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Wet, White and Blue

Thus was created the world's fourth water park, a concept quickly copied throughout North America.

Today, associations count more than 1,000 water parks in North America. But even when traveling abroad, you're likely to be near one of the 600 or so water parks overseas. They're currently the rage in Eastern Europe and Asia, says Rick Root, president of the World Waterpark Association, and in the past decade, growth overseas has outpaced even the fast development in the States.

Ride the waves at Schlitterbahn, one of the world's biggest water parks. (Schlitterbahn)

_____Water Parks_____
A Ride at Schlitterbahn
7 Top U.S. Water Parks
Local Water Park-O-Matic (pdf file)

Root says it's hard to define a water park -- a simple little slide or two just doesn't cut it anymore. However, size is a major indicator of what you'll find at a given park. He says most indoor water parks are about 50,000 square feet, with outdoor parks starting at about 10 acres. And then you've got the behemoths -- the closest giant to Washington is Water Country USA, which is spread over 43 acres of Williamsburg.

"For many years, a serpentine tube or slide was the ultimate water park experience," says Root. "But over the last 10 years, we've seen a tremendous amount of innovation by suppliers coming up with new rides. And there's no end in sight -- they keep coming up with more."

Schlitterbahn has most of what's out there, and it turns out that a day and a half isn't quite enough time to try it all.

We arrive in the late afternoon and head directly to the room we've booked within the park. We're delighted to find that the motel -- Schlitterbahn also rents condos and houses -- is a simple one-story building with a deck overlooking the Comal. The motel provides free inner tubes in case you want to spend some time away from the park, simply free-floating.

It feels like a rustic hideaway, yet we're just yards from the entrance to the rides. With only four hours to spare before the park's 8 p.m. closing, we rush to line up for a boogie board and head up a stairway to the FlowRider.

This faux surfing experience was invented by a California company called Wave Loch a few years ago. About a dozen or so have been installed around the United States -- the closest to D.C. is at Paramount's Kings Island near Cincinnati -- but it's proved particularly popular overseas. Surfers are riding inland waves in Korea, Japan, China, Saipan, South Africa, Russia, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands and even Jedda, Saudi Arabia. (For a list of locations, go to www.wavetheplanet.com.)

You enter the Schlitterbahn FlowRider by slipping head first on a boogie board down a short chute, where you are quickly confronted with a thin, fast-moving layer of water that builds behind you into a wave. You ride -- either lying flat or on your knees -- until you crash. You know your turn is over when the wave throws you into a rushing pool of water that shoots you down a wide chute.

Only one person at a time can ride the FlowRider, but most of us are amateurs, so the line moves quickly. Every now and then, though, a FlowRider expert has a turn, and that can take a while. We all watch in awe, for example, as a preteen does tricks on his boogie board, gliding up the crest of a wave then jerking his board around 180 degrees to catch a second wave, and sometimes a third and fourth and fifth before wiping out.

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