We toured the United States by water park, my ten-year-old daughter and I. We set off on a wild ride to slide our way across America. So, people ask, just how does a family decide to spend a summer crossing the U.S. by water park? In Alaska, where we live, nobody would blink if we decided to kayak across the Bering Strait, but water parks? Did we decide to visit water parks first or were the water parks just the excuse for traveling cross-country? I mean, were the water parks the reason?
Obviously, they don't know water parks. To know a waterpark is to be first on line at 9:30 a.m., last out of the water at 8 p.m., and to be incredibly irritated if they're only open till 6. It's to save showering for home later so it doesn't subtract from your available water park time. It's to find, at the end of the day, that the crowds have thinned out and you can run up the stairs and jump on the slide right away -- no line. So you do it over and over again. Zip up the stairs and whirl down; zip up, whirl down.
Which is how this particular story gets started. Sophie and I are in Florida on our first big marathon of the trip: seven water parks in seven days. We have ditched my mother with Aunt Selma and Uncle Howie in West Palm Beach, and we have finished Waterpark #6 (Coconut Cove) and Waterpark #7 (Rapids). This is now serious water parking. No more Colonial Williamsburg, no more butterfly conservatories. We have many water parks and many miles to go.
We drive to Orlando and make it to Wet 'n' Wild just in time for the discounted evening hours. Now it's the big time. Disney. Typhoon Lagoon. Blizzard Beach. We have traveled all the way from Alaska -- sweated through forty more degrees of temperature than anyone should ever need -- to get to Blizzard Beach. We have heard of the Typhoon Lagoon wave pool: twenty-foot-high walls of water. We're warned to hold hands.
But the Typhoon Lagoon parking lot is already closed! Apparently other people think 100 degrees is a good reason to head for a water park. But we can't just come back another day, we have slides to run, parks to visit.
"If I sneak in and find a spot, does that mean we can stay?" I ask the man.
"Sure, youıre welcome to try," and in we go. Sophie moves aside some cones, we turn left here and there, and we find a spot. Somewhere in the vast Disney World land of parked cars, we have found a spot. We will never find it again.
There's a giant sign at the entrance, listing the rides. Right off the bat, looking at the picture, we eliminate the "Humunga Kowabunga" speed slides from consideration. Sophie and I are not brave and daring. I throw up on merry-go-rounds and she has asked for rides at the State Fair to be stopped so she can get off. Neither of us likes amusement parks. We like water parks. Not water trauma, water terror, or water nightmares.
We do the "family" raft ride, which is code for "wonıt scare you." We put on snorkels and travel "Shark Reef." We ride Castaway Creek and try to remember the cute typhoony names for all the entrances. The place is so clean we are positive they wash their sand. Then we discover the Storm Slides.
The Storm Slides are three body slides that start from one landing. To get to the landing, you travel hill and dale through the South Pacific. There's foliage and wooden bridges, stairs up and stairs down. It is a nature trail jaunt to the landing, and then you make your choice: Jib Jammer, Rudder Buster, or ... Stern-something. I can never remember the name of that third one.
You sit down at the head of the water, in a little bubbling pool for your butt. You wait till the red light switches to green, signaling that it's safe to go, and you push off, lying down. You zig left and right, gain speed, move up the side wall of the slide. Now there's a section of tunnel, now an open part. You're whizzing past trees, people, ricocheting from side to side, splashing and holding your breath. Maybe you close your eyes, maybe you don't. It is all very fast, very zingy. Whoosh, whooosh, whoosh, and you're in the splash pool at the end. The splash pool faces a cozy set of bleachers where the other parents -- the parents who are not zinging and whooshing -- wait for their kids.
This is where we're spending the tail end, line-less part of the day. We are flying up the stairs, dropping our limp dead bodies down on the slides. Sometimes we know which of the three is the better ride, but by now we are so addled and our legs so noodley that we just flop into the most convenient one. Climb, flop, slide, whizz. Again.
I don't know why we are so tired. The stairs can't be that bad. There are only six or ten going up at any given section. At Splish Splash on Long Island, we zipped through 83 steps five times in the last fifteen minutes of the day. At Rapids, I climbed 120 steps to go down Pirates Plunge, which I will never do ever again in my whole life.
So Sophie and I decide to count the stairs for the Storm Slides. Another Disney phenomenon: there are 153 steps, 110 going up and 43 going down, and we didn't even notice. No wonder our legs are like jelly.
Sophie decides we need to do a scientific experiment to see if the green lights at the top are synchronized. I am supposed to raise my hand in the air when my light turns green so she can see if it matches her light. (We are water park experts; we require empirical evidence.) So I push my body up 153 steps, plant my butt in a start zone, and watch the light. It turns green. I raise my hand.
Ugh, Sophie can't see my hand over the dividers between the slides. My light has already been green for a while. Something vaguely registers that my data is no longer timely, but I stand up and wave to Sophie anyway. As I stand, I feel the tiny bubbles in the start zone jiggle my feet. I trip over the bubbles. Or my feet. Hard to tell.
