June 24, 2008

New Florida Water Park Re-Creates a South Seas Island


For once, we're glad it's not a perfect blue-sky vacation day.

Otherwise, Aquatica (aquaticabysea world.com) SeaWorld's new Orlando water park, designed to feel like a South Sea island with lush landscaping (60,000 plants and flowers!) and white sand (3.1 million pounds of it!) would have been so packed that by 11 a.m., the park would have had to turn families away.

"This is our third try to get in," said Laura Goguen, a suburban Boston mom who stopped with her husband and two daughters to sample the water slides (ready for an eight-lane racing slide? Maybe a 129- foot flume ride?) before they flew home. "There was a nice collection of things for the girls to do."

That's an understatement. There are 36 water slides, six rivers and lagoons, white sandy beaches and two terrific kids' water play areas. Let's not forget the animals Commerson's dolphins (take the Dolphin Plunge down 250 feet of clear tubes, through their habitat), macaws and colorful African cichlids, which, for the uninitiated, are fish found in freshwater lakes and rivers in Africa and Central and South America, among other far-flung places.

Kids, of course, were most interested in the rides, while parents were delighted to catch a break. "My kids are little fishes, and they're loving it here," said Philadelphian Nancy Ryan, who was actually relaxing while her two kids were off testing their mettle on the water slides. "Everything is rush, rush, rush at home. I want to enjoy vacation!"

Aquatica is generating considerable buzz. (Visit seaworldorlando.com for the skinny on different combo tickets, as well as VIP tours. Military families may get free admission.) It is the first new park in Orlando since 2000, when SeaWorld opened Discovery Cove, the place where just 1,000 people a day get exclusive up-close encounters with sea creatures.

There are plenty of animals at Aquatica, too. Check out the 80- pound giant anteaters, the laughing kookaburras or the tortoises that weigh as much as 200 pounds.

My cousin Ethan, too little for the Dolphin Plunge, loved Loggerhead Lane, the lazy river that floats guests past a view of the dolphins, exotic birds and a huge habitat of exotic fish. Other younger kids I met were spending their day at Walkabout Waters, one of the world's biggest interactive water playgrounds with 15,000 square feet of slides, water cannons and more. Kata's Kookaburra Cove, meanwhile, features special rafts designed for parents and small children to ride together.

The key to water park happiness and safety is to keep your eyes on your younger kids and know the older ones' whereabouts. I was impressed at Aquatica by the attentive parents and the lifeguards everywhere. And since your tweens and teens aren't riding water slides with cellphones in their pockets, make sure you've established meeting places and times so that no one gets lost. You've also got to be vigilant about reapplying sunscreen, no matter how much the kids complain.

Aquatica may be the biggest, but it's not the only new water playground. Check out KeyLime Cove (keylime cove.com) in Gurnee, Ill., Carowinds (carowinds.com) in Charlotte, N.C., with Bondi Beach a huge, 600,000-gallon wave pool that's part of a big expansion of the Boomerang Bay water park there or Holiday World (holi dayworld.com) and Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus, Ind., with its $6 million, seven-water-slide expansion.

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