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.

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KRISTEN ELDE, an editor by trade, lives and writes in Brooklyn. Her words have appeared in the Web publications McSweeneys, The Northville Review, Pindeldyboz, and Word Riot, in addition to such magazines as BUST, Health, Runner's World, Running Times, Shape, The Writer, and Writer's Digest. She's also one half of the team behind a wildly unpopular parody food blog, to which she loves contributing.

43 responses to “At the Water Park”

  1. Uche Ogbuji says:

    They do still make Slip ‘n’ Slide, I think, because it’s a popular side-show at the Bolder Boulder 10K race, where people who live on the course often offer temporary, aquatic respite to the runners. I usually run past at least two or 3 SnSes.

    But geez, I had no idea there was such a crazy variety of water parks (“a changing room in the style of an Egyptian pyramid”, that’s gotta be in Vegas, right?) I would have thought water play is so much fun in itself that there would be no need for all sorts of presumably expensive customizations.

    And BTW, nice shot-out to the lovely, drowned bones, giving them one more ride beyond the prison of the “Grave Pool.”

    • Kristen Elde says:

      Haha, I love the idea of offering that to passing runners. Do many of them take advantage? And isn’t that truly bizarre about the NJ place? I mean, like, given the regular “rescuing” that occurred there, wouldn’t you think it’d have shut down much, much sooner? Creepy!

      Lovely, drowned bones–I like that.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Oh yes there are plenty of takers on the Bolder Boulder neighborhood Slip ‘n’ Slides! There is usually a line. The past two years I’ve run it with my son (now ten) and he always wants to have a go. Houses that do not have Slip ‘n’ Slides often have people siting in lawn chairs, pointing hoses so they shower onto the street, which is always a neat, squishy feeling for me, since I run it barefoot.

        I think people didn’t always realize that there are water conditions that almost guarantee drowning. Take low-head dams, for example. They were a popular way to shape waterways, especially in the early 20th century, but they produce almost perfect drowning machines by creating “holes” and “hydraulics”. It’s only in the past decade or two that local governments and park rangers throughout the US have been appreciating the problem and eliminating low-head dams.

        • kristen says:

          Ha, love it. And how neat that you run w/ your son. I used to enter all sorts of fun runs (5Ks and stuff) w/ my dad back in the day, graduating eventually to half-marathons/marathons. Such a sweet experience to share. I swear we’ve had some of our best/deepest/hardest conversations while in running shoes.

          And–barefoot running! Holy crap we need to chat about this! I just recently picked up some Nike Frees, and though that’s of course hardly the same, it’s a step in the right direction, I figure. Love that you run completely shoeless. Are you known locally as *that guy*, then? Though I suppose more and more runners are going w/o anymore…

          Also, didn’t know that about those dams. (Or anything about “low-head” damns, really, save, I guess, the self-explanatory bit.) Perfect drowning machines–yikes.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Yeah, it’s great to run with the boy. Last year, he amazed me, taking the last mile at quite an aggressive pace.

          I haven’t actually seen any others barefoot in the Bolder Boulder, but it’s a huge race, so the stats are probably against that. I do get a lot of cheering and pointing from watchers and other runners.

          I’ve just always played soccer barefoot, hiked barefoot, etc. It would be easy to say “it’s the being from Nigeria,” but actually that’s pretty unusual for a middle-class Nigerian. I love the feel of different surfaces under my feet, and the bottoms of my feet are pretty thick and tough, as they have to be, so that’s I guess the downside.

          The only thing that I fear is glass. I’ve hiked the forest around Erika’s house barefoot a few times because it’s so remote I don’t worry about High School kiddies hanging out and breaking a bunch of bottles. The Bolder Boulder route would normally be a problem, except that there are several thousand runners ahead of me, and I can be sure any glass has already been stuck into their shoe bottoms. I have some of the official Bolder Boulder action pictures in which you can see me barefoot and all. Will dig them up.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    “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.”

    I could see this happening. It’s the ‘glinty-eyed’ that does it, I think…

    Ask Zara about New Zealand’s hot water springs – the change of scenery might be fun, but there are still plenty of carpet-backs…

  3. Kristen Elde says:

    Ah, I will ask her. Are they a big thing there?

  4. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Where I live, there’s a water park built right next to westbound lanes of an interstate highway. Perhaps the traffic zoom harkens an ocean’s rush?

    I went to one when I was 12. I recall having a good time. Not many people, at least not adults. The effort of the climb wasn’t totally paid off by the ride down, though.

