Take your preschoolers on a long summer weekend to Indiana to savor the kindest, gentlest theme park in the central US.
“I’m thirsty!” Gabby, my 5-year old complains. The day we visited Holiday World Amusement Park in Santa Claus, Indiana is a scorcher, and she’s starting to drag. No problem! There isn’t much in this world that’s free, but at Holiday World, the drinks are on them. We head for one of the many Oasis stations found in the park and help ourselves to unlimited soft drinks, lemonade, and water. (Throughout the day, I watch many kids, thrilled to be dispensing their own drinks, create “soft drink punch,” by combining all of them in one cup!).
It’s so hot that we head straight for the adjoining waterpark, Splashin’ Safari. Before grabbing our inner tubes (no deposit), we lather on sunscreen from a self-serve kiosk located just outside the changing rooms – all for free!
It’s the little things that make visiting this family-owned park different from its more commercial competitors, that is if you call superior customer service: “little.” When an afternoon thunderstorm caused rivers on the walkways, we ran for cover and decided to stick it out. For over an hour I watched drenched employees hand out free rain slickers. Almost immediately, announcements were made over the loudspeakers updating us on the weather and the park’s re-opening status. But what most impressed me was how customers who chose not to stay were treated. Employees cheerfully handed out rain-checks and thanked them for coming.
Located two-and-half hours south of Indianapolis, Holiday World began as Santa Claus Land in 1946, billed as the world’s first theme park. In 1984, it expanded to include three themed sections: Christmas, Halloween, and Fourth of July. The waterpark addition came in 1993. Aside from two roller coasters, you won’t find the type of thrill rides here that attract hordes of teenagers, which makes it perfect for families with children age 12 and under (and for adults like me who don’t really care for thrill rides).
While there are new attractions added each year, the charm of this place is its nostalgia. The pint-size Freedom Train has been operating ever since the park opened. As I watched my daughter go around for the third time, I overheard a father tell his son, “I remember riding this when I was your age.” Santa Claus made three appearances for story time (even in the blistering heat), just as he did at the park’s inception.
Older kids (and adults) raced to get in line for The Raven and The Legend, the park’s wooden roller coasters. Just weeks before our trip, I happened to be watching a PBS special on amusement parks and Holiday World was featured. Among wooden rollercoaster enthusiasts, The Raven is consistently ranked among the best, and if the screams I heard are any indication, the reports are true!
There’s a noticeable effort to maintain a natural landscape, and both roller coasters thread through heavily forested sections. The green environment was extremely appealing compared to seeing only miles of cement at so many other amusement parks.
On the waterpark side, there are plenty of thrills, including ZOOMbabwe, the world’s largest enclosed waterslide. On the Zinga, riders on rafts race through an enclosed tunnel and then shoot out into an enormous funnel which propels them from side to side so high it appears they will flip. Jungle Racer is the latest addition, a ten-lane, five-story racing slide. But, floating on an inner tube down the Congo River was much more my speed!
Here are a few things to know before you go: Holiday World and Spashin’ Safari are smoke-free except for designated areas. Most people head for the rides first, so to avoid crowds, start your day at the waterpark, which opens at 11am. General admission is $41.95/adult, and $31.95 for seniors and children under 54-inches. While you’re there on day one, a second-day ticket can be purchased for only $21/adult, with children 2 years and under free; this is a great deal with toddlers, who may quickly tire before trying all the rides.
If you’re going for a two-day visit, decide early so you can avoid the mounting Ticket Lines later in the day. Or, purchase your tickets in advance through the website, with seven days notice. Parking is free. Holiday World’s season runs May to mid-October. For more information, visit www.holidayworld.com or call 877/463-2645
Family Lodging Options
There are several choices for overnight accommodations. Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Resort (877/478-3657) is located adjacent to Holiday World. About 15 minutes away in Jasper, are Holiday Inn Jasper (800/872-3176) and Baymont Inn (800/301-0200).
We chose to stay at the French Lick Resort Casino (812/936-9300; 8670 West State Road 56, French Link, IN 47432), an hour north in the town of French Lick. The historic resort is located on 2,600-acres in Hoosier National Forest and has recently been restored. It caters very well to families by offering indoor and outdoor pools, horseback riding, golf, tennis, bowling, and “Extraordinary Experiences” for kids aged 6-12-years old. The full-service spa features a special spring water bath. Those staying a weekend will find plenty of fun to keep them occupied. For more information and rates, call 800/457-4042 or visit www.frenchlick.com
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