Throughout the state, both man-made and natural water parks keep you cool under the Florida sun.

By Katherine O'Neal

Feet, flotation and all, my kids and I spent our summer testing out wave pools, sliding down speedy slopes, bobbing on man-made rivers, tubing through "rapids," and generally beating the heat while having an awesome time. Read on to learn more about our adventures, and how to create your own...

I'd like to think it was my obvious sense of adventure, my clever word-smithing, my creativity-in-approach-yet-delivery-on-deadline that earned me this travel assignment, but I fear that this is not so. In the end, I think it boiled down to three seemingly unrelated things: 1. progeny; 2. "floatability;" and 3. shoe size.

1. Progeny: My kids, Andrew and Grace, are about as different as siblings can be. Andrew is lithe, fast, intense, and at an age where pushing the envelope on thrills is becoming more exciting than Christmas morning. Grace is a fashion-conscious, hairbrush-toting, Barbie-lovin' girly-girl. She is not a physical risk-taker. These two would be the perfect litmus test for families considering water park fun.

2. "Floatability:Most members of my family (athletic Andrew being the exception) are excellent floaters. One chubby coworker had the chutzpah to ask why this is so (those of you familiar with body mass index need inquire no further). Perhaps it's not so in today's thin-is-in, celebrity-obsessed world, but in Water World, buoyancy is a good thing.

3. Shoe Size: When my son was born, the delivery nurse shouted, "Look at those feet!" My daughter, the kindergartener, could double-promote her black suede go-go boots to second grade. And I am the not-necessarily-proud owner of two size-11-wides. With flippers this big, my editor was sure all of the Fusco clan could swim.

Adventure Island, Tampa

We began our watery odyssey on my son's birthday. The day dawned. . . cloudy, with a chance of more clouds. We decided this was perfect water park weather (it never got too hot).

In fact, if you ask my son Andrew, everything turned out to be perfect. He and friend Kevin started out with chicken-hearted Grace and me on the Rambling Bayou (Adventure Island's version of the lazy river) and then ramped up the excitement a bit at Endless Surf (the wave pool). Grace and I spent most of our day enjoying these two attractions. With its waterfalls, misting sprays and shady, rainforest-like landscaping, the river was a big hit with Grace.

Andrew and Kevin moved on to the tube rides and mid-range waterslides, including the Calypso Coaster, the Runaway Rapids and the Wahoo Run.

Throughout the day, the boys gravitated to the base of the Gulf Scream, silently staring up at the steep, scary, high-velocity slide.

It was clearly a game of chicken, and just before we left the park, both Andrew and Kevin conquered their fears and descended, twice, proclaiming it "really, really fun." Just before we left, Andrew said, "This is one of the best days of my life!"

Adventure Island Observations

  • The park is mid-range in size, with plenty to do for all activity and age levels. With 'tweens and teens, you'll likely feel comfortable turning them loose, as long as they travel in groups and check back with you frequently. Lifeguards are everywhere. Though mostly teenagers, they are clearly well-trained and highly professional.
  • A large beach and pool area called Paradise Lagoon allows visitors to relax and cool off. Guests can jump into the water from man-made rock formations at the top of the lagoon; we thought this was "way cool."


Universal’s Volcano Bay, Orlando

Thrills, chills and relaxation: Volcano Bay promises them all. The Krakatau™ Aqua Coaster features four-person canoes that glide upward through the mists, exploring murky, twisting paths inside the volcano before emerging a heart-stopping plunge through a glistening waterfall. Waturi Beach invites you into a tropical paradise complete with surf, where you can swim, splash and kick back in the warm waves.

Volcano Bay Observations

  • When you arrive, check out the far side of the volcano in the back of the park, where you’ll find plenty of rides and seating.


Aquatica, Orlando

Rated the Nation's Best Outdoor Waterpark by USA Today, this waterpark holds bragging rights as the first water park in the world designated as a Certified Autism Center. Daredevils won’t want to miss the KareKare Curl, a high-adrenaline, weightless adventure ride that can best be described as a "curve shaped wave" which riders will experience when climbing the vertical wave wall. The fun isn’t all high-energy: sandy beaches tempt you to ditch your shoes, and the lazy river, Loggerhead Lane, features stunning underwater views of fish and Commerson's dolphins.

