Water Parks: Wild Waves of Family Fun

Cool off with your kids at wet and wild family water parks across the United States.

Take a cool dip in a water park this summer, and you’ll be part of the hottest entertainment trend in the United States.

The nation’s first water park—Wet ‘n Wild—opened in Orlando, Fla., in 1977. Today there are more than 1,000 parks operating in the United States—everything from the gargantuan indoor Kalahari water parks in Sandusky, Ohio, and Wisconsin Dells, Wis., to the water slides and spray pool in your community, says the World Waterpark Association (WWA). Another 78 indoor hotel water parks are under construction or in the planning stages, and countless more communities are turning their old-fashioned concrete pool into water meccas.

Water Park Trends

Intricate slides

Water parks are so prevalent that it’s no longer enough to build the fastest slide or biggest wave pool. The newest trend is to create intricate slides that are themed and Disney-esque, like that at Schlitterbahn Water Park Resort in New Braunfels, Texas, about 30 miles north of San Antonio.

Its new Dragon’s Revenge, opening this summer, sends riders through eight uphill blasts, six creepy caverns and a two-story free fall as they try to escape an angry dragon. The entire ride is filled with special effects—fog machines, a spinning tunnel, theatrical lighting, fiber optics and faux fire.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on in water parks, but it’s mostly off-the-shelf products,” says Tim Baldwin, editorial staff writer for the industry publication, Amusement Today. “This is something that has not been done before.”

Schlitterbahn—named the best water park in the United States by Amusement Today voters for 10 years running and the No. 1 regional park in terms of attendance—also is home to the longest ride: a 30-plus minute float along a lazy river that includes a spill over a waterfall.

Hotel parks

Hotel water parks are the fastest growing commercial side of the indoor water park business, says Aleatha Ezra, director of membership for the WWA. “They are a really good way for either an existing property to build daily business or for a new property to bring people in,” she says.

Even budget chains are getting into the act, with mini water parks, such as the one under construction at the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel in Anaheim, near Disneyland, schedule to open later this month.

The undisputed king of indoor parks, however, remains the Wisconsin Dells, where there are no fewer than 17 hotel water parks. (Check out this week’s Travel Deals column for a special offer from Kalahari.) This small resort community 50 miles north of Madison, Wis., is home to the world’s largest outdoor park, Noah’s Ark Water Park and 20 indoor water parks. They range from the giant Kalahari, best for older kids, to smaller indoor pools with tamer slides and features more appropriate for younger children.

Parent Tips for Water Park Survival

Water parks can be tough places to keep track of kids. I’ve had a child slip under an inner tube on a crowded lazy river (luckily I was close enough to reach in and grab him), negotiated with two kids who wanted to go in opposite directions, lost sight of kids in a wave pool and generally worried throughout the day when I was the lone adult supervising more than one child.

Here are my recommendations to ensure a fun, safe and sane day at the water park for all:

  1. Aim for a 1:1, kid-to-adult ratio. In my family, the key to a fun day for all—mom included—is a one-to-one kid-to-adult ratio. If that’s not possible, then I try to take groups of kids who are about the same age and like to do the same things.
  2. Review the park’s Web site before your visit. Do the slides have height restrictions? Are there slides that will accommodate a family riding together, or does everyone have to ride separately or two-by-two?
  3. Check out the park map. Is the kiddie area centrally located so you can manage children who want to do other things while still watching the little one? Since kids need to be watched closely around the water (yes, the parks have lifeguards, but on a busy day, how is that teenager supposed to know whether my child slipped under the water?), I want to be able to stay close. That isn’t possible if there’s a 4-year-old who has to stay in the kiddie area and an 8-year-old who is tall enough to tackle the big slides.
  4. Make sure the park appeals to the ages of your kids. I have found that my older son managed to have a good time at water parks aimed at younger kids, but the opposite did not hold true for his little sister. If we headed to a park better suited for older kids, she was miserable because she was too young or too short for many of the rides, and I spent the day trying to explain why she couldn’t ride the slide with her brother.

New Water Parks in 2008

The biggest new water park opening this year is Aquatica at SeaWorld in Orlando. The park combines the traditional water slides of a water park with the animal experience of Sea World. One slide includes a tube that sends riders through the dolphin tank, while the lazy river passes bird-filled jungle areas, waterfalls and a grotto filled with tropical fish.

At Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Ind., a new $6 million monkey-themed water attraction called Kima Bay includes seven slides and more than 100 ways to splash, spray and play in the water.

Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville, Ky., has the Mega Wedgie, a raft ride that sends riders down a steep 100-foot tunnel into a funnel-shaped bowl, down a chute and into a pool. 

Destinations: Orlando, Sandusky, San Antonio, Wisconsin Dells

Themes: Amusement Parks, Family Travel

Activities: Parks and Playgrounds

User Comments

Raging Waters, San Jose If you live in the SF Bay Area and have kids, you might want to give Raging Waters a try. We went there for the first time this weekend and it panned out pretty much as expected: fun for our young kids but fairly crowded and over-priced. The facilities could definitely stand to be cleaned up / renovated.