A celebrated actress, locks swept up in a becoming twist, nude but for a string of Bulgari pearls, reclines in one of Hungary’s renowned thermal springs as the Danube rushes below. A continent away, a glinty-eyed boy of six without warning drops his trunks and aims his stream at the back of a pigtailed toddler splashing carefree in the Whitewater Wave Pool’s shallow end.

Wild, but both scenes are set in what’s termed a “water park,” the concept of recreational waterplay probably originating with the Hungarian model, a spa-like orientation shared by a number of contemporary European parks including Germany’s Swabian Springs, where it’s not about wave pools but, rather, saunas, steam stations, low-key bathing areas, and a snow-filled room in which guests get naked and roll around.

They—water parks in their various guises—have been around a while, first popping up in the 1950s, and these days if you aren’t within driving distance of at least one you’re in the minority. The U.S. hosts the largest water park market, and with a total of eighteen indoor parks the Badger State owns the title of Water Park Capital of the World, while Bloomington, Minnesota is home to the largest indoor facility in the country, The Water Park of America.

And now, something to keep in mind: Like construction paper art projects and the county fair, America’s water parks are probably best suited to that peeing kiddo, and, by necessity, his parents. Next-best suited may be his big sister, an eighth grader at Rivercrest High with a begged-for two-piece and the desire to take it public, especially when brooding Robert Pattinson types are slated to be in attendance.

Thirty-one-year-olds have less to gain. A bold assertion? Recent experience—last summer, Riverhead’s Splish Splash Water Park—combined with some targeted research suggests not, but for people who prefer to reach their own conclusions, be my guest. What follows is a rough idea of what you can expect to find.

1. Theme. Often character-driven, often ambiguous and pluralistic. While park designers may set out with an 18th-century Bavarian village in mind, subsequent expansion is likely to yield strange new modifiers: a snack hut with flying buttresses, say, or a changing room in the style of an Egyptian pyramid. Storybook imagery abounds, with brightly colored cottages housing souvenir visors, and oversized wooden lollipops inducing full-on meltdowns as five-year-olds plead for the real thing (incidentally, available at the cottage next door).

When it comes to actual attractions, design is more consistent. New Hampshire’s Whale’s Tale Waterpark features an eighty-five-foot, whale-shaped pool with underwater seating built into the tail, fins, and head; and rides are given names like Beluga Boggin’, Harpoon Express, Jonah’s Escape, and Whale Harbor. Dollywood’s Splash County in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is Smoky Mountain-themed, and encourages visitors to follow the Big Bear Plunge with a deep-fried lunch served up at the Brush Fire Grill. Nestled in the Smokies between native firs and hemlocks, you’re sure to confuse the park’s man-made tubes for slick, rocky precipices, the swirling chemicals below for mountain-clean, class II rapids. (No.)

2. Attractions. There are three major components of any decent park. First and most obviously are the slides, which propel riders downward via straightaways or complicated twists in a jarring side-to-side motion that includes painful seam clearances where slide components meet, before terminating less than a minute later in turbulent turquoise waters. Second, there’s the wave pool. This attraction, screamingly popular, proves an exercise in patience as splashers young and old await the every-ten-minutes-or-so activation of an “accordion mechanism,” whereby a large quantity of water is quickly released into the pool’s far end, forcing an evening-out and some pretty terrific waves. (Let’s hope your hometown’s water park wasn’t New Jersey’s now-shuttered Action Park, with its accident-fraught wave pool. So it goes, twelve lifeguards were on duty at all times, and on busy weekends they were known to “save” as many as thirty people, compared to the one to two the average lifeguard might rescue in a typical season at the lake. While we’re at it, let’s also hope you weren’t one of two deaths by drowning in this aptly coined “grave pool”—though, if you were, thanks for reading; I hope the afterlife has included swimming lessons.)

And, not to be forgotten, the lazy river: a shallow, donut-shaped pool with a gentle current along which to laze on a blowup raft, can of High Life smuggled in/clutched at your own risk.

Other attractions include carnival fare like balloon darts, the ring toss, and five-pin bowling; and the long line I glimpsed at Splish Splash’s temporary tattoo booth drove home the compatibility of bikinis and lower-back ink. (A nice dolphin, perhaps?)

3. Lines. The hotter the longer, especially on weekends. During last year’s adventure, I waited forty-five minutes to reach the slides’ top steps, and, as implied, the payoff was hardly all that. Be warned: your back will ache, your legs will tire, and the cement will cook your feet. Good company helps; so does visual distraction. Take Mr. Carpet Back, whom I found myself standing behind on several occasions. Eye candy he was not, but the sheer implausibility of that much hair took my mind happily off my blisters-in-progress.

4. Skin. Taut, saggy, scarce, abundant. It’s everywhere, and it’s damn close. Most evident while standing in the aforementioned lines, it dips and sinks, dangles and bows in ways you just don’t see coming. At the water park, it’s all out in the open: with pride, shame, or some combination. And there ain’t no hiding behind a baggy T-shirt, either, for park management explicitly states that all riders must wear bathing suits. So if you’re prone to bouts of debilitating self-consciousness, best keep to the backyard. (Do they still make Slip ‘n’ Slide?)

