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JAUNTS: Ventura County

Lakeside Attraction

Huge new water playground is drawing sell-out crowds to Casitas shores.


It's not Hurricane Harbor, Magic Mountain's big-time water park, but that isn't slowing the crowds at Lake Casitas' new water playground.

This 9,000-square-foot wading pool, with its water-spurting Rube Goldberg contraption of wheels, slides, chutes, gadgets and gizmos, is a big hit with families looking to beat the summer heat.

"We're sold out every day," said Susan McCord, coordinator of the Blue Heron Water Playground, which opened July 3. It will operate daily through Labor Day, then probably on weekends in September and October.

Set on a grassy knoll near the park entrance, this long-awaited water hole is an oasis at Lake Casitas, where swimming--though tempting on those scorching days--is a no-no because the lake is a drinking-water reservoir.

The playground is for the 12-and-under set, but those at the upper end of this age range might find it a little tame. But the $800,000 pool may be the first of a five-phase water park, McCord said. The next step could be a 3-foot-deep circular "lazy river" of moving water for teens and adults to cruise on inner tubes, possibly as early as next summer.

"It's an idea that is floating out there, and obviously I think it's a good one," said Doug Ralph, park service manager for the Casitas Municipal Water District. But the district isn't aiming to make it a Disney-like attraction. No structures taller than what's already there would be installed.

For now, young kids seem content climbing all over this gargantuan pink, red, blue and purple play structure. It's got six slides--some in the form of tunnels, some circular--along with big red wheels that kids can crank to adjust the water spray. They can pull a rope and get a personal shower, man one of the squirt guns from the upper deck, or sit back and watch the water splash down a set of water wheels.

It's loud, but not so much from kids squealing. The roar of water-- 51,000 gallons of it--spurts and sprays from every angle of this futuristic-looking behemoth.

But the water is shallow, 18 inches at the deepest point. Nonetheless, four or five lifeguards roam the pool, which accommodates 200 people.

"We run it very safely," McCord said. That means parents or adults must accompany children, if only to park themselves on the grass with a book or stretch out and take in the mountain view. But children under 5 must be within arm's reach of an adult at all times.

That's not the only safety concern for the district, which has long been squeamish at the prospect of bodily contact with its water. The water playground wouldn't have been possible without the district's new $9.5-million water-filtration system.

Still, the district doesn't take any chances. If water tests reveal that someone has relieved themselves in the pool, crews will shut it down for the rest of the day and treat the water. It's no casual threat: On a recent Saturday, pool-goers were booted out and offered refunds or rain checks.

Parents nervous about their kid's potty training skills can buy a swim diaper there for $10. It's no subtle hint that a bank of portable toilets sits by the entrance.

All that didn't seem to matter to the hordes of kids and parents who clamored to get in on a recent Sunday. Their only complaint was a cumbersome admission system that left them standing in line.

Admission to the playground is on a first-come, first-served basis, with the day divided into hourlong sessions from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Those with day-use or camping receipts are entitled to four complimentary sessions. They can pay $1 per session for a longer stay, or $5 for an all-day pass. Those without paid admission to the lake but who want to use the playground pay $3 per session, or $10 for all day.

The pool is cleared out for 20 minutes after each session, and workers check the water and keep track of who belongs there with a system of hand stamps and wristbands.

"We still have some bugs to work out," Ralph said. Eventually he expects the water playground to use an advance reservation system. For now, because some sessions sell out, the best bet is to arrive by 9:30 a.m. and buy tickets for the sessions desired that day. Busiest days are Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Despite the ticketing glitches, it's a "really big hit," he said. "Everywhere I go in Ojai they know someone who is using it daily."

Like other parents, Frank Morrison of Ojai was sprawled on the grass watching his two sons, 12 and 9, splash around in the pool.

"It's a good deal," he said. "We go fishing here all the time." The swimming ban has been "the biggest complaint for years."

And Tammy Sanford of Ventura, keeping an eye on her 7-year-old twins and a pal, said it was about time the district offered something to children instead of catering to the fishing clientele.

But the wading pool-playground is too tame for her 11-year-old son. "He's not willing to come here," she said. "I hope they bring something in that's bigger."


Blue Heron Water Playground at Lake Casitas Recreation Area is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. for children 12 and under. The hourlong sessions are at 10 and 11:20 a.m.; 12:40, 2, 3:20, 4:40 and 6 p.m. Park entrance is at junction of Route 150 and Santa Ana Road. After entering, take a quick right and the playground is behind the ranger station. For information, call 649-2233.

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