At the Great Wolf water park in the Poconos, water falls like a summer shower from above, gushes from a tipped bucket nearby, and spills in random cascades from a 1,000-gallon barrel at the top of the Fort Mackenzie play area, a brightly colored, four-story “tree house” of ramps and stairs with plenty of opportunities to get wet.

Altogether about 25,000 gallons per minute slosh down slides, careen through shoots, and swirl around in the “hydro plunge,” a ride that gives you the sensation of being flushed down a toilet. After the water makes its way through a series of strainers, filters, and an ultraviolet disinfection apparatus, it takes the crazy trip all over again—minus, of course, whatever is left soaking your hair and bathing suit.

At the park in Scotrun, PA, nobody wears a watch. There isn’t even a clock on the wall. Probably because, in an indoor water park, there is no time or weather. If it’s snowy outside, it’s a constant 84 degrees inside, with water temperature just a degree or two cooler.

Indoor water parks, inspired by similar attractions in Europe, have only been in the U.S. for the last decade, but have grown rapidly in that time to about 130 nationwide, according to the World Waterpark Association.

“It’s pretty low-tech fun,” says Jim Dunn, vice president of design and construction for the Aquatic Development Group, who’s been designing parks—both indoors and out—for 23 years. “People like to be in water. It’s a basic form of enjoyment.” And unlike amusement park developers, he says, “we don’t have to build a bigger, crazier ride every year.”

Most indoor water parks are included as an amenity of an adjacent hotel—in fact, some don’t offer day passes to visitors. But an overnight stay is a great way to escape winter weather in a climate-controlled place, enjoy thrilling rides, and lose track of time.

Here are some water parks within driving distance of Baltimore:

Francis Scott Key Family Resort, 12806 Ocean Gateway, Ocean City, 800-213-0088, fskfamily.com

The water park: While it’s not technically a water park, the Francis Scott Key Family Resort has one of the most kid-friendly pools on the Eastern Shore. The pool, with depths ranging from six inches to four feet, is surrounded by colorful Caribbean and pirate-themed murals painted by a local artist. The water is a constant 84 degrees, and parents can relax in chaise lounges—or the hot tub—as their children splash in the pool or try the gentle water slide. The pool, attached to a main resort building, is open throughout the summer. In the off-season, it welcomes guests Friday-Sunday.

The hotel: The resort, with 232 guest rooms spread throughout 12 buildings, is located on a 14-acre property within a mile of the Ocean City boardwalk. While there are no suites, many of the rooms have kitchen facilities. Winter rates: $60-95 per night per room.

Where to eat: The Francis Scott Key Family Resort is within walking distance of several family-friendly restaurants, including the Sunset Grille, Micky Fins, Applebee’s, and Sakura.

What else is there to do: Indoor activities include a coin-operated arcade and a fitness room. The outdoor miniature golf and playground are available on sunny days. Guests can borrow board games and DVDs for free. In Ocean City, events include the Winterfest of Lights, a holiday extravaganza created by more than a million twinkling lights throughout town, through Jan. 2. For other activities, visit oceancitymd.gov.

Parents love: There is a hot tub in the pool area and a fitness room in the hotel. Several spas are also nearby, and the Ocean City Factory Outlets with more than 40 national retail shops are located across the street.

How to get there: The resort is 136 miles from Baltimore, about three hours by car.

 

Great Wolf Lodge, 100 Scotrun Ave., Scotrun, PA, 800-768-9653, (there are 10 other Great Wolf locations in the U.S. and one in Canada), greatwolf.com

The water park: Great Wolf is designed as a fantasy version of a mountain lodge, with towering Fiberglas pine trees and structures that look like log cabins. Canoes and fishing gear decorate the walls at this 78,000-square-foot complex, and on a tube ride down a lazy river, you’ll spot a couple of fake beavers seemingly engaged in conversation. The newest ride is the Double Barrel Drop, which starts with a six-story plummet in a dark tunnel and ends with your raft shooting through a tunnel into the pool below. The water park is for hotel guests only, and admission is included in the price of a room.

