Best Waterparks in America

Featured Article, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on June 18, 2013
Courtesy of Wet 'N Wild Disco H20 is the grooviest waterslide at Wet 'N Wild, open since 1977 in Orlando, Fla.

Since the first waterparks opened in the United States in the late 1970s, the wet and wild attractions with their drenching rides and soaking slides have made a splash across the nation. Today, hundreds of waterparks attract millions of visitors each year. Here are few of the nation’s oldest, largest and best parks for refreshing summer fun.

Waterpark pioneers

Families have been soaking up fun and sun at waterparks since 1977 when George Millay opened Wet ’n Wild in Orlando, Fla. Considered the Father of the Waterpark, Millay helped create the original SeaWorld in 1964 in San Diego, Calif., and several other theme parks.

“Millay was the first to develop the concept of having waterslides that didn’t include lakes,” says Ashley Reyes, 29, marketing director at Wet ’n Wild. “He actually had manmade pools with four concrete slides and a wave pool.”

About a million fun-seekers cool off each year in Wet ’n Wild’s original wave pool and aboard the park’s latest aquatic thrillers. Families with young children flock to Blastaway Beach, a castle-themed playground with 15 waterslides and a shower of water-delivery devices, including buckets, cannons, jets and soakers. The most popular park attraction is Disco H20, which spins four-person rafts around a 1970s-era disco club awash with glittery mirror balls, lights and groovy music.

In New Braunfels, Texas, waterpark pioneers Bob and Billye Henry opened their German-themed Schlitterbahn Waterpark in 1979 on an oak-covered hillside along the Comal River and began designing their own drenching slides.

Company engineers in the 1990s developed high-velocity water jets that push riders uphill. Today, the patented Master Blaster technology is used for uphill water coasters in parks worldwide.

In addition to the world’s first uphill water coaster, Schlitterbahn boasts the world’s first body-boarding ride, Boogie Bahn, and the world’s longest water ride, The Falls, which rushes riders on inner tubes over rapids and waterfalls for 3,600 feet.

“We have rides like the Falls that last 40 minutes, instead of seconds,” says park spokesman Jeffrey Siebert, 40. “We like to give playtime, instead of stand-in-line time.”

Waterpark capital

Climbing the steps to the Scorpion’s Tail slide at Noah’s Ark waterpark in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., Kyler Sanders, 14, reads a sign on a wooden post: “This is the Point Where Your Hands Start to Sweat.”

Giggling with her friends, the Chicago teen keeps climbing and reads another teaser: “This is the Point Where Your Knees Start to Shake.” Then another: “This is the Point Where Your Stomach Starts to Feel Funny.”

By the time Kyler reaches the top and the point of no return, she’s standing inside of a locked fiberglass chamber on a trap door with her arms folded across her chest as onlookers laugh and nervously wait their turns. A robotic voice booms “3-2-1” . . . and the trap door snaps open.

Kyler screams as she plummets 10 stories and whooshes up, over and around the looping waterslide at nearly 40 mph. Spurting out the end, she’s greeted with cheers and claps by onlookers.

“It was so much fun. There’s nothing close to it!” Kyler exclaims, rushing off to stand in line for another heart-stopping plunge.

Fifty-one wild and mild waterslides, two wave pools, two lazy rivers and other aquatic amusements splash across 90 acres at Noah’s Ark, America’s largest waterpark. Opened in 1979 as an arcade with go-karts and bumper cars, Noah’s Ark is the original waterpark among more than 20 in Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,437), the Waterpark Capital of the World.

“Lots of family memories are made here,” says Sandy Jonas, 61, an office administrator who has worked at Noah’s Ark since 1989. “People who came here as kids now bring their kids.”

Jon Wierzbicki, 37, of Mukwonago, Wis., and his sons, Riley, 10, and Brady, 8, chat and laugh while disembarking from their raft ride on the Black Anaconda water coaster.

“The little guy made the height requirement,” Jon says about 49-inch-tall Brady.

Brady beams. “It was awesome!”

Family fun

Playtime and family time keep the Dale Julian family of Paducah, Ky., driving 175 miles several times each summer for a boatload of fun at Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Ind.

“We hit the park as soon as it opens,” says Julian, 37, who brought his wife, Esther, 36, to the park on dates more than a decade ago and today brings their sons, Caleb, 9, and Jacob, 6.

The Julians cling to their boat as it twists and tosses on the 1,763-foot-long Mammoth, the world’s longest water coaster, and careen in the dark down the 10-story Zoombabwe, the world’s longest enclosed water slide.

“The park is so clean and family friendly,” Julian says. “We always see the owner greeting everyone.”

As guests come through the gate, owner Pat Koch, 81, calls out a friendly “Good morning!” or “Have fun!” “We’re a family serving families and I make sure we’re upholding wonderful standards,” Koch says.

Since 1946, the Koch family has provided good, clean family fun, first with Santa Claus Land—America’s first theme park renamed Holiday World in 1984—and since 1993 with the adjoining Splashin’ Safari waterpark.

Cool recreation

Today, more than 1,000 waterparks provide refreshing recreation across North America and trends include city-owned waterparks and indoor waterparks at hotels and resorts.

“There have been a lot of innovations in theming and the ability to offer higher thrill rides that have greater speeds and looping abilities,” says Aleatha Ezra, 37, a spokeswoman for the World Waterpark Association in Overland Park, Kan.

Among popular themed waterparks are Hawaiian Falls in Garland, Texas; Pirate’s Cove Family Fun Aquatic Center in Englewood, Colo.; and Wings and Waves Waterpark, which is part of Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore.

“Families are looking for experiences that they can have together, and waterparks are a fun environment for toddlers to grandparents,” Ezra says.

“Plus, in the summertime, it’s hot,” she adds. “And waterparks are cool.”