In recent years, over 74 million people have visited a waterpark, and many of them have been families. But with over 1,000 waterparks across the U.S., it's a challenge to narrow down which one will provide the right amount of thrills and excitement. Today's waterpark attractions include flume rides, speed slides, watery playgrounds, leisure rivers and even water coasters - the choices are endless. However, there are two waterpark attractions, one old and one new, that stand out as must-dos for anyone looking for adventure - wave pools and FlowRiders. Both wave pools and FlowRiders provide thrills and chills-a-plenty for families looking for a one-of-a-kind experience.  

The First Waves of an Idea 

When the wave pool made its U.S. debut in 1970 in Decatur, Alabama, it was described by one thrilled user as "swimming in a washing machine." Decatur's mayor, Gilmer Blackburn, knew a good thing when he saw it and brought wave-making pools back to the United States from Japan for Point Mallard Park's Aquatic Center. When Point Mallard opened, the wave pool was 180 feet across by 140 feet wide and held 380,000 gallons of water; that's a bit smaller than what is built today. Yet despite its smaller size, Point Mallard's original attraction is still its most popular.  

Sustaining the Surf

While millions all over the world enjoy wave pools, most don't bother comprehending how they work. Waves generated in wave pools such as Point Mallard are different from regular swimming pools; they're designed to provide guests with a more ocean-like experience. If you've ever been lifted off the sand in even the shallow part of the ocean surf, you get a sense of how powerful and at once oddly gentle a wave can be. To accomplish this in a waterpark setting, there are generally two types of wave pools. The first type, usually used for smaller wave pools, uses pressurized air to blow the surface of the water and create wave patterns. This process for making waves is called pneumatic wave generation, and it works like this: air is blown into a wave chamber and expels the water from it, causing the water to enter the pool and create a wave. Then the water returns to the wave chamber and pushes out the air to prepare for the next wave. This process takes two seconds; most machines generate a new wave every 2.2 seconds. The waves created in this system can be anywhere from three to five feet tall. 

The second type is often used for larger wave pool systems, and uses water instead of air to create waves.  Here, a wave machine dumps large volumes of water into the pool, causing the water surge to travel all the way to the end of the pool. When the water level reaches its maximum capacity, release valves open at the bottom of the reservoir and balance the water level.  The more water added, the bigger and stronger the wave can be.  Both wave pool types provide hours of fun for all ages - the experience of being in a wave pool is much like being in the ocean.

A Bigger Thrill

Families with older children or those looking for an extreme thrill should look beyond the wave pool and visit a park with a surf simulator. A widely-used brand of surf rides known as the FlowRider debuted worldwide in 1991 at the Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas. Invented by Tom Lochtefeld, the ride called the "Boogie Bahn" flows out water at a rate of 55,000 gallons per minute; yet it releases all that water in a thin sheet approximately three inches deep. The ride itself is a stationary, wave-shaped unit where riders can slide downhill and surf upon the simulated wave surface. While most riders tend to be young adults and teenagers, the ride can be appealing to all ages.

"It's unique, compelling and unlike anything else," says Jeffrey Siebert, corporate Communications Director for Schlitterbahn Waterparks. "There are lots of folks who just stand and watch. It has a huge appeal for people from two to 88 years old."

In fact, these rides are so appealing to watch - and to use - that there are actual surfing championship competitions held at parks throughout the U.S. Schlitterbahn hosted Wave Loch's first annual FlowRider Championship in 2001, and annually hosts the World FlowRider Bodyboarding Championships. Any waterpark with a FlowRider is allowed to host a FlowRider contest in the annual championship. To find more information on when and where these events will be held, visit wavetheplanet.com, Wave Loch's source for flowboard community news and information.

FlowRiders may have gotten their start at one of the U.S.' biggest parks, but they are not limited to big parks only. Midwest families looking for a vacation spot with surfing thrills can look to Midwestern parks like the Republic Aquatic Center. Their FlowRider, called "The Huna", drew 11,200 guests last year during the park's opening season. Located near the Ozarks, the Republic Aquatic Center staff launched the surf ride because they believed it set them apart from others in the land-locked area around them. Despite the park's smaller size, it has gained immense popularity in the region because of "The Huna."  

"People like the extreme side of the ride," says Kris Parks, Assistant Aquatics Director of Republic Aquatic Center. "Extreme sports are becoming popular now, and 'The Huna' provides different aspects of different sports such as snowboarding and surfing."

The Republic Aquatic Center has not only invented a popular ride that attracts many but also created an interesting and successful program to accompany that ride. For $45 a session, the center provides closed instruction on "The Huna". Class size is limited to six.  Most students who attend these sessions are around 10 years old, but all ages have tried to conquer the ride and have loved it - even a grandmother attended one of the surf classes.

The Best of Both Worlds

Families looking for a way to combine a vacation and a waterpark experience should try the Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas cruise. Like its motto says, "Freedom is hanging ten a hundred miles out to sea." Families aboard the Freedom of the Seas will be able to enjoy the cruise ship's H2O Zone waterpark which features interactive sculpture fountains, ground geysers, a cascading waterfall and a circular pool with a current, along with the first FlowRider on a cruise ship.

No matter the intensity level or ages of children in the family, waterparks can offer affordable and convenient beach-like vacations close to home. All over the U.S., parks are simulating oceans and other bodies of water with attractions such as wave pools and FlowRiders. Now families can plan vacations that include all the thrills of surfing a big wave without traveling too far away. Parks also offer the opportunity to vacation year-round, as many are located indoors. Catching a wave never seemed so easy.

Getting Started

Need a starting point for waterparks that have these thrill rides? Here are just a few examples of parks you can visit:

  • Walt Disney's Typhoon Lagoon "Surf Pool" in Orlando - the biggest wave pool in the country
  • Ocean Dome Complex in Miyazaki, Japan- Guinness Book of World Records lists this park as the world's largest indoor waterpark with the world's most powerful wave-making machine and biggest retractable roof
  • Six Flags Hurricane Harbor's "Forgotten Sea" in Los Angeles - wave pool with the region's largest body of water (480,000 gallons)
  • WaterWorld's "The Wave" in Denver, Colorado- its FlowRider was rated one of the best waterparks in the country by the Travel Channel
  • Hawaiian Waters' "Da Flowrider" in Oahu, Hawaii- Hawaii's only waterpark with its first million dollar wave.