Top 10 U.S. Water Parks
A slip-and-slide fanatic names his favorites H20-filled playgrounds
It used to be that anyone with a hose and a Hefty bag could claim to operate a water slide.
Not anymore. As technology at roller-coaster parks leapt forward in recent years, so has the complexity of the thrills at water parks. Flumes are big business in America, with some 1,000 attractions now billing themselves as slide parks, many of them as intricate, as carefully managed, and as spacious as the roller-coaster parks they compete with during the summer peak season. A select set of water slide parks have even evolved into destinations unto themselves.
New Braunfels, Texas
Schlitterbahn--it means "slippery road" in German--is located midway between Austin and San Antonio, and for eight unbroken years this sun-baked playground has held the Best Waterpark title in Amusement Today's respected Golden Ticket Awards. Little innovations mean a lot: Part of the park is fed by a cool natural spring, which keeps guests from reeking like a chlorine tablet, and the mile-long Raging River inner tube chute takes some 45 minutes to complete. But it's the technology behind Master Blaster, a 1,000-foot-long water coaster (jets of water push rafts down and up hills), that has every other water park in the country scrambling to build their own versions. 830/625-2351, schlitterbahn.com
Wet 'n Wild
The world's first modern water park, Wet 'n Wild was opened in 1977 by George Millay, the same hydrophile who gave us SeaWorld. This tightly packed concrete cluster of chutes and steel struts--embellished by little more than terrifying screams--has been scaring the swim trunks off purists ever since. Which slide rules? The Bomb Bay--riders mount this near-vertical, 76-foot gully by entering a coffin-size chamber and standing on a trap door that's activated without warning. The fun goes beyond slides: On Hydra Fighter, back-to-back riders on swings use water cannons to cream each other and to propel themselves over a lagoon. Rumors swirl that current owner Universal will soon relocate everything a few hundred yards north to its Orlando property, ensuring this granddaddy longevity and probable expansion (a Wet 'n Wild spokesperson denies the rumors). Until then, you can find prettier parks, but few with as much punch. 407/351-1800, wetnwild.com
Wisconsin Dells, WI
No other American water park is larger: 70 acres. The extra space gives the owners room to make 'em big. Time Warp is the world's largest "family bowl" ride (cloverleaf rafts are swept down a 70-foot drop, swirl around a huge illuminated chamber, and then pour out a ramp in the center), and Black Anaconda, a quarter of a mile long, is the country's longest and fastest water coaster, reaching speeds up to 30 mph. Even its older slides can claim provenance: Some date to the '80s and are the last survivors of defunct designing companies. Ride them here and nowhere else. But because Noah's Ark is was built in a snow zone, it's only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day--the rest of the year, kids can only daydream about it. Which is an injustice; if this place were in Florida, it would be a legend. 608/254-6351, noahsarkwaterpark.com
Santa Claus, Indiana
A happy marriage of family-friendly planning and just-scary-enough slides, Splashin' Safari gets the genre right. As much about wave pools and play areas as it is about eye-popping thrills (its 10-story-tall Zoombabwe is the world's tallest enclosed side), the place also throws in some killer perks, including free unlimited soft drinks. And when your fingers start to prune, dry off for free next door at Holiday World, its neighboring sister property, where The Voyage, the world's third-fastest, third-longest wooden roller coaster, just went up. No wonder so many Midwesterners are fervent fans of the place. 877/463-2645, holidayworld.com
Whereas most modern parks beeline for thrills, Water World takes a kitschy left turn. Several of its rides, such as Voyage to the Center of the Earth, combine raft journeys with Disney-style "dark ride" storylines, complete with robots and other theatrics usually associated with land-based attractions. Many of its adrenaline-oriented rides are also rarely copied, such as The Screamin' Mimi, a dry toboggan plunge that ends with a skitter across a pool's surface. It's even where you'll find Wally World--not Clark Griswold's shangri-la, but a kiddie area named for the park mascot. The place isn't perfect, though. Even in mid-summer, it sometimes closes due to cool temperatures. 303/427-7873, waterworldcolorado.com