AAA Going Places sent me on a roundup of Florida waterparks. I got to bring my daughter, which was the real thrill.
You may think that waterparks are all the same, right? Think again. No longer the push-off-and-stop-in-the-middle slides of my childhood, today’s waterparks are big business, especially during Florida summers when humidity and rising temperatures drive visitors and residents alike to the nearest swimmin’ hole.
I recently got a firsthand glimpe at just how far they’ve come when my 7-year-old daughter Savannah and I went out on assignment to three of Florida’s oldest and finest: Busch Gardens’ Adventure Island in Tampa, Orlando’s Wet ‘n Wild, and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon. And this confirmed coward can tell you, there was no stopping in the middle.
Adventure Island, Tampa
Adventure Island is a sister park to Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa, FL. We got there early and had our pick of the chaise lounge chairs arranged nearby the soft white sand of its poolside beach.
Savannah saw the pool and made a beeline toward a rope bridge, configured like monkey bars that hung across the narrow middle of the pool. Four enormous circular floats bobbed below. Kids were lining up to swing their way across the monkey bars while using the floats for balance.
Meanwhile, I spotted a pair of pink tunnel slides at the other end of the pool. Each ended abruptly several feet from the water. My heart pounded just contemplating what that slide would be like. Since I was on assignment, I had no choice but to try it.
Steeling my shaky legs, I made my way up the steps to the top. I sat down at the opening and peered below. It was a LONG way to the water. Muttering a quick prayer, I pushed off. A second later I hit the water–fanny first. I looked back at my first conquered slide and deftly pulled my bathing suit back into place.
Next, we tried the Key West Rapids, a two-to three-person flume ride. It’s about six stories high and we got a little nervous past the two-story mark. But the smiles and laughter of the people riding down the rapids kept us climbing.
From the top, we slid down sideways, backwards and frontways, screaming and laughing through the three legs of the slide. Our stomachs caught up with us at the third pool, before we propelled forward down the final leg, an ominous drop into the finishing pool. Hopping off the raft, Savannah jumped to the back of the line for another run. Feeling empowered, I followed.
After another trip down the flume, we decided to relax in the wave pool, where I noticed cabanas along the right side of the pool. Turns out, you can rent a private cabana for the day, complete with two chaises, two chairs, a refrigerator stocked with water, and complimentary towels.
Next we tried the Rambling Bayou and joined other guests floating lazily along the current, soaking up the afternoon sun on the winding river that carried us through a covered “rainforest” of mist and past gorgeous bougainvillea, bamboo, and palm trees. Truly refreshing on a cloudless afternoon.
Busch Gardens is known for its colorful, fully packed flower boxes, and Adventure Island carries on the tradition–pink, red and white blooms hang from rafters everywhere you look, and cranes and ducks wander freely, hoping to benefit from the kindness of strangers.
It’s a clean park, with something for everyone; slides that range from thrilling to moderate to mild, a children’s interactive water playground and plenty of places to eat and drink.
Wet ‘n Wild
The next morning found us in the wave pool at Wet ‘n Wild in Orlando. Having had our fill of surfing, we decided to have a look around.
It was evident this park is serious about thrill seeking. Two attractions, the Brain Wash and The Storm, hurl riders through winding enclosed tunnels before shooting them into wide spaces, where they’re either thrust to and fro (the Brain Wash), or are forced to circle a sink-like hole before being deposited into a fog-filled tub (The Storm). Savannah and I proudly acknowledged our cowardice and moved on past a couple of men screaming like little girls as they shot down a vertical, 76-foot drop. Some things are better left untouched, job or no job.
Near the back of the park lies a lake on which guests can knee board or water ski, pulled by a continuous loop of tow ropes electronically operated from the dock. Savannah and I watched as several people of varying ages and abilities tried their skills. Some of them wiped out immediately, while others cut a mean wake around the lake’s course. Savannah was itching to try the knee board, but was just shy of the height requirement. Her mother chickened out.
Not to be totally defeated, I decided to face my fear on the Mach 5 slides, which reminded me of the ones from my childhood, only much higher–and much faster. I grabbed my blue mat and climbed to the top, where an attendant instructed me to lie on my belly and hold fast to the two vertical bars at the front of the mat. Staring down the first turn of the slide, I obeyed. What I hadn’t expected were the intense drops and sharp turns that shot me up onto the banks of the slide. It was unnerving, and totally exhilarating. As I splashed down at the bottom, I couldn’t wait to try it again. And as I climbed the stairs, a big, burly man about my age careened down a curve into a steep drop. “Oh Lord!” he screamed. I smiled knowingly.
The Disco H2O is the park’s signature ride. You board a raft and sail through tunnels that light up like a disco floor of yesteryear. Disco hits pulse through the speakers. So much fun.
Overall, Wet ‘n Wild is reminiscent of an old boardwalk, complete with surf shops and ice cream stands. There’s a children’s play area for those under 48 inches, and plenty of thrill rides to keep your daredevils busy.
Signs warned us of what was to come as we approached Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon on our third day. A lush winding path opened up to a wide expanse, at the center of which stood a huge stone pinnacle with the wreck of a ship perched atop. Below sat a wide blue lagoon that looked so refreshing beneath the mid-morning sun. That is, until it erupted into a huge wall of water that set off a round of cheers, screams–and frenzied swimming toward the shore. We couldn’t wait to join in.
Typhoon Lagoon also has a lazy river you can meander along. Its long course takes you through caverns, beneath waterfalls and past a deck of abandoned outboard motors filled with water for spectators to aim and shoot at those floating by. We couldn’t get enough of the river.
We then braved the Gang Plank Falls, a family flume ride. After receiving a huge yellow circular raft, we set down the slide, where we twisted and turned beneath deluges of waterfalls that flanked the caverns. All too soon it was over.
Next, I spotted another raft ride that sends single riders down a similar slide. Savannah decided to sit this one out, so I was on my own. Having come down the family flume, I thought I knew what I was in for. But I was wrong. Soon after I set to careening down this set of rapids I realized I was completely helpless to the forces pulling me downhill. Up and onto the banks of the slide I flew, and then I was backward–only to be shot upward again and turned back forward. Breathlessly, my 40-year-old bones splashed into the waiting pool. I was hooked.
But I wasn’t finished facing my fears. As we wandered past the Crushin’ Gusher water coaster, we came upon a submerged vessel jutting from a very deep body of water. Down the stairs we went to have a closer look. Schools of fish, sea rays and, yes, sharks glided by, along with guests decked out in masks and snorkels. I knew if I didn’t take this challenge I’d regret it.
So despite memories of completely freaking out in open waters during previous snorkeling attempts, I donned mask and snorkel and set out on a journey across the saltwater pool. Once I relearned how to breathe through the snorkel, I let myself float in harmony with the fish beside me and the ray gliding just beneath my legs–close enough to reach out and touch had I dared. An awesome experience I’ll not soon forget.
All too soon it was time to head back home. But I will say Typhoon Lagoon carries with it the attention to detail and customer service that is Disney’s hallmark. Everything from budding flowers to the rope bridges traversing the winding lazy river on which friendly lifeguards stood smiling and waving testified to the excellence that Disney demands of each of its parks. This was no exception.
One quick piece of advice if you brave the waterparks this summer: bring footwear. The concrete gets REALLY hot. Opt for water shoes or a cheap pair of flip flops you can quickly take on and off at each ride. And wear sunscreen. You won’t regret it.
Banner photo by Hanne Hasu.
*Some of the information in this older article may be outdated.