ORLANDO — The designers of the new Aquatica water park call their signature ride the Dolphin Plunge for a reason. You plunge 250 feet through clear tubes, shoot past a tank full of Commerson's dolphins and splash down at the end in a shallow pool.
On the Saturday we visited, Sean and Alexis, the two 9-year-olds in our group of five, couldn't wait to try it. They stood for more than half an hour in the line that snaked up the stairs to the top. When they emerged at the bottom, dripping and happy, we asked them what they thought.
"Awesome!" they both shouted.
And did you see the black-and-white Commerson's dolphins swimming past at the end? Well, no. Alexis said she only saw a wall. Sean said he thought he saw something, but he was going too fast.
They didn't seem to mind.
Our mission this day was to try out Aquatica, the new 60-acre aquatic amusement park built across the street from SeaWorld that had its grand opening earlier this month.
What we found was a place that offers plenty of family fun, but just misses living up to the Busch Entertainment Corp.'s hype. Still, it compares well to other water parks, such as Disney's 13-year-old Blizzard Beach.
We arrived not long after Aquatica opened that day, bringing along three kids ready to test as many of the 36 water slides, six rivers and lagoons and more than 80,000 square feet of beach area as we could pack into about six hours. We went through the bag check (no food or drinks allowed), slathered on sunscreen, rented lockers for our bags and headed out.
Our first stop, the 15,000-square-foot Walkabout Waters, offered something for all three kids. For 6-year-old Cameron, there was a shallow pool for splashing around and swimming. For the older kids, there was an elaborate network of ladders, rope bridges and slides where they could explore, shoot water cannons and get doused by two gigantic water buckets that tipped every five minutes or so, dumping their load from about 60 feet up.
After the Dolphin Plunge, we all grabbed floats and took a trip on Loggerhead Run, a lazy river that takes you past the dolphin tank slowly enough so the kids could finally see them. It's not as long as the Lazy River at Blizzard Beach, one of two Disney aquatic parks in nearby Lake Buena Vista, but it was fine.
Next to Loggerhead Run is a ride officially known as Tassie Twister. Sean and Alexis dubbed it "the toilet bowl" because that's what it looks like. Sean enjoyed it so much the first time, he talked his mom into going with him the second time. They rode down the hole backward, with Mom screaming all the way.
Despite its name, Big Surf, one of the park's two wave pools, offers only gentle swells. The other one, Cutback Cove, churns out a series of monster curls. Naturally the kids liked Cutback, with waves that lifted them off their feet and let them body surf back toward the shore.
The roughest ride we tried was Roa's Rapids, an "action river ride'' that immediately whisks you into its strong current, propelling you through a circuitous course with turbulent rapids. We made the 6-year-old wear a life jacket and were glad we did. The kids all enjoyed it, but it left us grownups huffing and puffing.
What we didn't realize going in was that the ride has two exits. One of the kids got separated from the rest of us, and though there are lifeguards all around, it took help from a passerby to reunite us. Next time, we're using the buddy system on that ride.
The smartest thing we did was buy wristbands that entitled us to an all-day, all-you-can-eat buffet of beef and veggie burgers, hot dogs and barbecue chicken (not to mention some sweet banana pudding) at the Banana Beach Cookout — and there's no limit on the soft drinks.
Although signs weren't always clear and asking directions didn't necessarily put you in the right place, we still had a good time. Maybe as the year rolls along, the park will have worked out the kinks that kept Aquatica from being an A-plus.
Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Sherry Robinson can be reached at (727) 893-8305 or email@example.com.