Summer is synonymous with “fun,” and a recent poll put water recreation as the season’s most popular recreational activity, according to Care2.com. If you ask my wife Diane what is the most fun thing to do, she will automatically say swimming. If water isn’t involved, she’s either disinterested or disappointed.
We resourceful Americans have pushed the summer recreation envelope to its limit, combining water with playgrounds and theme parks to create the ultimate in summer fun — the contemporary water park.
Modern water parks began in the late 1940s and today there are well more than a thousand of them in the United States, with dozens of new ones opening each year, as well as old ones adding new attractions. More than 80 million people visit North American water parks annually and the top 10 parks account for nearly 20 million visitors.
According to the World Water Park Association, the first “official” waterpark was Wet ‘N Wild, a park in Orlando founded by George Millay (the father of the waterpark industry). When we lived near Orlando, we visited this park on many occasions. It was here that we first learned about the malady known as “tender toes,” which results when children run too much on hard abrasive surfaces without wearing swim shoes or flip flops.
Back then, Wet ‘N Wild was noted for its politically incorrect Japanese theme rides like “The Kamikaze,” an enormously tall and steep slide, and the “Bonsai Boggin,” which was another steep slide that you slid down, riding a hard plastic sled across rollers, until the slide abruptly sent you skimming across the water. These were both pretty scary rides.
Riding “The Kamikaze” was akin to receiving a high colonic and the “Bonsai Boggin” was like being a flat rock skipped across a pond. Diane and I are more lazy river people than thrill-ride aficionados.
We found that we actually preferred a smaller water park in the Orlando area called Water Mania. It was less expensive, less crowded and perhaps more suitable for smaller children. When younger, our children always enjoyed riding on the large alligators and snake floats in the kiddie area.
With a few notable exceptions, water parks were first developed by private sector investors, but with the rapid growth in municipal aquatic parks, the scene has changed. In the late 1970s, a number of small private waterslide attractions opened around the country. Most only had one or two slides. Their popularity seemed to run its course, as the larger water parks with more features eventually drove most of them out of business.
Besides swimming, basic water park attractions today typically include a variety of slides of various sizes and configurations, a wave pool, a lazy river for tubing, a “splash park” playground for children and some sort of surfing or body boarding. Flume-type rides with multiple passengers, which are also seen in many regular theme parks, are also water park staples, like the large Bubba Tub raft ride in Orlando.
Of course, humans have been exploiting the leisure aspects of water environments for thousands of years. Naturally occurring lazy rivers in spring-fed creeks and rivers are plentiful throughout the United States.
We did a lot of natural tubing in Florida in places like Blue Springs, Rock Springs and the Rainbow and Lchetucknee Rivers. Blue Springs fills up with manatees in the winter, but we seldom saw them when we tubed in the warmer summer months.
The Lchetucknee was where I once encounter a river otter face-to-face. In zoos, the otters always look sweet and playful. In the wild, they tend to express their rodent nature and it’s sort of like having a three foot rat swimming toward you. Florida tubing can have its drawbacks including: gators, otters, and eels (oh, no!).
Another well-known natural water attraction is Sliding Rock in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. It is a 60-foot natural rock slide with its own 7-foot-deep pool. Diane wanted to try it out on one of our vacations. The kids really liked it, but it seemed awfully dangerous, especially when I slipped and fell down there.
In 1985, the first indoor water park was built in Canada at the West Edmonton Mall and mini-water parks (indoor and outdoor) have proliferated since, often being attached to hotels throughout the country, usually in vacation and resort areas. The indoor parks have made water park attendance a year round activity.
Today, the fastest-growing segments of the waterpark industry are indoor waterparks and municipally owned/city owned waterparks. The first American indoor waterpark was built at the Polynesian Resort Hotel in the Wisconsin Dells. The Dells with its countless indoor and outdoor water attractions has been called the “Water Park Capital of the World.”
Seeing the growing success of water parks, most of the major theme parks added water park additions to supplement their other attractions. For example, Disney World, in Orlando, added River Country in 1976, which was ultimately replaced by Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.
Closer to home, Kings Island added The WaterWorks in 1989 — later known as Boomerang Bay and now Soak City. Holiday World in Santa Claus added its water park, The Splashin’ Safari, in 1993. I tend to think of The Splashin’ Safari and the local Atlantis Park in Clarksville as our water parks. I like the convenience and inexpensiveness of Atlantis, and who doesn’t love The Splashin’ Safari’s free parking, free wifi, free suntan lotion and free soft drinks. At one time, TripAdvisor.com ranked it among the top water parks in the country.
Last week, we were visiting two of our sons in Texas and stayed a few days at New Brausfel, which is the tubing and water park heart of Texas. The Comal and Guadeloupe rivers run through the middle of town and both are perfect for tubing.
We went tubing three times and spent one day at the Schlitterbahn Water Park, arguably one of the best water parks in the world. The Schlitterbahn regularly shows up in the top 10 list of water parks when ranked by popularity or attendance. Schlitterbahn roughly translates from the German as “slippery road,” and the name alone offers immeasurable entertainment possibilities.
We spent a lot of our time in the Tubenbach section of the park on the lazy river attraction until we got braver and walked over to the Blastenhoff section, to ride The Falls. The Falls is described as “the world’s longest waterpark ride, filled with raging rapids, careening waterfalls and giant waves.” I got a snoot full of water when I fell out of my tube twice, going over the rapids, and Diane ruined her best swimsuit on the rough surface of the run. It was great.
Another member of our party also ruined a swimsuit, lost one flip flop, a contact lens and a really nice pair of sunglasses, but remained undaunted. People have been mugged with less damage.
Even though water parks are possibly the most fun places in the world, that’s enough to knock the Schlitterbahn out of anyone.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.