March 2006 Issue
Experience summer year-round at Sandusky's water parks.
No matter how many times they've been through it already, the heavy metal clang of the ship's bell immediately draws a swarm of swimsuit-clad children to the base of Fort Mackenzie - a four-story jungle gym bristling with water guns - huddling together for the best opportunity to get drenched. The payoff comes a few seconds after the bell begins to sound: the giant bucket at the top of the structure dumps 1,000 gallons of water on the youngsters gathered below, triggering shrieks and screams and giggles.
With eyes shining behind the blue lenses of her swim goggles, my 6-year-old daughter Meghan jumps up and down gleefully, looking up at the bucket on the roof as if this were the first - rather than the seventh - time that she'll be doused. Then, just as suddenly, it's over; the kids run off to the water slides, the bucket rights itself, and water immediately begins pouring in to repeat the process again.
Although this scenario took place at Great Wolf Lodge, one of three water parks that now make Sandusky the water park capital of Ohio, it could just as well have happened at Cedar Point's Castaway Bay or Kalahari Resort - because a thousand-gallon dousing bucket comes standard at water parks, and is always a crowd-pleaser. Five years ago, nothing like this existed under roof in Ohio. Today, these three parks are drawing thousands to Erie County and have helped turn this popular summertime playground into a 365-day-a-year tourist attraction.
For more than a century, Sandusky and the islands of the western Lake Erie basin have been among Ohio's most popular warm-weather destinations. But in the winter, when the lake turns dangerous and the damp winds whip off the choppy water and pierce even the tightest parkas, tourists have tended to stay away. Erie County's tourism marketers had already extended the season with events such as Halloweekends at Cedar Point, but "even so, Cedar Point was still a six-month activity," explains Joan Van Offeren, executive director of the Sandusky-Erie County Visitor and Convention Bureau.
That all changed in 2001, with the opening of Great Wolf Lodge (then called Great Bear Lodge). Cedar Point countered soon after by remodeling and expanding a former lakeside hotel and adding a water park to form Castaway Bay. In early 2005, the Kalahari Resort became the region's third indoor water-theme park.
"The indoor water parks have introduced Sandusky as a year-round destination," Van Offeren says, and while she won't give specifics about occupancy rates, she offers this story to illustrate the impact that the watery wonders have had on the economics of the region: Like many tourism agencies, the Visitor and Convention Bureau is funded through a bed tax, levied on hotel and motel visitors. A year after Great Wolf Lodge opened, Van Offeren's budget increased by 21 percent. Sandusky has discovered that tourism dollars flow like water year-round when a city has three destinations that cater to a child's love for getting wet.
Adults are not above a good splash in the pool, of course. At just over 48 inches, Meghan is tall enough for the big slides, but has more height than nerve. "Stay here at the bottom and watch me come down," I tell her, climbing to the top of a tower and hurtling through the winding plastic tube, laughing as I hit the plunge pool at the bottom. Meg was unconvinced. "Watch me again," I say. After the third time, the lifeguard at the top greeted me with a familiar nod. "I'm just trying to show my daughter that it's safe," I explain. The guard barely suppresses a smirk.
Indeed, the best thing about these places is that they cater to a wide range of ages. Grandson Deklan, 3, was absolutely content with the gentle slide and bubbling water jets of Kalahari's Crocodile Cove (and almost as happy, after drying off, in the resort's three-story play yard, filled with foam balls and a multitude of gadgets from which to shoot them). My stepson Mike and his friend Ben, both 14, body-surfed in Castaway Bay's wave pool and repeatedly rode Rendezvous Run, the Bay's 520-foot-long water coaster.
Adults have their own hot tub at Great Wolf Lodge. At Kalahari, they can schedule a couple's massage at the resort's spa, and arrive early to enjoy the feather-filled sofa in a waiting room that was designed according to the principles of feng shui. Coupled with New Age music and sandalwood incense, the experience can be sleep-inducing.
"We want to make sure that this is a vacation for the adults, too," she continues. "The kids can ride the water slides, but Mom can get a pedicure and a massage and feel refreshed."
For the uninitiated, an indoor water-theme park may need introduction. These are indoor resorts - with lodging, restaurants, spas and game rooms all under one roof - but each has as a centerpiece a large indoor water attraction, with multiple slides, pools, rides and splash zones. Complexes are self-contained and designed in such a way that, from check-in to check-out, no one needs to leave the premises.
With some exceptions, day-trippers are discouraged in favor of over night guests. The atmosphere, for the most part, is quite casual - swimsuit cover-ups and flip-flops are appropriate attire almost everywhere. And they're as family-oriented as a hotel can possibly be.
"People like the idea that it's a one-stop vacation destination - accommodations, the water park, food, gift shops, arcades," explains Robin Innes, a spokesman for Castaway Bay. "Having the water park adds a whole new option to the Cedar Point mini-vacation."
