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Originally published July 12, 2013 at 6:01 AM | Page modified July 12, 2013 at 2:52 PM

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Getting your feet wet at America’s best waterparks

Head to the Upper Midwest for an amazing world of slides, splashes and ‘state-fair food.’

The New York Times

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The first moments inside a waterpark complex almost always jar your senses. A rush of moist, chlorine-scented air fills your nose. Bright cartoon colors, not to mention characters, surround you. And then there is the continuous loop of pop tunes vying with an endless whir of water — splashing, spraying, gurgling, rushing, dumping. On this last point, a caution to the uninitiated: If a bell or gong sounds, it is worth glancing up since it is likely to be a warning that some enormous vat of water overhead is preparing to dump its contents, and everyone but you knows it.

Water parks have long been a regular part of the landscape, but their enclosed iteration has become increasingly popular, and no region has embraced them like the Upper Midwest. Indoor parks — or combination indoor/outdoor parks — in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota have become standard getaways year-round. They are particularly popular in summer, when the weather can range from unforgiving heat and humidity to sporadic thunderstorms, sometimes all in the same afternoon. “Around here, the iffy weather can happen even in the summer season, but this means that it doesn’t have to ruin your vacation,” said Joe Eck, a general manager of Wilderness Territory, which with its four indoor and four outdoor parks proclaims itself the nation’s largest indoor and outdoor water park. It is situated in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., a city that proclaims itself the Waterpark Capital of the World. (Water parks, no doubt, are part of an industry of superlatives.)

A culture unique to these hermetic worlds has emerged — one full of people marching purposefully through long corridors in bathrobes and flip-flops, of every imaginable deep-fried food and of an unstated but unending arms race to build water rides ever more elaborate and dare-devilish. There are water park regulars, who already seem to know all the secrets specific to each park, like where to get a towel, how to claim an unoccupied seat in the mass of lawn chairs perched in front of the rides and the wisdom of hauling in boxes, even luggage carts, stacked with cereal from home.

Though I am a native of the Midwest and the mother of two children, I am by no means one of these veterans. Not yet anyway, though my children certainly aspire to it. Still, in a tour of five water parks in recent months, I have gathered some crucial pointers — enough to offer a primer for the water park novice. For nonveterans who wish to avoid the inevitable splash from the enormous bucket, it is the first step in easing your entry.

Not everyone agrees about precisely what constituted the first real stand-alone water park, but many in the business credit Wet ’n Wild, opened in Orlando, Fla., in 1977. The nation’s first indoor park appeared more than a decade later with the expansion of the Polynesian Resort Hotel & Suites in Wisconsin Dells, which, in essence, erected a roof overhead as a way to solve the seasonal woes of trying to do business in a Midwestern climate.

By the early 2000s, the indoor water park market exploded in this country, according to officials from the World Waterpark Association, a trade group. The most notable growth in the overall water park business in recent years seems to have turned to municipally owned operations (and old public pools transformed into splash pads, sprayers and slides) and a booming Asian market. But indoor water parks remain an area of moderate expansion. Five or 10 new ones open a year, adding to the roughly 150 that exist, mainly in the nation’s midsection.

Inside many water parks there is essential, standard fare: a padded area where young children can toddle through water sprayers and flop down mini-slides into the shallowest of puddles; a surfing ride that mimics an ocean wave (and looks as mortifying to the novice as real ocean surfing); a lazy river that sends people bobbing on floats around a mesmerizing, gentle path and on and on; a wave pool that bounces riders up and down, up and down, up and down, until a wave calms and a new one sets in; and, of course, all variety of water slides and rides.

For all the dependable standbys, however, there is another constant at the giants among these parks, and that is the need never to stay the same. One-upmanship is the rule. Rides must be ever higher and faster and scarier. And when that is not enough, it is time to resort to new dimensions on regular old dry land — zip slides and climbing walls.

The latest, then, in water slides? How about locking yourself in a coffinlike capsule and withstanding a sudden, slam-down drop. It lasts only a few breathless seconds but leaves memories, those bold enough to try it say, that are unshakable.

“It is an arms race, no doubt about it,” said Travis Nelson, a spokesman at Kalahari, a gigantic Africa-themed park with its share of such slides in Wisconsin Dells. At Kalahari, the Screaming Hyena suddenly sends you in a nearly vertical plunge at speeds as fast as 25 miles per hour. “We’re never done,” Nelson said.

The race extends beyond just rides.

A common sight is a pack of gleeful-looking, soaking children, racing up and down rides, trailed by a set of somewhat more dazed or anxious parents. But there is another reality: While many parents hover over toddlers in life jackets (including me, to my older-than-toddler children’s great annoyance), a few of the most popular parks have also come to cater to the parent in need of escape.

