WHO HASN'T FOUGHT the impulse, on a sweltering summer afternoon, to leap into a public fountain and get thoroughly soaked? Normally, such shenanigans would land a kid in more hot water than cold, but at South Germantown Recreational Park's Splash Playground, children of all ages can frolic in refreshingly wet arcs, sprays and downpours.
A three-year-old facility operated by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the Splash Playground offers an array of features typically found in decorative fountains or alongside elaborate swimming pools at water parks. There's no pool here, however: The activities take place on a level concrete surface.
"One of the advantages is it has no standing water, no drowning hazard," says Park Manager Mike Little. The playground recirculates 25,000 gallons of chlorinated water, which drains through grates and never accumulates to more than an inch or so in height. The entire playground is handicapped accessible, and the park provides a waterproof wheelchair for free use by request.
All the action takes place in a roomy circular area, highlighted by a unique 36-foot, 280-jet water maze in the center. This star attraction features narrow, concentric pathways that wind between curving rows of jets from which water gushes to create an ever-changing fountain effect.
"It's all computer choreographed, so it oscillates at different heights at different times," Little says. Water bursts forth at a rate of 6,000 gallons per minute. Kids dash in and out, generally preferring to run right through the columns of water rather than follow the path. Either way, they're sure to get soaked.
Behind the maze, sheets of water gush down all across the front of a small artificial cave. Nearby, water spews out the top of a blue steel pole, which is fitted with a red steering wheel that kids can turn to pretend they're adjusting the water volume. Parents holding onto toddlers enjoy ducking through the curtains of droplets that cascade continuously from two "rain trees" resembling giant mushrooms or umbrellas.
Like the maze, other activities offer the element of surprise. Kids wait with gleeful anticipation beneath a tall white pole hung with "tumble buckets." Each colorful, cone-shaped container gradually fills with water, which dumps out with a whoosh when the load reaches capacity. In various spots around the playground, inconspicuous jets douse unsuspecting passersby with intermittent sprays.
Kids also enjoy climbing onto a water-squirting frog, turtle and whale. Pretend rocks emit cool fog as well as arcs of water.
With a 300-person capacity, the playground can fill up quickly on hot, humid days. Little recommends arriving early or after 4 p.m. to beat the crowds. Most families spend an hour to 90 minutes per visit, he says.
"We adore it -- it's just a wonderful, wonderful place," says Katherine Buki of Frederick, who comes to the playground regularly with 2-year-old son Grayson and 4-year-old daughter Zoe. "It's much more interesting than standing in the pool . . . I'm older than 29, and I like it, too!"
Buki cautions that the concrete surface can lead to injuries: Surveying her children and their two cousins as they prepare to leave, she finds that the youngsters suffered scrapes on two toes, a heel and a knee. She's thinking of buying slip-on, mesh pool shoes for the next visit.
Employee Sam Jones, 18, says the staff keeps first-aid kits handy.
"It's either falling and scraping knees or bloody noses from running into each other," he says.
Actual running is prohibited, and at least one staff member is always on hand to blow a whistle and tell kids to slow down. Children ages 10 and younger must be accompanied by adults, and any youngster who isn't potty trained must wear a swim diaper covered by plastic pants, topped by a swimsuit.
The facility doesn't have a concession stand, but does feature an area with umbrella tables where families can eat food they bring. Vending machines sell drinks.
Situated in a steadily developing, formerly rural part of Montgomery County, the Splash Playground is part of a larger recreational complex with additional activities. Right next door, two miniature-golf courses feature lots of water and landscaping. A 3.8-acre pond just down the road includes a model-boat launch. Visitors can arrange for interpretive dairy-themed tours at the King Dairy Barn Mooseum by calling 301-528-6530. Other areas of South Germantown Recreational Park include such attractions as a seven-acre Adventure Playground, the Maryland SoccerPlex indoor-outdoor sports complex, trails and an archery range.
SPLASH PLAYGROUND AT SOUTH GERMANTOWN RECREATIONAL PARK -- Central Park, 18056 Central Park Cir., Boyds. 301-601-3580 (recording), 301-601-3581. www.mc-mncppc.org. Open daily (weather permitting) 10 to 8 through Sept. 6; Saturdays and Sundays 10 to 7 Sept. 11 through 26. Admission is $3.50 per person; $31.50 for booklet of 10 admission passes. Miniature golf is $5 per round, $4 for ages 10 and younger. A combination pass book includes five mini golf and five Splash Playground passes for $38.