Fifty hours in the Wisconsin Dells.
Hour 0: The drive. This summer will mark the 20th straight year that our entire family (Hadley 20, Henry 17, Emma 12) has made at least one stop in the Wisconsin Dells.
We regularly travel from Minnesota to Michigan to visit family. Even during those years when we have no intention of doing anything but driving straight through, I cannot — when faced with any barrage of billboards advertising tourist traps and kitschy attractions — keep. Myself. From. Stopping.
It’s an addiction. My brain’s pleasure center experiences a surge of ecstasy — a warm flushing of the skin, euphoric but clouded mental functions — at the first sign advertising Mr. Marvel's Wondertorium! or Alligator Alley!
By billboard three — The Lost Voyage Haunted Boat Tour! — I’m yelling “Oh, Lord, Lindy, I’m experiencing a warm flushing of my skin and my mental functions are euphoric but clouded!”
Hour 1 in the Dells: We try VR Universe, a virtual reality arcade that offers a “mind-bending experience” with “multi-player capabilities!” Naturally, in order to bring the family closer together, the kids pick a game in which we will try to kill each other.
We are led into individual, curtained cubicles and fitted with a VR headset and wireless joystick-type devices. To learn the system basics, we practice simple tasks with our characters: walking around corners, getting into an elevator, firing our weapons. Lindy can do none of these things. She keeps walking into a wall. Falls down an elevator shaft. Shoots herself in the virtual foot.
The kids are mocking her through the curtains. When it comes to picking teams for our family war, all three of the kids insist on kids versus adults. “Good luck, Dad!” they say to me. The sarcasm does not go unnoticed by Lindy.
Then the game starts. Lindy, apparently channeling her inner rage at being openly mocked before being picked last, proceeds to turn into a stone-cold killing machine. It’s a little bit scary to watch, even in a virtual world. But still, she carries us to a victory we’ll gloat about for the next 49 hours.
Hour 2 in the Dells: Wizard Quest. Wizard Quest — and here’s the simple explanation — is a labyrinthine, themed quadrasphere containing four imprisoned wizards that can only be freed by collecting glimmers — magical currency amassed through solving mystical puzzles and answering riddles hidden in the Fire, Water, Earth, and Air realms.
It’s two floors and 13,000 square feet of a McDonald’s Playland as if designed by the architectural firm of Voldemort, Gandalf, Frodo, and Eragon. Get enough points — and find all four wizards — in 75 minutes, and you win. Win!
We have visited Wizard Quest for each of the past nine years. We won one time, nine years ago. That night, we celebrated like we’d just won “Family Feud,” especially if there was a version of “Family Feud” set inside the Shadow Forests of the Middle Earthen realm of Mordor. We have not won since. This year, that streak stays intact.
Hour 4 in the Dells: 18 holes of Pirates Cove Adventure Golf. Henry and I are tied going into hole 18. I three-putt. Henry two-putts for the win. He celebrates like he’s just won the grand prize on “Family Feud,” especially if there is a version of “Family Feud” filmed on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Hour 16: The Wisconsin Dells Deer Park is like a Night of the Living Dead scene in which a horde of zombies surround and attack some 20-year-old co-ed as she screams her head off. Just replace “zombies” with “deer” and “20-year-old co-ed” with “50-year-old magazine editor.”
It's been, for 20 years, our favorite stop in the Dells. Every year, there is at least one point during the visit in which [Warning! Mandatory reporters from the family service sector should skip the rest of this sentence!] all three kids will be holding the graham cracker-sized wafers in their teeth. And letting the deer eat them.
They've already killed each other in a virtual reality game, tried to solve Wizard Quest, fed deer from their mouths. And that's just hours 1-16. What else can the Lange family possibly fit into the next 34 hours? Find out next week.