Aquatica Observations

  • You can add All-Day Dining and chow down all day for only $27 when you purchase at least one day before your visit.


Disney's Blizzard Beach, Lake Buena Vista

If you'll pardon the pun, there's something totally cool about a Florida water park that's designed to look like a ski resort. Here, waterslides are engineered to look like slush cascading down mountain toboggan runs; the "Summit Plummet" a chilling 120 feet of scream-inducing, vertical free-fall; and a chair lift carries swimmers to the top of Mount Gushmore. In typical Disney fashion, this magical "spin" adds both visual appeal and an element of fun to a park that would already have exceeded most guests' expectations.

Blizzard Beach is huge, and virtually packed with thrilling rides, including the Toboggan Racers where guests slide down face-first, as you would on a sled; Teamboat Springs, billed as one of the world's longest family raft ride; and Snow Stormers, toboggan-style mat slides.

With a very large wave pool, as well as two areas specifically designed for children (Tikes Peak for young children, with fountains and mini slides; and Ski Patrol, a pre-teen area with slides, bobbing "icebergs" to walk across and a fun rope drop into the water), Blizzard Beach has something to offer the whole family. That said, its forte is clearly rides that appeal to teens and other thrill-seekers.

Blizzard Beach Observations

  • Because of its sheer size, you'll want to keep closer tabs on children here. Teens are probably OK to turn loose, but I wouldn't set 'tweens free, even in groups.
  • Cross Country Creek, Blizzard Beach's river, is a relaxing ride past all of the park's attractions. Parents with particularly sensitive young children may want to avoid one segment of the creek, where a long tunnel creates a darker ride with a fast current. Guests tend to shout here, adding to the excitement. Andrew and Mitchell loved it, as did most other guests, but Grace did not.
  • As with all of the Disney theme parks, Blizzard Beach is spotless, beautifully landscaped, and offers plenty of places to grab a bite to eat or shop for souvenirs.

Disney's Typhoon Lagoon, Lake Buena Vista 

Disney's Typhoon Lagoon offers everything you'd expect to find in a Florida water park, then takes it one step further. Along with plenty of sliding thrills, this attraction boasts one of the world's largest surfing lagoons {two-and-one-half-acres in size) with the biggest waves of any Florida water park (up to six feet high).

There's also Shark Reef, a saltwater reef environment where guests snorkel amidst fish, coral and plant life typically found in Caribbean waters. The water here is chilly, but the view is worth it. After all, when your child's essay entitled "What I Did On Summer Vacation" includes swimming with sharks (albeit docile nurse sharks), his status may rise instantly with classmates.

Typhoon Lagoon Observations

  • Visitors can take a surf lesson before the park opens ($150, price does not include park admission); call 407-WDW-PLAY.

Buccaneer Bay, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

About 35 miles northwest of Tampa, you'll find Florida's only spring-fed water park gushing clear, cool, 72-degree water. This smallish-sized park is a nice add-on to the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park attraction that features the legendary Weeki Wachee mermaids. With a lazy river, the L'il Mates Caribbean Cove children's water play area, and four slides including the Pirates Plunge waterflume, it's sure to be a family-pleaser. And for every little girl who has ever seen The Little Mermaid and wished to meet a beautiful finned female, it's a can't-miss.

Buccaneer Bay Observations

  • Along with water rides and mermaid shows, the Weeki Wachee/Buccaneer Bay attraction offers animal shows, riverboat rides and SCUBA experiences.
  • With the addition of toll-road 589 a few years back, Weeki Wachee is faster and easier to reach than ever before.