  5. kristen says:

    Yeah, I hear ya. Maybe any payoff ceases to be recognized by like age 10, or something. Just so. much. waiting.

  6. Mary says:

    Wow. So, I have always felt a little guilty for not liking water parks or most theme parks. When I was about 15 (???) my brother and his wife took me to a water park when I visited them one weekend. It was pretty terrible, and I felt so awkward and uncool. I had no confidence in my body whatsoever and really didn’t want to be seen (a) in a bathing suit or (b) going down any of those awful slides. I was scared to walk too hard thereby accidentally causing my thighs to jiggle (yeah, it was that age…) so I sortof half-tiptoed everywhere. And then? Sitting at a picnic table eating a hot dog WHILE in a swim suit? Awkwardness abounded…

    The whole idea of swim suits and going places in order to wear them and splash water on ourselves and/or each other disturbs me.

    • Kristen Elde says:

      I hear that, woman! Awkward, no confidence, negative tits–that was me at that age. And your “sortof half-tiptoeing’ makes me sympathy-ache. God.

      And I agree–waterparks are different than, say, the ocean or a lake, where you’re mostly just swimming/lying prone/maybe tossing a frisbee or something. But at the waterpark there’s all that food, the picnic tables, then the carnival games, the standing in line for the bathroom… all performed in a swimsuit. Weird indeed. And majorly disorienting.

  7. Zara Potts says:

    I LOVE water parks!! Slides, pee-infested water, overpriced hotdogs and icecreams – the whole shebang!
    We don’t have them in NZ. If I need a fix, I have to travel to Australia where they have some pretty good offerings. We have thermal springs here which are far too sedate for my liking.

  8. Kristen Elde says:

    Ha–such a different take! Do you love them purely, though, or w/ irony?

    I want thermal springs.

    • Zara Potts says:

      I love them purely without any irony at all! I love theme parks too.
      Yeah, thermal springs are pretty good, but not as good as a hydroslide.

  9. Irene Zion says:


    Back when my kids were small, they adored water parks. I never liked them, but that doesn’t matter when you’re the mother.
    My grandkids love them now, so, however they’ve changed, they are still appealing to kids.
    (But I don’t have to go as often now,
    I like relaxing and soothing, not wet and cold and crazy fast.)

  10. Ray says:

    Water parks always held a special place for me growing up, especially since they were few and far between in southern Africa… Water slides, in particular, were a great way to explore my need for speed (and splash) without veering too far into fear-of-heights territory.

    There was that one time, though, I whapped my forehead on a headfirst run down a (pretty tame) slide. Even when you’ve done it a dozen times, it’s easy to forget the tenuousness of control when hurtling down a slippery pipe at many miles an hour, and that even the slightest errant movement can slap you with a quick shiner and a day-long headache. Any time you put gravity and water together…

  11. Ray says:

    Also, Iceland has the best version of a “water park” I’ve probably seen yet… 🙂

  12. Slade Ham says:

    There used to be a Waterworld side to Houston’s Astroworld. That closed down years ago though, forcing us all to take the drive and explore Schlitterbahn. For fans of water parks, that place is Mecca.

    • kristen says:

      Ooh, I’ll tell Zara, the only true fan I know of.

      • Slade Ham says:

        She and Simon should put that on their itinerary in June. New Braunfels, TX. Travel Channel’s #1 water park in the world.

        • Matt says:

          I’m just going to assume that any indiviual tasked with visiting and rating all the water parks in the world must have an inhumanly high tolerance for chlorine.

        • Kristen Elde says:

          Chlorine and corndogs. (I do like corndogs, though. Sigh.)

        • Cheryl says:

          Slade, I grew up in Houston. Ah, yes, Waterworld and Astroworld. Summer season tickets, and many long days. But I lived in Southwest Houston, and when I was 14, Fame City and its accompanying water park opened and it was an easier drive for my parents, so I spent a couple of summers frequenting that one. Houston summers are brutal, so water parks are very popular.

          Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels is kind of awesome. All of water used for the rides in the park is siphoned from the adjacent Comal River (spring-fed), and through some complicated system of pumps and filters, it feeds the “lazy river” and some of the slides, and then is filtered and sent back into the Comal. Some of the rides even incorporate the natural river as part of the ride. It’s entirely chemical-free. I am sure that only applies to the original one in New Braunfels, not the other locations that have sprung up in recent years. And you can drink beer there without smuggling it in! It is, after all, a town that was founded by German settlers, and still has strong German roots. And, well, it IS in Texas.

