Water park with a twist

Waterslides, wave pools, meandering rivers and cooling fountains – and dolphins?

Dolphins and other creatures are the newest twist on Central Florida water parks, found at Aquatica, which opened in March in Orlando.

The Commerson's dolphins are the permanent residents of Dolphin Plunge, a ride through 250 feet of clear tubes that zips through the dolphin pool. (You can also see them as you float along the lazy river called Loggerhead Lane and at an underwater viewing station.)

While the dolphin slide isn't the only one around that zips through an animal habitat – the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas features a plunge that slides through a predator tank – Aquatica is the only park that mixes water attractions with a chance to touch a giant anteater or sulcata tortoise or laughing kookaburra. For those, you can thank sister park SeaWorld, located just across the street.

But the main splash at Aquatica is still water … 3.3 million (recycled and filtered) gallons of it spilling down 36 slides, a bubbling “rapids” river and lapping the infinity-edged shore of the sandy “beach.”

The attractions here are designed to suit families as well as teens and young adults, and they succeed.

Danielle Schwenker, Christie Dubock and Emma Guido of New York, all 17, visited Aquatica because it was new – “and because it's different, it looks cool,” said Danielle.

Dolphin Plunge is Aquatica's signature attraction – and a hit with Connecticut visitor Stephanie Pineda, who deemed it her favorite. But others, like Erin Cottet of Orlando, complained that line was too long and they zoomed too quickly to catch sight of the dolphins.

But other attractions won raves.

For teens and young adults, the hits were high-energy slides including Hooroo Run (a six-story, 250-foot triple-drop flume), Tassie Twister (a twisting tunnel through a bowl that takes single or double inner tubes) and Taumata Racer (a 300-foot slide through tunnels that take a 360-degree turn).

Families with small children crowded around Big Surf Shores (the gentler of the two wave pools), Kata'a Kookaburra Cove (where all rides are limited to those under 48 inches tall, and inner tubes have a supportive bottom for kids and open for adults), and Walkabout Waters, a delightful wading pool and playground with slides, water cannons, fountains and two massive buckets than dowse guests when they fill with 375 gallons of water.

“It's an amazing children's section,” said Deborah Poppe of Long Island, visiting with children ages 4 and 5. “They love it. I like the fact that the little kids have to wear vests.”

And then there are the not-too-scary but not-too-tame options that suit a range of tastes: gentler slides, two “rivers” and a wave pool with swells up to 5 feet tall.

One of the park's bragging points is that it is capacity controlled, which means that when the number of people hits a certain level (the exact number is a secret), the park is closed until the crowds wane.

That worked well for New Yorker Emma Guido. “Lines are a lot shorter than at other parks I've visited. That's a lot nicer.”

But it wasn't good enough for one mother on a recent sunny day, who approached a park manager complaining she couldn't find seats for her family. Park officials have heard that complaint before and say they are on the case. The park has already added 1,000 chairs since it opened, said operations manager Brian Nadeau, and another 500 will shortly be in place.