by Lisa Meyers McClintick
In an area that easily claims to be the “Water Park Capital of the World,” Kalahari Resort and Conference Center rules as a national trendsetter and one of the country’s most popular family resorts. This is where it all began before the resort expanded into Sandusky, Ohio and other areas.
The resort stands out nicely with its African theme and has constantly added new attractions throughout the past decade, from bigger thrills in water park rides to its newer indoor theme park. The indoor water park is Kalahari’s claim to fame and a top draw in an area so dense with resorts, theme parks and entertainment.
What else makes Kalahari stand out? For one, size. There are 752 rooms and suites to accommodate families of all sizes. For kids, it’s all about the fun, including the 125,000-square-foot indoor water park, the 77,000-square-foot outdoor water park, and the 110,000-square-foot indoor theme park that opened in 2008. There are enough activities and things to see that the resort can feel like a dry-land cruise ship. African music spills out from the lobby where staff members dressed in safari gear and pith helmets assist guests and real tiger or lion cubs may be on display in a glass enclosure.
There is a paint-your-own-pottery shop, gift stores and seven dining options including a restaurant overlooking the water park. You don’t have to go outdoors either to access the 15-screen Desert Star Cinema. All these amenities make Kalahari an ideal resort for kids 6 and older. Little ones would have plenty to do, but older children can better appreciate the African atmosphere and artwork, can navigate longer halls without “Carry me!” tirades, and enjoy the bigger thrills of the water park and theme park.
If you’re on a budget, be wary. There are countless ways to blow it with photo purchases available at every thrill ride, booths with fanciful hair braids and tattoos, arcade games throughout the theme park, pay-per-view movies. There also are plenty of edible temptations such as picture-perfect caramel apples and creative, unique treats at The Sweet Hut. Keep in mind additional fees, too, such as indoor theme park passes, the daily resort fee for general amenities and additional fees for crib or rollaway rentals.
Our advice? Plan well and make sure kids have an allowance or can accept agreed-upon limits. Then, let them go wild.
Our Editor Loves
- Wisconsin's largest indoor water park
- Ferris wheel and bowling alley
- Climbing wall and Go Karts
- Theme Park
- Water Parks
- Water Sports
- Children Programs
- Family Room 5+
- Free Wi-Fi
- Game Room
- Kids' Pool
- Kids' Theme Meals
- Onsite Dining
Find the Best Price for Your Stay
Kalahari features 752 rooms and suites in its four-story building. Even the most basic rooms have families in mind with the mini-fridges and microwaves that can make quick meals and snacks possible and affordable -- especially with early birds or night owls. Another convenience is retractable clothesline in the showers for drying swimsuits. Rooms also include flat-screen TVs, coffee makers and free Wi-Fi. Most rooms sleep four while two-bedroom suites can accommodate up to eight. Some suites have balconies or views of the lobby, and some have whirlpools.
For more space, condominium suites in the adjacent Sands Building have full kitchens, balconies and fireplaces. Ny-Um-Ba luxury condominiums are standalone units off The Sands Building. Ten units are supersized with five bedrooms for large gatherings.
We stayed over three nights Labor Day week and overall had a great time. We did have one slight issue where our initial room smelled a bit musty. When we called the front desk to notify them of the funk in our room they sent someone up promptly to try and eliminate the smell by servicing the A/C unit and checking to make sure there were no other issues at the time. In the morning when the smell was still not gone we called the desk again and they had new rooms for us by lunch time that day. I say rooms because we had two adjoining rooms and even though only one had an issue they had no problem moving us both to new adjoining rooms. The weather was nice enough one day to spend at the outdoor water park and it was pretty fun, no long lines and plenty for the kids to do. The next two days we spent in the indoor water park and honestly it might have been even better than the outdoor one. We enjoyed it so much and our 3 year old is dying to go back so we already have another couple day stay planned in February.
By the way I do see a lot of complaints about the pricing but just to put it in perspective, if you book through their website and use one of their discount packages I don't think it's unreasonable at all, especially for a family. There was three of us and if we just went to a water park we would spend about $120 just to get in so to have a place to stay with water park included for about that same price on a week day and a little more on the weekends seems fair to me.
