Wisconsin is known for two things on the global stage: beer and cheese. Sometimes these are put together and used to dip pretzels into or used to smother burgers. Under those circumstances, one might expect that its residents would perish from heart disease at some of the highest rates in the US. They actually rank around midpack - just like they rank in most categories such as overall population and size. How? Well, Wisconsin is a well educated state thanks to it's outstanding public institutions, and thus has above average doctors for the other demographics it otherwise shares. Very much a purple state, it is responsible for both Paul Ryan and Scott Walker's notoriety on the American political stage, but historically has a substantive number of democratic candidates which it has pushed forward (including current senator Tammy Baldwin).
It's biggest city isn't where the NFL team is located - it's actually the third largest city where you'd find that. There's also no NHL team here in spite of it being cold and conducive to hockey fandom thanks to the overbearing influence of the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago as a whole really casts a shadow on much of the populated portions of the state. It's the top market from which Wisconsin Dells pulls tourists, and the existence of Six Flags Great America as being positioned halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago's respective downtowns forever dooms the city to never having a substantive park to truly call it's own. There's lots of outdoor space here and plenty of great summer recreation of the "real" kind. And more often than not, that recreation has led to amusements sprouting up near by.
The obvious starting point is the Wisconsin Dells. In the 1920ss, tourists flocked here because of the gorgeous glacially-carved sandstone that reflected off the calm waters of Lake Delton. That Lake Delton is actually a reservoir constructed pretty much entirely for establishing a leisure resort has become secondary in the discussion of the Dells, as Lake Delton itself increasingly becomes perceived as merely a source of water rather than an attraction. Noah's Ark was the first really big attraction in the area: it has historically been much more than a water park, even containing indoor attractions like a a 4-D Theater and a Haunted Swing (think Vekoma Mad House, but smaller) rethemed twice, most recently to Curse of The Crypt. Their premier attraction these days is the 1/4 mile long water coaster Black Anaconda, which was the world's longest when constructed.
It was the development of the first American full scale water park under a roof at The Polynesian that changed everything in the Dells. Soon, large water park resorts sprung up left and right, establishing brands: The Wilderness, Kalahari, and Great Wolf Lodge are its most well known by far. Chula Vista Resort doesn't have a national brand, but it does have both an indoor and outdoor water park with water coaster. And then there's Mount Olympus. Oh, Mount Olympus.
In order to not invite ourselves too heavily to libel lawsuits, we should traffic in facts here. This year, Wisconsin Dells was selling tickets to the park for $3. Parking is usually in the $20 range, but there is still POP admission for the general public at $3. Three. US. Dollars. Over the years, the Laskaris family has expanded vastly it's holdings, buying up other attractions in the area as they've closed or never opened. The Indoor Theme Park, which certainly appears to be little more than a prefab steel warehouse, contains Zamperla rides acquired from a nearby restaurant who's efforts to get an amusement park off the ground came up short for some mysterious reason. Motels up and down the strip of WI-12 are now painted white and blue (though many Tripadvisor reviews show the phones in room having never been given new slips for identification of the hotel) having been acquired, with various "all inclusive" style packages being made available. Pizza, breadsticks, park admission, parking, towels, 3 hours of resort exclusive ERT (so exclusive you can pay extra for it at Mount Olympus if there for the day), and more can be yours for prices in the $80/night range.
Wisconsin Dells has a pile of smaller attractions worth noting, just as any other tourist trap would. Top Secret Attraction is also owned by the Laskaris family: shaped like an inverted White House (a la Wonderworks' upside down buildings), it has an array of upside-down house scenes, an appearance by some sort of rock monster, and dinosaurs. The sign outside proclaims "Today Only! $5" which really needs a comma as it has been $5 for many years consecutively. Mr Marvel's Wondertorium is independently owned and operated: there's sideshow acts and museum pieces inside this weird joint. For some light scare action, there's the Dells Zombie Outbreak (laser tag where you shoot zombies) and two more traditional haunted houses (Ghost Outpost and Haunted Mansion). I would be remiss not to reference the Tommy Bartlett empire, including a science center (Tommy Bartlett Exploratory) and water skiing show. Tragically, the largest independent parks in the area (Riverview Park and Timber Falls) have closed their largest rides or are outright defunct, including a really solid wood coaster. The entirety of the Dells seems to be shifting more and more in favor of the indoor water parks.