The hotel: Every one of the 401 rooms at the Great Wolf Lodge is designed for families. The smallest can sleep six, while a two-bedroom “Grizzly Bear” suite has accommodations for eight, with a pull-out sofa and a fireplace. Kids love the bunk beds designed to look like wolf dens. Every room has a microwave and refrigerator. Rates: $239-529 per night for a family suite, including four water-park passes.

Where to eat: There are plenty of food places in the hotel, from the Loose Moose Cottage, an extravagant buffet open for breakfast and dinner, to a Pizza Hut Express and a Starbucks. There’s a snack shop in the water park itself, and the Camp Critter Bar and Grille specializes in comfort food for kids and drink specials for adults.

What else is there to do: The Scooops Kids Spa is designed for four to 12-year-olds, who can order vanilla or strawberry ice cream and a manicure in the same flavor. The Race Zone lets would-be drivers design and build their own remote-control racecars, and MagiQuest is a live-action adventure game played with wands. From Dec. 3-25, “Snowland” festivities turn the Lodge into a holiday happening with daily snow showers inside the Grand Lobby, appearances by Santa, caroling, and a nightly story time with Rowdy the Reindeer.

Parents love: Elements Spa, which offers services from manicures to massages. The Rejuvenate package is 4-1/2 hours of pampering.

How to get there: 191 miles from Baltimore, about 3-1/2 hours by car.

Massanutten Resort, 1822 Resort Dr., McGaheysville, VA, 540-437-3340, massresort.com

The water park: One of Massanutten’s highlights is its triple-jet FlowRider, which simulates a surfing wave worthy of the movie The Endless Summer. Guests can catch the wave on a boogie board or (once they’ve had a lesson) hang 10 on an actual surfboard. There are also eight indoor slides, including the Skyline Falls and Avalanche, with 39-foot drops and tube rides—some relaxing, some a rush—as well as a kids play area. Day passes are available. Cost: $38 for a day pass; kids under 42 inches are $26 per day; for a twilight pass, it’s $28 and $19.
The hotel: The water park is part of a 6,000-acre resort with 2,500 condominium units. Woodstone Meadows, about three-quarters of a mile from the water park, has one-to-four bedroom units and offers rental packages that include passes to the park. Weekend water-park packages: $350-950. Lodging at the resort, from hotel rooms to condos: around $80-350 per night; water park passes are not always included.

Where to eat: Within the property, you’ll find The Blue Ridge Buffet for drinks, sandwiches, and appetizers; Sweetz candy and ice-cream shop; and Snackers, with a huge seating area, for casual fare like burgers and smoothies.

What else is there to do: Diamond Jim’s Arcade, with glass walls looking into the water park, has both state-of-the-art video games and old-fashioned pinball. The resort offers golf, skiing, snow-tubing, and horseback riding. Take a day trip to Staunton, VA, about 40 minutes away, and stay to enjoy the lantern tours (Dec. 17-22) at the Frontier Culture Museum, which explore the holiday traditions of Old World Europe and early 19th-century America. Info: 540-332-7850.

Parents love: In the Woodstone area, the Spa at Massanutten offers not only treatments but mini-courses on reflexology and couple’s massage.

How to get there: About 175 miles from Baltimore, 3 hours and 15 minutes by car.

Six Flags Great Escape Lodge and Indoor Waterpark, 1213 U.S. 9, Queensbury, NY, 518-824-6000, sixflagsgreatescapelodge.com

The water park: The 38,000-square-foot park, White Water Bay, will celebrate its fifth anniversary in 2011. Nestled in the Lake George region, the park is adorned to resemble the Adirondacks with faux timber and lumberjacks. There’s a Boogie Bear surfing wave with surfing lessons, a wave pool, and the Tak-it-Eesi-Creek for lazy tubing. The Avalanche raft ride descends a winding slide to simulate white-water rafting, while Glacier Run and Snow Shoe Falls are twisting tunnels. Day passes are available ($37 for a full day, $27 for a half day, ages two and younger are free), but hotel guests have priority admission.

The hotel: The Lodge has 200 Adirondack-themed rooms, ranging from a standard to a suite with four queen beds plus bunk beds, which can sleep up to 12, with a living room and dining area. Off-season rates: $169-389 per room.