Next thing I know, I'm flat out on the concrete, my head cracked on the landing zone. My skull and brain are screaming. It is the most incredible pain, and I roll into the fetal position. Which is, of course, just enough roll to start me down the slide.
"Donıt lose consciousness!" my brain screams! "You'll submerge at the end and drown." I go down that stupid slide with a cracked head. Oh, the pain! I zing and whoosh -- more like flop and drag -- and then I'm at the end. I stand up, face the lifeguard and the bleachers, and cross my eyes. There is blood everywhere. I am a blood fire hydrant.
Sophie, horrified, screams, "Mommy, all your hair dye has come out all at once!"
I reach my hand up to my head and blood drips everywhere. I tell the lifeguard I need a towel.
But this is Disney, so within a minute, I am in a wheelchair flying to First Aid. The man asks me how I am and I say fine. He asks Sophie, and she cries. I look at her. Her face looks exactly like the face she was born in, all purple and wrinkly. Her face mesmerizes me.
The nurse asks where we're staying. Hmmm, thatıs a good question. And which ride did it happen on? That takes some thought. I had a hard time remembering that before. I know I was on the one to the right. Was that the Jib Jammer or the Stern-something? Things just ... elude me.
"Well, you better start remembering or your trip to the hospital will be overnight," says the nurse.
"Mommy, Knights Inn. Knights Inn," Sophie whispers.
"Knights Inn," I say.
"Jib Jammer," she says. She is obviously counting her immediately available parents.
"Jib Jammer," I say. I think this will work out just fine. I ask the nurse if she has a butterfly Band-Aid that will stick my head back together. She keeps talking about stitches.
Then Sophie is back. Was she gone? Yes, she had to take the men back to get our belongings. She has a stuffed animal and an extra-large Sprite, too.
"Where did you get all that?" I ask.
"They got it for me," she says.
"You're not allowed to have soda," I remind her.
"They really wanted to get it for me," she says. "It made them feel better."
We change out of our bathing suits in the bathroom. My blue bathing suit is purple now, but that's nothing compared to my rust-colored skin. I look in the mirror and can't get over the quantity of dried blood everywhere. My hair is crusty with blood, plastered with blood in all sorts of loops and curls. I smell of blood.
So they take us off to a clinic in a van. The waiting room is full. I discover the cell phone in my fanny pack. Tim had insisted we get a cell phone for this trip.
"Daddy, guess what? Mommy cracked her head open and there is blood everywhere. We're in the hospital and she's going to get stitches." It occurs to me that these cell phone conversations are punctuating our trip: "Daddy, guess what? We got robbed and you need to send us travelers' checks by Federal Express." The waiting room is laughing out loud. Sophie must be a treat on the phone.
"No," Sophie says. "It's you and the nurses. When they were telling you to keep your head dry for three days."
"Three days?!? We are on a national waterpark tour! We can't wait three days. We're in Orlando. We still have Tampa Bay. We can't miss those water parks." Which I guess some people thought was funny. But they also wondered where Disney put my blood. I mean, didn't they have to close the ride because of AIDS?Did the blood come down the slide before me? I wonder how I could know.
The bottom line: ten stitches to my head and pain only when I smile, frown, or wiggle my ears. They shave my hair and everything. I finally get the doctor down to only one day out of water, and by now, I can independently remember the name of our hotel. The van comes back for us. Oh, God, Iıll never find the car.
But it is 11 p.m., and my car is the only one in the parking lot, the only one with Alaska plates. Acres of Disney World parking spaces -- and my car. Tucked into the wipers, there is a note on Mickey Mouse stationery. Scott, the Disney guy, wants to know if I am all right, could I call him so he wouldn't worry. Would Sophie and I accept free tickets to Blizzard Beach? Turned out he'd been checking the lot all night to make sure we'd returned from the clinic.
"Oh," Sophie says. "They are so nice. I had to hug them goodbye because they were so nice."
"Well, some people might say it's their job...."
"I know," she says. "But they were nicer than they had to be for their job." I think so, too.
Which left me with only one problem: how to get the stitches out. The doctor told me a week or ten days, no longer or the skin would grow over them. Oh, yuck. But after Blizzard Beach, after Texas, after rejoining with Tim, we were on to Colorado, Water World, and his family. That would be more like two weeks.
Tim's sister Holly is a nurse. Or rather, was a nurse. Sort of a skeleton in the closet that no one talks about. But this wasn't brain surgery, it's just snipping stitches out, right? I wanted to show some confidence in her skills.
Our sister-in-law Linda said, "Outside. Do it outside. I don't want any blood in here." We went out on the porch with the new manicure set from my mother. There was nothing to worry about after all.
"Only time I've done this," said Holly, "was on a goat."
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Travelers' Tales: The Best Women's Travel Writing 2007