With summer’s heat finally nearing its end, dig the Speedos out of your drawer, gather your overheated crew, and head to the nearest waterpark. There are tons of them across the country, including huge ones with crazy water slides that will wedge you into rafts with other thrill seekers (and threaten to give all of you wedgies) and small, community-run parks with a more modest assortment of attractions. Any of them would cool you down while offering some wet and at least moderately wild fun.
Because it is the height of the season, virtually every waterpark will be opening their gates and turning on their spigots through Labor Day. But there only are a handful of outdoor parks in the U.S., all located in sunny Florida, that remain open throughout the year. The state may be theme park central, but it is also home to some of the biggest and best waterparks. At these places, nearly every day is waterpark day.
George Millay, the park visionary who created SeaWorld, is generally credited with developing the first waterpark, Wet ‘n Wild in Orlando, Fla., which opened in 1977 and closed in 2016. The waters get murky, however, because Disney World opened its first waterpark, River Country, in 1976. It is no longer open either, but Mickey’s huge Florida resort has two newer waterparks where you could enjoy some thrills while you chill.
Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon boasts North America’s largest wave pool. Periodically, a piercing horn blast warns swimmers that six-foot swells will wash over them. On select days before and after the park’s regular operating hours, Disney offers small-group surfing lessons in the vast wave pool.
The especially long Castaway Creek at Typhoon Lagoon may be the loveliest lazy river at any waterpark. Other standout features include the water coaster, Crush ‘n’ Gusher, and the speed slide, Humunga Kowabunga. The newest attraction is Miss Adventure Falls, a themed journey aboard a family raft ride.
While Typhoon Lagoon has a lush, tropical vibe, Disney World’s other waterpark, Blizzard Beach, has more frosty overtones. According to the fertile imaginations of the Imagineers who designed it, the park was once a ski resort that eventually melted in the Florida sun (talk about global warming). Wintry reminders abound, including a ski lift that guests can take to reach the top of Mount Gushmore and the water slides that await them there.
Among the attractions at the top of Blizzard Beach’s mountain is Summit Plummet. At 120 feet tall with nearly a 90-degree drop, it takes a fair amount of courage for riders to take the plunge. Forget the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster; Summit Plummet is Disney World’s most terrifying ride. Blizzard Beach has its own wave pool, Melt-Away Bay. It also has an eight-lane mat-racing slide, Toboggan Racers.
Disney’s crosstown rival, Universal Orlando, one-ups the Mouse at its waterpark, Volcano Bay. Opened in 2017, it also features a mountain as its centerpiece and has embedded three slides into it that all start at the 125-foot level. To make them even more nerve wracking, they all include launch capsules. To begin the ride, passengers enter the capsules and wait a few agonizing moments until trap-door floors open to release them into a freefall.
Visitors exploring the island-themed park can also challenge the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, which uses magnetic propulsion to launch its rafts uphill, and the Ohno and Ohyah drop slides, which end a few feet short of the plunge pool and send passengers flailing before they hit the water. As part of Universal’s evolving efforts to mitigate waiting in its lines, the resort has developed TapuTapu, a sophisticated ride reservation system that eliminates all of the standby lines at Volcano Bay.
SeaWorld Orlando’s waterpark, Aquatica, incorporates live animals into some of its attractions, including a water slide down an acrylic tube around which Commerson’s dolphins swim. The lovely park also has slides with launch capsules, an action river with a revved-up current, and a lazy river during which passengers float past tropical fish.
For 2018, Aquatica introduced Ray Rush. The three-part attraction first uses water jets to launch riders in round rafts into an enclosed tube. Next, they swirl around a globe a couple of times. Finally, they catch some air as they float up and down the walls of a half pipe element made to look like a manta.
There are also waterparks that are open year-round in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Colorado, and elsewhere where the weather can turn nasty in the winter. But all of the parks are located indoors. Most of them are attached to hotels and include other activities that can make them compelling getaways for families.
Catch a wave without ever stepping outside at Great Wolf Lodge.
With 17 locations in the U.S. and Canada and one on the way to Arizona, Great Wolf Lodge is the largest chain of indoor waterpark resorts. All of them feature a rustic forest theme, and most of them offer marquee attractions that can be found at major outdoor waterparks, such as uphill water coasters, giant funnel rides, and vortex bowl slides. They also offer huge arcades, spa salons, and other amenities. One of the newest Great Wolf Lodge resorts opened in LaGrange, Georgia. It has a 93,000-square-foot waterpark that is jammed with slides and attractions and remains 84 degrees and dry regardless of the weather outside.
In addition to water slides, one of the other things that nearly every waterpark has in common is ice cream. That‘s another way to cool down as well as to celebrate National Ice Cream Month (July).
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