Wild water parks take a dip on the mild side

New play areas at two Florida parks offer gentle slopes and shallow wading pools to appeal to families with young children.

08/11/2012 5:00 AM

08/11/2012 10:37 PM

One of the best ways to escape the heat in Florida involves stuffing your body into a narrow tube high above the ground and rocketing at high speeds into a churning pool of water.

Climb. Slide. Rinse. Repeat.

Have little ones in tow who aren’t tall (or brave) enough for Florida’s wide array of water parks, better known for their killer drops and thriller slides? New play areas that have opened in two parks this summer offer kinder, gentler options so families with young children can cool off, too.

Legoland Florida, which opened in October in the old Cypress Gardens spot in Winter Haven, unveiled its water park just before Memorial Day this year. Like the main park, the mild water area caters primarily to younger children, 12 and under. The shallow Joaker Soaker play pool offers sloping slides of varying heights and buckets that periodically dump water on those below.

Oversize Lego blocks float along with rafts in the 1,000-foot-long “Build-a-Raft River,” allowing drifters to trick out their tubes by stacking on additional blocks as they glide. The mild wave pool with zero-entry invites wading. One water play area — the Duplo Splash Safari — is prohibited to anyone over age 5. It features a shallow pool, giant Lego-brick animals and an awning for shade.

Two slides that were part of Cypress Gardens’ Splash Island remain to appeal to older adventurers: The 60-foot Splash Out, with three narrow tube slides, and the Twin Chasers, with slower, winding tubes that visitors can slide down on big inner tubes, individually or in pairs. Still undiscovered and slightly remote, the park feels spacious and waits for rides are minimal.

There’s also a refurbished restaurant, surf store and changing rooms. Visitors must pay admission to the main park and walk through it to reach the water park, which charges an extra $12. They also must wear shorts and tops over their bathing suits before they’ll even be admitted into the first park — a lesson we learned the hard way after walking across the massive parking lot twice to retrieve the required attire.

Fortunately, features made of Lego bricks — a giant Einstein head, a life-size car, a “village” that depicts famous buildings and locations around the world — are entertaining distractions as you make your way to the water park. You’ll want to try a few of the easygoing coasters or carnival-like games to get your money’s worth in the main area before hitting the water. Both parks are still pristine and super clean.

In Orlando, one of the nation’s oldest water parks is reaching out to the play-group crowd with a new, sandcastle-themed playground called Blastaway Beach that also is designed for tykes.

Wet ’N Wild, originally opened in 1977 and now owned by Universal, is typically a place where tweens and teens seek screams on such aptly-named rides as Brain Wash and The Black Hole. The park’s latest feature tempers those extremes by offering 15 miniature slides, two shallow pools and more than 160 soakers, jets, waterfalls and water cannons.

Opened in June and built to look like a 60-foot castle in the sand, Blastaway Beach is big enough (one acre) and has plenty of features to keep small children entertained for the entire day. Slides grow steeper, with more corkscrews and tunnels, the higher you climb. The area has its own separate seating area and only one entrance, making it easier for parents to corral their kids. Water never gets deeper than 1 1/2 feet.

The mild side is in stark contrast to the park’s most extreme ride at the opposite end of the property, The Bomb Bay, which releases individuals through a trap door into a 76-foot drop. Not up for the adventure? A video cam allows spectators to vicariously live the experience by watching sliders’ expressions as they quickly change from wary and expectant upon entering the top of the tube to terror or glee as the floor beneath them vanishes.

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