Past the row of massive limestone columns at Union Depot’s entrance, in the far corner of the cavernous football field–size grand hall, a tidy line forms before the door leading to the train platform—a little nub of humanity loaded down with roller bags, iPads, and pillows. Back in the 1940s, a couple decades after the depot opened, 20,000 passengers boarding some 300 trains clicked across these slick, pink terrazzo floors daily, under the two-story barrel-vault ceiling’s colossal skylights. Today, my 2-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son zoom, stocking-footed, across its empty expanse as we wait for our train, one of two that will stop here today.
Photo by David Ellis
I first stepped into this hall last May, during a celebration of train travel’s return to downtown St. Paul after a 43-year hiatus—thanks to $243 million worth of acquisitions, renovations, and construction that transformed the historic depot into a multi-use transportation hub. Standing within its gleaming magnificence, I felt lucky, humbled, and, due to its grand presence, somewhat underdressed. “We need to take a train trip,” I told my husband, Clint, as the four of us navigated the chaos of other families and gray-haired enthusiasts, picking up commemorative train whistles and light-rail literature as the Choo Choo Bob band’s live performance volleyed about the hallowed stone. Back home, I analyzed the Empire Builder’s stops and zeroed in on Wisconsin Dells. Full disclosure: I’d probably be voted “Least Likely to Water-Park-Vacation” among my friends. But the Dells are close, family-friendly, and navigable without a car. Plus, I’m no curmudgeon. (And I read that they have swim-up bars.)
And so we booked our personal introduction to the growing trend of American train travel. Amtrak has posted ridership increases each year but one of the past dozen—30.9 million passengers is the current record, set in 2014. Numbers on Minnesota’s stretch of track have admittedly declined as of late, likely due to frequent delays caused by freight trains running to and from North Dakota’s oil fields. But Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari says that the billions (“Yes, that’s with a b”) worth of infrastructure additions and improvements BNSF Railway completed at the end of last year seem to have improved reliability.
Photo by David Ellis
Worried about delays, I download the Amtrak app, which offers e-ticketing and train-tracking. No matter how often I check it, our train remains right on time. Our little line of passengers is released onto the platform just before the train pulls in, and the kids’ excitement on top of the ridiculously fresh, sunny day makes the double-decker, silver superliner’s entrance particularly spectacular. We board, then quickly find a cluster of four empty upper-level seats, loading suitcases overhead and totes filled with snacks and entertainment onto the seats for easy access. With no driving, plane-changing, or other travel stresses to occupy us, our vacation starts now.
Clint and Vera, our 2-year-old, cuddle up over books and river-watching. Roy, our 4-year-old, is so enchanted with the idea of going to the bathroom in a caravan of rooms whizzing along at 50-plus miles an hour that he insists he must do so roughly every 10 minutes. After the fourth trip, I convince him to explore other parts of the train instead, so we set out down the aisle, past reclining nappers, side-by-side teens immersed in side-by-side smartphones, and one mom who transformed abundant legroom into a makeshift playpen for her toddler.
At the car’s end, Roy presses the big button that causes the door to hiss aside, Star Trek–style, revealing the wobbly compartment between cars, like a mini fun house to a 4-year-old. Then, it’s onto the fishbowl-like community observation car, where groups of travelers gathered around four-tops chat over board games and readers waffle between the words in front of them and the landscape rolling by. Had there been an empty seat in sight, I would’ve grabbed it in a heartbeat.
Instead, we head one floor down for some pizza from the snack bar then make our way back to deliver it to the other half of our foursome before checking on those magnetic bathrooms again. Even with this scenario on repeat, it doesn’t feel as if four hours have passed by the time we pull into “Misconsum Dells,” as Vera’s renamed it.
Our shuttle driver is waiting for us right outside the train, in his Kalahari-logoed safari shirt. When we were deciding where to stay, the Kalahari was the only water-park resort we found that offered free shuttle service to and from the station. It’s about a 50-foot amble to the Suburban that delivers us out of kitschy downtown Wisconsin Dells and to our vacation campus-of-choice 5 miles away.
A collection of water-park-centric family entertainment behemoths not only exists but thrives here, as proven by more than four million estimated visitors annually. That’s nearly 1,500 times the town’s population of 2,700. The Kalahari feels vast, like its namesake, boasting both indoor and outdoor water parks, a bowling alley, a 15-screen movie theater, a spa, and an indoor theme park with a ropes course, laser tag, and elevated go-kart track—and isn’t even the largest resort in town. The place is an insta-safari party, decorated with thatched roofs, indoor bamboo trees, and African animal statues to pose with. There are stands hawking hair braiding, airbrush tattooing, and drinks in plastic coconuts, plus multiple happy hours and a free frost-your-own sugar cookie station daily at 3 p.m.
Photo Courtesy of WDVCB
Before we arrived, I had plans to beat the system. To take a shuttle to the closest grocery store for the food-and-drink staples that would’ve been too much to lug onto the train and perhaps escape the resort for a peaceful hike among tree-topped sandstone river bluffs. But soon after we check into our room, a blanket of gloomy clouds rolls in, the temperature plummets, and then, Roy throws up (poor little guy). While he and Clint hole up in bed with cartoons, Vera and I slip on flip-flops, step out of our hotel-room door, and walk, hand-in-hand, into our waiting vacation.
We assimilate seamlessly into the water park’s swimsuit-clad mass of youth and middle-aged Midwesterners, where even my small (but bold), piggy-tailed 2-year-old can accompany me on a blowup raft down a twisty blue three-story slide. Eventually, Roy rallies, and all four of us spend the remainder of our two-day getaway under the Kalahari’s roof, tackling ticket-spitting arcade games, a rollicking wave pool, and a six-story indoor Ferris wheel with a view of the night sky between meals, meltdowns, and little breaks back in our room. Roy, bless him, goes from apathetic in bed to declaring, “We should move here!” within the span of 24 hours. Which is all to say that I didn’t so much beat the system as roll over and allow it to scratch my belly.
Photo Courtesy of WDVCB
The only westbound train out of the Dells leaves at 6 p.m., and we board it feeling water-park weary and ready for home. This time, for a bit, we put our belongings on one pair of seats and squeeze all four of ourselves onto the other pair, across the aisle. “We’re having family time!” Vera says, punctuating the obvious the way young children do, making it feel that much sweeter. After the sun sets, trackside lamps drag by outside and the gently swaying train’s shushing and squeaking feels like a lullaby. Among the overhead announcements: “If you’re holding an eight o’clock dinner reservation, please make your way to the dining car.” We appreciate the option, but choose instead to sip a little wine, trade turns escorting Roy to the bathroom, and otherwise enjoy the ride.
Riding the Empire Builder
Book early. Amtrak offers three pricing levels. Naturally, the lowest sell out first.
Subscribe to Amtrak’s e-newsletter for information about regional specials and flash sales, such as BOGO and Kids Ride Free.
Think of the children. Tickets for kids ages 2 to 12 are always half-price.
Trails & Rails is a collaboration between Amtrak and the National Park Service, which places guides on trains during the spring and summer to share information about natural landmarks and culture, and to answer questions. Guides aboard the eastern-most Empire Builder travel from St. Paul to Wisconsin as the train cruises past the Mississippi River and chugs alongside the Kaposia Indian Site, established in the mid-18th century.