A theme park gift under $10? Theme Park Insider: 2016 Year in Review
My first impression on Feb. 28 was of the rainbow of colors on the slides, rides, and life vests throughout the park, and whimsical animal "mascots" of the park. The mascots are Roa the kiwi bird, Kata the kookaburra, Wae Wae the sandpiper, Ihu the gecko, Wai the dolphin, Papa the pelican, and Motu the turtle. The park seems to be going for a vaguely Australian, almost aboriginal Australian, theme -- as evidenced by the accent on the looped safety announcements, the ambient background music, and the animal mascots. The theme isn't all-encompassing like you'd find at Disney's Blizzard Beach, but it's certainly more of a theme than I've found in other water parks like Denver, Colorado's, Water World. My husband commented specifically on how much he liked the colors -- he called them "cheerful," which on the cloudy, overcast day we were there is saying something. In the sun, on March 2, the slides positively glow. I hope the brutal sun down here doesn't fade the colors too fast, as I feel the bright colors are a distinguishing feature of this park.
The ambient music (which we admittedly didn't really notice until our second visit...my husband and I agree that it may have been off or turned very, very low during the PassPort preview) ranges from upbeat instrumentals with dolphin chitters and whistles, to chanting and drumming (which again leads me to call this somewhat aboriginal in theme), to what I would call "soft rock" (it reminded me of the Beach Boys). My husband spent time in Sydney, Australia, while he was in the Navy and said he recognized some of the music, although he couldn't name the artists.
I think in time the park will also be incredibly lush and full of flowers. My husband particularly noticed the myriad of potted plants on the edges of the walkways, something you don't see at many water parks. This little detail also adds to the overall theme of the park as a tropical paradise.
Park Details and Nitty-Gritty
As soon as you walk in, through bag check (be prepared to empty your over-stuffed beach bag so they can see all the way to the bottom -- and leave your coolers at home, as they are not allowed), you are greeted by an animal handler with a bird of some sort. We saw Parrots (twice) and a Kookaburra -- the Kookaburra was entertaining, as it kept turning in circles on its "leash." As you continue down the path, you'll cross a wooden bridge, and immediately to your left is the pool for the Commerson's dolphins. Aquatica has four male Commerson's dolphins, which were all brought to Orlando from Sea World in San Diego, California, according to the animal trainer we spoke with. You will also notice the two slides that run through the Commerson's dolphin pool with clear, enclosed tubes -- this, then, is the signature ride of the new park, the highlight of the concept art, the Dolphin Plunge! (More on this later.)
After passing the Commerson's dolphin pool, you'll go down some stairs and find, on the left, one of the two underwater viewing areas for the Commerson's. Right next to the viewing area is the Waterstone Grill, one of the three restaurants for the park. If you get just the right table, you can enjoy the antics of the dolphins while you enjoy your meal. Both times we've been to the park, there is a smiling employee at the bottom of the steps handing out paper maps to help you find your way through the park. I, personally, didn't find these maps overly helpful, as paper tends to get wet and disintegrate. But they make a nice souvenir!
To the right of the stairs is the main gift shop, Kiwi Traders, and a large fountain featuring the park's mascots. Beyond that is the lockers. Lockers come in two sizes. Large lockers are $10 for the day, including a $3 refundable deposit and small lockers are $7, including a $2 refundable deposit. We rented a large locker, and found that it easily fit two pairs of tennis shoes, a medium-sized camera bag with camera in it, a large, overstuffed backpack, and a smaller, empty swim bag with room to spare. These were easily the largest lockers I've come across in a water park. One surprise came at the end of the day, when our deposit was returned in the form of a coupon good for $3 worth of Sea World or Aquatica merchandise rather than cash! This was highly unexpected and somewhat confusing to us, and apparently others if I were to judge by looks on the faces around us. We took our card to Waterstone Grill and got a refill on our plastic Aquatica drink containers ($1.59) and received the difference in cash, so you can get cash for it if you make a cheap enough purchase with the refund card. Also, there are multiple handicapped-accessible lockers, set at a height easily accessible to someone in a wheelchair, with handles added for ease of opening and closing -- I have not noticed lockers designed like this at other parks, and thought it was a nice touch.
