Madison and the Dells: Five Unwanted Ducks

August 1, 2020 – After a somewhat uneventful night with a hotel check-in and a cookie, Christina and I had a few plans for the day. Just about none of those things happened the way we planned.

We started out the day by heading to Yola’s Cafe in Madison for a late breakfast. I had a fantastic custom breakfast sandwich, egg whites and provolone on ciabatta. But Christina’s order got lost. A small inconvenience once we figured it out, and her veggie burrito came quickly after that, but it set us back a little in our schedule and we had to take Christina’s breakfast to go to make our next target.

Next up on the schedule, Escape in Time. We had purchased a discount voucher from Escape in Time the last time we were in town and were ready for our return trip. We played the Cryosleep theme this time.

While we enjoyed the game, we tend to prefer more tactile games with lots of hands-on activities, and spaceship themes tend to be more button / lever based. We knew that going in, and the room’s execution was great for a tech-heavy sci fi room, but it’s not our bread and butter, subjectively speaking.

Next, we were very excited to watch the Chicago Blackhawks resume the season in the playoff hunt. What was looking like a lost season for the Hawks was brought back on track when COVID forced an expanded playoff field due to a truncated regular season.

Our plan was to head to Ho Chunk Casino near Wisconsin Dells and find a restaurant at which we could sit and watch the full game. Upon arriving at the casino, we found that no restaurant was open, but there was one bar with TVs and social distancing precautions set up. The bar was set up for ideal COVID avoidance- ordering behind plexiglass screens on one side of the bar, and a few very, very isolated spots people could sit while sipping their drinks.

I ordered a rum and coke, sat down, and enjoyed the first ten minutes of the game. But then I encountered an unusual challenge- one of the staff asked us to keep our masks on while drinking.

Needless to say, that’s not an easy task. I take small, frequent sips when I drink cocktails, and trying to slide a straw under a mask isn’t exactly precise. I hate to think about the health consequences of the times I caught the wrong side of the mask with the straw.

After a few more minutes, we gave up and left.

It’s a shame because the setup was done well- rarely did anyone pass within 30 feet of us. We were slowly dabbling with the video poker game on the bar counter, and I planned to buy more drinks throughout the game.

What I suspect happened is that someone at the casino realized that we were going to sit there for the duration of the whole game and wanted to chase us away, leaving the space open for people who might drink faster and dump more money into the video poker game. With the setup, not even the staff needed to come within 30 feet of us at any point to check in, so even the most skittish of us shouldn’t have had to worry about anything COVID-related.

So change of plans- we stocked up on snacks at a nearby gas station and headed for Mirror Lake State Park. We found the Blackhawks game on the radio and got to listen to our team trounce the Edmonton Oilers in the first playoff game (making us regret a little not taking any bets on the Blackhawks to win the Stanley Cup at 75:1).

Arriving at Mirror Lake, we hit our next setback of the day. The entrance was marked heavily with signage that vehicle stickers were required to park within the state park, and because the visitor centers were closed, all guests were required to order passes ahead of time online for delivery in the mail. Nothing we could do here.

We drove around the state park area a little more to take in some sights from the car and headed to another park, Rocky Arbor. At first our chances looked grim- there was a lot of similar signage to Mirror Lake- but then I found a notice among the documentation that the fees had been suspended temporarily and parking stickers were not required. So we parked and began to walk the trail.

We got about two minutes down the path when Christina asked to turn back. Christina doesn’t like wildlife, and even the prospect of encountering a deer or heron, let alone a bear or coyote, makes her uncomfortable, and with almost no one else on the trail, I couldn’t guarantee we wouldn’t see anything. So we hopped back into the car and headed to our next rapid-fire destination.

Next up, we went to the Wisconsin Dells outlet mall. The mall is outdoors and spacious which made for a normal-feeling experience in spite of COVID, and we found plenty of stores to shop in, clothing and otherwise. Particularly of note to me was a Dowdle jigsaw puzzle we grabbed depicting the area around Lake Estes, including bald eagles and the Stanley Hotel- highlights of our recent trip to the Denver area.

