As American families get busier and busier, their vacations tend to get shorter and shorter. Since 1977 the average trip duration in the U.S. has been cut almost in half, from 7.1 nights to only 4.1, according to David J. Sangree, President of Hotel & Leisure Advisors LLC. On top of that, factoring high gas prices into busy lives leaves many would-be summer vacationers wondering where — and if — they should go. Never fear: For the modern family that wants more convenience without sacrificing any fun, waterparks are the perfect destination — and if there isn’t one near you already, there probably will be very soon.

A Spreading Wave

Ever since 1977, when George Millay opened Wet ‘n Wild Orlando, the United States’ first waterpark, the immense popularity of waterparks has caused a rapidly spreading wave of them across the country (forgive the pun). Today, there are more than 1,000 parks in North America alone, with an additional 600 spread throughout the world. Why the rapid widespread appeal? “Basically, it’s due to the fact [that] waterparks are a family-oriented, extremely safe, complement to today’s families’ active lifestyles and include more and more exciting rides,” says Gina Kellogg, former director of communications for the World Waterpark Association (WWA).

Many modern families aren’t content to sit at the beach or even at a plain old pool like they used to — they crave their summer cool-down with a side of adrenaline, and on most of the less extreme rides and attractions at waterparks, families can stay together all the while. Family and raft rides are an increasing trend at the parks. “This emphasis is primarily due to the fact that families are the backbone of the waterpark industry,” says Kellogg. “Thus, waterpark designers are keeping families in mind as they design the rides of tomorrow.”

Attractions at today’s waterparks are far from the standard concrete slides today’s parents knew when they were children. “We’re seeing the whole waterpark experience change based on the new technologies now available,” says Kellogg. Many parks have water coasters that are the aquatic equivalents of rides at traditional amusement parks, such as the Black Anaconda at Noah’s Ark in the Wisconsin Dells, the Crush ‘n Gusher at Disney World’s Typhoon Lagoon, or the Zip Coaster at the Kalahari in Sandusky, Ohio. Other popular modern attractions include the Flowrider, where surfers can try out the waves in a small pool, and bowl rides. Of course, old favorites like speed slides, leisure rivers, and wave pools are still key components of waterparks across the board as well. Still not enough for the dry-amusement park loyalist in the family? “Many parks offer both dry and wet rides, so one doesn’t necessarily have to choose,” says Aleatha Ezra, membership and marketing services manager at WWA.

Waterparks may be extremely popular as family vacation destinations, but they have plenty to offer to those without children, as well. “Many parks have thrill rides that wouldn’t appeal to children, especially small children,” says Ezra. “Speed slides and racer slides offer adults the opportunity to treat waterslides like a sport. Lastly, many waterparks have adults-only sections with bars, restaurants, and other entertainment.”

Want to take a waterpark vacation but can’t take the stress of having to pray to the gods and the meteorologists for sun and high temps? Those who don’t want to risk spending their all-too-short, much-needed vacations confined to their hotel rooms by rain or shivering in their bathing suits on a freak 60-degree day needn’t rule out waterparks as an option. “In terms of trends in the industry, a huge trend is indoor waterpark resorts and hotels with waterparks,” says Ezra.

The indoor waterpark trend is quite recent, according to Kellogg. The first indoor park was opened in 1994 by Stan Anderson at his Wisconsin Dells hotel. After the success of his venture, indoor waterparks spread especially quickly across the Midwest and Northeast, where the season for waterparks had previously been short and the weather unreliable. Indoor attractions made vacations more convenient and less potentially disappointing. “Plus,” says Kellogg, “indoor waterpark resorts offer families a place to get away and enjoy a mini vacation without having to travel really far.” Indoor parks both small and large have popped up around the world at hotels, resorts, campgrounds, cruise ships, and even ski resorts, so that wherever a family lives, there is sure to be either an indoor or an outdoor waterpark nearby. The only question then is, of course, which waterpark to choose.

“Speed slides and racer slides offer adults the opportunity to treat waterslides like a sport. And many waterparks have adults-only sections with bars, restaurants, and other entertainment.”  — Aleatha Ezra, World Waterpark Association

The Wisconsin Dells earned its rightful title “The Waterpark Capital of the World” by having the highest concentration of waterparks in a small area — three outdoor and 18 indoor waterparks within a mere 18 square miles. According to the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau, these 21 waterparks contain more than 200 waterslides and 16 million gallons of water. Both the largest indoor and outdoor waterparks in the U.S. can be found in the Dells: the Kalahari Resort and Noah’s Ark, respectively. (The Kalahari Resort’s mere 161,000 square feet is dwarfed, however, by the largest indoor waterpark in the world — the Ocean Dome in Miyazaki City, Japan, at more than twice that size!) So not only are the Dells an ideal, close-to-home destination for Midwesterners, but it is also well worth the trip from anywhere else.

The Dells may be home to the largest outdoor waterpark in the U.S., but Noah’s Ark ranked only tenth on the Travel Channel’s 2005 list of the “Best Waterparks in the U.S:”

1. Schlitterbahn Waterpark, New Braunfels, TX

2. Blizzard Beach, Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, FL

3. Raging Waters, San Dimas, CA

4. Water Country U.S.A., Williamsburg, VA

5. Splish Splash, River Head, NY

6. Knott’s Soak City, Palm Springs, CA

7. Water World (Hyland Hills), Federal Heights, CO

8. Six Flags White Water, Marietta, GA

9. Wet ‘n Wild, Las Vegas, NV (now closed)

10. Noah’s Ark, Wisconsin Dells, WI

Any of these parks would certainly make for a thrilling vacation destination. Visit their web sites for detailed lists of rides and attractions.

As far as attendance, Walt Disney World’s two themed waterparks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, claimed the top spots on Amusement Business’ annual list for 2005, followed by the grandfather of American waterparks, Millay’s Wet ‘n Wild in Orlando. It seems that families on vacation in Florida are looking to more than just beaches to get them wet these days. If you will be vacationing in Florida, especially with a family, consider these parks as a safer alternative to ocean swimming for the kids.

From those who are looking for the waterpark closest to their home to those who are looking for a waterpark halfway around the world, the WWA’s web site, Waterparks.com, has an interactive map of waterparks worldwide to make locating that perfect waterpark easier.

Waterparks are a safe yet adventurous alternative to a simple lake or pool … but once you have decided to visit one, be sure to be prepared and cautious just the same. Bring plenty of sunscreen to reapply throughout the day, swimsuits that will stay put and plastic swim diapers for toddlers. DON’T bring clothing with zippers and buttons (they can damage slides and usually aren’t allowed), valuables, or your own flotation devices (most parks prefer to provide their own rafts and tubes). Come to the park in the morning or late afternoon to avoid both crowds and peak UV hours. Once you’re at the park, note height and age restrictions and keep children in age-appropriate areas. Also, just because there are waterpark lifeguards doesn’t mean parents should take their eyes off their young children!

Many of today’s busy families — and single adults as well — are looking for a vacation destination that offers both thrilling and relaxing components and that is relatively close to home and easy to access. “For families who want a safe place to play in the water that’s also really convenient,” says Kellogg, “waterparks are the perfect answer.”