At the locker rental, you can also rent towels for $4, with a $2 refundable deposit. Right next to the lockers are the restrooms/shower/changing rooms. (I should also note that there is another entrance to this same large restroom/shower room that opens next to Roa's Rapids and the sandy beach.) I found the restrooms in Aquatica to be a refreshing change from the usual water park restrooms. My experience has taught me that water park restroom floors tend to acquire a film throughout the day of water, sand, and other unidentifiable "gunk" -- shoes are always a must. At Aquatica, I've yet to see this happen...there is always a cheerful, smiling employee wielding a mop near the sinks and the stalls to keep the facilities clean. Yes, I would even be comfortable going into these restrooms without shoes, and that says a lot for me! In the women's restroom, there were at least 30-40 restroom stalls (never a wait) and 6-8 shower stalls. Each shower stall consists of a "dry" room and a "wet" room, separated by curtains. No group showers, which was a welcome relief to me. The "dry" room, of course, is only as dry as the person before you left it, which isn't always that dry! There are three large hooks in the dry room, though nothing to sit on (there are benches all along the wall outside of the shower stalls, just not in the stalls themselves). In the handicapped accessible shower, there is a seat folded up again the wall that someone could pull down, as well as a shower sprayer that could be height-adjusted. The showers are push on, and the spray lasts 10-15 seconds (one stall I used lasted 11 seconds, the other just over 15 seconds). Aquatica provides pump bottles full of pink shampoo (smells like coconut), white conditioner (pleasant smelling, but nothing identifiable), and blue body wash (pineapple scent).
I understand that one can also rent a private cabana for the day for $150. Most employees didn't seem to have much information on this option, and kept referring me to the Aquatica webpage ...which I obviously didn't have handy with me at the park! My assumption is that you must reserve this in advance of coming to the park through the website, since no one in person could help me with it. I understand that the cabanas seat four...although looking up at them from the wave pool, I think four people would be a very tight fit! We were told that people who rent cabanas receive "deep discounts" on all park merchandise and food/beverage. I've visited the webpage , and I can't seem to find any information on the private cabanas, although Papa the pelican keeps telling me about them via pop-ups, but whenever I click the link I get the park hours and other info, not anything about the cabanas. Clearly, the website is still being updated.
Most of the park is concrete paths and walkways, but near the wave pools is a large sandy beach. The sand is very soft to the feet, and there are hundreds of lounge chairs in this area alone, along with some of the biggest beach umbrellas I have ever seen. Nearly every chair here is covered by an umbrella, so even on crowded days, I don't think finding a shady chair will be a problem. (There are also chairs around near every other ride in the park, adding to the abundance of chairs...no complaints in this department!!) The huge blue umbrellas probably cover 20 chairs, and the smaller orange umbrellas that probably cover 6-8 chairs.
Overall, I was pleased with the available ride offerings at Aquatica. The park offers a good variety...something for everyone in every age group. There are body slides (Dolphin Plunge), innertube slides (Tassie's Twisters, Whanau Way), bobsled-type racing slides you go down on your belly on a mat (Taumata Racers), a lazy river (Loggerhead Lane), a fast-moving rapid river (Roa's Rapids), big multi-rider raft slides (HooRoo Run, Walhalla Wave), two wave pools (Cutback Cove, Big Surf Shores) and two children's areas which both offer several tamed-down body slides (Walkabout Waters, Kata's Kookaburra Cover). Near almost every ride is a bank of life vests in all sizes, from small baby up to the XXL vests that can adjust to fit nearly everyone. There is no fee for life vests, and they are everywhere with more than enough to go around even on busy days.