5. Fashion missteps. Because like anywhere else, people choose wrong.

6. Primer on type 2 diabetes. On how to get it, that is. Everything is shot through with sugar, breaded, and fried—including the Diet Coke. Now, will it be Fry World, Chicken Coop, or Low Country Snacks?

7. Game.

Waiting to wait at the DMV

One of the first things you might notice about people at the DMV—besides the most obvious, superficial aspects of race, class, and station—are the bottoms. It’s not that you’re into people’s rear ends – though maybe you are – but that there’s a kind of taboo to looking. At first, you tell yourself, it’s just a glance, but then you glance at another. You know, just for idle comparison, right? Pretty soon the bottom becomes the DMV’s version of a window into the soul, a starting place to see a person’s humanity, in their natural clothes, in their natural stance, in their natural attitude. I was at the San Francisco DMV when this happened to me.

There was this woman way ahead of me at the counter who was shaped exactly like the Penguin from Batman Returns–if the Penguin were inclined to wear a purple jumpsuit. Her bottom encompassed nearly the entire backside of her body, one shallow curve beginning around the high hamstring area before tapering off just below the neck. She moved her arms wildly like a conductor when she spoke, but as she turned her head I saw that she was all smiles. She struck me as a lady in control of her day, a rare sight at the DMV, and I liked her immediately.

Another woman, whom I overheard complaining about a registration fee, was roughly the inverse shape-wise: short and generally petite, but an imposing creature with undulating curves. Her bottom, having roughly the same volume as the first woman’s though on a much smaller frame, was the kind of bottom that men tend to whistle at, or sculpt, and indeed I found myself drawn to it.

It must have been her hips. The term “birthing hips” comes to mind, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Her stature was like a tangerine with a pencil running through it from top to bottom. It was that dramatic.

Adding to the effect was the opulent design of her jeans, the back pockets of which were adorned with strips of fabric and fasteners, all cinched horizontally from one cheek to the other, giving her bottom an efficient, packaged look that seemed more inclined to be addressed and mailed than admired from afar.

As I watched her I could see that most of her time at the counter was spent looking off into the distance with a stern, pinched expression. She didn’t want to be there. She had somewhere else to be.

Unlike the first woman, she hardly moved at all, just stood there anxiously, and I began to imagine her surrounded by trees, a doe in the wild, standing perfectly still, trying to avoid the sights of nearby hunters. I felt like the hunter, and sheepishly looked away, only half-catching sight of her passing by silently, no doubt heading to some nearby brook or stream. She must get looked at all the time, not just at the DMV, and I wondered if her face would relax that pinched expression once there was nobody around to look at her.

I was feeling a bit awkward then, trying not to look at anyone or at least not anyone in particular. Then there was a young Japanese girl. She passed me a few times as I stood in line and caught my attention. She was wearing a loose, oversized dress over mostly hidden jeans, a shapeless outfit about as revealing as a duvet. Later, when I finally sat down, waiting for my number to be called, I noticed her sitting across from me: Large, old-fashioned glasses, the kind your grandmother keeps at her bedside table, and wisps of long, brown hair hanging down, covering most of her face. She was a bookish girl, quiet looking, but intense in her gaze like an owl. She was watching people too, and I watched her steal glances at a dwarfish man who was standing across the way.

He looked like Santa Claus in the off-season, with the big beard and the red suspenders holding up a pair of hardy, brown pants, giving me the uncertain impression that he either had no bottom at all or was, in fact, all bottom. (The type of pants, I began to imagine, that would be appropriate for working in a toy factory.) His face was tired and steady like an old clock, until it lit up with pleasure, his eyebrows high and kindly, as he finally reached the front of his line. I kid you not, but his cheeks actually became rosy when he approached the woman behind the counter. The Japanese girl covered her mouth briefly. Maybe a cough, though she might have been smiling.

Eventually, my number was called. Even if you’ve been watching people the whole time, you forget to be self-conscious when it’s your turn. What am I wearing? How am I standing? What’s my attitude look like? You never wonder if people are watching you. You’re distracted by the call to stage.

I stepped to the window and leaned hard against the counter, feeling as though the further I leaned, the faster the matter would be handled. At the DMV, everyone leans like this, shamelessly, believing it helps. The myth persists because once you’re at the counter you are processed with surprising efficiency. It must be working. You lean-in harder.

I thanked the woman at the counter, leaned back, and turned to make my exit, along the way passing the young Japanese girl, her eyes now settled in front of her, apparently focused on nobody in particular. Then, as I reached the exit, I paused for a moment to turn around and take a photo, thinking it might be nice to have one on-hand in case I wanted to write about it later. As I did this, I noticed the Japanese girl, her neck now oriented to the right, eyes comfortably settled where my bottom had been moments before.