Splash! Take the Plunge at Florida's Water Parks
Mink, Randy, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Randy Mink Daily Herald Correspondent
Our feet dangled in the air as the wooden chairlift took us up Mount Gushmore, the "snow-capped" centerpiece of a weird, wacky, whimsical place called Blizzard Beach, one of three cleverly themed water parks at Florida's Walt Disney World.
Painted in loud beach colors and with skis attached to its underside, the aerial conveyance glided peacefully skyward as screaming "skiers" - clad in swimsuits - "schussed" down slippery chutes of "melting snow."
Music added to the zany atmosphere of this alpine-flavored playground plopped into a tropical lagoon. We heard everything from "Frosty the Snowman" and Beach Boys hits to zesty oompah bands you'd expect to hear in the Bavarian Alps. "Icicles" festooned a chalet housing an eatery called Avalunch. The park's mascot: an alligator on skis.
Though we were far from any real mountains, it was indeed winter.
Most of America's 1,000-plus water parks - with their speed slides and tube rides, "lazy rivers" and ferocious wave pools - close from September to May, but some of Central Florida's state- of-the- art aquatic adventure kingdoms offer action all year long. The Orlando area, home of Disney World and Universal Studios Escape, actually is the birthplace of the modern water park.
In the middle of winter even Florida's weather can feel cool. High temperatures in February range from 60 to 80 degrees, with the low 70s pretty typical and low 50s a possibility. March averages 78 degrees.
Mark Rucker, general manager of Disney World's water parks, said the pools are kept heated in the high 70s.
As a big fan of wave pools and not-too-scary water slides, I find a day at the water park lets me be a kid again. I prefer the raft, mat and tube slides over the body slides because I need something to hang onto and like the protective cushion between my skin and the fiberglass.
Water slides give me the same highs a roller coaster provides, but without the nausea. Some adults find it's quite an ordeal to climb the stairs leading to the top of these chutes, though. Moms and dads gravitate to the lounge chairs or find their niche drifting the day away in an inner tube.
Orlando's Wet 'n Wild started America's love affair with water parks in 1977, becoming the first one to combine a wave pool with a water slide and children's pool. Open year-round, it ranks as the third-best- attended water park in the country, according to Amusement Business magazine, which estimates 1999 attendance at 1.3 million. Blizzard Beach, at 1.8 million, topped the list for the first time.
Last year Wet 'n Wild underwent the largest facelift in its history.
Improvements included new colors, graphics, awnings and umbrellas. The Surf Lagoon wave pool now contains a more powerful machine that produces stronger, higher crests.
Wet 'n Wild Orlando's most popular features include the Black Hole, a 30-second, two-person raft ride through total darkness. Bomb Bay and Der Stuka tempt daredevils with 76-foot vertical drops.
On the interactive Hydra Fighter ride, 12 guests in back-to-back chairs dangling from bungee cords launch themselves into the air with water cannons, then fire at each other as they twist and turn. Each rider controls his hose's water pressure.
Another Orlando-area pioneer in water play is River Country, a splashy spot since 1976 at Disney World's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. The rustic, rocky setting makes it resemble Tom Sawyer's favorite swimming hole. Several of the manmade boulders serve as jumping and diving platforms into the Upstream Plunge pool.
Bay Cove, a walled-off section of Bay Lake, is River Country's main attraction, with a sand bottom and big sandy beach. In addition to the twin Whoop-'N-Holler Hollow flumes, you can swing on ropes and ships' booms before dropping into the filtered lake water. …