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?