There are spas that offer facials, massages and soothing music, with no splashing sounds to be heard. There are also swim-up bars, hot tubs and private cabanas for rent just off a pack of rides. On a recent weekend at the Wilderness, the cabanas were mostly full, as the flat-screen TVs inside flickered with sporting events, and alcoholic beverages were available for delivery. Most of the parents sipping cocktails (domestic beer sells for $5.25 from the tap; drinks with names like Cabana Cooler, Lake Breeze and Pool Break Quencher for $8.75) appeared to have post-adolescent kids perfectly capable (and delighted) to head off for hours on wild rides while their parents read magazines or watched sports back at the lawn chairs.

For us hoverers, too, there are options. At Kalahari’s spa, where I had a spa pedicure ($60), my daughter did too (a mini-pedicure, $40, sparkles and all). There were also facials (an 80-minute “ultimate” one costs $150), hot stone massages (50 minutes for $100) and more. Another warning to the newcomer: A pedicure will be ruined if followed immediately by a long soak in the Lazy River.

Mostly, the adult-tailored add-ons do not extend to the food menus. If there is a culinary genre in the water park world, it may best be described as a state fair, year-round. Bathing suits notwithstanding, those with passions for French fries or cheese-covered fries or deep-fried cheese curds or all of the above will be pleased.

That said, even in these parks, there is a push for healthier options like vegetarian and gluten-free meals. But if salads and yogurts are also for sale, as they are at the Edgewater Hotel & Waterpark in Duluth, Minn., an entirely unscientific look at plates on a recent day would suggest that they are not exactly the most popular offerings. These are, after all, mainly amusement parks with water and ceilings, and the food usually follows suit, to the great delight of the youngest customers.

For places that tout carefree fun and a love of danger, there is actually another, somewhat covert philosophy behind the scenes. With so much water all around, safety and sanitation are always a focus of concern for water parks, which helps explain the large teams of lifeguards, the easy availability of life jackets for loan, and the lengthy descriptions of sanitation practices at some parks. “We truly do want people to have a good time,” said Angela Reed, director of sales and marketing at Water Park of America in Bloomington, Minn., a park that sits a few blocks from the Mall of America near the Twin Cities. “But we just focus on safety. This is designed on the concept that safety comes first.”

Still, there are incidents, like cases more than a year ago at the Edgewater of cryptosporidiosis, an illness sometimes tied to swimming pools and caused by a microscopic organism that lives in human feces. (The Edgewater says it has had no similar troubles since, and it spent $200,000 on special equipment that uses ultraviolet light to remove future worries.)

So germaphobes and those without a love of kitsch, of the brightest of gleaming bright colors, and of second- and third-tier theme park characters (Have you ever heard of Tiki Tom, a puzzling, islandlike character who serves as the mascot at the Edgewater?) may not wish to venture inside these parks. Taken in a different spirit, though, the very notion that someone would try to create, say, a dose of the Florida Keys in a place like Gurnee deserves some degree of appreciation, earnest or otherwise.

At KeyLime Cove, the walls are the colors of sherbet. The shops promote the casual, no-worries feel of the Keys. And a giant pineapple flips upside down every so often, dumping that enormous bucket of water on all who pass.

After a weekend inside the walls of a water park, it turns out that leaving can feel as jarring as arriving once had. Suddenly everything looks awfully gray and quiet and dry.

The water parks

While plenty of water parks share some features, these places are by no means replicas of one another. They differ in scale and feel and likely audience. Here is a sampling from Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, meant to represent a wide range — from the simplest to the most ambitious and in a variety of Midwestern locales.

WATER PARK OF AMERICA

Location: In Bloomington, Minn., near the Twin Cities, just blocks from the Mall of America.

Vibe: A drop-in park in a world of water park complexes that seem to cry out for endless stays. This park, which can be found inside a hotel not far from the airport, has all the needed prerequisites for a water park (the surfing ride, the lazy river and a bunch of slides), but it feels like a place one could visit for the afternoon. Other parks have expanded outward, but Water Park of America is all about its height (and proclaims itself “America’s biggest”). The slides go up to 10 stories.

Target Age: There is something for all ages here, though tweens and young teenagers may be particularly pleased.

What Sets It Apart: In plenty of these parks, safety instructions and height-limit rules can get lengthy, but few of these parks have signs as detailed as Water Park of America’s. Studying them can seem a bit like reading the United States tax code. While Water Park of America is an indoor park, it is particularly busy in the summer and limits its days of operation during parts of the rest of the year.

Water Park of America, 1700 American Blvd. E., Bloomington, Minn.; 952-229-5753; waterparkofamerica.com. While this water park is in a hotel, day passes and part-day passes are available, from $15.95 to $39.95. Water park packages, including a stay at the connected Radisson Hotel Bloomington and four park passes, range from $149 to $299 a night.

