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TAKING THE KIDS

Resorts Jumping Feet-First Into Water Playgrounds

May 02, 1999|EILEEN OGINTZ

Before the Caytons book a family vacation, they diligently ask a lot of questions--about the hotel pool.

But a swimming pool--even a big heated one--won't cut it anymore for the four Cayton children. "We won't go. The kids will be bored in an hour," said Kevin Cayton, who lives in the Chicago suburbs and works for a car dealership.

The Caytons seek out resorts with big water playgrounds, like the Pointe Hilton Resort at Squaw Peak in Phoenix, where they just spent spring break playing at the 15,400-square-foot Hole-in-the-Wall River Ranch, complete with a long river ride, water basketball and volleyball, a pool for toddlers and a 130-foot-long slide.

Atlantis Resort "isn't like a water park where the parents stand around and the kids have fun," said Cindy Goldsmith, who lives in Miami and says her two daughters are begging for a return trip to the phenomenal water slides at the newly completed resort in the Bahamas. "I enjoyed the water rides as much as the kids," she admitted.

Even teens don't get bored at these resorts, promises Robert Hanna, a Scarsdale, N.Y., businessman and father of a 19-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. Hanna says he first went to Hyatt's Puerto Rico Cerromar Beach Resort to play golf with some buddies but was so charmed by the four-plus acres of pool fun--there are four water slides--that he's returned with his family every year for a decade. "We've already booked [there] for the millennium," Hanna said.

That kind of customer enthusiasm, coupled with growing competition among hoteliers, has driven resorts to build increasingly elaborate water complexes--from Florida to the Wisconsin Dells, Hawaii to the Caribbean. There are lazy artificial rivers that moms and babies love, heart-stopping slides, pools just for water basketball, swim-up bars and cascading falls. The Hilton's Tapatio Cliffs Resort in Phoenix even has a 40-foot waterfall modeled after the Grand Canyon's Havasupai Falls.

"Pools are the next battle in the amenities wars," says Chekitan Dev, a marketing professor at Cornell University Hotel School who studies these trends.

South Seas Plantation in Florida is planning one. The Wyndham Rose Hall Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, made its water playground a renovation priority, recently unveiling Sugar Mill Falls, a series of slides built into the ruins of an old windmill, before tackling the hotel's nondescript rooms.

"The water park was so much fun, you forgot about the rooms being ho-hum," observed writer Laura Sutherland, who visited there recently and has toured many other resort water playgrounds while researching her newest book, "Tropical Family Vacations" (due out in late summer from St. Martin's Press).

Safety varies from hotel to hotel. There often are lifeguards posted, depending on the time of day and year. But as at any pool, children should not be left unsupervised, even for a minute.

The resorts, for their part, are delighted to keep guests happily spending time and money--for drinks, lunches, water toys--on their property.

But deep pockets aren't a prerequisite. Less expensive hotels have jumped on the water-park bandwagon too. The Holiday Inn at Busch Gardens in Florida, for example, recently completed a just-for-kids pool area with pirate ship, shooting water cannons and water-spouting whale.

The Wisconsin Dells area now boasts more than a dozen hotels with their own water parks, many of them indoor, and with rooms starting at just over $100 a night.

The Black Wolf Lodge in Wisconsin has a 40-foot-high "tree house" that dumps 1,000 gallons of water a minute. Wisconsin's Treasure Island Resort even has an indoor wave pool amid its 60,000 square feet of indoor water fun.

"The popularity of these places has skyrocketed," says Dells spokeswoman Patty Schauf. They have transformed the area into a year-round destination, drawing 3 million visitors annually.

Kevin Cayton and his resort-water-park-loving gang have hit the Dells too. And they're already planning a trip to Atlantis. But Cayton concedes that even the most fantastic water slide won't change one constant: The kids want Dad in the water too.

Pointe Hilton Resorts; telephone (800) 747-7111, Internet http://www.pointehilton.com.

The Atlantis; tel. (800) ATLANTIS, Internet http://www.sunint.com.

The Hyatt; tel. (800) 233-1234, Internet http://www.hyatt.com.

The Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau; tel. (800) 223-3557, Internet http://www.wisdells.com.

Holiday Inn; tel. (800) HOLIDAY, Internet http://www.holiday-inn.com.

Wyndham Rose Hall; tel. (800) WYNDHAM, Internet http://www.wyndham.com.

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