“This car stops, and stays, at fun places.” That’s the bumper sticker that belongs on our SUV. On road trips, our family lives for a good roadside attraction. We pull over, stretch our legs, experience what was advertised on the signs that lured us in and then pile back into the car. Recently, however, we discovered something even better than a stop-and-go: a stop-and-stay, or in this case, a stop-and-play.
“Take this exit!” begged our 10- and 12-year-old backseat drivers just outside of Valdosta. We were halfway between home in Orlando and my in-laws’ place in Atlanta when the Wild Adventures Theme Park billboards beckoned us to abandon I-75. It didn’t take much convincing. We needed fresh air. Plus, I’d be a foolish father to pass a family theme park that did not charge Florida prices.
Not only are Wild Adventures’ daily passes, $49, a lot cheaper than the parks at home, they’re also good for the following day. “A BOGO?” asked my wife, Amy, in approving disbelief. After spending just a few minutes inside the park, we realized why two days were necessary. The “wild adventures” awaiting us included the roller coasters we’d sized up from the parking lot, dozens of thrill rides—boasting names like Boomerang, Sidewinder, Falcon Flyer and Pharaoh’s Fury—mini golf, headliner concerts, a zoological park—complete with train safari—and just when you think you can’t cram any more screams, oohs and ahhs into 170 acres, a waterpark.
“Dad, that was awesome!” said Blake, animated with the face one can only make after flying through the air at 40 mph on a five-story roller coaster. I nodded, surprised he still had his voice after screaming nonstop. Or were those my vocal chords providing the soundtrack to Viking Voyage? Amy and Quinn were just as aglow with adrenaline when we met them in front of the Rattler. “I think my stomach had an out-of-body experience,” Quinn said as though it was the best sensation ever.
Theme parks aren’t famous for their cuisine. However, Wild Adventures clearly didn’t get that menu memo. In fact, the barbecue rub and specialty sauces at the park’s Lonestar BBQ are so famous they’re sold by the bottle. “What a practical souvenir,” Amy marveled. She was already trying to figure out how to recreate the pulled pork parfaits we had for lunch. Comprised of layers of macaroni and cheese, baked beans, mashed potatoes and pulled pork, the parfait is essentially everyone’s favorite comfort foods in one cup.
The rest of the afternoon went by in a colorful blur of highs and rushes. Somewhere between being dwarfed by the Megabugs exhibit and racing for bragging rights on Adventure Quest Raceway, Amy and I made our first adult decision since we’d pulled off of the Interstate. It was unanimous. There was still so much to see and do, we’d stay the night in Valdosta. The kids didn’t get a vote, but it would have been a resounding yes. Their eyes had been lit up for hours like the Moonlight Madness fireworks over the lake later that night—a fitting finale to a day, and money, well spent.
Waking up early the next morning was a pleasure. We had unfinished business to attend to. First item on the agenda: Splash Island Waterpark. In this corner of Wild Adventures, skyscraping slides weave in and out of each other—twisting and turning until they plunge into pools below. When we tired of playing human cannonball on the Bonzai Pipelines’s chute slide or experiencing anticipation at its finest below Polynesian Adventure’s enormous bucket that seemed to decide on a whim when to dump—baptizing us with gallons upon gallons of water—we retreated to floating peacefully around Paradise River. We also kicked back in our private cabana—complete with lounge chairs, flat screen TV, WiFi and our own mini fridge.
It would have been easy to spend the entire day at Splash Island. But Wild Adventures had already wowed us with rides and slides. Surely its animal encounters were worth trading in our tubes and towels for.
“All aboard!” cried the conductor behind the wheel of the Safari Train—perhaps Wild Adventures’ wildest ride. Knowing I’d be behind the wheel of our SUV soon, I soaked up every minute of sitting back and sightseeing. Instead of seeing taillights, I saw a lot of tails. They belonged to zebras, antelope, water buffalo and our personal favorites the elephant and rhino. After the jaw-dropping alligator feeding and the Tigers of India show (so impressive it seemed imported straight from a Vegas stage), we ended the day about as hands-on as it gets.
A giraffe wrapped his tongue, as long as Quinn’s arm, around the leaf of lettuce she held in her outstretched hand. That brief moment of mutual admiration between girl and animal made such an impact that before we’d even left the feeding platform Quinn informed us she needed to amend something on her Christmas wish list. A puppy wasn’t beginning to sound so bad after all. “Instead of asking for your own giraffe,” suggested Blake, “Ask for four season passes to Wild Adventures!”
He had a great point. Valdosta is not only a roadside destination. For our family, it’s destined to become a return destination.