Although they are more alike than distinct, the three Sandusky parks do have individual personalities.
Kalahari Resort is perhaps the most plush and accommodating water park for adults, with a lobby filled with hand-carved African art, imported each year by the resort's proprietors. The fine-dining restaurant here becomes an adults-only night club on weekend evenings. In addition to the standard water park features (all offer three-story water slides, shallow areas for toddlers, water basketball and hot tubs), Kalahari boasts the "FlowRider," a giant wave machine that runs uphill and allows riders - with a lot of practice or skill - to ride the waves on a surfboard or body boards. Another popular attraction is the "Zip Coaster," a watery roller coaster ride.
Castaway Bay is clearly imprinted with the Cedar Point brand - a boisterous theme park decorated with pirate ships and pastel palm trees, catering to kids of all ages. The water coaster and wave pool are hugely popular with teen-agers, and the water basketball court features a giant-screen TV on the wall, which plays cartoons in the morning and sports in the afternoon. An added bonus to families at this park is Camp Castaway, a supervised child care area where for $8 an hour, children age 3 and older can play board games, color and make crafts while their parents get some time off to ride the water slides by themselves.
Great Wolf Lodge clearly focuses on families with young children: Its clock-tower stage in the lobby features animatronic wildlife in several shows daily. Mike and Ben, the teen boys who were overjoyed to win silly hats in Castaway Bay's video arcade, rolled their eyes and groaned at the singing moose at Great Wolf Lodge. Six-year-old Meg, on the other hand, was positively entranced by the moose, the wolves above the fireplace, the North Woods decor and the general make-believe feel of the place.
"It's definitely about entertaining families," says Sarah Wysong-Miller, Great Wolf's marketing director. "Anyone can feel like a kid here. As long as I've been here, I find myself walking through the lobby and if the moose is singing, I sing along, because it's so much fun."
We would have stayed to hear her sing, but the bell was beginning toring again, and the water bucket was beginning to tip.
Castaway Bay2001 Cleveland Rd. (U.S. Rte. 6), Sandusky, 419/627-2106. www.castawaybay.com
Great Wolf Lodge4600 Milan Rd. (U.S. Rte. 250), Sandusky, 419/609-6000, 888/779-2327. www.greatwolflodge.com
Kalahari Resort7000 Kalahari Dr. (off U.S. Rte. 250), Sandusky, 877/KALAHARI (525-2427). www.kalahariresorts.com
For more information about the indoor water parks of Sandusky, contact the Sandusky-Erie County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 419/625-2984 or 800/255-3743, or visit its water park page at www.sanduskyohiocedarpoint.com/waterparks.htm.
Price: A family of four can spend a midsummer's weekend in any of the three Sandusky-area water park resort hotels for about $480 to $520, including admission to the water park. By going in the off-season (October through April), visiting on weekdays, or by shopping on the Internet, savvy visitors can save significantly on both lodging and water-park admission.
Food is extra, of course, but all three sites offer a wide selection of choices from cafeteria style to fine dining. And as any parent of a teen-ager knows, the amount that can be spent in the video arcades is limited only by your discipline.
Day-trippers: The water-park area at Great Wolf Lodge is reserved for resort guests, although it does book groups for 20 or more for water-park/catering packages. Kalahari and Castaway Bay, however, offer day passes on a limited basis.
On Mondays through Thursdays during the non-peak season, Castaway Bay sells day passes for $18 per person (age 2 and under are free). It also offers Island Evening passes for $8.95, from 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. This promotion ends in May, and during the peak Cedar Point season, admission to the water park will be restricted to Castaway Bay guests or to guests of the other Cedar Point resort properties, who may purchase day passes to Castaway Bay for $18 per person (subject to availability).
Kalahari Resort offers day passes on a first-come, first-served basis. All-day admission is $29 per person Monday through Thursday and $34 Friday through Sunday. Evening admission (5 p.m. to close) is $24 Monday through Thursday and $29 per person Friday through Sunday.
Children: Great Wolf Lodge requires adult supervision for any child age 12 and under in the water park; Kalahari and Castaway Bay require that children 14 and under be supervised. Parents also are encouraged to stay with their small children in the toddler pools. There are height restrictions, ranging from 38 to 48 inches, for most of the water slides and rides.
Currently, Castaway Bay is the only water park to offer formalized child care. Camp Castaway offers activities that include board games, coloring, reading and crafts. Children are supervised there for $8 an hour. In order to be eligible, children must be at least 3 years old and potty trained.
Attire: Everyone is encouraged to wear a cover-up and sandals or flip-flops of some kind - not by the management, but by your fellow guests. No one wants to share an elevator with you while you drip on the carpet.