At Disco H2O, a ride at Universal Studios' Wet 'n Wild water park in Orlando, guests travel in four-person rafts through a dark tunnel before being shot into a 60-foot-wide enclosed bowl. There, with disco music blaring and lights flashing, they are swished around several times before being fed into a flume that drops them down a 14-foot ramp into a splash pool. Whoa mama! Let's do that again.
If your impression of water parks leans toward slides and wave pools, it's time for an update. Parks are opening larger facilities with splashier attractions, borrowing many amusement park elements. The rides are often designed for rafts, so a family can pile in for what still amounts to a softer thrill -- compared with the latest and scariest roller coasters.
Traditional park operators are building water attractions, too. Just in time for Memorial Day, Six Flags Theme Parks (PKS ) is opening Hurricane Harbor adjacent to its Great America amusement park near Chicago. In addition to 25 water-related rides, the park features Skull Island, a Caribbean-themed maze with swinging bridges, water cannons, pirate ships, and a geyser-spewing volcano. A 1,100-gallon bucket will douse guests below.
Hotels are also getting into the act. Great Wolf Resorts owns six hotels with adjacent indoor parks. A family of six staying in a $200-per-night suite can battle with one another in a three-story tree house armed with hoses and spray guns. The company's latest, a $60 million resort, just opened in Williamsburg, Va. Even cities are taking the plunge. Danville, Ind., near Indianapolis, just spent $2 million converting its municipal pool into a park called SplashTacular, which will feature water slides and a lazy river, a slow-moving stream that guests can float on.
The big draws are the increasingly sophisticated rides. "Water coasters" use conveyor belts to lift rafts on as many as six up-and-down slides. "Bowl" rides -- such as Disco H2O and Tornado at Great Wolf and Six Flags -- spin guests around in giant funnels. Even the old wave machine is getting updated with currents powerful enough to propel guests on surfboards. In June, Thomas Lochtefeld, a surfer and founder of the Raging Waters park near Los Angeles, will open Wave House, a $7 million, water-themed entertainment center on Mission Beach in San Diego. The centerpiece will be a wave machine that creates 10-foot curls for experienced surfers. Guests will have to demonstrate proficiency on smaller waves before being allowed to tackle the 10-footers.
In the past, water parks have been the scenes of accidents and drownings. So with more powerful waves and more daring rides, safety becomes an even greater concern. The American Red Cross urges guests to read posted signs before entering a ride and to check with attendants to make certain everyone is properly in place. Ask for a life vest, too, if there's any doubt of a child's swimming ability. Then let the splashing and sliding begin. zz
By Christopher Palmeri