Green Bay has a gridiron football team (I use this to differentiate for all 4 readers outside North America who might be confused) which is publicly owned; the only such entity in American pro sports. It shouldn't be that big a surprise then that they also have a publicly owned and operated amusement park perhaps: That's what Bay Beach is. There's a really long train ride, some notable flats (Scat2!) and of course the Zippin Pippin. Elvis' favorite coaster, torn down at Libertyland many moons ago, was recreated here in Green Bay, Wisconsin. By most accounts, the ride which exists today is actually far superior to the original. I personally think it's among the 10-15 best wood coasters in the country, and I'm a big time wood coaster fan. The city also has a more traditional FEC called Kastle Park should you just be looking for some go karts. But really, just go to Bay Beach. Rides on the Zippin Pippin are something like $1.25. Really! No lie!
Museum or theme park or neither? Your call when it comes to Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Founded in the home of Ringling Bros/' headquarters, it is part open air museum dedicated to preserving "Ringlingville", a series of buildings that were used by the circus during the summer months. It is also part actual circus, with a permanent 3 ring circus with daily circus shows in the summer time. There's also historical collections related to carnivals and the wild west shows of the early 20th century that one can leaf through if they've got enough time.
On the outskirts of the metro Madison area is Little Amerricka; named for founder Lee Merrick and, well, America, it's the kind of park that I love to highlight in these pieces. Not enough is ever done to look at the work individuals do to create their dream amusement facilities, and this is one of those situations where one man's uncompromising vision has led to a super unique park with really cool stuff. At Little Amerricka, you'll find the prototype Chance Toboggan coaster, one of the last operating Herschell wild mouse coasters, Hillcrest Park from Chicago's PTC Little Dipper wood coaster (with all the custom metal work retained), a monorail (with single cars!), a haunted house built out of what looks to be a single wide trailer, and the Train. Custom built from the ground up with a roundhouse and a bunch of engines, the train looks slightly different than your average park train to start with, but once you realize it's a nearly 30 minute, two mile journey out into the country side and a farm, you really come to appreciate how unique this place is.
Unique. One Man's Vision. These are often quotes attribute to Walt Disney, but they describe any number of legendary figures of the 20th century, including a Wisconsin resident with a uncompromising attitude towards architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright was, and is, rightfully considered a legend. Many believe he is America's first truly great architect. Among the people he influenced was Alex Jordan Jr., a young architect who desired to train at Taliesin in Spring Green. At least, that's the apocryphal story. Whether or not he ever met. Wright is disputable, to say the least. What isn't in dispute is what Jordan Jr. constructed a short distance from the master's school. He constructed what must be considered the single most audacious "residence" in American history. He built "The House On The Rock".
When touring the House On The Rock, guests tour the unorthodox living spaces (there are no bedrooms here, but many, many sofas) and their myriad of themes. They will see the music machines. And then the music machines will get every larger. And larger. And larger. And with that, the other rooms will increase in scope and size. Eventually, you arrive in a room big enough to house a dirigible with a statue of a giant sea monster (sperm whale-ish) that's eating a row boat and it's off to the races. Nothing in your life prepares you for this or any of the spectacle that follows - steam punk, a carousel with hundreds of pieces, thousands of dolls, the list goes on and on. It is a modern spectacle on par with anything in the Americas, if not the world. Anyone seriously interested in themed spaces not only should go, but as a practical measure, must.
How much mini golf is there in Wisconsin? All the mini golf. When it comes to the most interesting, there's The Ruins Adventure Mini Golf in Oconto that has Mayan elements, Red Putter's Door County WI theme, and Nine Below in Milwaukee - a bar with "build it yourself" mini golf. There's also a smattering of Family Entertainment Centers featuring golf, go-karts, and other stuff - Elmer's Fun Park, Bears' Den, Kartway, Settlers Mill, Egg Harbor Fun Park, and Eagle Falls all operate in Northern Wisconsin where residents often find themselves vacationing in the summer. Further south and closer to the population bases are Prarieville Park and the Chubby Seagull.
Carousels and Trains have some representation too: The Toy Train Barn in Argyle is not merely a place to buy trains, but has a fairly substantial miniature train to ride on too. The Lumberjack Steam Train and Camp 5 Museum is a shared experience: train to the camp museum to visit and see how the logging industry was in the olden days of the late 19th century, and train to leave. The Henry Vilas Zoo has a train ride and carousel (a modern "Conservation" one); same with Fond Du Lac's Lakeside Park (also has a kiddie whip ride). The Menominee Park Zoo has a 50s era Herschell metal carousel, and Waterloo's Fireman's Park just reopened their CW Parker Carousel from 1911 this past July. Sadly, one item can't be visited any more - Ella's Deli in Madison closed its doors early in 2018 as the owners seek to retire. The business is being parted off, including the metal Parker 2-row carousel that sat inside and a second Herschell carousel, not used by them, which had been in storage since acquisition a quarter century ago.