Where to eat: On-site, you’ll find a Johnny Rockets diner as well as casual Tall Tales Tavern and the Coffee Corner for quick morning meals. The water park has a snack bar called the Birch Bark Grill.

What else is there to do: The Great Escape Lodge has a video arcade and gift shop, and plenty of activities for young children that feature Looney Tunes characters. Your child can have tea with Tweety Bird, s’mores with Scooby-Doo, and even a bedtime story read by a cartoon character. The Lodge is 10 minutes from the Village of Lake George. During December, visit nearby Glens Falls, NY, and the historic DeLong House, decorated for the holidays, part of the Chapman Historical Museum. Info: 518-793-2826.

Parents love: The Serenity Spa and fitness room.

How to get there: The resort is 383 miles from Baltimore; 7 hours by car; about a 90-minute flight to Albany, NY, about an hour away.

Split Rock Resort, 100 Moseywood Rd., Lake Harmony, PA, 570-722-9111 or 800-255-7625, splitrockresort.com

The water park: The 53,000-square-foot H2Oooohh! water park has a FlowRider surfing wave, as well as slides for both body and inner tubes. The Wave Pool, like those at other resorts, is a simulated shoreline, complete with gentle waves. The Piranha, Amazon Blast, and Viper slides drop four stories, with twists and dips. There are play areas with slides and pools for the kids, plus hot tubs for the adults. The park is open to the public. Off-season, day passes: Fri.-Sat., adults $39.95, kids under 42 inches $34.95; after 4 p.m., $31.95 and $26.95, respectively. Sun-Mon, adults $34.95, kids $29.95; 4 p.m.-close, $21.95 and $17.95, respectively).

The hotel: Named for a large rock left by a glacier, Split Rock Resort was once a hunting and fishing lodge owned by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. Now one of the largest resorts in the Poconos, Split Rock has 578 guest accommodations, most of them suites. Rates: $99-275 per night, depending on the room and package.

Where to eat: In the hotel, you’ll find the informal Lago Pizzeria and the Galleria Restaurant. There’s a family-friendly Italian Bel’lago restaurant, the Benchwarmers sports bar, and an ice-cream parlor.

What else is there to do: The Jack Frost and Big Boulder ski resorts are a short distance from Split Rock, as well as the Pocono Raceway. There’s also golf, biking, and hiking, depending on the season. On the first two weekends in December, stop by Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm in Stroudsburg, PA, about a half hour away, to experience an old-fashioned Christmas, complimentary refreshments, and a living nativity scene. Info: 570-992-6161.

Parents love: The on-site hair salon, massage services, and fitness center.

How to get there: About 188 miles from Baltimore, 3-1/2 hours by car.

Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort and Spa, 915 Westgate Resort Rd., Gatlinburg, TN, tour and travel office, 800-218-4363 or 877-819-4028, wgsmokymountains.com

The water park: Wild Bear Falls Water Park, a 60,000-square-foot indoor park, has seven different bodies of water from paddle pools with slides for toddlers to hot tubs for adults. The Lazy River extends the length of the park for leisurely tubing, and Clingman’s Dome is an enclosed body slide: 10 seconds of twisting, splashing, heart-pounding fun. The park mimics the surrounding Smoky Mountains with black bear statues and realistic looking trees made from cement. The park is open to the public. Cost: $18.95 per day, children under three are free.

The hotel: Part of Westgate Resorts, lodging consists of a standard hotel with cabin-style rooms and actual cabins. The log furniture and forest colors give it a rustic feel. Rates: $79-315 per night.

Where to eat: The Roaring Fork snack bar is located in the water park, and the Smokehouse Grill with barbecue and other meat-lovers’ specials is also on the property. Nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have plenty of restaurants.

What else is there to do: Dolly Parton was born and raised nearby, and her theme park, Dollywood, is in Pigeon Forge. During the holiday season, take a Winterfest Trolley Tour of Lights (Nov. 10-Jan. 14) and see more than five million lights on display throughout Pigeon Forge. Info: 865-453-6444.

How to get there: About 519 miles from Baltimore, nine hours by car. Most flights from BWI to Knoxville, TN, have a least one stop, so the travel time can be about four hours plus a 40-minute drive to the resort.