Overall, I felt that the innertube rides were the most thrilling -- the water seems to flow faster or harder than at other water parks I've been to, making for a quick, exhilarating ride. Also, the tubes seemed much lighter than I'm used to, as my arms weren't completely exhausted at the end of the day. My personal favorite ride was Whanau Way, which offers four different slides (and four different rides) off of the same "tower" (set of stairs). Whanau Way's slides are set up so that when you get to the top, each slide has two "preparation" entry points, so that one person can be getting into their tube at the same time that the other person is just starting the slide. This moves the line along very smartly, as you're not stuck waiting for someone struggling to get into their tube and blocking the whole slide! I've ridden on both Pink and Blue slides. Blue offers two drops...and if you lean back far enough in your innertube, you can even catch some air on the first drop! Wheee! Blue is fully enclosed, while Pink's tube has a cutaway for part of the ride. Both are twisty-turny rides worth doing over and over. I found them to be much more exciting that other, similar, innertube rides at Denver's Water World or Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas', and I was definitely not expecting to want to go on them multiple times! The safety announcement for this ride says the maximum weight for a single rider is 400 lbs, and the height requirement is 42 inches, and all guests under 48 inches must wear a life vest. I flipped out of my tube at the end of the ride on Pink, but not on Blue.
I did not ride Tassie's Twisters, but the ride looked like a typical "toilet bowl" offering. There are two different slides, and two separate toilet bowls, so although the line was always long, it moved right along. One unique quality of this ride is that to access the line, you have to wade through the lazy river, Loggerhead Lane, and the same innertubes are used on both Tassie's Twisters and Loggerhead Lane. Just like for Whanau Wau, the height requirement is 42 inches, and all guests under 48 inches must wear a life vest.
The body slide, Dolphin Plunge, proved to be the biggest disappointment for me. First, the tubes are completely enclosed, so it's pitch black and your eyes (if they don't have water in them) are trying to adjust to the blackness. Then, you're suddenly in the clear tube that runs through the Commerson's dolphin pool, and your eyes have to adjust to the light in the split second before you're back in the dark again! So, unless there is a dolphin directly overhead, there's not much to see in the clear tube, if your eyes even adjust in time! Additionally, the lifeguards required my husband to remove his tee-shirt, and he found the slide to not be very smooth on his back...his exact words were, "I felt like someone was beating me with a stick!" Although I, too, noticed the bumps (I'm assuming these are where the various pieces of tube are joined, at the seams), they didn't hurt me through my swimsuit. I found myself to be completely disoriented when dumped in the exit pool, and bumped into the side wall before I could get the water out of my eyes, even though the lifeguard was screaming at me, "Ma'am! Ma'am! This way to exit!" You have to be 48 inches to ride, no life vests allowed, and the maximum weight is 300 lbs. There are two different slides, that offer slightly different rides, but not different enough to make it worth standing in line to ride both. Personally, I'll stick to watching the dolphins through the other two viewing areas rather than trying to glimpse them on the slide.
The racing slide, Taumata Racer, was a nice twist on the traditional "toboggan" slide. Instead of being simply downhill with several dips and humps along the way like you'd find at Water World and Blizzard Beach, you start out in an enclosed tube that goes around before you emerge onto the straightaway. There's 8 different lanes, and my husband and I agree our experiences in two different lanes didn't differ dramatically, so each lane likely offers about the same experience. One difference that separates this ride from other racing slides is the way that you enter the ride at the top. You stand outside the slide on a little lip of the slide and sort of lean at the waist with your toboggan on the water. When the lifeguard says "Go", this makes it easy to kick off your feet and get on your stomach flying down the tube. At Water World in Denver, your whole body is in the water and you have to sort of crouch before going, making it hard for me to get moving! All in all, I liked this ride as it was fast and different from my expectations. My husband did not like this ride, though. He said the way the water pressure beat up against the mat it kept pounding him in an, um, sensitive area, if you catch my drift. We had to sit down at the nearest chair for about 10 minutes before he felt like walking again! The weight limit is 300 lbs, and the height limit is 42 inches. Everyone under 48 inches has to wear a life vest.
