Image: Great Wolf Lodge
The Great Wolf Lodge is lit up for the holidays in Scotrun, Pa. last December.
updated 12/4/2006 4:34:12 PM ET 2006-12-04T21:34:12

Christmas Day, Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. Outside it was 33 degrees, snow on the ground, cold wind blowing.

But never mind that. I was at an indoor water park, in my bathing suit, lying on a lounge chair, sipping a strawberry daiquiri. Nearby, my children splashed around, zooming down water slides and hollering with joy. The place looked like a winter wonderland, complete with twinkling lights and decorated trees, but it was so warm inside that it felt like summer.

That was how my family and I spent last Dec. 25, at Great Wolf Lodge in Scotrun, about 100 miles from New York City. Like a lot of indoor water parks, Great Wolf went all out for the holidays, offering everything from Christmas craft workshops to Hanukkah celebrations with candle-lightings and songs. At Grizzly Jack's Grand Bear Lodge in Utica, Ill., you can have breakfast with Santa every Saturday through Christmas. At Kalahari indoor water parks in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., and Sandusky, Ohio, there are tree-lightings, appearances by Santa and his elves, and holiday movies shown at night. Santa hands out candy canes at the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort in Wisconsin Dells, where you can also make mini-gingerbread houses and get an elf to deliver a gift to your child.

Romy Snyder, executive director of Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau, says water parks are catering to the growing trend for families to vacation over Christmas instead of staying home.

"It's a time for people to get together and really enjoy each other as a family," she said. "You hear and read so much about the holidays, how stressful they can be, how much work they can be. This is a perfect answer to that. It's really a vacation for everyone. Someone else is doing the cooking and the decorating."

Image: Great Clock Tower Show
In this file photo, children and parents watch the holiday Great Clock Tower Show at the Great Wolf Lodge in Scotrun, Pa.
In addition, for those of us who live in cold weather regions, the thought of spending a few days in bathing suits in December without having to buy plane tickets to a tropical island is very appealing.

It's no accident that most of the 80 or so indoor water parks in the country are in the chilly Midwest. Wisconsin Dells calls itself the "Indoor Water Park Capital of the World," with 20 indoor parks open year-round, Michigan and Minnesota have 20 or so between them, and Ohio has seven, including two new facilities opening this month, a Great Wolf in Mason, and Coco Key Water Resort near Columbus.

In contrast, the East has just begun to discover indoor water parks. Great Wolf opened in Scotrun in late 2005, followed by a Six Flags indoor water park in Lake George in upstate New York earlier this year.

Of course, if it's peace, quiet and adult conversation you yearn for, an indoor water park is probably not for you. Sure, there are hot tubs, bars and spas, but most of the time you'll be surrounded by happy shouts, shrieks and the sound of running, splashing water echoing all around in a hollow din.

At Great Wolf, a bell dinged loudly to announce that a gigantic bucket was about to drench passers-by with gallons and gallons of water. And a wolf howled each time the mechanical surf started rolling into the wave pool. There were also lots of water slides, a lazy river, and a ride that flushes you into a gigantic toilet bowl painted in blue-and-yellow stripes; the water swishes you around the bowl, then shoots you out with a gentle splash.

As a mother, what I liked best about the place was that it allowed my children to run around and be silly. At home, they play shoot 'em up video games and chant the lyrics to rap music; if they're not playing games on a cell phone or the computer, they're listening to music on an iPod.

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At an indoor water park, though, stripped of electronic distractions, they could act their ages, 13 and 8 at the time. When I let them pick one item each in the gift shop, my older son chose fluffy slippers shaped like giant bear paws; my younger son, who hadn't played with stuffed animals in awhile, picked out a toy stuffed wolf, named it Buddy and carried it around like a baby.

Outside the water play area, the lodge decor was charming, with wooden rafters, holiday decorations and so many carved figures of raccoons and wolves that when we saw a real deer outside, we thought it was a statue until it ran off. Our room was cozy and quiet, with a gas fireplace and cuddly blankets.

Prices at indoor water parks vary tremendously by day, location and package. In Wisconsin Dells, it's easy to find rooms for well under $200 a night; at Great Wolf in Scotrun, rates start at over $200 and quickly run into the $400-$500 range, but every room sleeps six, and rates include admission for a family of six. Some indoor water parks offer day passes, but you can't use the Great Wolf park in Scotrun unless you stay overnight at the lodge.

For those who want a little snow play after splash time, the Pennsylvania park is also near Camelback Ski resort. In Wisconsin Dells, outdoor activities include a variety of snow sports, including skiing at Christmas Mountain and Cascade Mountain.

Snyder said she once heard an indoor water park described as a "reverse snow globe." From where I sat by the pool at Great Wolf, I agreed. I had a view through a window of the snowy parking lot, where people were crunching around in boots and hooded jackets. How lucky I felt to be in my warm and watery world, on the other side of the glass.

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