Here's a guaranteed cure for those ``what do we do now ?'' vacation blues: Grab the sunscreen and hustle the kids off to soak their heads.
Literally -- at the nearest water park. It's the one vacation outing that won't be met with groans, even from the teens in the group whose mantra is ``parents can't possibly have a good idea.'' A little rain won't spoil the fun (as long as there's no lightning), nor will the heat, since everyone can immediately cool off by racing down the nearest water slide.
I've found a two-hour stop at a water park is an ideal antidote for restless kids on a too-long drive someplace. When we lived in Chicago, we couldn't venture north in the summer without a stop at the famed Wisconsin Dells, home of three water parks, including Noah's Ark, which claims to be the nation's biggest. (Call 608-254-6351.)
The best news: Whether you've opted for a large park or a small one (Morey's Pier in New Jersey is less than two acres; call 609-522-5431), the kids will be too exhausted by the end of the day to complain about anything.
The other good news is that these parks typically are a third cheaper than theme parks and offer parents the chance to relax under a tree or along a slow-moving (man-made) river, rather than shepherding the crew from long line to longer line in a hot theme park.
``I see a lot more 9- and 10-year-olds running around water parks by themselves than at amusement parks because there are so many lifeguards everywhere,'' says Tim O'Brien, author of the newly revised ``Amusement Park Guide'' (Globe Pequot). ``It's safer because there's so much supervision everywhere.''
But before you go:
-- Make sure you and the kids have planned a specific spot and time to meet. Make sure the kids know what to do if they can't find you.
-- Insist that they get out of the sun every 90 minutes, drink plenty of water and reapply their waterproof sunscreen periodically.
-- Know your children's comfort level and capability in the water, and don't permit them to venture beyond their limits. Do they need life vests? Check to see if coolers with food and drinks are permitted. You'll save money by toting your own, and you'll eat healthier, too.
-- Plan to hit the park first thing in the morning. It will be less crowded -- and less hot. Stay away in the evenings, when the crowd is more adult.
-- Call ahead and ask if any discount promotions are being offered. Where can you pick up a coupon? Purchase a ``combo'' ticket if the park is affiliated with an adjacent theme park.
O'Brien, who covers the parks for AmusementBusiness magazine, urges parents not to force a reluctant child to go down a giant slide. Virtually every water park -- there are now 120 across the country -- has at least one area designed for younger children, and they're expanding every year with new, more elaborate water cannons, mini-slides, floating alligators, giant ships and waterfalls.
At Pennsylvania's Sesame Place, for example, an entire family can ``Sky Splash'' on giant tubes under an array of oversized toys. The diaper set will love crawling through a giant maze of tubes while they're gently sprinkled with water. (Call Sesame Place at 215-752-7070.)
There are five separate children's play areas at the Schlitterbahn (which means ``slippery road'' in German) Waterpark Resort in New Braunfels, Texas; a huge treehouse in the middle of Hook's Lagoon at Elitch Gardens' new Island Kingdom in Denver; and Tadpole Town at Cedar Point's Soak City in Sandusky, Ohio. (Call Cedar Point at 419-627-2223; Elitch Gardens at 303-595-4386; Schlitterbahn at 210-625-2351.)
Of course, there are plenty of thrills to go around, too. Schlitterbahn's Rick Faber, president of the World Water Park Association and a water-ride manufacturer, explains that new technology has fueled the thrills the parks can offer.
Walt Disney World's Blizzard Beach has 50-foot, side-by-side racing slides that enable guests to race down at nearly 25 miles per hour; Schlitterbahn's Torrent Tidal Wave River (recognized as the industry's best new product last year) takes riders on a wild white-water ride.
There are giant wave pools and flume rides, bobsleds and tubes that empty riders into pools at the bottom. Hyland Hills Water World outside Denver, in Federal Heights, Colo., and operated by the local park and recreation district (303-428-7488), district, even has a white-water raft ride through an Egyptian pharaoh's tomb.
``Whenever we ask guests what they want to see here, it's always more roller coasters and water slides,'' says Cedar Point spokesman Janice Lifke.
``We've manufactured five major water attractions for five different parks just this year,'' adds the Schlitterbahn's Faber.
At the same time, there are plenty of slow-moving river rides that even a grandma would enjoy.
And families keep on coming -- 54 million people last year, according to the World Water Park Association. There are indoor water slides and wave pools in England and Germany, and new outdoor parks in Brazil and Malaysia. (To find out where the nearest water park is to your vacation destination, visit the association's Web site at www.waterparks.com.)
Water attractions have become so much a fixture on our vacation landscape, in fact, that water parks now are redefining themselves as vacation destinations while resorts from Florida to Arizona offer ever-grander pool complexes, complete with waterfalls, swim-through grottos and slides (all man-made, of course) to amuse their guests.
Whether it's a huge park or a small water slide, the kids won't want to get out of the water. Once while eating Sunday brunch at a tony Texas resort, mine were so taken by the slow-river tube ride, they jumped right in. We weren't even guests of the place.
They didn't even have bathing suits.
(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')
(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate