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Families Flock Families Flock To Attractions At Hotels In Cold Climates

Written by: Dennis Cauchon | USA TODAY

COLUMBUS, Ohio — David and Becky Gose of Hebron, Ky., have five boys, ages 3 months to 8 years.

So when their local schools went on vacation last week, they did what more Americans are doing in cold weather. They packed their swimsuits and headed north to the nearest indoor water park.

“The weather is great in here,” says David Gose, a Wal-Mart manager, as he stands in 85-degree heat inside the Fort Rapids water park here. “It was either here or Myrtle Beach (S.C.).”

Indoor water parks are the latest recreation craze sweeping the USA. The parks — packed with waterslides, giant buckets of falling water and water basketball courts — are attracting families to expensive hotel suites for weekend vacations in cold-weather climates.

A total of 144 indoor water parks will be open by year’s end, up from 50 in 2002, according to Hotel Water Park Resorts Construction Report. An additional 99 are planned.

“The ordinary hotel swimming pool is becoming a thing of the past,” industry consultant Jeff Coy says. He predicts more than 36,000 hotel rooms will be connected to indoor water parks by next year, up from about 8,500 in 2002.

The lure of indoor water parks reflects a change in Americans’ vacation habits. Families take more short vacations, especially two- or three-day getaways planned on short notice, in addition to a big summer vacation.

For families, indoor water parks often are a good deal. The Gose family had a two-room suite and planned to spend $750 during their Thursday-through-Saturday stay at Fort Rapids, a three-hour drive from their home.

Hotel operators like water parks, too, because they make more money per room. A family suite typically rents for $200 to $500 a night, depending on the time of year and the suite’s size. The admission fee to the water park is included in the price of the room.

What’s really driving the indoor water park is the changing nature of American childhood.

“Kids want to be entertained non-stop,” says Stan Anderson, owner of the Polynesian Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wis. “They want fast action, and they want it in a hurry.”

Coy and other experts credit Anderson with inventing the indoor water park in 1994 when he moved outdoor equipment inside. “I wish I could say I was a genius, but it was dumb luck,” he says.
Anderson thought moving some slides and water sprays indoors would help business on Memorial and Labor Day weekends, when it’s often chilly in the Wisconsin Dells region. Instead, he’d stumbled onto a recreation phenomenon that turned the Dells from a summer resort into a year-round vacation destination.

What Nashville is to country music, the Wisconsin Dells is to the water park business. The region has 18. Many entrepreneurs and designers who have taken the concept nationwide still call Wisconsin home.

Indoor water parks spread first to other Great Lakes states. They are arriving on the East and West Coasts and being added to ski resorts and recreational vehicle parks. Even warm-weather Florida and Arizona are getting indoor parks.

“People ask, ‘Aren’t you worried that water parks are a fad?'” says Scott Somerville, father of three young boys and president of Focus Lodging Group, which operates Fort Rapids. “My response is, ‘This fad will last as long as kids keep enjoying water.'”

One study showed that the Chicago area alone could support 40 regular indoor water parks or 12 giant ones, Somerville says. The East Coast has three indoor parks, he says.

His company is developing a water park in Merrimack, N.H., that he says will be the first one at a Marriott Hotel. A Sheraton Hotel near Boston is adding one, too. Other projects:

  • Great Wolf Resorts, the largest operator of indoor water parks, is building them near Cincinnati, Dallas and Seattle.
  • Small cities — such as Omaha, Rockford, Ill., and Newark, Ohio – – are getting water parks, even though they are not big tourist destinations.
  • Silver Mountain ski resort in Kellogg, Idaho, will open one in July. Coy says it’s the first Western resort to feature the amenity.

“We have lots of great rooms, and we need a way to keep them full outside the winter,” says Silver Mountain sales director Stephen Lane.

Indoor water parks are usually available only to hotel guests. Most parks are aimed at kids up to age 14. They are regional destinations, attracting families within a three-hour drive, and don’t compete directly with mega-theme parks such as Disney World in Orlando. Guests seldom stay longer than three days.
What you get: giant slides for big kids, wading pools for little ones, a water basketball court and perhaps a slow-moving river. The big slides can stretch eight floors high and sometimes go outside the building before returning indoors.

The parks get bigger every year. Some exceed 100,000 square feet, about the size of a regular Wal-Mart.

“You used to put a slide in a pool and call it a water park,” says Matthew Freeby, a water park designer at Water Technology in Madison, Wis. “Now people expect theme-park-style entertainment.”

Anderson and other veteran operators say some water parks may struggle to survive.

“It looks easier to run a water park than it is,” says John Emery, chief executive of Great Wolf Resorts, in Madison. “Construction costs are sky-high and people need to be entertained from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. It’s more like running a cruise ship than a hotel.”
That doesn’t worry the kids.

Shannon Myers, 13, of Bay Village, Ohio, doesn’t usually tag along with her 10-year-old brother when he goes to an out-of-town soccer tournament. She did this weekend to stay at Fort Rapids.

“I came for the water park,” she says. “The giant slide is really cool. And the pizza’s good.”