The perfect antidote to summer’s outdoor space heater is water, anywhere and everywhere. Sprinkling, splashing, dousing, drenching; up your nose and down your back and in your face.
About 20 miles north of Richmond, you can wander WaterWorks, 20-plus acres of aquatic attractions inside Kings Dominion, dripping like a golden retriever on Lake Winnipesaukee. Open since 1992, the water park received an $11 million expansion four years ago, bumping the total number of rides to nine and expanding the overall volume of water to equal that of a small ocean.
The makeover also included the addition of 16 private cabanas on Tidal Wave Bay, one of which I recently transformed into the headquarters of Operation H2O. Inside the blue-striped tent, I had at my command all the necessary tools: a map of the park, a table and chairs for plotting and navigating, a small cooler of ice (primarily for beverages, but since I didn’t want to spring for a $4 soda, I chewed the ice), a locker and a ceiling fan so useless that it forced me to seek refuge outside.
WaterWorks sits in the deep end of the park, bisected by the Rebel Yell roller coaster, which roars overhead. On a code-free day, it’s a perky walk from the parking lot to the water park; on a hot one, it’s like a long trek through the Sahara on your knees. Fortunately, Snoopy’s Splash Dance, a midway point, is no mirage. The tangle of pipes that spray water like a plumber’s fiasco gave me the strength to continue onward.
By the time I reached Tidal Wave Bay, I needed another dip. I jumped into the pool, fast water-walking to the greater depths so that I could plunge my head without skinning my nose. While I was dog-paddling around the other floaters, an alarm sounded. I looked around, wondering who’d lost their water wings and caused this unfortunate evacuation. But no one exited. Instead, four-foot waves started to roll at us with the power of a speedboat wake. I tried to surf them back to shore, banging into other swimmers attempting the same feat.
To break out of the pack, I decided to plunge feet-first into Night Slider, a dark tunnel that drops a screaming 77 feet. For a brief moment, I would have the water all to myself. Well, not exactly. I had to share it with my fear.
While awaiting my turn at the top of the high tower, I watched the daredevils ahead of me swoosh down, including a woman in a purple bikini who nearly turned back until we egged her on with loud applause.
By the time I was greenlighted to go, I’d worked myself and the girl behind me into a quivering bowl of jelly. “After this,” she said, “I just want to stand under that giant bucket of water.” (She was referring to Surf City Splash House, ranked much lower on the thrill scale.)
With dozens of eyes on me, I cautiously sat on the lip of the tunnel and, as instructed, crossed my arms over my chest and my legs at the ankles. Shooting down into the blackness, I opened my mouth to yell, but closed it quickly when I saw a trough of water looming ahead. I landed with a tremendous splash, then picked myself up, making sure that my bathing suit was hanging in all the right places, and marched over to the giant bucket.
As a water ride marathoner, I learned that all attractions do not drench equally. You need to gauge your level of desperation before queueing up. If you’re so hot that your head is about to combust, go for a soak at Surf City, a Willy Wonka-esque contraption of slides, squirts and flash-flood dunks. For less waterlog but more excitement, board a giant doughnut at Zoom Flume, a winding road with high banks and swift turns. The Lazy Rider can go either way: I opted to float atop my inflatable like a barnacle on a buoy; an unruly group behind me, however, were flipping each other off their vessels with kicks and shoves. They were dripping; I was lightly spritzed.
In addition to mixing up the immersion quotient, I tried to avoid clustering the adrenaline rushes: Too much dopamine can lead to serious consequences. Such as forgetting that you were wearing shoes and having to ask your cabana neighbor when he last saw you donning flip-flops. (I eventually found my footwear waiting patiently for me outside Pipeline Peak.) After completing Baja Bends, FreeStylin’ and Shoot the Curl, I dragged my sodden body into the shallows of Lil’ Barefoot Beach, the kid-friendly pool. The water barely came up to my waist, sitting down.
WaterWorks closes at 8 p.m., but that doesn’t mean the spigot is turned off. Other sections of Kings Dominion stay open until 10, and with the air still blowing hot, I proceeded to White Water Canyon, river-style rapids with blasts of water spewing from rock walls.
“Oh, no, not the waterfall,” one of my raftmates cried out as we neared a heavy flow of water. At the end of the course, only his goatee remained dry.
For a farewell cool-off, I decided to hit up the Intimidator 305, a roller coaster with a G-force punch, a 300-foot descent and speeds of more than 90 miles per hour. Although the ride lacked a water element, it did have some serious fan power.
I joined the long line at about 9:20 p.m. About 10 minutes later, officials halted the ride for the park’s fireworks show. On the opposite side of the sky, nature was putting on its own electric performance, throwing lightning bolts at the dark clouds. The weather meant that the coaster remained shut. A mom with purple hair started shouting Vietnam protest songs. Most of the crowd drifted off. At 10 p.m., the staff announced that the Intimidator and the park were closing. Security inched toward the angry mom.
I squeezed in one final adventure: I walked through Kings Dominion to my car in a downpour. Ten hours after my arrival, the heat still couldn’t touch me.