        • Slade Ham says:

          Oh wow. Fame City. I have not thought about that in years. Fame City Waterworks actually. Geez, what a faded memory that has become.

          I love the Comal. Too many summer were spent on that and the Guadalupe, tubes and beer (extra tube for the cooler, of course). It is quite awesome how they’ve incorporated the river into the park. I don’t think Galveston or South Padre does anything of the sort, being surrounded by salt water.

          This has become quite nostalgic for me.

        • Cheryl says:

          I know! I hadn’t thought about Fame City Waterworks for many many years. This post brought it all back, for better or worse.

          Floating down the Comal or Guadalupe with a cowboy hat on and a cooler full of beer is much more my speed these days than Schlitterbahn. My 6-year old disagrees.

        • kristen says:

          Wow. Now that sounds like a waterpark I could get behind–even at 32. Others should evolve/follow suit…

  13. Matt says:

    Growing up in a beach community (and with a pool in my backyard), water parks never appealed to me, largely for the reasons you describe. Some of the slides were fun, sure, but never worth the massive wait to go on them, and the over-chlorinated water just killed my eyes after about 20 minutes or so.

    A few years back some company went and built a massive indoor wave pool right across the boardwalk from the beach. Literally. You can be bobbing around on the artificial waves and look right over at the real thing. I still haven’t figured that one out.

    • Ray says:

      It’s like the swimming-pool-by-the-beach phenomenon you see at some upscale resorts. Though that seems a bit more acceptable for some reason…

      • Cheryl says:

        When I was growing up, we would take a few day-trips to Surfside Beach on the Texas Gulf Coast every summer. Near the beach was a rinky-dink water slide – two tall twisty twirly sides that you got to by ascending a rickety wooden staircase to an equally rickety wooden platform. Looking back, I am pretty positive that no single part of the entire contraption was up to code. You could buy unlimited rides in timed increments – like $5 for 1/2 hour; and $8 for an hour. Something like that. It was my parents’ way of ensuring that we kids did not muss up the car with sand. After a day on the beach, we’d walk over to the slides and spend 1/2 hour going down over and over, often in very unsafe multiples that ended in a tangle of arms and legs at the bottom of the slide, with one of us invariably trapped under water until the rest stood up and the one could surface, gasping for breath. After, we would all pile into the car and fall asleep on the drive home.

        Although I am surpised none of us got botulism from the water used for the slides, those remain some of my happiest memories.

        • kristen says:

          Aw, what a great memory. Love the tangle of arms and legs at the bottom of the slide, the gasping for breath, the car-pile/falling asleep on the drive home… So easy and sweet to picture. And “it was my parents’ way of ensuring that we kids did not muss up the car with sand” makes good sense. 🙂

  14. kristen says:

    Yeah… Not sure why I EVER liked them. Odd.

    That waterpark/ocean proximity is odd as well–that anyone would choose the former over the latter. Guess it’s the draw of those wacky slides.

    I think there are parks that combine artificial and natural–slides that empty into the sea or something. That’s fun.

  15. Cheryl says:

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

    Heh. So true, so true. You see that a lot in Texas, where the heat discourages clothing, and every Texas woman harbors the belief that she is still 25 and looks it.

    • kristen says:

      Hee, yes. I wonder how much of that can be chalked up to an honest lack of awareness and how much is a knowing defiance of the facts/one’s age…

  16. I’ve always wanted to go to the Schlitterbahn in Galveston Island. Just looks like a great time. Rollercoaster waterslides and so on. Yeah. I dig it. Haven’t been to a water park in ages. Though I grew up going to some small ones all the time…

    • Cheryl says:

      If you’re going to spring for a Schlitterbahn experience, I’d suggest the one in New Braunfels. If proximity to the ocean is important, look into the one on South Padre Island. There is no comparison to the beaches of Galveston to the beaches of South Padre – South Padre is pristine compared to Galveston. The original in New Braunfels is set in the beautiful Hill Country – lots of camping and local flavor to enjoy. That one definitely has the roller coaster water slides, too.

  17. kristen says:

    Rollercoaster waterslides? Having a hard time picturing.

    I take it a turn on one lasts longer than ten seconds? And how does one manage to “ascend” prior to dropping?

    • Slade Ham says:

      It’s called Blastenhoff, and the water jets literally propels you and your mat “uphill”. Not nearly as impressive as it sounds, but still quite fun. Or it was a decade or so ago when I last did it.

      Ugh, the thirties.

  18. water trampoline…

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