It’s not every day you have 100,000 volts of static electricity shot through your body, get to see your shadow frozen in time upon a wall, and have a sense of what it was like to be on the Russian Space Station Mir, but all of these cool and unique sensations were experienced during my recent behind-the-scenes visit to The Tommy Bartlett Exploratory.

The exploratory is dubbed a “playground for your imagination” and houses more than 175 hands-on, interactive exhibits that range from classic brain-teaser puzzles to today’s virtual reality technology. Fun for the whole family, the exploratory has entertained millions of visitors since its opening in 1982, and is where you can delve into the wonders of science, space and technology while exploring three levels of activities, games, optical illusions, and artifacts.

My day started with a guided tour of the facilities by Director of Operations Mark Schilling. We began by getting into an elevator that simulated a launch into space, a throw-back to the days when it was called Tommy Bartlett’s House of Tomorrow, and later Robot World – “The world’s only robot guided tour.” Originally, there were sixteen robot animated scenes that gave a tour to what futuristic daily life might entail, but today only four remain, primarily for nostalgia reasons.
After being greeted by robots similar to C3PO and R2D2, I instantly felt transported back to when I visited Robot World as a young Star Wars obsessed child almost three decades ago. While the technology is admittedly a little outdated, it’s still nice to see that they kept some of the reminders of days gone by.

Making our way through this first of four sectors, Schilling told me that this all began from the mind of Tommy Bartlett, a bigger than life character sometimes known as the P.T. Barnum or Walt Disney of the Dells, who passed away in 1998 at the age of 84. Often credited with establishing the Dells as a tourist destination with his highly successful water skiing thrill show, Bartlett came up with the idea of adding the exploratory while visiting what Mark calls the grand-daddy of all hands-on science centers – The Exploratorium in San Francisco.

After walking through the Star Walk - a hallway completely covered in mirrors that have hundreds of drilled holes, allowing the light from behind to shine through - we made our way into the first puzzle filled room. Schilling said: “You can’t always trust your eyes is one of the things we’re going to learn in here today.” He went on to demonstrate some of the large assortment of brain-teasers, logic tests, and scientific principles that use mirrors, lasers, marbles, and variety of everyday household objects in a way that will definitely cause you to think twice about things.

Next we moved to sector three, where some of the larger exhibits are housed like a Tesla coil that spews high voltage lighting, the popular “Bridge of Fire” which is where a Van de Graaff generator will make your hair stand on end, and also the “Shadow Room” where you can strike a pose, then see your shadow cast onto the walls via phosphor-impregnated vinyl. “You can get as fancy as you want, but the real trick is to be in the air!” – Schilling stated as he jumped in time with the strobe light that flashed, causing the walls to glow everywhere except for where his body had blocked the light.

After moving around like Peter Pan trying to find his shadow, we went on to sector four which houses the authentic Space Station MIR. One of only three MIR modules manufactured by the Russian government, it was the last project Tommy was involved with. Before entering the vessel, Schilling warned me that due to the way it’s displayed tilted on an angle, that it might make me feel a bit nauseous. “Your eyes are just fighting your brain. It takes a little while to get used to.” I laughed to myself after he said this, thinking there was no way I would be affected, but embarrassingly after a few moments inside, I quickly was grabbing the handrail to steady myself from the sense of imbalance.

Leaving the Mir to settle down my stomach, we passed full-size replicas of Sputnik and the Mercury Space Capsule as we made our way to the workshop where they develop new projects. “We try to add at least a couple exhibits every year.” – Schilling said, as he showed me a prototype called “Square Wheels.” Also on the drawing board is something where hopefully visitors will someday be able to pick up a car by levers.

Schilling wrapped things up by explaining the biggest idea of Tommy’s was to make things fun. “If they learned something, that would be a side bonus, but the first thing was it had to be fun.” After spending a couple hours running around and acting like a kid again, I can attest that it sure is.

The Tommy Bartlett Exploratory is open daily, year round. This summer they’re celebrating sixty years of the ski show in the Dells, and have plans for an employee reunion, as well as an in-depth exhibit telling the Tommy Bartlett story. For more information please visit:

- Chris Dearman

*** I'd like to say thanks to Mark  for taking the time to tell me about the Exploratory and its history. I'd also like to thank Danielle Rodwell for taking pictures. For more pictures, please visit the Dells Bucket List Facebook page here