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Indoor Water Parks Growing In Popularity

By Deborah Geigis Berry

In Pennsylvania's Poconos, it was a balmy 75 degrees on Memorial Day. Dozens of families at Great Wolf Lodge donned bathing suits, grabbed inflatable rafts and headed for Coyote Cannon, a waterslide that whisks riders around a bowl, then drops them into a run-out chute. "We're being flushed!" a girl yelled as the raft she gripped with her mom descended into a dark tunnel.

On warm holiday weekends, it's not unusual to head for the water. But in the northeast, even when it's beautiful outside, it's increasingly popular to spend the day inside at an enclosed water park, such as Bear Track Landing, the 80,000-square-foot roof-topped watery wonderland at Great Wolf Lodge in Scotrun, Pa.

When the lodge opened in 2005, it was the first family resort built in the Poconos in 30 years. Since then, indoor water park resorts have splashed down in Greater Boston, Lake George, N.Y., and New Hampshire's White Mountains.

In fact, more than 60 such resorts in the Northeast have been proposed or are under construction, including one recently announced for Waterbury with a November planned opening. "We're open 365 days a year, and the water park is always 80 degrees," says Tim Drawbridge, public relations manager of Six Flags Great Escape Lodge and Indoor Waterpark in Queensbury, N.Y. "That consistency appeals to families, especially in an area with long winters.

Outdoor water parks, such as Water Country in Portsmouth, N.H., have long been popular in New England, but the indoor phenomenon is fairly new here. And while regional locales don't yet compete size-wise with Midwest giants — Sandusky, Ohio's Kalahari Resort, the country's largest indoor water park, has 173,000 square feet of behemoth bowl rides and wavepools — they're drawing crowds. Local parents like the security features — swimmers must wear official wristbands and lifeguards patrol the parks — and newfangled options.

"Who knew upstate New York was a great place to surf?" says Drawbridge, referring to Boogie Bear Surf, a simulator that produces a continual sheet wave for boogie boarding and surfing. On a warm Sunday afternoon at Six Flags' indoor White Water Bay, adults and kids lined up to try the attraction (surf lessons are offered for an added fee), plunging into the manufactured waves for boarding bliss.

The days when a standard hotel pool and a few cable channels provided sufficient amusement for young hotel guests seem numbered. "Flat-water pools simply don't hold the same appeal they once did," said Gina B. Kellogg, director of communications for the water park association, adding that the country's first indoor water park opened in the Wisconsin Dells in 1989.

Enclosed within Six Flags Great Escape Lodge, White Water Bay features a transparent Texlon roof so sun seekers can tan indoors, a 4,375-square-foot multilevel hydro-blasting playhouse, and Avalanche, a family raft ride with a 41-foot drop. The lodge also includes a day spa, a 45-game arcade, and a children's program. For a fee, costumed Looney Tunes characters will stop by guest rooms and deliver milk and cookies to kids at bedtime.

Family Amenities

In Pennsylvania, Great Wolf Lodge pampers tweens with an on-site spa, Scooops, offering pedicures and manicures (there's a separate spa for grownups). There's also a 6,000-square-foot arcade, a Cub Club (children's activity program), the opportunity to play the interactive, fantasy game MagiQuest using a $15 gift-shop wand, several restaurants and snack bars, and a grand lobby with a three-story fireplace and elk-antler chandeliers.

"With gas prices being high, it's convenient to have everything families want under one roof," says Jennifer Beranek of Wisconsin-based Great Wolf Resorts, which operates eleven locations in the United States and Canada.

The company eventually plans to open New England's first Great Wolf Resort in Connecticut, near Foxwoods, though the Poconos locale is currently closest to Hartford. The Pennsylvania retreat features 401 suites, many with inventive layouts. KidKamp Suites feature a tent-themed sleeping area with bunk beds, while Wolf Den Suites have an enclosed sleeping area outfitted with wolf-themed wall murals and bunk beds.

Even in areas where real wolves may roam, indoor water parks have found a home. In February, New England's newest indoor water park, Kahuna Laguna, opened at the Red Jacket Mountain View Resort & Spa in North Conway, N.H.

"It's not like the old days when your mother plopped you on the sand and you made castles all day," says Charles Randall, assistant general manager of the White Mountains getaway. "Today, you need to create excitement to keep kids entertained. We had a pool, but our team felt a need to give guests more."

The Red Jacket's 40,000-square-foot indoor water park has a wave pool, 900 feet of body and tube slides, an adventure tower with squirting coconuts and a rope bridge, and an activity pool for basketball and volleyball. Set on 40 acres with mountain views, the Red Jacket connects to local hiking trails and features an outdoor pool.

"In summer," says Randall, "I think the indoor park will be a popular place for families to go when it's blistering hot outside and they want to get out of the sun."

New England Getaway

For summer vacationers, New England's new water parks couldn't come at a better time. "Families might not have $5,000 to fly to Florida, but they might have $300 for a weekend escape," says Elizabeth Beutel, director of sales and marketing for Coco Key at the Sheraton Ferncroft in Danvers, Mass. "While they're here, they can take a day trip to Salem, visit Gloucester. It's a nice New England getaway."

One of six resorts launched by Illinois-based Sage Hospitality (the company projects 10 locales will open by year's end including one announced for Waterbury with a November planned opening), Coco Key strives to create an "inimitable tropical themed water resort experience, just minutes from home."

Attached to the Sheraton Ferncroft, Coco Key was an immediate hit in the Boston area, with 800 people attending the grand opening in May 2007; 100 birthday parties are held at the water park weekly. Bright-colored cabanas, thatched-roof structures, onsite snack bars, Parrot's Perch interactive play island, and waterslides named Shark Slam, Gator Gush and Barracuda Blast create an atmosphere of island-inspired fun.

"The park isn't overly childlike," says Beutel, adding Coco Key is slated to open a park in Fitchburg, Mass. "Adults are getting a break, too. They can sit back in a lounge chair and enjoy a good margarita from the Wet Rooster beach bar. Once you step inside here in your bathing suit, you forget you're just a half hour away from Boston."

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