After a year of lakes draining and unemployment rising, the business owners of the Wisconsin Dells resorts, theme parks and attractions, are ready to come back and give customers what they have always asked for: a good time.
Nearly one year ago, on June 9, 2008, a heavy storm passed through central Wisconsin causing Hwy A to collapse and release the 267 acre Lake Delton into the Wisconsin River. Lake Delton, a centerpiece of the tourism industry in the Wisconsin Dells and to the state of Wisconsin, provides opportunities for all ages with boat tours, water attractions, and many great beaches. With the loss of the lake came the destruction of businesses and homes in addition to the lost revenue from thousands of tourists that visit the area each summer.
A major plan for the rebuilding effort was underway within days of the disaster at Lake Delton and work crews started to rebuild the dam only a month after the water was drained. By the end of the year, the road was rebuilt and the refilling process began by diverting water from the nearby Mirror Lake. Tom Diehl, president of the Tommy Bartlett Show and Lake Delton Village Trustee, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “[for] the 21 resorts, two restaurants, two marina operators, the Ducks and Tommy Bartlett Show, this has been a morale booster.”
Many of the businesses on Lake Delton were closed for the 2008 season, and those that remained open suffered major losses compared to their normal income. At the nearby Lakeside Motel, revenues dropped 70 percent last summer, requiring owner Christine Nowak to dip into her retirement savings to keep the business in operation. Looking to the 2009 season, bookings are still low and Nowak said, “It’s kind of scary, to be honest. Hopefully, people will come.”
Not all businesses suffered a loss in 2008, in fact many saw gains as the entire area took in over $1.07 billion in tourism money, a 3.9 percent increase over 2007. Even with a slight rise in revenues, the number of indoor water parks has grown from one in 1994 to over 20 currently in operation, giving tourists more options to choose from for their vacations. This is helpful to the Wisconsin Dells economy, but it is slowly taking away business from the small motel operators, including many around the Lake Delton areas, as tourists want to stay at the larger and newer hotels with indoor water parks.
As the economy began to sink in September, the Kalahari was in the middle of a $20 million expansion project to add an indoor amusement park to their large indoor water park and resort. The Kalahari owners found that in the middle of the economic downturn, many of the best construction workers in the industry were available to work at their theme park expansion. Bill Kolar, project manager for the Kalahari expansion said, “We were fortunate to be working with the A-team.” This helped to speed up project in order to finish on time for the grand opening during the Christmas season of 2008.
Business owners in the Lake Delton area are now faced the challenge of reopening their businesses amidst a struggling economy where people are not spending outside of the necessities they use. This summer hotel owners will need to be creative like they were last summer in order to lure customers in and spend money for a day at the water park. At Noah’s Ark Water Park, they are offering discount advance tickets through 380 Kwik Trip convenience stores in Wisconsin and eastern Iowa to spark sales. Co-owner Tim Gantz said, “It’s the biggest such promotion ever done by Noah’s Ark.”
The Tommy Bartlett Water-Ski Show, an anchor business on Lake Delton, will re-open this Friday, May 22 with a show that is sure to astound audiences of all ages. In addition, the famous Wisconsin Dells Ducks will make a reappearance in Lake Delton, and many outdoor theme parks in the area will open for business over the upcoming holiday weekend. Although it is hard to predict how this economy will affect revenues at the Dells, Todd Nelson, President at the Kalahari Resort reminded the Daily Reporter, “Conventional wisdom about the Dells is that a slow economy can help business. Since people don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on a week at Disney World, they’re more inclined to drive to a resort and spend a weekend.” Many of the visitors to the Wisconsin Dells come from short distances including the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago according to the Wisconsin Dells Visitors Bureau.
For now, resort owners will have to wait with anticipation and see what the season brings. Joe Eck, general manager at Wilderness Hotels and Resorts, remains hopeful and said, “I think there’s just a real buzz, guests want to come back and see this lake that was built in 11 months.”