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The Best Water Parks for Families

Water Park Adventures for Family

Our family at Tropic Falls theme park and water park at OWA in Foley Alabama in May 2023.

My family and I love visiting water parks because of the thrilling rides, huge wave pools, and lazy rivers. Water parks typically are attached to a hotel, offer admission to a theme park with the same ticket, or are a standalone operation. In this episode, I chat with my wife Anna and our kids about the best water parks for families and our favorite water park adventures.

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Our favorite water parks

We’ve been to a handful of water parks over the last few years, and each one has something unique to make the visit memorable. These are our favorite water parks that we’ve been to… plus a few more that we plan on visiting this summer.

Great Wolf Lodge

Visitors to the Great Wolf Lodge are in for a real treat. This is one of the first water park adventures we took with our family. What we love about it is that it is more than just a water park hotel. The hotel theme and decorations are next level, and you really don’t have to leave the hotel during your stay. The water park is amazing and admission is included with your reservation. It also features a kiddie spa, bowling alley, arcade, and numerous restaurants. Plus, there are themed characters, nighttime story hour, and so much more.

The Great Wolf Lodge has 18 locations and four more on the way. Locations include Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Dallas, and Anaheim. We’ve visited the Anaheim and Charlotte locations over the years, and we plan on visiting the Cincinnati location this winter for a fun getaway.

Great Wolf Lodge Garden Grove near Disneyland - View of Great Wolf Lodge water park June 2018

View of the wave pool and water park at Great Wolf Lodge Garden Grove near Disneyland in June 2018.

Gaylord Hotels

This Marriott hotel brand features six destinations across the U.S., and each has its own water park. The Nashville location is the Gaylord Opryland, and its water park, SoundWaves, is amazing. The hotel offers room packages that include water park admission. Otherwise, admission to the water park is a separate ticket. And you don’t have to stay at the hotel to visit.

Gaylord Hotels has six locations across the U.S. These locations range from Southern California to Florida to D.C., so there’s one close by wherever you live. It is part of the Marriott Bonvoy collection of resorts, so you can book rooms there using your hotel points to save money. Consider booking your visit during the winter to see all of the Christmas decorations in the hotel. While you’re there, you can also experience its annual ICE! attraction, which my kids love.

Soundwaves at Gaylord Opryland in Nashville - Lee Scarlett August 2022

Lee and Scarlett at Soundwaves at Gaylord Opryland in Nashville in August 2022.

Wilderness at the Smokies

This water park hotel near Gatlinburg, TN, and the Smoky Mountains National Park is part traditional hotel and part timeshare. Wilderness at the Smokies has water slides and attractions both indoors and outdoors. The indoor water park is year-round, but the outdoor section is closed in the winter.

Just across the street is Soaky Mountain Water Park, which is a separate attraction. Although the hotel usually has discounts for guests, so be sure to ask at the front desk.

Wilderness at the Smokies near Pigeon Forge TN - Timothy riding the waves June 2021

Timothy riding the waves at Wilderness at the Smokies near Pigeon Forge, TN, in June 2021.

Tropic Falls at OWA

Tropic Falls at OWA is located a couple of miles from the Alabama Shoreline. It includes admission to its theme park and water park for a single ticket price. Although the theme park has been open for several years, the water park opened in May 2023. The water park has an outdoor wave pool and a huge TV, while the rest of the rides, slides and lazy river are indoors.

And when you’re planning your visit, listen to my interview with Brandon Styles about the best things to do in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

The best things to do in Gulf Shores Alabama Brandon Styles Park at OWA Rollin’ Thunder roller coaster

The Rollin’ Thunder roller coaster at OWA in Foley, Alabama.

Big Splash Adventure

Located in French Lick, Indiana, the Big Splash Adventure water park is on our bucket list this summer. It’s just a few hours away from Nashville and looks like loads of fun. This indoor water park is 40,000 square feet and features two large tube slides, two large body slides and a lazy river to relax in with your family. There’s also an underwater Virtual Reality experience that I’m really looking forward to trying out.

Big Splash Adventure is open to the public, but it’s also attached to a 153-room hotel. The hotel offers eight different room types to fit every budget. Rooms can fit up to nine people, so be sure to bring your friends. Spend the night at the hotel and get complimentary water park passes with a Water Park Room Package… or you can purchase day passes just for the water park.

Big Splash Adventure in French Link Indiana by Visit French Lick West Baden

Big Splash Adventure in French Link Indiana. Photo courtesy of Visit French Lick West Baden.

Nashville Shores

Nashville Shores is a local water park in Middle Tennessee that’s only open for part of the year. Timothy has been going for the past couple of years with his summer camp, so Scarlett and I got season passes to go this year as well. It offers RV and camping right by the lake if you want to stay a few days. And there’s also a Treetop Adventure Park next door.

Admission to both attractions is included in the almost 50 attractions from the Get Out Pass for Tennessee (read my review). Use promo code “BALD” for the best discount on the Get Out Pass.

Kentucky Kingdom & Hurricane Bay

Another theme park that also has an outdoor water park. Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay are located in Louisville, Kentucky, and one free admission is also included in the Get Out Pass. These attractions are seasonal, so they’re open from mid-May through late October, but the water park closes on Labor Day.

