KINGS MILLS, Ohio — Smiling and screaming, 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 Mr. 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,” says Bill Spehn, general manager of Geauga Lake, an amusement park near Cleveland. “They’re now going to a water park.”
The park is spending $26 million over the next two years to create what it says will be the largest water park in Ohio. The first section opened this year.
For about what it costs to build one roller coaster, Mr. Spehn says, “you can do an outstanding water park for $20 million and create something that is good all day.”
Six Flags Great America near Chicago built a new water park for this year 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 past two years. A 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 rival the thrills found on roller coasters.
“The rides are getting a lot more exciting, a lot more thrilling,” says 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.
Water attractions offer what many other rides can’t — togetherness, says Tim O’Brien, who wrote “The Wave Maker,” a book about George Millay, the father of water parks. He 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,” Mr. O’Brien says. “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, says 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 non-year-round parks in the United States. 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 says. “I just go lay out by the wave pool.”
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,” says Will Koch, president of Holiday World. “It has exceeded any expectations we had.”
The park in southern Indiana plans to double the size of the water area over the next five years. This year it added a new wave pool, and next year it will add 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,” Mr. Koch says.
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, says 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., says its water park has increased season pass sales among local residents. “They use it like a pool pass,” says 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.”
Admission varies by park. Some charge one price for the water park and rides, while others charge separate admission for both. Hours for the water park may differ from the rest of the park.
Just like amusement rides, water parks have height requirements for some of the more thrilling attractions.
Most water parks have rules on attire, so check before you go. Some don’t allow swimsuits with metal buttons or zippers on body slides.
Take along flip-flops for walking on hot concrete walkways, an old towel that you don’t mind getting dirty or losing, and a waterproof pouch that you can wear around your neck or your waist to stash your car key, cash and credit card. Most water parks sell these pouches on site.
To find amusement parks and water parks in a given area, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions has a clickable map and other information at www.ticketforfun.com.
The World Waterpark Association also has a search feature for water parks, tips for visiting and safety information at www.waterparks.com.
Paramount’s Kings Island, Kings Mills, Ohio; visit www.pki.com; call 800/288-0808.
Geauga Lake, Aurora, Ohio; www.geaugalake.com; 330/562-8303.
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, Santa Claus, Ind.; www.holidayworld.com; 877/463-2645.
Seabreeze, Rochester, N.Y.; www.seabreeze.com/ or 585/323-1900.
Lake Compounce, Bristol, Conn.; www.lakecompounce.com; 860/583-3300.
Six Flags, in various cities, including Six Flags America in Upper Marlboro; www.sixflags.com.