The mall had a grab-a-duck crane game for $1 a play. Usually Christina and I grab these as mementos whenever we see them; we even have one from our hotel on our wedding day and another from our honeymoon cruise ship. Typically we waltz up, pick the duck we want, and grab it on the first shot.

Not this time. We singled out a cute chocolate lab duck, which stood out because we’ve been more and more tempted to get a dog recently. It wasn’t the easiest grab to make, but it shouldn’t have been impossible, either. But the claw kept grabbing the next closest duck and pushing the one we wanted deeper. After five wrong ducks, we moved on.

If there was ever a metaphor for our trip, that was it. We’re still happy to have ducks, and it’s memorable- just not what we were shooting for. In the grander scheme of things, it’s no worse to have a plain yellow duck than a dog-looking one, just like we’re still blessed to have hockey at all, even if we’re listening on the radio. Even when we have minor setbacks in our adventures, the fact that we’re able to have adventures at all is wonderful, even if they don’t always go exactly how we plan.

I grabbed a Geocache in the mall parking lot, bumping into another Geocacher at the location. It’s not surprising, I suppose- the Dells were quite active with visitors from around the midwest, but it’s always fun to have random encounters like this.

Next, we rushed over to Elusive Escape Rooms in the Wisconsin Dells to play the Olympus Under Siege game. We always enjoy the White House theme and this set was particularly expansive as we explored the oval office and the attached secret bunker. It was a challenge but we pulled through.

After our escape room, it was 7:30 and we had a decision to make. Our hotel was an hour away, so we had the option to start calling it a night, to head back to the hotel with dinner and wind down. Of course, we’re rarely in the Wisconsin Dells, and I had been itching to go back to Wizard Quest since we had made it 95% of the way through our adventure the last time we went there. We deliberated on it for a little while, but once we determined that Wizard Quest was open late and that the current location was being closed later this year, we decided it was worth it to keep pressing forward.

After a quick dinner at the Pizza Lab in the Wisconsin Dells (quick, light pizzas made to order), we parked in the downtown Dells area and kicked off our visit to Wizard Quest.

Wizard Quest is a very unique place. Not exactly an escape room, but very similar- a one hour time limit to solve riddles around an elaborate fairytale kingdom. Last time we had played the “Free the Wizards” game, in which you race to free four wizards within the time limit. We had found three, better than the “par” of two within one visit, but still with secrets left to find.

This time around we played the “Apprentice” quest, labeled as a little easier than the wizard challenge, but still targeted for adults. It was a very good challenge, and even having already been familiar with about 90% of the secret passages in the facility, it took us about 40 minutes to complete the quest- and that was with Christina bringing her A-game for spotting critical clues and details needed in our quest.

Mirror Maze Forest

I can’t wait to see what they do with the new facility. The current location is one of the most creative projects I’ve ever encountered, and I’m sure the owners have had plenty of new ideas to build into reality.

With the successful completion of our Wizard’s Quest journey, we finished our day of off-course adventures. Driving through the Dells, we saw a dozen other places we wanted to stop (the mini golf courses around the area look FANTASTIC!), so we’re definitely looking forward to returning in the near future, as well as in a few years when we’ve got kids we can share all the wonderful family-friendly entertainment with.

As a final footnote- the final day of our adventure was mostly a commute homeward, but we did make a stop in Stoughton, WI, where we had brunch at a nice diner called the Koffee Kup and solved a virtual Geocache by answering questions about a local landmark, the 120 year old opera house.

Stoughton Opera House

I always like taking our trips just a little bit off the beaten path to see the things that don’t show up on every tourism list’s top ten but are still brilliant treasures in our country’s history, and it made a great way to cap off an unusual trip!

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