KEYLIME COVE

Location: In Gurnee, Ill., 45 miles from Chicago.

Vibe: Florida carefree. This park may be best for a family looking for a first dose of a water park. The food options are more limited than at some complexes, but there are many nearby restaurants, and who says you cannot take a break from the water park to eat?

Target Age: This place is suitable for a wide range of ages, but it is perfect for the littlest children. In addition to the usual fare for older customers, the small toddler area has the tiniest of slides and a mini-pool but also lifeguards who can be seen dutifully monitoring the remarkably shallow waters, over and over.

What Sets It Apart: One of KeyLime Cove’s unusual offerings: regular “behind-the-scenes” tours of the inner workings of its indoor water park aimed at giving customers a sense of the safety and the cleanliness efforts the park makes. The place uses ozone-sanitation technology, which its managers say is more effective than chlorine.

KeyLime Cove, 1700 Nations Drive, Gurnee, Ill.; 877-360-0403; keylimecove.com. Aside from some limited promotional day passes, the indoor water park is mostly available to guests staying at the resort, where starting rates are $109.95 to $199.95.

EDGEWATER HOTEL & WATERPARK

Location: In Duluth, Minn., right on the edge of Lake Superior, and with an outdoor swimming pool that has a lovely view of the lake.

Vibe: Tropical island meets the Twin Ports. Edgewater feels smaller, quieter and a tad dustier than the giant park complexes. No one will get lost here, though there are a lot of slides and water and an extensive games arcade.

Target Age: Best, we think, for the 10 and under crowd.

What Sets It Apart: The small, homemade touches will make you smile; a cleaning person seems to have a knack for twisting the resort’s hotel-room towels into animal shapes.

Edgewater Hotel & Waterpark, 2400 London Road, Duluth, Minn.; 218-728-3601 and 800-777-7925; duluthwaterpark.com. The water park is free to those staying at the resort, where rooms go for $99 to $249. Opportunities for day passes are very limited.

THE WILDERNESS TERRITORY

Location: In Wisconsin Dells (and with a sister property, Wilderness at the Smokies, in Sevierville, Tenn.)

Vibe: An indoor-outdoor combination complex is so gargantuan that it has a main theme of wilderness, and subthemes, from the Wild West to prehistoric times. The Wilderness’s four indoor and four outdoor water parks amount to about 500,000 square feet or, as the resort’s literature regularly notes, more than 12 football fields worth of water rides. The resort claims the distinction of being the nation’s largest indoor-and-outdoor water park. One result of this: A common sight is a cluster of perplexed people in bathing suits standing around a sign or map on the wall.

Target Age: Everyone.

What Sets It Apart: If the Lunar Loop, which sends people nearly 40 mph into a spiral, and the Cosmic Drop, which plunges people five stories in a virtual free fall, are not enough, the place also has play parks, laser tag, 3-D black light mini-golf, go-carts, bumper boats and so on. One surprising find: Field’s at the Wilderness, a fancy steakhouse on the water park complex campus that looks and tastes nothing like the standard deep-fried water park fare.

The Wilderness Territory, 511 E. Adams St., Wisconsin Dells, Wis.; 800-867-9453 or 608-253-9729; wildernessresort.com. The four indoor and four outdoor water parks are available only to those staying at the resort, where hotel rooms (including parks admission) range from about $115 to $300 a night depending on the time of year.

KALAHARI

Location: In the Wisconsin Dells (and also in Sandusky, Ohio).

Vibe: An African journey in the middle of the fudge- and taffy-filled Dells. This is one of the most elaborate water parks around. Local officials say it has the largest indoor water park (125,000 square feet) in Wisconsin, which says a lot. This is a place to go for a few days, not a few hours.

Target Age: This park has something for every age and fear level — splashy areas for small children but also heart-pumping rides, like the Sahara Sidewinders and the Screaming Hyena, that keep Kalahari a tough competitor in the water park arms race.

What Sets It Apart: The park has every imaginable bell and whistle, including a swim-up bar called the Mud Hut, the full-service Spa Kalahari and a separate (and mostly dry) massive indoor theme park with a Ferris wheel, a 5-D shooting game and a NASCAR simulator, not to mention an outdoor water park of 77,000 square feet. If there is a downside to Kalahari, it is that it — and others like it — make all the more moderate indoor water parks suddenly appear small and simple.

Kalahari, 1305 Kalahari Drive, Wisconsin Dells, Wis.; 877-525-2427; kalahariresorts.com/wi. The indoor water park is included for those staying at the resort (rooms begin at $149) as well as to those with a limited number of day passes available, which cost $37 per day for those over 3 years old.

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