Parents know there’s no such thing as a relaxing summer vacation. It takes a real concentrated effort to research, plan and pull off the successful trip that keeps kids off the couch during the blistering Texas summer.
While a day spent with extreme roller coasters or bottle nosed dolphins is the polar opposite of Austin’s all-natural attractions, a theme-park can provide some larger-than-life experiences for those with adventurous imaginations. A day trip can serve as an exotic escape from the norm, and you have to admit there's a certain excitement and relief in motoring down the highway for some family fun.
Plus, if your spouse “wouldn’t be caught dead floating down the Guadalupe in an inner tube” (her words), then a trip to Sea World San Antonio’s newest addition is the only water park experience some of us may have.
For those familiar with Sea World San Antonio, Aquatica is the newly re-themed upgrade of the Lost Lagoon section of the park. No longer a freebie, Aquatica is now an additional fee on top of your general Sea World ticket. It’s a curious pricing strategy, however, since it's practically impossible to experience all of Sea Word’s attractions, shows and exhibits as well as Aquatica.
From the moment you arrive at Aquatica, though, you can see where Sea World is spending those extra dimes. Full of swaying palm trees and piped-in neon bird ambiance, Aquatica bills itself as a blend of animal experiences, thrill rides and white sandy beaches with a South Seas flavor.
The park’s recorded announcer even peppers “G'day” into his intercom messages which are delivered with an overbearing Australian accent.
Failed attempts at foreign accents aside, Aquatica has a solid grasp of its audience. The thrill seekers that are used to Schlitterbahn’s innovative slides won’t be as thrilled here. Instead, Aquatica aims and hits the mark for families with a nice balance of slides and pools for every age.
Stingray Falls, for example, is a four-person raft slide that zips, twists and splashes you down into an underwater tank filled with stingrays and tropical fish. Fast enough to satisfy the thrill seekers, yet just enough for the little ones to walk the line between fun and scary, the unique educational ending is a neat experience.
At the base of Stingray Falls, you’ll find a welcoming pool of stingrays where young and old can dip their hands and pet these graceful creatures. For a more immersive experience, $25 can get you into the stingray waters, where they’re happy to swim around you. (Of course, there’s also a souvenir photo available.) Despite their name, stingrays are quite friendly, and kids get a kick of having their fingers tickled by the rays’ smooth skin.
Across the way, Walhalla Wave’s vertical wall demands your attention from anywhere in the park. The “extreme” slide sends four riders down twists and turns until they slide up the looming zero-gravity wall. You can feel a few seconds of weightlessness before plummeting down into the water below. Set 70 feet in the air, the slide can easily get the better of anyone that’s not crazy about heights. Still, it’s fun to see that us older folks can handle extreme slides better than some high-schoolers.
While exotic colors and slides are the main draw for Aquatica, some of the park’s quieter additions are real hidden gems. Slippity Dippity is a pool and water play area that hosts mini-sized slides for smaller kids. When Slippity Dippity gets hectic, Whanu Waters is the calming antidote. A simple shallow water pool with cooling waterfalls, this serene pool can make the hectic water park seem an island way.
There are also two water-park staples like the wave pool and lazy river that satisfy water park regulars. Big Surf Shores allows you to splash into swells, while Loggerhead Lane lets you relax as your tube does all the work for you.
While Aquatica’s theme may transport you to the South Seas, the park is far from paradise. For one, our friend the sun is a major problem here. Shade is at a premium at Aquatica, and they would be happy to provide you with one of their shady cabanas starting at $199 for the day, which includes shade, food and drink service.
Rather than paying for someplace you’re not going to spend a lot of time, however, I suggest you make sure to use a generous amounts of sunscreen, and purchase some water shoes. You'll be alternating between trekking across blistering hot concrete or blistering hot sand. As un-fashionable as they are, remember that this is Sea World and not South Beach. Your feet will thank you.
While Aquatica has first-rate slides and pools, the food options are unspectacular. The main dining hall, Waterstone Grill, serves mediocre burgers, sandwiches, wraps and kids' meals. Vegetarians can only really eat the one salad they have available. You can save yourself a few bucks by bringing in snack bag-sized servings of fruits, meats, cheese and crackers. Purchasing refillable souvenir cups and sharing with the family can save you some money as refills are inexpensive.
To make the most of your Aquatica day, plan on arriving when the park opens. Pass over the attractive lounge chairs located in the sand by the wave pool. Instead, head directly towards the Walhalla Wave and Tassie’s Twisters & HooRoo Run. Here, you’ll find large sandy areas that have ample seating. You’re far from the action, but the shade never leaves.
I recommend making Stingray Falls and Walhalla Wave your first two slides of the day. Spend the hotter times in the wave pools, kiddie areas, or head into Sea World for some other entertainment. After 5 p.m., hit the Kiwi Curl and WooHoo falls slides, along with a second helping of all your favorites.
Overall, Sea World’s Aquatica is a great family escape for Austinites looking for a solid day-trip. For a family of four seeking a one-day excursion, however, the price can be a turn-off. A single-day admission is $79 for adults and $69 for children. If theme parks are your thing, I would suggest investing in SeaWorld FunCards, which let you visit the park for an entire year for about the price of a one day ticket.
Sadly — or for some of us, thankfully — summer comes to a close way too soon. Squeezing in activities that everyone enjoys takes some planning. And for many of us, leaving the Texas heat for out-of-state destinations isn’t an option. While a water park like Sea World’s Aquatica is not the South Seas, it is just far enough away to be a refreshing escape.
And by judging from the first few scorching summer days this year, keeping cool is worth the price of admission.