Atlantis Paradise Island Bahamas

For Fall Break a couple of years ago, we visited the Bahamas to stay at the Atlantis Paradise Island Bahamas resort. Luckily, our buddy David’s gambling status provided complimentary rooms, but you could also pay cash or book rooms using Marriott Bonvoy points. What I loved about this hotel’s water park is that only guests could use it and that it was themed to match the Atlantis decor of the property. There were two massive Aztec-themed pyramids at the resort that featured huge water slide drops that were thrilling, which makes this one of my favorite water parks for families.

In addition to the water park for guests, there are numerous other activities for families at Atlantis Paradise Island Bahamas. Scarlett loved the Mermaid Experience with a “real live mermaid,” while Tim and I really enjoyed the Indiana Jones’ style cave and aquarium. For the truly adventurous, you could even book a snorkeling adventure to swim with the fish inside the massive aquarium tanks.

Atlantis Paradise Island Bahamas mermaid experience October 2021 Scarlett

Scarlett at the Mermaid Experience at Atlantis Paradise Island Bahamas Resort in October 2021.

Grand Hyatt Baha Mar

We also visited the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar during our visit to the Bahamas in October 2021. I used World of Hyatt points to pay for our room, and I used my Hyatt Globalist Suite Upgrade certificates to get an amazing room upgrade. While the hotel itself and the restaurants were much higher-end than what we experienced at Atlantis Paradise Island, the water park itself wasn’t as good of an experience as the one at Atlantis.

It had some incredible rides, and the play area was super fun. However, it was open to the public, so there were others there that weren’t hotel guests. Additionally, you had to walk from the hotel to a separate entrance to visit the water park. This meant that it was harder for adults to chill out with a drink (billed to the room) while the kids went on the slides and water rides.

Grand Hyatt Baha Mar water park slides and wave pool October 2021

The water park slides and wave pool at the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar in October 2021.

Places we talked about on the podcast

This map highlights where these water parks are across the U.S. so you can plan your own water park adventures with your family. I’ve broken the map into three sections:

  • Blue: Great Wolf Lodge locations
  • Red: Hotel water parks
  • Yellow: Outdoor water parks

Water park tips you need to know

Items to bring with you

Be prepared. Here’s a handy-dandy basic list of items you’re going to need for a day at the waterpark:

  • Towels
  • Swim diapers (if you have any non-potty trained family members)
  • Waterproof sunscreen
  • Lots of water (I recommend a water bottle for each member of the family)
  • Lots of snacks (you are allowed to bring your own food into the park, and remember: objects in water appear hungrier than on land)
  • Extra clothes (and a separate bag to throw the wet ones in)
  • Band-Aids (you never know)
  • Baby wipes (always come in handy)
  • Waterproof watch for teens, so they don’t lose track of time
  • A book (that you likely will not have a chance to read)
  • Change. If you wish to rent a locker and not cart your things around all day.
  • Shampoo, soap, etc., if you plan on showering after slide time
  • Life vests… although they offer them, they may not have the right size or comfort level

Do your homework

Do your homework and research the water park slides and other attractions.

  • Make sure there’s enough for everyone to do
  • Look at height restrictions
  • Wave pool vs. slides vs. climbing structure vs. surfing experience
  • Set expectations… you may not be able to hit every ride

Strategically choose your dates

  • Weekdays vs. weekends
  • Avoid holidays
  • When are lines the shortest?
  • Many are open year round, while others close for the off-season

At the water park

  • Pay to park closer. It’s a little extra money, but worth it when everyone is tired after a long day in the park.
  • Arrive early vs. staying late
    • A lot of people sleep in, so you get the park to yourself for awhile
    • Just like a theme park, you get to hit the popular rides first without a long wait
    • Summer camps and others leave by mid-afternoon.
    • Staying late also allows you to hit more rides without crowds
  • Check-in time
    • Older kids need a watch and must return every so often
    • Penalties for not showing up on time
    • Gives everyone a break and pace yourself for the day
    • Allows parents to assess time to eat, potty breaks, etc.
  • Think about renting a cabana
    • Provides guaranteed seating
    • Easy for the kids and adults to find
    • You have shade in the summertime
    • Extra amenities, like a TV, fridge, comfortable seats, a fan, food & drink service
  • Bring a waterproof case for phone, money, ID and car keys.
    • Avoid leaving valuables in the car
    • The kids will be just fine if they don’t bring their electronics to the water park
    • And they can chill out on the ride to and from instead of being glued to a screen

Big thanks to today’s affiliate partner – Acorns

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Stay tuned for our next episode

Best things to do in Greensboro North Carolina - Beau WigingtonListen to the next episode when Beau Wigington, the host of the Brews Rock Podcast, shares the best things to do in Greensboro, North Carolina. In this episode, Beau and I talk about visiting the Greensboro Science Center, attending the NC Folk Fest, and sampling craft beer at local breweries like Oden Brewing Company. We hope you’ll join us when We Travel There.

What’s your favorite part of water parks? Send us a Tweet, let us know in the comment section below, or continue the discussion in our Facebook group!

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