WaTiki: The thrill-seeker’s indoor family water park
RAPID CITY, S.D. — The height of the climb should have been the first indication that this was not going to be an ordinary trip down a ho-hum indoor water slide.
As I labored upward, stairs kept giving way to more stairs, until I found myself nearly out of breath and standing atop a 41-foot tower — almost close enough to touch the ceiling of the massive, 30,000-square-foot Watiki Indoor Water Park Resort in Rapid City, S.D.
I had spent the first hour at the park with our 4-year-old daughter, swimming in the small pool, floating around the lazy river and exploring the Koko’s Kingdom children’s area. When my wife came down from the hotel room with our 2-year-old son after he woke up from his nap, I handed the kids to her and let my inner kid come out.
Telling my wife I wanted to test the park’s three bigger slides “to see if they’re safe for the kids to go down with us,” I began my ascent. Though my concern for the kids was legitimate, it wasn’t my primary concern. I wanted to see if the slides were as fun as they looked.
As I’ve said, the height of the climb up those stairs should have been the first indication of what I was about to experience, but I remained clueless. I guess all those other indoor water slides I’ve been down — the ones that are just fun enough for adults and just boring enough for little kids — have lowered my expectations.
Two of Watiki’s three big slides are tube slides, and the other is a body slide. I decided to try the body slide first. It was a weekday and there weren’t many people in the park, so I got the nod from the lifeguard as soon as I got to the top.
Wanting to look like a serious slider, I hopped onto the slide and threw myself into its tunnel in one quick motion, like a bobsledder starting a run.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of choice I had about going down the slide on by back or butt. The low height of the slide’s tunnel makes lying down the only option. “OK,” I thought. “I guess I’ll lean back and enjoy the ride.”
Just as that thought entered my head, I was swept along at a speed so surprisingly fast that it took my breath away.
“Gee,” I thought as the adrenaline started to course through my body, “this thing is fast.”
Then, another surprise: darkness. As the ride continued at just-this-side-of-terrifying speed, I entered complete blackness, which added a shocking new degree of thrill and suspense. I had no idea what was coming, and I was getting there awfully fast.
After a series of twists and turns in the dark, it was back into light as the descent continued. Finally, the last turn arrived, and I plunged feet-first into the pool.
As I gained my footing and stood up in the water, all I could say was “wow.”
I walked over to my wife and made two announcements.
One, “Our kids are too little for that slide.”
And two, “That … was … awesome!”
Largest indoor water park in the Dakotas
Watiki’s reputation has been spreading around South Dakota since it opened in 2006. With its attention-grabbing, glass-walled design, it beckons passing motorists on Interstate 90, just east of Rapid City.
The water park stands at the crux of an L-shaped complex, adjoined by the La Quinta Inn and Suites and the Fairfield Inn and Suites. According to a report in the Rapid City Journal, there are plans to add “a 10,000-square-foot resort pool with swim-up bar, along with extreme-drop slides and a FlowRider wave machine. Work on that and a new hotel – either a Courtyard Inn by Marriott or a Springhill Suites by Marriott – is planned to start in 2012. Work on a new conference center will begin after the new Marriott opens.”
The water park sprawls across 30,000 square feet. The glass walls give the facility an outdoors feel, while the glass-like but darker material on the roof provides enough shade to dampen the harshest rays of the sun.
The water park’s main features are three large slides (one body slide and two tube slides); a lazy river; a shallow pool area with several basketball hoops and a rope-crossing apparatus; a hot tub; and a multifaceted, jungle-gym-style kids’ area with several slides, colorful plumbing mechanisms and a 300-gallon bucket that fills up slowly and dumps every 5-10 minutes. The park also features an arcade, a large table-and-chair area for adults, and locker rooms.
After zooming down the body slide, I tried the two tube slides. The entry for all three is atop the same tower at one end of the water park.
One of the tube slides resembles a giant toilet, and going down it in a tube made me feel like I was a character in the movie “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” Riders barrel down into the giant bowl and swish around a time or two until the current swiftly sucks the rider and tube into a pipe slide. It’s exactly what I imagine it would be like to be a miniature person getting flushed down a toilet.
The other tube slide features a standard, looping course that seems slow compared to the other two slides but would put most other indoor water slides to shame.
There are several slides in the Koko’s Kingdom area, too, which were just slightly too big and fast for my 4-year-old daughter to handle consistently. I took her down one of the slides several times on my lap and then sent her down on her own. She made it down with a smile the first time, but she lost control of her body the second time and got a little scared, so we went back to playing in other parts of the park. In a year or two, I’m guessing she’ll be up to speed on everything and able to keep up with her older cousins, who came to swim with us and spent an evening rushing down every slide in the park.
