Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego
For First-Timers At Kata’s Kookaburra Cove, little ones can slide with Mom and Dad in specially designed rafts, go down a small body slide into about 2 feet of water, and splash around in a shallow pool, depending on the location. “This section is exclusively for kids under 48 inches tall, so it’s not as crowded,” says Heather Riccobono, of Gilbert, Arizona, who visited the San Diego park with her two daughters.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers Each location also offers at least a half dozen rides geared to older kids, including Orlando’s Dolphin Plunge, enclosed side-by-side tube slides that take you underwater through a dolphin habitat. You’ll feel like you’re swimming next to them. $44 for ages 10 and up, $38 for ages 3 to 9 in San Diego; $45 for ages 3 and up in San Antonio; $58 for ages 10 and up, $53 for ages 3 to 9 in Orlando; ages 2 and under free at all three parks
For First-Timers Its Tiny Tides area is a toddler magnet: Adorable animal-themed slides that splash into just a few inches of water make swimmers-in-training comfortable. “Our 2-year-old daughter, Lucy, loves the little slide inside a whale,” says Jenny Rodrick, of Columbus, who bought an annual pass.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers The Baboon Lagoon section woos schoolage kids with rope bridges, squirting animals, and larger slides. A new five-person raft ride (for kids 42 inches and taller) with lights and programmable music is sure to become a family favorite. Dry off at the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, which is included in your admission. $33 for ages 10 and up, $25 for 3 to 9, free for younger kids
For First-Timers Little ones have their own shallow section with melting snow sculptures, snowcovered slides, igloo fortresses, and chutes tunneling through “snow.” The park’s 1-acre wave pool, which starts at just a few inches deep, is surrounded by a sandy beach. And through August 21, Olaf and Kristoff from Frozen will host games such as water-balloon tosses and relays.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers A chairlift with umbrella canopies takes families to the top of Green Slope. There, they can hop on a white-water-raft ride (no height or age requirement) or a bigger slide. On the Downhill Double Dipper, kids 48 inches and taller can race on inner tubes at 50 miles per hour. Individual tickets start at $55 for ages 10 and up, $45 for kids 3 to 9, free for under 3
New Braunfels and South Padre Island, Texas, Locations
For First-Timers At the location overlooking the Comal River in New Braunfels, young kids can explore six spring-fed water areas—such as the Schatze’s Central Park with its castle slide, squirting fire hydrants, and kiddie car wash—plus four chlorinated ones. In all, the park offers 45 slides that kids under 36 inches tall can try, the most of any on our list. The beachfront South Padre Island park features a five-story “sand castle” with ten small slides, water dumping from sand pails, and squirting water features. It also has tube rides to go on together—some double tubes have a bottom in the front so toddlers won’t slip through.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers The Deluge tube ride, in New Braunfels, and the Los Rios Azul, in South Padre Island, take kids down a swiftmoving canyon with lots of waves. Hold tight! $51 for ages 13 and up, $39 for 3 to 11, free for 2 and under
(13 locations nationwide)
For First-Timers Toddlers can count on three special sections for them at every park. At Cub Paw Pool, they can hop on small jet skis and spray water blasters (stand clear!). Whooping Hollow provides a series of four or more slides—including side-by-sides where friends or siblings can go down together, as long as they’re no more than 48 inches tall. Fort Mackenzie, a multilevel treehouse, has dozens of places to squirt water plus a giant dumping bucket that tips over every four minutes. A bell will alert you before the big spill.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers Head to the Double Barrel Drop (at some locations) to make 450-degree spins with flashing colored lights in a two-person tube. Day passes aren’t available; rooms, which include four water-park passes, start at $249 per night in most locations
For First-Timers The largest outdoor water park in the country—bigger than 12 football fields—Wilderness Resort features more than a half dozen toddlerfriendly areas. The newest: the outdoor Bear Foot Island Sprayground, where kids can explore squirting trees and water-bug sprayers, and walk under a watery rainbow. Families can also go on rides together. “My husband and I brought our kids, ages 2 and 4, on the raft rides, and they both begged to go again,” says Cheryl Leahy, a contributor to the blog Well Traveled Kids.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers Try slideboarding (for kids 42 inches and taller) in the Klondike Kavern section. You race down the slide on a board equipped with a gaming system that you can control to hit LED color targets. Day passes aren’t available; rooms, which include four water-park passes, start at $189 per night.
Wisconsin Dells; Poconos, Pennsylvania; and Sandusky, Ohio
For First-Timers Home to the cutest ride ever, a 200-foot toddler-size lazy river with mini tubes, Tiko’s Watering Hole at the Wisconsin and Pennsylvania locations treats swimmers-in-training to smaller-scale versions of park favorites. “We planned the slides in this section so they’re the same shapes and colors as the ones for the older kids,” says interior designer Natasha Lucke. The Kid’s Safari and Leopard’s Lair areas at the Sandusky park offer a treehouse, small slides, and net crawls in water that’s no more than a foot deep.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers Take a spin on the park’s water coasters— they’re a little different at each location, but all zip two-person rafts around waterslide tracks with several drops and dark tunnels. Day rates range from $45 to $79 for ages 3 and up, depending on location; free for younger children.
Winter Haven, Florida, and Carlsbad, California
For First-Timers Everything is awesome for kids at these water-play areas connected to the theme park. Kids can build a raft out of soft bricks as they’re floating down the Lazy River, f loat a Lego boat in shallow rapids, and, in California, play on a splashing teeter-totter made from Duplos. “Each area is perfectly spaced about, so it’s easy to keep an eye on your child,” says Banks Lee, an editor at Attractions Magazine, who visited Legoland Florida with his toddler.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers While most rides are on the mild side, kids 48 inches and taller can go on Splash Out, which has a 60-foot vertical drop. $93 to $99 for two-day admission to the water park and theme park in California and $92 to $99 for one-day admission in Florida; $3 to $5 for kids 3 and under
For First-Timers Penguin Play Bay has baby bounce swings, two small igloo slides, and an interactive water table. Spray features are sprinkled throughout the section, which doesn’t exceed 6 inches deep. “It felt like a bathtub—the temperature of the water in here is slightly warmer than in the rest of the park,” says Maytal Wichman, senior reviewer at The Mama Maven blog, who visited with her three kids. The Kid-Lantis area offers three slides along with spray nozzles for tinkering.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers Don’t miss the Venus SlydeTrap—the only ride of its kind in the U.S.—which spins you and up to five other riders (40 inches and taller) in a raft around a 16-foot sphere in darkness before plunging you into the water. Day passes are not available; rooms that include water-park passes for four start at $199 per night.
For First-Timers Little ones can slide down a frog’s tongue, play in water-spraying noodles, and ride bouncy water swings at this park in the Shenandoah Valley. There are also two activity-filled swimmingpool areas where the water starts at just a few inches deep.
For Budding Thrill-Seekers Grab a mat and hop onto a 250-foot body slide that has sudden drops and sharp turns. $38 for 42 inches and taller, $28 for smaller children, free for ages 2 and under
Lifeguards While most water parks have them, they might only be stationed at the end of large slides or around the wave pool. Parents’ top picks all have a lifeguard at areas for young kids plus U.S. Coast Guard– approved life jackets to borrow for free.
Attractions Many water-park rides have a height requirement, and there isn’t much for toddlers and preschoolers to do. Our winners provide plenty of activities for this age group.
Conveniences Nursing areas, family restrooms, seating, and whether you can bring your own food and drinks also played a role in the parks we chose. Check websites to see specifics of what each park offers.