Escape From Kalahari

In the landscape of the “family-friendly vacations,” no destination is more emotionally and financially masochistic than the water park.

by Megan Angelo

Until you have children, bad vacations are an accidental genre: Maybe it rains, or the hotel looks nothing like it did online. It’s not until you become a parent that you will knowingly and willingly sit down to plan trips that you yourself will not enjoy so much as endure. In this tableau of financial and emotional masochism, no destination looms larger, or boasts more ways to get staph, than the water park.

Water parks. A question: Why? Why water park?

Last weekend, I spent one night and two days at the Kalahari Resort in Pocono Manor, Pennsylvania. I’ll warn you that this piece is not an objective review: I have never liked water parks. I grew up in the ’90s heyday of the institution, on the waterslide belt that is the East Coast. You had Wildwater Kingdom, where only 16-year-olds on ecstasy stood between you and certain death. If you were lucky enough to get down to Florida, you had Blizzard Beach, where you could stand in line for hours next to other people’s tissues, and Typhoon Lagoon, where you could get dunked by your brother in unnervingly opaque moss-colored water. And you had, of course, the many nameless boardwalk parks of the Jersey Shore — ideal child dumping grounds for adults who had been sharing hotel rooms with kids for days. “I think it’s fine,” the adults would say, shading their eyes as they stared up at the molded slides and five-story staircases of buckling gray wood. “Just be back in six, seven hours max. And hey — don’t touch that diaper.”

These mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles walked so we could run. After our children. On wet, hard surfaces designed to crack their heads open. But we millennial parents, were we content to replicate the day trips of our youth? Of course not. We are the generation that thinks almost everything needs a balloon arch. We were listening when, from somewhere, a voice whispered: “Wouldn’t you like more time at the water park? Wouldn’t you like to perhaps… stay over? Just imagine: When you’re finished waiting behind these 2,000 people to ride this slide, you could wait behind the same 2,000 people for a plate of chicken tenders. A night at the water park only costs what your mortgage does — what do you say?”

“Yes!” we cried back. “Yes, make one themed like Africa for no reason!”

“Oh, we will,” said the voice. “We will. Don’t worry about that.”

I’m not quite sure how Kalahari, which is an hour from my home, wormed its way into the consciousness of my 9-, 7-, and 5-year-old kids, but it did, and they spent years asking to go. Their desire for Kalahari was so strong that when we took them to Colorado, the state, last summer, my daughter was briefly inconsolable when we touched down. She’d confused the two names — she thought Colorado was Kalahari. She wept at the sight of the Rockies, longing for chlorine.

These mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles walked so we could run. After our children. On wet, hard surfaces designed to crack their heads open.

Finally, after ducking the idea as long as we could, we accepted an invitation to accompany several other families to the vaunted water park. As reluctant as I was to go, I could envision a happy scene: me, an adult, no longer under pressure to pretend to like the slides, posted up on a lounge chair talking with the other moms, frozen cocktail in hand.

Frozen cocktail? Sure, they were for sale — “for just the price of your monthly water bill!” the voice whispered — but as soon as I arrived at Kalahari, it was clear there would be no mixing leisure with fun. The family in our group who was best at leaving the house on time had, thankfully, snagged three tables, making us all a modest settlement that came under near-instant attack. “Do you really need three tables?” strangers hissed at my friend as she spread out towels and goggles, trying to fend off interlopers till the rest of us arrived. Those frontier vibes persisted throughout the day. On the journey, we found and lost each other thousands of times. When our paths crossed, we could not speak because Kalahari was too loud, but we gave each other looks and nods that said “Be strong. Forge on.” Our children left us, charting their own routes through life, even though we had just said to them, godd*mn it, “Stay where I can see you.”

For the next seven hours I probably blinked three times. I was fully focused on keeping visual track of my children’s heads, with varying success. Wow, are their heads ever not unique. It was like doing the world’s highest-stakes “Where’s Waldo?” while thousands screamed in my ear. If I was going to ingest anything, it would have been whatever drug Bradley Cooper took in Limitless to access all of his brain.

Stay-over water parks — why? Why stay-over water parks?

Price-wise it’s, as one of my friends put it: “Like staying at the Four Seasons, but you get pink eye.”

I can think of one and only one good reason why anyone would ever recommend a stay-over water park. It would simply be that after so much concentrated hyper-vigilance, your arms are noodles. You’re too tired to drive home. You’re definitely too tired to walk to your car. At Kalahari, your car — no matter where you left it — is a 45-minute walk across a manmade savanna. Although, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if it really was a 45-minute walk or did my husband just tell me that, then hide somewhere?

Either way: One reason is not enough. Especially with what it costs to stay at these places. It’s not just the rate of the room ($1,200 for the suite we crammed into with another family, and that was the economic/illegal approach). It’s the casino walled-in model. You’re not walking off the property, and we’ve already touched on your car. If your kid wants a string cheese at the stay-over water park, go ahead and empty their college account. Price-wise it’s, as one of my friends put it: “Like staying at the Four Seasons, but you get pink eye.”

Eventually, like all battles, the one in the water park ended. Some of the kids got tired and tapped out. Food was requested. The arcade beckoned. You think you can’t spend another dollar, and then your kids want to go to the arcade, where it’s physically impossible to drown, and you’re like, “Yeah! Here, take the credit card.” I got a $70 daiquiri and watched my heart rate come down on my smartwatch. How had I never noticed what a sanctuary arcades are? The evening turned into something calm. Pleasant. I looked at a giant resin giraffe in the lobby and thought “My God, animals. Aren’t animals incredible?” The daiquiri was large.

The next morning, while I was showering and naively thinking the assaults to my nervous system were finally behind me, the suite’s bathroom went pitch black. The ceiling fan went silent. I leapt out of the tub. “Get up!” I screamed at my husband. “The power is out! The power is out at Kalahari!” I roused the children, looked for our valuables, tried to remember where I’d seen the stairs. I figured we had 10 minutes before people started to eat each other. If you’d seen the lines for food with the power on, you would know this was already top of mind.

My husband rolled over. “There’s a master switch that turns off all the lights,” he said, groggy. “One of the kids is messing with it.”

“Oh,” I said. “OK.” And then, since my adrenaline was already up for the day, I took my daughter back to the water park for a few more runs before we left. I tried to take a moment to stop scanning for her and actually watch her. I took in her joy. She squealed and splashed and was definitely thinking “Colorado ain’t got sh*t on this place.” I was wondering how I’d ever get her to leave when the voice intervened once more.

“Out,” it whispered. “Out.”

I looked around. The Kalahari employees had made a loving ring around the wave pool. They were waving their arms above their heads in time, like a beautiful dance. “Out,” they shouted. “Everybody out!” Someone had puked in the pool.