From the highest-flying planes at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, to the deepest waters in Wisconsin Dells, popular tourist attractions like these bring in billions of dollars each year.
According to the latest figures from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, Wisconsin hosted 102.3 million visitor trips in 2021 and tourism generated $20.9 billion in total economic impact.
“We’re seeing that Wisconsin is very popular right now when it comes to selecting vacation destinations across the Midwest and the country,” said Wisconsin Department of Tourism Secretary Anne Sayers. “We know it’s about our welcoming nature, our spirited celebrations, and the depth and variety of all our offerings.”
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After a slowdown during the pandemic, Wisconsinites and tourists alike are hitting the highways, byways and airways.
Which brings us to a question Wisconsin Public Radio’s WHYsconsin was asked: What is Wisconsin’s most popular place to visit?
Officially, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism doesn’t track visitation numbers to destinations or communities, Sayers said, because individual places and attractions do. So, unofficially, here are just a few of the most favorite attractions to visit in Wisconsin based on information shared with the state Department of Tourism and a list of highly rated places from Tripadvisor.
EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh
The EAA AirVenture hosted in Oshkosh is rewriting the record books. In 2022, about 650,000 people visited Oshkosh from around the globe. This colossal total exceeded all previous attendance records.
“I like to call it aviation’s family reunion,” said Dick Knapinski, the director of communications for EAA. “It really is a gathering where you can see the history of aviation, the current state of aviation, and the future of aviation all in one place.”
EAA AirVenture is the world’s largest fly-in convention where some 10,000 airplanes are shown and flown during this seven-day event.
The event boasts of having everything from daylight and nightlight airshows with aerobatic air performers, to displays of former military aircraft. Vintage and modern show planes, homebuilt airplanes and ultralight aircraft are also on show.
“It doesn’t matter what you fly or what you like to see fly, it will be here,” Knapinski said.
The airshow started in 1953 at what is now Timmerman Airport in Milwaukee, then it moved to Rockford, Illinois from 1959 and 1969 before being hosted in Oshkosh. The EAA selected Oshkosh for a plethora of reasons. For one, the Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh has two long runways that don’t overlap, unlike many other airports where runways must cross to preserve land space.
Wittman’s layout also offers considerable room to park airplanes, cars and everything else that comes with hosting a gargantuan event. At peak times, airplanes takeoff and land every 10 to 12 seconds.
Because of the sheer magnitude of the airplanes flying in and out, Wittman becomes the world’s busiest airport for one week. It’s busier than O’Hare in Chicago, busier than Hartsfield in Atlanta, even busier than JFK in New York, Knapinski said.
“It is like the ultimate aviation geek show,” said Knapinski.
What would Wisconsin tourism be without Wisconsin Dells? With more than 4 million annual visitors, Wisconsin Dells is the holy grail of tourist attractions in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin Dells is in the business of memory-making,” said Leah Hauck-Mills, communications manager for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau, via email. “We’ve welcomed visitors at every life stage — from honeymooners to empty nesters — capturing all of life’s big moments in between.”
In 1856, Wisconsin Dells welcomed its first tourists. These tourists arrived by train for wooden rowboat tours along the Wisconsin River.
Today, Wisconsin Dells welcomes millions of visitors every year for slides, rides and of course, Wisconsin River boat tours.
“That natural beauty, paired with innovative attractions and classic businesses that have stood the test of time, makes us a vacation destination for many, no matter what type of vacation they seek,” Hauck-Mills said.
The popularity of Wisconsin Dells rose with the evolution of the road trip, Hauck-Mills said. As road trips evolved, so did Wisconsin Dells. One go-kart track turned into dozens of tracks, one concrete waterslide became miles of slides, a few thousand gallons of water turned into millions of gallons, and the 5-mile stretch of sandstone cliffs became the iconic backdrop of Wisconsin Dells.
“Its convenient location in the Midwest made it easy to get away for some wholesome family fun,” Hauck-Mills said. “There was no other community at the forefront of entertainment, with go-karts, waterslides, and fudge on every corner.”
Taliesin in Spring Green
Spring Green is about 35 miles west of Madison, and is the hometown of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s home, known as Taliesin, highlights the entire span of his career from 1896 to 1959.
“Taliesin is Wright’s autobiography in wood and stone,” said Susan Kennedy, communications manager for the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, via email. “It was a living laboratory of learning by doing, and he and his apprentices experimented with new techniques in architecture and building materials.”
According to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, tours of the Taliesin reached pre-pandemic levels during the summer of 2022. In 2022, there were more than 24,000 visitors.
When tourists arrive at the Taliesin, they are greeted by an 800-acre property adorned with two homes, a school, barn, windmill and restaurant. Each location provides a personal and comprehensive look at Wright’s body of architectural work.
The restaurant, the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center at Riverview Terrace, is the only restaurant designed by Wright in the world. This building was intended to not only serve as a restaurant, but a meeting place for potential clients. Now, it is the “Gateway to Taliesin” with a curated gift shop, café and the spot where visitors check-in for tours.
Taliesin is a National Historic Landmark and the only public UNESCO site in Wisconsin.
This story was inspired by a question shared with WHYsconsin. Submit your question below or at wpr.org/WHYsconsin and we might answer it.
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