Water Park Tips

  • Try to visit on a weekday, early in the week, when fewer guests visit. Be aware that some water park are open seasonally (call ahead).
  • It's hard to get up early while you're on vacation but, as mother said, "the early bird gets to the waterslides first."
  • Buy a watertight plastic container (necklace or bracelet) at the gift shop before heading to the water. This will allow you to take your credit cards and money with you, rather than returning to your locker multiple times.
  • Designate a meeting spot in case someone gets lost or your group separates. (I learned this the hard way at Adventure Island's river attraction when my son and a friend took off in the current before I had even found a raft. It took me 15 anxiety-ridden minutes to find them.)
  • Whether cloudy or sunny, wear sunscreen with a high SPF and take time to reapply often during the day.
  • This tip will not be popular with teens, but avoid bikinis and too-big swim shorts worn "way low" - especially if your family plans to try the huge, vertical slides. The kids won't feel so "cool" anymore when water pressure on the rides exposes more than they meant to.
  • Most of the water parks allow coolers (no glass or alcohol allowed), so bring your own drinks and snacks if you like. Call ahead for park rules.
  • If you have children of different ages, be prepared to divide and conquer with a friend or spouse taking one age- or daredevil-level and you the other. Meet up periodically and switch off.
  • Keep a change of clothes in a plastic bag. If it rains, your clothes will still be dry when it's time to get out of your wet suit and return to your hotel.

More Ways to Get Wet

In the Orlando/Kissimmee area and still looking for the ultimate splashdown? Check out these waterpark alternatives, which offer their own ways of getting wet:

You'll find more than mice and magic at Walt Disney World Resort: Splash Mountain, a Brer Rabbit-inspired log ride that ends in a steep splash, offers big thrills at Magic Kingdom. The soaking continues at Animal Kingdom's Kali River Rapids.

Universal Orlando Resort boasts a waterpark-worthy 200-foot waterslide at Fievel's Playland in Universal Studios while Universal's Islands of Adventure weighs in with raging rapids-inspired Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges, Dudley Do-Right's Ripshaw Falls flume ride and Jurassic Park River Adventure.

Not to be outdone by its theme park counterparts (or Discovery Cove across the street) SeaWorld Orlando devised its own ways to get you wet with Journey to Atlantis (based on the mythical underwater city, if that gives you any hint of how wet you'll get) and their own kiddie play area, Shamu's Happy Harbor. Of course, just sitting in the "splash area" during a Shamu show will do the trick.

And, if inflatable, bouncy water parks float your boat, you can find them here.

A Living Water Park

Lest you think Florida's water attractions are only of the man-made variety, consider beautiful Crystal River in Citrus County, where visitors swim with manatees... Ichetucknee Springs State Park in Fort White, where you can swim, tube and snorkel in a freshwater river and spring... Big Cypress National Preserve between Miami and Naples, where adventurous souls may take a guided "swamp slosh" through a unique wetlands habitat... Ginnie Springs, a mecca in High Springs for divers from all over the globe... and Wakulla Springs, where several of the early Tarzan movies were filmed.

Sprinkled throughout the state and providing access to a huge variety of landscapes and wildlife, Florida's state parks, forests and other public lands are without compare. 

Vacation Discoveries

Well, no, it doesn't have waterslides... tube rides... a wave pool... lots of giggling teenagers... or really anything in common with most water parks. Other than water, that is. At Discovery Cove in Orlando, the emphasis is on personal, interactive experiences with marine creatures rather than high-velocity water thrills.

Guests at Discovery Cove can swim and play with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, feed tropical birds, mingle with stingrays, snorkel with colorful fish or relax on sandy, man-made, white beaches.

And, with approximately 1,000 guests admitted each day, there's plenty of "elbow room" to enjoy the surroundings. Admission includes the dolphin swim, access to all park attractions, freshly prepared meals and beverages, snorkeling and beach gear, parking, and admission to either SeaWorld Orlando or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay for 14 consecutive days. Reservations are required.

Of Men and Mermaids

Known as "The City of Live Mermaids," the female finned inhabitants of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park have been entertaining visitors since 1947, and have even performed for the likes of Elvis Presley, Don Knotts and Esther Williams (an aquatic goddess in her own right, tail or no)

The spectacle takes place in the unique Mermaid Theater, 16 feet below the surface of the spring. Shows such as the "Underwater Spectacular" and the Hans Christian Andersen-inspired "The Little Mermaid" include musical numbers and mer-maids actually eating and drinking underwater. What may be most impressive, however, is their ability to hold their breath for minutes at a time.