By Jason Cochran
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(Budget Travel Online) -- It used to be that anyone with a hose and a Hefty bag could claim to operate a water slide. Not anymore.
As technology at roller-coaster parks has leapt forward in recent years, so has the complexity of the thrills at water parks. Flumes are big business in America, with some 1,000 attractions now billing themselves as slide parks, many of them as intricate, as carefully managed and as spacious as the roller-coaster parks they compete with during the summer peak season. A select set of water slide parks have even evolved into destinations unto themselves.
New Braunfels, Texas
Schlitterbahn -- it means "slippery road" in German -- is located midway between Austin and San Antonio, and for eight unbroken years this sun-baked playground has held the Best Waterpark title in Amusement Today's respected Golden Ticket Awards.
Little innovations mean a lot: Part of the park is fed by a cool natural spring, which keeps guests from reeking like a chlorine tablet, and the mile-long Raging River inner tube chute takes some 45 minutes to complete. But it's the technology behind Master Blaster, a 1,000-foot-long water coaster (jets of water push rafts down and up hills), that has every other water park in the country scrambling to build their own versions. 830/625-2351
Wet 'n Wild
The world's first modern water park, Wet 'n Wild was opened in 1977 by George Millay, the same hydrophile who gave us SeaWorld. This tightly packed concrete cluster of chutes and steel struts -- embellished by little more than terrifying screams -- has been scaring the swim trunks off purists ever since.
Which slide rules? The Bomb Bay -- riders mount this near-vertical, 76-foot gully by entering a coffin-size chamber and standing on a trap door that's activated without warning. The fun goes beyond slides: On Hydra Fighter, back-to-back riders on swings use water cannons to cream each other and to propel themselves over a lagoon.
Rumors swirl that current owner Universal will soon relocate everything a few hundred yards north to its Orlando property, ensuring this granddaddy longevity and probable expansion. Until then, you can find prettier parks, but few with as much punch. 407/351-1800
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
No other American water park is larger: 70 acres. The extra space gives the owners room to make 'em big. Time Warp is the world's largest "family bowl" ride (cloverleaf rafts are swept down a 70-foot drop, swirl around a huge illuminated chamber, and then pour out a ramp in the center), and Black Anaconda, a quarter of a mile long, is the country's longest and fastest water coaster, reaching speeds up to 30 mph.
Even its older slides can claim provenance: Some date to the '80s and are the last survivors of defunct designing companies. Ride them here and nowhere else. But because Noah's Ark is located in a snow zone, it's only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day -- the rest of the year, kids can only daydream about it. Which is an injustice; if this place were in Florida, it would be a legend. 608/254-6351
Santa Claus, Indiana
A happy marriage of family-friendly planning and just-scary-enough slides, Splashin' Safari gets the genre right. As much about wave pools and play areas as it is about eye-popping thrills (its 10-story-tall Zoombabwe is the world's tallest enclosed side), the place also throws in some killer perks, including free unlimited soft drinks.
And when your fingers start to prune, dry off for free next door at Holiday World, its neighboring sister property, where The Voyage, the world's third-fastest, third-longest wooden roller coaster, just went up. No wonder so many Midwesterners are fervent fans of the place. 877/463-2645
Whereas most modern parks beeline for thrills, Water World takes a kitschy left turn. Several of its rides, such as Voyage to the Center of the Earth, combine raft journeys with Disney-style "dark ride" storylines, complete with robots and other theatrics usually associated with land-based attractions.
Many of its adrenaline-oriented rides are also rarely copied, such as The Screamin' Mimi, a dry toboggan plunge that ends with a skitter across a pool's surface. It's even where you'll find Wally World -- not Clark Griswold's shangri-la, but a kiddie area named for the park mascot. The place isn't perfect, though. Even in mid-summer, it sometimes closes due to cool temperatures. 303/427-7873
Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Walt Disney's World's scariest ride isn't Expedition Everest or the Tower of Terror -- in fact, it's not even inside a roller-coaster park. It's Summit Plummet, located in the more thrilling of the resort's two water slide parks. Crave a wedgie? Mount the top of the near-vertical 120-foot-tall chute, where you can enjoy the best panorama of the Central Florida resort, and then free-fall down at speeds of up to 60 mph.
That one's brutal (and surprisingly painful) enough to place the park in the water slide pantheon, but there are grandma-approved options, too, such as 1,200-foot-long Teamboat Springs, the world's longest family raft ride, and a 3,000-foot-long lazy river on which tubers float through frigid caves and past the spray from Goofy's sneezes. The whimsical theme (snow in Florida) is elegantly realized, and for most flumes, conveyors deliver rafts to the entry points, sparing visitors (some 1.6 million a year) the effort. 407/934-7639
Water Country USA
The epitome of a contemporary, family-friendly water park, the 1950s-themed Water Country gears itself to every age group with a wide range of experiences. The Hubba-Hubba Highway is a 1,500-foot, 3.5-acre river rapids, and on Nitro Racer, six sliders race each other to the finish line (tip: the less of you that touches the slide, the faster you'll fly). Ride dispatching is monitored by electronics -- a green light mean it's your turn to hit the suds -- which makes lines quicker than at many competitors.
There's plenty to absorb non-daredevils, including the state's largest wave pool, a high-dive show and plenty of kiddie areas. Just brace yourself for the non-stop sock-hop songs playing from every loudspeaker. 800/343-7946
Kalahari Water Park
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Indoor water parks simply don't have the space to duplicate the variety of their outdoor compatriots, but with around 70 resorts built in the past decade and dozens more being added each year, they've become an indispensable winter activity for northerners.
Wisconsin Dells, considered to be the American capital of water slides, was also the site of the country's first indoor water park, in 1994, and it now boasts its largest under one roof (125,000 square feet), Kalahari Resort. The African-themed hotel/waterpark does an admirable job of delivering a mix of genuine thrills in a confined space, including a FlowRider perpetual sheet wave for surfing, a Master Blaster water coaster that zips both up and down hill, and Zambezi Torrent, the longest indoor lazy river in America. 877/525-2427
Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Two Disney water parks on the same list? Yep -- and if you've laid eyes on this place, you'll know why. While Blizzard Beach works chill-seeking teenagers into a lather, laid-back Typhoon Lagoon, centered around the 95-foot Mount Mayday, appeals to families, and its 2.75 million-gallon wave pool, combed with surfing-sized waves, is its centerpiece.
Being able to snorkel the 362,000-gallon saltwater Shark Reef, stocked with tropical fish and nurse sharks, is an uncommon touch that no other chlorinated slide park offers. There are a few body and raft slides, too, but the idea here is not to swing from thrill to thrill but to kick back and splash around in a squeaky-clean, intensely landscaped environment, which is why parents of small children favor it. 407/934-7639
Many of Wild Rivers' flumes terminate in deep pools that corporate (read: lawsuit-fearing) parks no longer dare to build, including Bombay Blasters, which shoots sliders from pitch-black tunnels into the air, where they free-fall into eight-foot tanks below.
Another clever touch shows its owners are paying attention: Families can wear "SafeTzone" tracking wristbands that, when scanned at one of many kiosks, shows the location of other members of their group on an electronic map. Raging Waters, located in nearby San Dimas, has more gut-wrenching rides, but it's also overrun with unruly, line-cutting teenagers, so the smaller Wild Rivers trumps it for friendliness -- this multimillion-dollar enterprise still manages to impart a neighborly appeal sorely lacking around Los Angeles. 949/788-0808
© 2006. Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc.
Schlitterbahn Waterpark in New Braunfels, Texas