old – especially before the new babe arrives in the new year. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

  32. Laura September 14, 2015 at 6:25 am #

    My son loved Mt. Olympus, but sounds like we need to check out Great Wolf, too!

  33. Melissa September 14, 2015 at 8:02 am #

    We’ve not yet taken the kids to the Dells, but would love a mini vacation. I love all the suggestions. My boys are 1 and 3 also, and my kids would go CRAZY for all the trains and water play.

  34. Nicole September 14, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    We love knuckleheads! Bowling, trampoline park and a few games, it is all fun.

  35. Amy September 14, 2015 at 11:26 am #

    We always bring more snacks than we could ever eat, which is a lifesaver on long car rides!

  36. Katherine September 14, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    The last time I was in the dells with my toddler, we went on a boat ride through the dells and stopped on a sandbar for water play. I was a nice day to see the other side of the dells!

  37. Katie September 14, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    Another great place to go is the Mid Continent Museum. Lots of trains to look at, as well as train rides!

    http://www.midcontinent.org/

    • Kim
      Kim September 15, 2015 at 9:02 pm #

      Great tip!! Thanks Katie!

  38. Mandy Jo September 14, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

    Noah’s Ark & Mt. Olympus have ‘A’ days every June….kids get in free when you show them your report with A’s on it! Great deal!! 🙂

  39. Rachel September 14, 2015 at 7:58 pm #

    Definitely white noise and a fan! Love the tips for the Dells as we’re hoping to take our first family trip there later this year!

  40. Brianna September 15, 2015 at 9:57 am #

    I thought the Dells was for older kids. Thanks for the article! My tip, don’t get rid of those light weight baby blankets! They’re good for “sheets” for hotel cribs and to tie your lo to a restaurant chair when they’ve run out of high chairs!

  41. Michelle September 15, 2015 at 10:34 am #

    We have not been up to the Dells with our 6 month old, but we can’t wait to check out the parks in the area. I always bring a blanket along because she loves to explorer and touch everything even at 6 months.

  42. Emily LaVenture September 15, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    My son really liked Buffalo Phil’s. The deer park sounds like it would be a hit with him as well.

  43. Lisa January 4, 2017 at 7:10 am #

    I have really enjoyed reading these comments. I have three grand kids. Ages for two and one. Which spot would be a good place for staying a few days in the summer months. Which one would be a good outdoor place for the little ones.

  44. Amber March 4, 2017 at 3:08 pm #

    I love your tips! I just booked the fireplace suite, I was going to get the standard room, but after reading your blog, I noticed it didn’t have a microwave or fridge! I thought they came in all the rooms so thanks for pointing that out. I have 3 small kids so that’s a must. Also, I will be bringing our white noise machine and paper plates. We’ve never gone on a family vacation yet so your blog was super helpful! Thanks 😀

Leave a Reply