Just add water

KINGS MILLS, Ohio (AP) -- Smiling and screaming all at once, Joe Hoffman and his 9-year-old daughter Mackenzie tightly grabbed their raft as they rocketed into a giant funnel and splashed into a pool of water.
They spent the day at Paramount's Kings Island riding the twisting tube slides while the rest of the family swam in the children's pools.
"We stayed an extra day because of the water park," said Hoffman, of Toledo.
Theme parks of all sizes are discovering a new recipe to attract more thrill-seekers and families: Just add water.
Unlike a looping steel roller coaster, lazy rivers and speed slides appeal to the entire family and are cheaper to build.
"They're just fun. People don't go to the beach or lake like they used to," said Bill Spehn, general manager of Geauga Lake. "They're now going to a water park."
The park is spending $26 million over the next two years to create what it is says will be the largest water park in Ohio. The first section opened this year.
"We talked about a coaster, but a coaster is $20 million anymore," Spehn said. "You can do an outstanding water park for $20 million and create something that is good all day."
Stepping it up
Six Flags Great America near Chicago built a new water park for 2005 that features 25 slides and an interactive playground with water cannons and a volcano that erupts every few minutes. It also has cabanas for rent -- with your own waiter -- where visitors can have lunch or take a nap.
Eleven Six Flags parks around the country have added tornado slides to their lineups in the last two years. The six-story funnel sends riders in a raft spinning back and forth before dropping them into a pool.
Kings Island added its own version last year.
The additions are signs that a few slides and a wave pool just won't do anymore. Monstrous raft slides and speed slides that rocket riders on 100-foot drops now rival the thrills found on roller coasters.
"The rides are getting a lot more exciting, a lot more thrilling," said Melinda Kempfer, business development coordinator for Water Technology Inc. "Everything has been taken up a step."
The company, based in Beaver Dam, Wis., has worked on about 50 projects since 1999, helping amusement parks design and build water parks.
All in the family
Water attractions offer what many other rides can't -- togetherness, said Tim O'Brien, who wrote "The Wave Maker," a book about George Millay, the father of water parks who created the Wet 'n Wild water park chain, beginning in Orlando, Fla., in the 1970s.
"You can only put so many loops and inversions in a roller coaster before you rule out half of your audience," O'Brien said. "Families very rarely stay together and ride roller coasters all day."
Creating a relaxed, tropical atmosphere is important, too. Kings Island completely renovated its old water park, adding children's areas with a waterfall and a pirate ship. Visits increased by 20 percent last year in the water area, said Maureen Kaiser, a park spokeswoman.
Kings Island season pass sales also increased, and daily attendance went up by 7 percent, to 3.5 million guests last year, highest among the parks in the United States that don't run year-round.
Some people go to the park just to swim.
Barb Felton, who lives a few miles away, bought a family pass and takes her three daughters and their friends a couple of times a week.
"We figured that would keep them busy this summer," she said. "I just go lay out by the wave pool."
A main attraction
Attendance has nearly tripled -- to 855,000 a year ago -- at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind., since 1993, when the family-owned park opened Splashin' Safari.
"It's the best business decision we ever made," said Will Koch, president of Holiday World. "It's exceeded any expectations we had."
The park in southern Indiana is doubling the size of the water area over the next five years. This year it added a new wave pool and next year a raging river. It also offers everyone free sunscreen.
Past additions include a funnel slide and a giant enclosed slide.
"We have taken to putting in these monstrous water slides and attractions that look good on a TV ad and have that roller coaster marquee value," Koch said.
Regional and family-owned parks say the water park boom has helped them compete against the corporate-owned giants that dominate the industry.
At Seabreeze in Rochester, N.Y., the crowds come during the day for the lazy river and body slides. "We used to be a nighttime park, said park president Rob Norris. "Now people are here longer and they tend to spend more."
The park has added onto the water section seven times since the area opened 17 years ago.
The nation's oldest amusement park, Lake Compounce in Bristol, Conn., said its water park has increased season pass sales among the locals.
"They use it like a pool pass," said Jerry Brick, general manager. "A lot of people come down here to sit on a lounge chair and read a book by the water, and they come to people watch."

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