The two multi-rider raft rides, Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run do not allow single riders. This could certainly be an inconvenience if you're not at the park with friends, or if you have children too small to ride. Anyone under 48 inches has to wear a life vest. Anyone under 42 inches has to have someone supervising them (so a bunch of small children can't all ride together). I have not ridden HooRoo Run. This ride is an open slide with several humps and no twists and turns, it's straight down. It was not running on Feb. 28, and the line was very long on March 2. Walhalla Wave starts out as an open tube, but ends fully enclosed. It goes around several twists and turns...I kept expecting a huge drop, but one never came. All in all, I wouldn't say it stands out as significantly different than other raft rides at other parks I've been to. The raft itself, however, is different -- in addition to the traditional hand grips on the sides of the tube, there were also nylon straps on the bottom of the raft, near the sides. This made it must easier for me to grab on to than the grips on the sides, which to reach you'd have to have your arms propped up on the innertube, which I find highly uncomfortable. Also, you don't have to carry these rafts up to the top yourself; the lifeguard takes the empty rafts and puts them up a conveyor belt which does the heavy lifting for you! One word of warning -- you have to get out of the raft feet first. When I tried this, my bottom was still on the bottom of the raft, my feet over the side, as I leveraged myself up with my arms. The result when I lost my balance was quite comical, as I slid onto my back with my feet straight up in the air over my head! My husband and I were both cracking up, while the lifeguard was trying (unsuccessfully) to maintain a professional demeanor -- I have to give him credit, he cracked a smile but never laughed at me! I finally made it out, and my husband did the smart thing...he stood up in the raft and just stepped right out into the splash pool.
Loggerhead Lane is the park's lazy river. This lazy river differs from any other I've ever been in in that you MUST have an innertube -- no swimmers or walkers allowed. My understanding is that this requirement is to keep the horseplay to a minimum. (If you don't like lazing around on a tube, check out Roa's Rapids, in which tubes are not allowed.) Loggerhead Lane offers a typical lazy river current pace, and goes under several waterfalls to keep you cool. From the concept art, this ride looked to float through something akin to the fully enclosed tube you find in Sea World's Shark Encounter, but the reality is that you float by a viewing window into the Commerson's dolphin tank and a viewing window containing lots of fish. Both viewing windows are quite large and offer interesting views, but a disappointment to me, since I had seen the original concept art and was expecting more. The downside is that the lifeguards will not let you stay and watch in front of the windows at the dolphins or the fish, due to "traffic congestion" (even though when we floated through, there were very few others in the river at the time, so no traffic to speak of!). Anyone under 42 inches must wear a life vest. Another unique aspect is that this ride, along with Roa's Rapids and the wave pools, is zero entry, meaning a gradual slope into the water with no stairs to navigate!
Roa's Rapids, the rapid river, was the biggest and best surprise of the park for us. The current in this river I'd judge to be 4 or 5 times that of Loggerhead Lane, so as soon as you step in you're likely to be swept off your feet. It's great fun with a life vest, which allows you to float along, since innertubes are not allowed in this river. This is NOT meant to be a ride you do to catch a quick nap, as it runs through waterfalls, arcing falls of water, and several areas of very fast-moving water rapids...the water even washed over my head once at the end of the rapids, which I wasn't expecting and left me sputtering. This ride is unexpectedly fun, and my husband and I spent a lot of time floating along in our life vests. The water is about 3.5 feet deep, so adults do have to pick up their feet or risk scrapped knees or toes. You also get quite the workout trying to fight the current to exit the ride. Roa's Rapids has two entrances and exits, so it's a nice way to get from one side of the park to the other without walking. Anyone under 51 inches has to wear a life vest. Roa's Rapids is zero entry, with no steps to navigate in or out.
There are two separate children's areas. We don't have children, so we didn't thoroughly explore these areas. I thought they were neat, since Kata's Kookaburra Cove is clearly aimed at very small children and their parents, while Walkabout Waters is aimed at older children who may not be tall enough, or who may not want to, ride the larger slides. Kookaburra Cove offers a large shallow pool to splash in, with small buckets which dump water on occasion, but not enough water to hurt "little nippers" (as the park's safety announcement calls them), and lots of fountains. Little nippers to have to wear swim diapers. Kookaburra Cove also offers small water slides which the little ones can do with their parents. A great intro to a water park, I though, for small kids. It's bigger than most children's areas I've seen at other water parks. You have to be under 48 inches to do any of the rides at Kookaburra Cove. I also found it unique that near this area, along with traditional beach chairs and loungers, were smaller child-sized chairs -- what a great way to be inclusive of the whole family.
Walkabout Waters offers slides that are bigger than those at Kookaburra Cove - I didn't see any kids going down these slides with their parents. It also has a large "playground" for kids to climb on and in, and offers not one but TWO HUGE buckets that fill with water and dump gallons and gallons every so often (listen for the bell, when it's ringing constantly you know the bucket is about to dump). It looked like the standard kids play area I've seen at every other water park I've been to, just with more slides.
