Massanutten Makes a Splash
$30 Million Water Park Puts a Little Virginia Ski Resort in a Bigger League

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

A year ago at Massanutten Resort, a small ski and golf center near Harrisonburg, Va., they opened a water park to keep the guests coming during those warm, snowless months. Who knew that would quickly come to include December and January?

Now, during the endless summer that is the current winter, business is booming at the indoor water park as only a handful of downhillers make do on the sad ribbons of man-made skiing on the mountain above.

"This is a textbook example of what to do when Mother Nature throws us a curveball with the weather," said Joe Grandstaff, Massanutten's director of marketing. "We've had families this week who have gone to the water park, played golf and skied all in one day."

The water park -- a 42,000-square-foot, $30 million collection of fanciful slides, artificial rivers and mighty waves -- has also pushed Massanutten into the upper tiers of mid-Atlantic resorts, at least in terms of size.

From a small ski and golf resort in the early 1970s, Massanutten has become a sprawling 7,000-acre town of condominiums and fairways in a neat tuck of the Blue Ridge Mountains about two hours from the Capital Beltway.

The place boasts twin 18-hole golf courses, 14 ski runs, two recreation centers (each with indoor pool), a six-building hotel, a half-dozen eating places and a whopping 1,700 timeshare condominiums (it's the largest timeshare site in Virginia). The few private houses that remain in the neighborhood sit somehow sullenly among traffic backups that can make a left turn a five-minute affair.

The drive into Harrisonburg features a billboard plea for young locals to visit as the resort strains to fill its 1,200-strong staff of cooks, cleaners and lifeguards.

"It hasn't been slow around here since the water park opened," said the clerk at the General Store one morning last week as she scanned groceries and souvenir T-shirts.

Outside, the mid-50s-and-climbing temperature kept the action at the ski rental counter at a trickle (three lifts were running on four lower trails, mere threads of man-made white surrounded by still-green brush).

But the parking lot at the nearby 12-lane tubing park, also featuring artificial snow, was crowded, and the line to ride was several minutes long. Some folks wore parkas. Others wore shorts.

The steep, mountainous terrain around the ski area is Massanutten at its best, with long Shenandoah Valley views and dense woods enclosing the many condo complexes. The golf course up here, Mountain Greens, is a tight and challenging affair, with steeply terraced tees and fairways that spill like green glaciers out of narrow slopes.

The second, newer course, Woodstone Meadows, is down on the valley floor, a more austere course absolutely swarmed by tightly packed condominium buildings. It's a bit of a timeshare Levittown, but a popular one; Massanutten is building yet more complexes to meet the demand.

The resort has a manic devotion to Things to Do, and the place was abuzz even without the draw of snow: Golfers played in the bright sun; a line of tourist-bearing horses filed out of the handsome stables; the basketball courts and indoor pools were uniformly busy. There's an elaborate go-cart track, tennis courts and hiking trails, miniature golf and a catalogue of classes and tours that runs to more than 125 events a week. (Stained-glass lessons, anyone? Wine seminar? Couples' massage?)

But the undisputed headliner of this show is the whacking great water park a mile or so down the main road (there are no shuttles at Massanutten, so expect to be in your car a good deal). The outdoor slides and pool are closed, but the opaque white roof of the indoor facility looms like a glowing timber-frame pyramid. Three stories of arcades, eateries and gift shops overlook the main hall, where splashes and shouts fill the vast, hangar-like space.

The centerpiece is a kind of mountainous waterworks calliope that climbs to the rafters as the kids climb on it, sliding down the chutes, aiming industrial water guns and dumping buckets on one another. Every few minutes, a tank the size of a cement truck tips over, dousing the ecstatic crowd with thousands of gallons of slightly salty water.

A fast-paced wave machine creates a perfect eternal breaker for one surfer or boogie-boarder at a time. There's a commodious indoor-outdoor hot tub; an enchanting frog pond for the littlest pre-swimmers; and a selection of towering extreme waterslides, some pitch dark, some large enough for three-person rafts.

Winding through it all is a wavy river where tubers float serenely through the hubbub.

It's enough to keep water lovers happy for hours, which is good since the admission is an eye-popping $38 a day per person. (Children younger than 2 are free, and those shorter than 42 inches get in for $26. But according to pediatric growth charts, most kids hit 42 inches by the time they're 7, so you can expect to pay full freight on, say, second-graders and above.)

You can leave and return as often as you like, although the two on-site restaurants, the coffee bar and, thank heaven, the full-service bar may keep you going all day. Last week, with the "winter" temps nearing 60 and the golfers going around in their shirt sleeves, the water park was nearly at capacity.

"We're delighted with it," Grandstaff said. "But I really would like for it to snow."

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