If you grew up in Houston any time over the last three decades, summer was incomplete without a visit to Splashtown, one-time home of the infamous Hydra and the Blue Beast. Last month, the park unveiled a new name—Wet’n’Wild Splashtown—to go along with a multimillion-dollar makeover that includes a handful of new rides. Topping the list, as far as we’re concerned, is the FlowRider, a surfing simulator like the one made famous by those extra-cool Schlitterbahn commercials in the mid-’90s. Houston’s own 2014 version shoots out 30,000 gallons of water per minute, creating an endless sheet of 35-mph water for what’s called flowboarding, a type of artificial surfing.
Speaking of Schlitterbahn, the water park titan’s Galveston branch, which also happens to be the largest water park in Houstonia, with both indoor and outdoor facilities, is unveiling an elaborate thrill ride called Screaming Serpents, consisting of two 70-foot speed slides, complete with lighting, fog, and sound effects. Thrill level: “aggressive,” according to park literature. And when you’re ready to move on to the next ride, says Chris Ozimek, the water park’s director of sales and marketing, there’s no need to walk. “We have the Transportainment water system,” he says, adding that it includes three different rivers of varying torrent. “You can float down the river, and when you see an attraction that you want to ride, you hop out. There’s less walking and less standing, and you get more play value because you spend more time in the water.”
But cooling off doesn’t require elaborate rides or admission fees. Houston is home to (count ’em) 23 free “spraygrounds” in public parks across the city. Amenities vary and can include water cannons (Burnett Bayland Park), splash pads (Dodson Lake), geysers (Cullen Park), and artificial beaches (Hermann Park). There’s even a sprayground/dog park (Ervan Chew). But our favorite, Gateway Fountain at Discovery Green, also happens to be one of the simplest water features in town, offering 14-foot, arcing jets that shoot out of a granite surface—always a hit with families on hot summer days (and great for people-watching too).
Another in-town option is the Bellaire Town Square Family Aquatic Center. Lifeguards abound at this communal oasis, which is free for Bellaire residents but open to the public for a $10 fee. The park is great for everyone from toddlers to seniors and includes elaborate play structures for kids, a competition pool for serious swimmers, diving boards, and multiple water slides. The Woodlands, meanwhile, features low-key, family-friendly water parks including Rob Fleming Aquatic Center and the YMCA water park at Branch Crossing, both of which have fountains, water stations, slides, and pools.
Of course, before you throw your kids in the water make sure they know how to swim. Houston Swim Club, formerly Phill Hansel Swimming Academy—which opened in 1953 and now has five locations across the region—is serious about water safety, emphasizing developing skills over play. Parents, meanwhile, are quarantined in observation rooms with mirrored glass windows to keep kids from getting distracted. Children of all ages, including fearful children, are welcome, instructors say.