Finally, the two wave pools, Cutback Cove and Big Surf Shores. Although the concept art shows these pools meeting in the middle, they are two separate pools. Cutback Cove offers the HUGE wave and Big Surf Shores has the smaller, what I would call bobbing, waves. Waves run three times an hour, at 15, 35, and 55 past the hour, and go for 8 minutes. There are large clock timers mounted near each pool showing how much time is left for the current cycle of waves, and when the waves aren't going, they show the current time and air temperature in both Fahrenheit and Celsius. I thought this was a nice feature for someone like me who doesn't have a waterproof watch and always wants to know what time it is. The clock timers can be seen from most anywhere in the park, for example, if you're standing on one of the slide towers. I found Cutback Cove's waves to be overwhelming, as they don't come out parallel to the shore but at an angle that causes them to bounce off the walls. I went under more than once, even in a life vest, which I personally don't like at all. Each wave pool has six lifeguards at all times, two on each side of the pool with two more at the entrance, and the lifeguards stand at the ready whenever the waves are going. I noticed a large red button near each lifeguard chair, which I assume is the emergency stop if they need to stop the waves to do a rescue. Big Surf Shore is more of the traditional wave pool, with the waves being parallel to shore and very regular in size. Both wave pools are also zero entry, with no steps, and a gradual incline into the water.
There are three different restaurants in Aquatica, along with several smaller kiosk locations for snacks. My initial impression was that there are a lot more healthy options than I've ever seen at a water park, and I was blown away by the fact that one of the restaurants is all you care to eat, all day long!
The Waterstone Grill, where we ate on Feb. 28, offers fresh-made sandwiches and some salads (we did not see the salads being made, they were already in bowls). I had the chef carved ham and turkey on foccacia bread...and yes, I really did watch the chef carve my meat! The sandwich was tasty -- the bread was soft and the meat not too salty. My husband had the steak and cheese sandwich on a sub roll - minus the peppers and onions. He said it was okay, but a little bland. Both of these were about $7.50, and both were served with fries. They also have chicken strips with fries, and kids meals, which are served in pails with shovels for the kids to use later to play in the sand. The salads are already in dishes, and can easily be grabbed. Cookies were offered in green innertube shaped bowls, or you could add strawberries served the same way. They also had Jello and cheesecake. The 4 cookies were $4.29, which is a bit expensive in my book, but they were soft and not too sweet. We purchased the refillable, reusable plastic cups for $5.99 each, but refills are only $1.59, which makes it worthwhile to me, since I always seem to be thirsty in a water park. We found the line to move very slowly in here, as the sandwiches are made as people order.
We ate at the Mango Market on March 2. This is a grab-n-go style restaurant. Fresh made are the wood-fired pizza (cheese, pepperoni, and vegetable), chicken strips with fries, or a chicken strip wrap. These three items you pick up right as you enter...they are fresh made, but already pre-boxed, so you can just walk in and grab one without having to wait...and they were HOT and Fresh! My husband had the pepperoni pizza - it was the size of a regular personal pizza, with four pieces of pepperoni , one piece on each slice, since they cut the pizza into quarters. It wasn't as greasy as I expected, I guess because of the wood-fired oven, and tasted pretty good. The pizza was about $6. I had the chicken wrap, which is a burrito-sized flour wrap with lettuce, cheese, and two chicken strips. The wrap is cut in half. I grabbed some of the honey mustard dressing which was for the salads, since there's no dressing on the wrap. The wrap was $7. I thought it was a nice semi-healthy option, and it was filling but not so much I didn't want to get back in the water. In addition to these "fresh" options, there are also pre-packaged salads with a wide variety of dressing packet options, and fresh fruit (like grapes or watermelon), also pre -packaged. The one downside to this restaurant is that you can't refill your plastic drink container here, as there is no soda fountain. They do have beer, coffee, and hot cocoa, as well as bottles of soda.
