My foolproof test of a water park's merits is relatively simple, and goes like this: if, after spending a day on the slides, I am required to make an appointment with the chiropractor to have my spine "adjusted," then it was a good park.
Orlando has some goooood parks.
I know this because, while I have not yet called the chiropractor, I am still sore four days after a brutal, bruising and clearly foolhardy survey of the area's free-fall flumes and inner-tube drops through darkness. Not for me would there be a series of casual "workdays," in which I might lackadaisically sample first one and then another of Orlando's five water parks. No, I wanted my perspective to be fresh, sharp, immediate; I wanted to hit every one of those five parks in one single day.
This was not to be a ride-everything-in-sight outing. Bumper boats are for babies. Wave pools, lazy rivers -- these things were easy to sneer at and walk on by. Sunning was not part of the plan. The goal was to confront and overcome fear. I wanted my pulse to quicken, my throat to go dry, my heart to leap out of my chest as I assumed an ever-increasing rate of speed on a downward trajectory. On this day, the only rides that beckoned were those that were tall, fast and punishing.
At Wet 'n Wild, the attendant locking riders into a capsule whose floor would then drop, sending them 72 feet downward in a feet-first flume called the Bomb Bay, smugly told the person in line to be sure and cross his legs on the way down.
"Why do you cross your legs?" he asked.
"Have you ever heard of an enema?" she replied.
And that's not the worst of it. The worst is the finish, when the slide ends your virtual free fall with a slight bend that gently cradles you as a mother would her baby -- and then hurtles you at top speed into an elongated pool of water only inches deep, so that for 100 feet your body bounces like a rock skipped across a lake.
I say body. What I mean is, back and buttocks.
Big time on the buttocks.
Naturally, every water park has its own variation of this flume.
You may be starting to feel my pain.
Chiropractors being what they are -- expensive -- I enlisted instead a massage therapist to join in the exercise firsthand. That way, at least, there would be someone to rub away the sore spots at day's end.
Given that my friend was knowledgeable about the damage he was inflicting as he followed me down every slide, it figured that he would start to wimp out about two-and-a-half parks into our day. Me, I wasn't hobbled until after the fourth. (The fifth and final destination was to be Disney's River Country. Having been there before, I knew it was a park for weenies; we opted out.)
The impressions, in order of our attack, that the chlorinated haze couldn't obliterate:
I have climbed into Wet 'n Wild's Bomb Bay capsule numerous times in recent years, and panic is always close at hand. The drop is 72 feet, and the water may or may not be cold, but at the end you are so grateful to be alive that you really don't notice. The after-the-fact shaking probably is just nerves.
The adjacent and similar Der Stuka -- same 60-degree slant, experienced by falling the same 32 feet per second -- is only slightly more calming. The nervous part comes when you are made to lie down and cross your arms -- and the attendant eases you over the edge. They are in control. You are not.
Surprisingly, Der Stuka spooked me less than the identical Screamer at Water Mania. The difference? At Water Mania, it is you who must ease yourself over the edge. I was surprised to discover that at such a pivotal juncture, I would rather be pushed.
Water Mania also entices with one unique feature: Wipe Out, a continuous and oh-so-powerful rushing wave that dares one person at a time to linger atop a four-foot body board before the water shoves you out of its way. It was the only "ride" all day that we attempted twice, because it is the only one that challenges your ego; you don't want it to get the best of you. In my case it did. Twice.
The "CAUTION: Thrill Ride" warnings at Water Mania did not seem necessary. They did, however, at Blizzard Beach -- and not because of the danger of avalanche. Here were flumes that actually scared you. Here the human body was propelled at such speed that exhilaration (read: pain) was inevitable.
After that, Typhoon Lagoon was just all wet.
Sidebar: 5 Top flumes
Bomb Bay, Wet 'n Wild Nothing, not even the higher Summit Plummet free-fall drop at Disney's Blizzard Beach, is more terrifying than climbing for the first time into the Bomb Bay capsule and knowing that the floor is about to give way, sending you on a 72-foot downward trajectory through a flume that is suspended in midair.
Summit Plummet, Blizzard Beach Highest and longest flume in town, dropping you 90 feet from a tower whose panoramic views make the push off the edge all the more frightening. It's easy to fall; the "difficult" factor comes in defying common sense and wanting to fall.
Slush Gusher, Blizzard Beach A triple-dip drop, with the final drop seemingly as long and steep as the best that Disney offers at its Typhoon Lagoon park, which suffers by comparison. Side by side with the Summit Plummet, this one looks deceptively tame -- until that third dip sends you airborne. You never see it coming.
Snow Stormers, Blizzard Beach Three switchback slalom-style mat slides that benefit from a great many short, quick turns. The illusion, at least, is that you are traveling very, very fast. And fast is good.
Black Hole, Wet 'n Wild Other parks also have enclosed flumes that plunge you into relative darkness, but only the Black Hole teases you with a ribbon of colorful fiber optics along the inside top of the tube that keep you focused as one sudden drop after another gives your stomach the flips. Plus, it's a two-person tube. What's the point of screaming if no one can hear you?