The nice thing about WaTiki is that there are plenty of other things to do if you have little kids who are intimidated by one or more of the slides. On the other hand, if you have older kids, they can go off on their own and be happy and safely occupied for hours on end.
The roof over the park is retractable, as is a portion of the roof over the adjoining Sliders Bar and Grill. Another unique feature of Sliders is a kids’ slide that makes a loop over the bar. A portion of the slide is made of transparent material, so diners and drinkers can watch kids zipping through.
Odd as this may sound, I found one of the best features of the water park to be the flooring. The entire park floor is covered in a rubbery material that is porous enough to soak up puddles, grippy enough to prevent slipping and soft enough to be gentle on feet. I’ve been at other water parks with concrete or rock-like flooring that is terribly uncomfortable to walk on and even worse to fall on. The difference between the flooring at WaTiki and most other water parks is akin to the difference between beds at cheap hotels and luxury hotels.
While checking in at the Fairfield Inn, we grabbed a copied newspaper clipping from a pile on the front desk. The clipping was a story from two weeks earlier by the Rapid City Journal about the failure of some Rapid City-area hotels to meet state-imposed bacteria standards. WaTiki was not on the list of hotel pools that failed a test over the summer. In fact, WaTiki was cited as a leader in pool safety:
Rich Dunkelberger, chief executive officer of ISIS Hospitality in Rapid City, said the indoor water park WaTiki recently installed a $100,000 UV light filtration system that zaps bacteria.
“It’s an amazing way to eliminate bacteria without chemicals. We used to have to use chlorine much more and now we don’t,” Dunkelberger said. “It’s like an insurance policy that the water will be clean and people won’t get sick. In New York State it’s a requirement to have UV treatment.”
New York installed the law as an emergency code in response to a cryptosporidium outbreak at a Seneca Lake State Park water park in Geneva N.Y. in 2005. The outbreak reportedly sickened 4,000 people and led to a class action lawsuit.
There are only two poolside hotel rooms available at WaTiki. Both are on the second floor of the Fairfield hotel, with balconies that provide a view of the entire park.
We stayed in the Fairfield, in a suite graciously provided free of charge through an arrangement with the owners of this website (full disclosure: WaTiki is an advertiser on SouthDakota.com).
I’ve already told you that the WaTiki’s body slide took my breath away. Room 261 at the Fairfield — “the presidential suite,” as one hotel worker informally called it — had the same effect on my wife.
The two balcony suites are separated from the other rooms at the Fairfield by a large door at the end of a hallway. Over the door is a sign that reads “WaTiki Balcony Suites,” and walking through that door feels kind of like entering the penthouse level of a high-rise. Beyond that door is a small room with doors to the two suites.
Our suite had a kitchen, dining area and living room that opened onto two sliding-door balconies overlooking the water park. There were two bedrooms, each with their own bathroom. The master bedroom had a shower and a large whirlpool tub. In addition to the bathrooms in each bedroom, there was another half-bathroom adjoining the living room. The bedrooms and the living room were all equipped with their own large flat-screen TVs.
I checked the Fairfield website, and the price of what appears to be our suite is $350 a night. It’s well worth the price if you can afford it.
Location, other details
You can’t beat WaTiki’s location. It’s at Interstate 90 Exit 61, on the eastern doorstep of Rapid City and the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park and many more attractions are located within an hour’s drive, making WaTiki a perfect headquarters for a Black Hills vacation.
Providing further convenience for motorists is Elk Vale Road, the street that intersects with I-90 at Exit 61. Elk Vale skirts around Rapid City and becomes Catron Boulevard, which continues to skirt around the city until it intersects Highway 16, the road that leads out of Rapid City and toward Mount Rushmore.
Admission to the water park is basically $7.50 apiece, per day, with varying discounts for members of the military (Ellsworth Air Force Base is nearby), “observers” (non-swimmers) and hotel guests. Season passes also are available.
Hours are shortened in the winter, when the water park doesn’t open until 4 p.m. on weekdays. On weekends and throughout the summer, the park is open all day.
The management advises people to bring the following items to the park:
- Appropriate swimwear;
- Money for the arcade, Koko’s Concessions and lockers;
- Any necessary toiletries for the showers;
- A swimwear diaper for all children that are not potty trained;
- Waterproof sun block.
I would add one thing to the list: An expectation of surprisingly fast and thrilling rides down some fantastic water slides. Once you’ve been to WaTiki, you’ll want to experience the thrill of those slides again and again, whether you’re a kid or just a kid at heart.