The only restaurant we haven't tried is Banana Beach Cookout, which is unique for any water park or theme park in that it is all you can eat of burgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, etc! You have two options here -- you can pay $12 to come in and eat as much as you want, but once you leave there is no re-entry to the restaurant. Or, you can pay $20 to eat all day (they give you a wristband), so you can come and go as much as you want. This is a great value if you're planning to be here all day, as you can each both lunch and dinner at the park for very little money. Beverages are also included in the cost.
On Feb. 28, the kiosks around the park weren't open, so we didn't know what to expect. On March 2, we found that the kiosks offered items like frozen lemonade , chips, and fountain sodas (you can refill your plastic drink cups here, as well). They do accept credit cards at the kiosks, at least the ones we saw.
Overall, we had very few disappointments with this park. Number one is the lack of signage around the park and the paper maps. I don't think it's practical to carry around a paper map in a water park, and while there are directional arrows with the ride names on them, the ride names are not intuitive enough for you to know really where you're going! I think Blizzard Beach has it right with many full-park maps on display throughout the park, and I'd highly recommend Aquatica consider something like this to supplement their directional arrows.
Also, my husband mentioned the lack of foot showers, for when you're going between the sandy beach area and any of the attractions. There's really no place to wash the sand off your feet, and while I'm all for callous-free feet, after a while the sand plus the concrete starts to hurt!
The final disappointment was the lack of animals in the park. Sea World has been marketing this since the original announcement as, "What would Sea World do with a Water Park?", which to me implied lots and lots of animals, and integration of the rides/attractions/restaurants with those animals. Other than the handler with a single bird at the entrance, the four Commerson's dolphins, the fish in the tank on Loggerhead Lane, and 3-4 parrots in a small tree near Kiwi Traders, the only animals in the park are the brightly colored mascots! I realize this may change with time, but it was a pretty big letdown for me, since I personally love Sea World.
Overall Assessment and Final Thoughts
Overall, I consider this a park I can visit again and again, and I'm glad we decided to purchase PassPorts. With the multiple fast slides and the way they are designed, I don't anticipate lines being overly long, even on crowded summer days, a welcome difference from other water parks in the Orlando area. The glut of beach chairs is great if I just want to grab a book and relax in the sun (or shade) for a while. The varied kiddie areas caters to families of all shapes and sizes. The food is reasonably priced and pretty tasty, with a nice selection of options, when compared to other amusement park fare. And the Commerson's dolphins are a real delight to just watch, as these little guys are super active and clearly love to play and zip around their pool. Just a few minor complaints, which would be easy to resolve if Aquatica wanted to do so, except for the animal issue, which would take some doing to fix. Overall, I'd rate the park a 8.5 on a scale of 1 to 10, and we'll be back over and over this summer!
You can check out the 89 pictures, including photos of the food we ate, taken on Feb. 28 at http://picasaweb.google.com/iwynlea/Aquatica?authkey=CzecZf-sXCQ, and two short videos of the Commerson's Dolphins taken at the very end of the day which I've uploaded into TPI's YouTube group.
I couldn't find the videos in the approval queue for the TPI YouTube group, though. If you e-mail me the URLs of the videos, I can embed 'em in your post, though.
Thanks for the excellent review and pictures though. Great job!
I thought I would fill in some gaps...
Banana Beach Cook Out-All Day Pass...
As a mother of 3 kids, including two teen boys, this option is worth every penny. It's $22 per adult ($20 for passport members).
We eat a light breakfast in the morning as we know that we can eat all day long. There is your basic hamburgers, hotdogs and BBQ Chicken. Salads, Fresh Fruit, Baked Beans, Rolls, 2 deserts. Nothing fancy, but the food was good, plentiful and unlimited beverages. I loved the banana pudding and I don't even like bananas.
It was just so nice to go grab a bit to eat, then play, grab a bit to eat, then pay, grab a drink, then play... I think you get the picture. I never had to "stuff" myself, as I knew I could come back for more later. I never had the beached whale feeling which was really nice. All of us stayed well hydrated which was nice too.
Kids areas are perfect for the under 42" crowd. My daughter fell in that category. She found plenty to enjoy at both kids areas. As an adult, riding the tubes down the kiddy slides is fine, but getting out of the tubes in 12" of water was actually a bit difficult. LOL... I could do it in 36" But not 12"...
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