My first experience visiting the Wisconsin Dells area has not been an experience that makes me want to return due to the lack of professionalism experienced at the Kalahari Resort over the past three days. For what this place is I felt gouged for small things, as an example, soda vending machines charge $3.25 for a pop, but the vending machine only accepts single $1 bill's. Have a $5 bill, can't buy an over priced soda pop. There were numerous examples of this type of head shaking moments throughout the property. I would not have written a review but then at check out something happened that just needed to be reported, not to complain, but hopefully to send a message that a property as large and apparently successful needs to think about how they're coming across to a first time visitor. The feeling I take away is I am never going to stay here again.
I am attending a convention here in their convention center, so I went to check out early, 7:45am. I approached the only front desk station open to check people out where two young women were working. One was clearly a new employee, her name tag intact had a ribbon saying she was a trainee. The person training her was Madison, she did not have a name tag on, so note to management, someone who is training a new hire might want to be extra careful to show through action how it's done. In this moment Madison in my opinion could not have done a this trainee a bigger disservice. When I approached I was not given a warm welcome or even a smile. It felt like her training method was to be hard on the customer. To give Madison the benefit of doubt, perhaps company policies that Madison was following were the reason I felt so unappreciated but from my perspective this property is managed by a bunch of amateurs!
Indoor Water Park
Admission to the 125,000-square-foot water park -- one of the area's largest -- is included in room rates based on the number of beds. If you have two queens, you'll have four passes, but can purchase two more if you have kids or family members using the sofa sleepers.
Preschoolers, toddlers and even older kids gather at the two-story Safari Adventure with its nine slides, tunnels and interactive toys. The Victoria Falls raft ride is tame enough for little ones, too. School-aged kids will clamor for the thrills of the Master Blaster water coaster or the Rippling Rhino, a three-person tube slide that's a more exciting family option than the raft ride. There are several other tube and body slides, as well.
Pre-teens and teens love the 40-mph zip of Tanzanian Twister, a slide that shoots riders into the swirl of a giant funnel before being shot out the bottom. Also popular is the FlowRider, the nation's first indoor stand-up surf ride with simulates five-foot rides. Guests can bodysurf or register for stand-up surfing lessons.
The park includes many of the standard water park features, including a wave pool, lazy river, basketball and activity pool and five whirlpool spas scattered throughout the park.
There are concessions and a snack bar at the park, a place to order pizza, and a bar.
If you are in a larger family group and have a few little ones or grandparents who want a little privacy at the water park, cabana rentals scattered throughout the water park are a popular option. They seat several people with cushioned chaise lounges, a flat-screen TV, refrigerators and a break from the hustle-bustle. The new Grand Cabana has a private hot tub, two TVs and accommodates up to 19 people. Outside food and drink is not allowed in the park or the cabanas.
The water park sells some day passes for non-guests during quieter times of the year.
Outdoor Water Park
One of the biggest thrills at the 77,000-square-foot outdoor water park, opened seasonally, is the new two-lane Extreme Rush racing slide that brings out the competitive streak of siblings or parent-child duos. It's a headfirst on-a-mat plunge through 420 feet of rolls and drops. There's also a raft ride, tube slides, lazy river and the Swahili Swirl that shoots riders from flume to vortex before dropping into a pool below.
Toddlers and preschoolers head to the 6,000-square-foot interactive play area. The SplashDown Safari incorporates geysers, jets, cannons, wheels and a giant splash bucket with monkeys, tigers, lions, zebras and snakes.
Guests can rent a private bungalow area (much like the indoor cabanas) for a more pampered experience and privacy Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Indoor Theme Park
The resort's best drive-by sight is seeing the six-story illuminated Ferris wheel as it spins at night. It's the visual anchor of the 110,000-square-foot indoor theme park. While the Ferris wheel calls out to kids of all sizes, most of its attractions offer more speed or thrills generally geared toward kids 6 and up, like a two-story go-cart track, a Sky Trail Ropes Course (great for dare-devils and kids not afraid of heights), laser tag battle arena, 24 bowling, mini golf and climbing walls. But little ones can also enjoy the African-themed merry-go-round or the indoor playground.
Adventurous, active families will tackle the climbing walls and ropes course, which isn't for the faint-hearted but a good esteem builder for pre-teens and older. Laser tag and mini-golf are other good options for families wanting to play together and without the longer lines at the go-cart track.
Admission to the indoor theme park is an additional per person, per day fee. You also can pay for rides individually.
As a family resort, Kalahari's spa welcomes children, an usual feature for a resort. The jungle theme continues into the spa with leopard and animal prints in the decor, which is a peaceful sanctuary from water parks. Specials for children include Little Princess package with 90-minute manicure, pedicure, hairstyle and tiara, plus make-up and goody bag for girls 2 to 8. There also are Little Lady packages for 'tweens and one for teens.
