Image: Lake Delton
Morry Gash  /  AP
Tourists look out over empty Lake Delton  July 15. torrential rains in June blew a giant hole in Lake Delton's shoreline. The lake drained away, taking vacation homes with it and leaving behind a muddy moonscape of stumps and puddles.
updated 7/20/2008 2:40:45 PM ET 2008-07-20T18:40:45

Not a cloud in the sky and the temperature is flirting with 90 degrees. Usually, it doesn't get any better than this for the Tommy Bartlett water ski show.

But only about 200 people fill the 5,000-seat stadium on the shore of Lake Delton this day. No jet boats towing human pyramids on water skis, no laser show dancing across the water. There's just a juggler, sweating through his sequins, spitting balls into the air and tossing machetes over his head to weak applause.

The production that bills itself as the greatest show on H20 doesn't have any H20. The lake bed is just a muddy moonscape.

Ironically, this all started with too much water. Torrential rain in June blew a giant hole in Lake Delton's shoreline, letting all the lake's water rush out and take vacation homes with it.

Businesses are barely hanging on
Now the resorts, restaurants and boat rental shops that hitched their survival to the water are barely hanging on.

"We just have never seen anything like this," said Dawn Baker, co-owner of Sunset Bay Resort. "Unless someone can come up with a fantastic idea, I don't know."

Chicago building contractor William J. Newman built Lake Delton in the 1920s as a tourist draw just outside a settlement that later became Wisconsin Dells, about 50 miles northwest of Madison.

Today the condos, cottages and resorts that ring the lake and the water parks, restaurants and hotels in Wisconsin Dells are a destination for tourists from around the country. Travelers spent more than a billion dollars in the area last year.

Wisconsin Dells is thriving again this year.

But Lake Delton's prosperity went down the drain on June 9 as thunderstorms flooded southern Wisconsin.

Image: Lake Delton Hotel
Morry Gash  /  AP
A vacancy sign stands at the Lake Delton Hotel Tuesday, July 15, in Lake Delton, Wis. In a bizarre disaster-in-reverse, torrential rains in June blew a giant hole in Lake Delton's shoreline.
High water washed out a 700-foot-long section of earthen bank that separated the reservoir from the Wisconsin River. The 270-acre lake poured through the breach, washing away a section of highway and five shoreline homes. Video of the houses breaking in half and floating away was broadcast around the world.

Now the three dozen or so business on the lake-turned-mud hole are trying to survive.

Muddy desert
Sunset Bay Resort's Web site implores people not to cancel reservations: "The view of the lake is not bad, it's just different." The first part is a matter of opinion, the second indisputable — instead of cool, blue-black water, guests see a muddy desert dotted by stumps, buoys and junk.

Baker, the resort's owner, said her revenue is down 60 percent from last year. She said media coverage of the disaster didn't help.

"We've lost a tremendous amount of business," she said. "Watching those houses go in the lake over and over again, I wish it would just stop."

Terry Jacobson owned two of those houses, renting them out as vacation condos and estimating they were worth $1.5 million together. He runs two other resorts in Wisconsin, but thinks the Lake Delton breach has cost him $30,000 in revenue already this summer.

"Our finances are a disaster," he said.

Steve and Kathy Zowin own Lake Delton Water Sports, a watercraft rental shop. He has tried to relocate some of their fleet to another lake, but estimates 90 percent of their business was on Lake Delton and says it's been tough to get word out that he's moved. Business on July 4, one of the busiest times of the year, was down 88 percent from last year, he said.

"I can't wait for this summer to be over, to be honest," Zowin said.

Things haven't been much easier for the Tommy Bartlett show, a Wisconsin fixture for decades.

Greatest show off H2O
This summer, a new banner proclaims Bartlett is now the greatest show off H2O. Owner Tom Diehl has filled the ski segment with a juggler and a man who does sound effects, producing the sounds of galloping horses and gunshots with his mouth. Aqua T. Clown is still around, but instead of skiing he runs onto the lake bottom and pulls a giant drain plug from behind the beached ski jumps.

Even though several of Diehl's friends who own resorts that weren't affected by the disaster bought up blocks of Bartlett tickets and gave them to their own guests, he estimates his revenue is down 90 percent from a year ago. His 26 skiers had to find new summer jobs.

"A lot of people think we're closed up," Diehl said. "The hard part is getting people to cross the threshold and buy a ticket."

The Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau has offered Lake Delton resorts discount tickets to other area attractions.

Gov. Jim Doyle has freed up $250,000 in grants to help tourist businesses statewide cope with flooding. The state Tourism Department has mounted a public relations campaign in Chicago and the Minneapolis-St.Paul area to dispel any perception that Wisconsin is underwater, and is offering discount deals on its Web site.

Plans are being drawn up to repair the breach and refill Lake Denton. Tourism Secretary Kelli A. Trumble said the water should be back by next summer.

In the meantime, Bartlett fans are left with the jugglers and clowns.

James Beckom, 37, of Beach Park, Ill., attended a Bartlett show on a free ticket from the Kalahari Resort, but said it didn't measure up to the show he saw here when he was a kid.

"A little bit of sadness," he said as he watched juggler T.J. Howell fling his "Machetes of Death" over his head. "I remember the place being filled up."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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