Outside the children's programs, the spa feels decidedly grown up and smells deliciously fragrant. Among the most popular services are manicures, hot-stone massages, couples treatments and Moor mud wraps.
One of the biggest hits for complimentary activities is chance to glob rainbow-bright frosting and sprinkles onto cookies shaped like elephants, lions and hippos. It's often scheduled around check-in, making it a popular way to kick off a stay.
This kids' activity area on the far side of the indoor theme park is popular with preschoolers and grade-school kids who like do-it-yourself souvenirs such as picture frames, necklaces and seasonal crafts, usually less than $5. Parents or guardians are required to stay with kids 12 and under. Guests also can check out board games for free.
Also popular for the ultimate in hands-on souvenirs is the resort's own paint your own pottery studio, located right on the premises. (Have you ever heard of such an amenity?) The pottery is not included with the stay and will cost additional fees.
Desert Star Cinema
For more traditional family outings, Kalahari's onsite movie theater provides 15 theaters with the biggest and newest movies.
Possibly the most popular stop for guests and visitors alike is the Sweet Hut with ice cream cones (try the chocolate-dipped ones cones), caramel and candied apples, roasted cinnamon-and-sugar almonds, chocolates, and seasonal sweets such as pumpkin spice ice cream and candy eyeballs for Halloween.
Right in the lobby area but with a nice tucked-away feel, this restaurant often has cheap kids' meals with each adult meal, plus a tasty lineup of salads and sandwiches, breakfast and dinner entrees. You can order kids' meal standards or go for their fresh twist on PBJs: a build-your-own with waffles instead of bread and gummy worms for fun. The Asian salad comes piled high in between layers of fried wontons.
Double Cut Charcoal Grill
This steakhouse features classic steaks and seafood, too! The kids' menu includes things like pasta, grilled cheese, tacos, burgers and prime rib. Reservations are suggested.
Pizza, burgers, sandwiches, tacos and more are available at the center of the indoor theme park.
The caveat here is the view of the water park through its huge windows that makes it easy for early-risers to dream about which slides they'll tackle while eating pancakes and eggs. While many items cater to kids and their more predictable tastes, many entrees appeal to adults, such as char-grilled salmon marinated with vanilla and mint served with cranberry hollandaise sauce and asparagus or African spice-rubbed char-grilled steak wrapped in bacon served with five-cheese ravioli.
If guests want something light and quick like sandwiches, gourmet Carr Valley cheese, pastries, cookies and desserts, this is the place to come. It's also popular for morning coffee drinks.
Planning & Tips
All About the Extras
Be sure to get the Children and Family Activities guide when you check in to maximize a weekend. It lists activities such as cookie decorating, special events such as a Halloween haunted house, daily surf lessons on the Flow Rider, games with prizes such as game tokens, coloring contests and family movies. Some do require a fee.
Check in is at 4 p.m., but guests can pre-register by noon and hit the water park or theme park early. While room checkout is at 11 a.m., guests can use lockers and stay at the parks until closing.
While the resort doesn't offer its own babysitting service or drop-off kids programs, you can call Pop-In Nanny Agency at (888) 384-9007 for childcare.
The Art of Smart Timing
If you want to enjoy the outdoor water park with thinner crowds in the summer, aim for the last two weeks of August or first week in June. For fall and winter, you'll find better deals and fewer crowds September through early December (excluding holidays). Go mid-week rather than weekends if possible. Crowds peak mid-June through mid-August and from Christmas through spring break in March and early April.
The resort is right off Interstate 94/90, about 90 minutes from Milwaukee, 3.5 hours from Chicago and four hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul.
If you are traveling by air to Madison (50 minutes away) or Milwaukee, taking a bus or traveling by Amtrak to the Dells, you can notify the resort and pre-arrange a pickup. They also have shuttles available to other Dells attractions, such as Noah's Ark, the nation's largest outdoor water park.
You can rent a car and have it dropped it off at the resort or rent a car at the resort for exploring the area.
For Mom and Dad
This is geared toward adults with pool tables, dartboards, foosball, drink specials, nightclub entertainment and room to dance.
For a longer night out, there are two Vegas-style shows: Jeremy Allen's Grand Illusions or Rick Wilcox Magic Theater.