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Take the Plunge

Watery Winter Fun for Families

February is the perfect time to escape wintertime doldrums and plunge into a world of water-based entertainment – the warm weather kind. Give your kids the thrill of facing off with a leopard shark or conquering the perfect surfer’s wave. Aquatic discoveries at aquariums and indoor water parks guarantee gallons of fun – all within a few hours of Richmond.

First stop – the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach with its new 12,000 square-foot Restless Planet exhibit. Restless Planet features four regions of the world – the Red Sea, the Indonesian Flores Island, a Malaysian peat swamp and a coastal Saharan desert – that give clues about how Virginia’s natural environment developed. The Red Sea exhibit, for example, shows how a rift zone, evident in geological formations in Virginia today, led to the formation of the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll walk through a 100,000- gallon aquarium by way of a tunnel in this exhibit and be mesmerized by eagle rays with six-foot wingspans. The spotted eagle ray is one of the featured exhibits of the Virginia Aquarium, which has the country’s third largest population of these graceful undersea creatures.

Long ago, the Center put environmental conservation and educational programs in place that continue to attract school groups, summer campers and recreational travelers. In addition to inviting visitors to learn about local Chesapeake Bay wildlife by touch and observation, the Center hosts humpback whale and dolphin-watching excursions and local wildlife viewing trips. The Virginia Aquarium is staffed with terrific educators who love to share their knowledge with visitors. One of the things they’ll tell you is that humpback whale mothers leave their offspring in the Gulf Stream nursery waters along the Virginia coast during their annual migration south, and these are the whales you’ll see from January through March.

The breadth of aquatic animals is even more extensive at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Here, you can enter a room filled exclusively with luminescent jellyfish – and be surrounded with these transparent floating blobs. Land dwellers would definitely rather Enjoy seeing them at an aquarium than on their beach vacation. A close-up look at species we don’t see every day such as the Komodo dragon, electric eel and the iridescent blue poison dart frog put you just inches away from some of the world’s most menacing creatures.

The National Aquarium has adopted a strong conservation theme that runs through all special features such as the dolphin show, Our Ocean Planet, and the exhibit and 4-D film experience, Jellies Invasion: Oceans Out of Balance. Staff members are positioned outside of viewing galleries to enlighten families about smart conservation choices to protect our sea life culture, including tips on environmentally friendly seafood consumption.

The resonating theme of this marvelous place is that water connects us all to one another, from our own backyards to the massive oceans and the rainforests. The relief map of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed at the entrance to the Aquarium drives home the point of connectivity by introducing visitors to the concept that we are responsible for the world in which we live. The National Aquarium’s dolphin show, while an added expense, makes this point most vividly as you watch the sophistication of these highly communicative creatures while they interact with their trainers. A conservation-themed, multi-media production runs in the background during the show. As you walk through the mesmerizing exhibits, take note of the fact that the ocean exhibits form the base of this aquarium’s water world, and the rain forest exhibits are at the top of the multi-floor displays.

While you’re in Baltimore enjoying the incredible views of the Inner Harbor, spend time exploring the historic ships docked just outside the Aquarium. When you’re ready for lunch or dinner, drop Into the ESPN Zone, a restaurant and interactive sports playground for families within walking distance of the Aquarium.

If watching other creatures frolic in the water doesn’t do it for you, families looking for total immersion might want to investigate the area’s water park adventures. On the outskirts of Harrisonburg, Massanutten Resort’s indoor water park has temperatures set at a comfortable 84 degrees, year-round, so you’re guaranteed protection from worrisome weather. If you choose to stay at Massanutten, you’ll have access to the resort’s amenities, including a massive indoor pool, game room, restaurants and a host of outdoor recreational pursuits if you dare to brave the cold.

Massanutten WaterPark is open to visitors who do not stay at the resort, so your family can enjoy the benefits of a day trip from Richmond. The resort’s water attractions reflect a Shenandoah Valley theme – Skyline Falls and Blue Ridge Rapids, to name a couple. The top feature for many visitors, especially tweens and teens, is Pipeline, the biggest Flow Rider® in Virginia, which produces a steady wave flow to create a daring surfer experience. Massanutten offers lessons in stand-up surfing on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for a fee of $20. Surfers must be 52 inches tall to ride standup and 42 inches tall to bodyboard.

At Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, you’ll discover an all-suite hotel and water park that makes a family excursion nearly effortless. With rates starting below $250 this winter season, you’ll be impressed with the lodging choices available. Kids can sleep in their own wolf-themed “dens” while parents enjoy a separate section of the suite. Visitors regularly comment on the cleanliness and inclusive benefits of the resort property along with its variety of warm water opportunities for family members of all ages.

A four-story themed Fort Mackenzie is the center of the indoor excitement with its seemingly endless 12 levels of climbing and water bucket soaking features. While the action never stops here, Great Wolf Lodge claims one aspect as its most thrilling adventure — the 30-foot Howlin’ Tornado water funnel that four people can experience at once. Riders climb a tall set of steps to enter a four-person raft which zig-zags down a slippery, six-story, funnel-shaped slope. Before ending up in a splash pool, the raft carries riders through a dark tunnel at the bottom of the funnel.

The proximity of Great Wolf Lodge to the multitude of shopping and cultural options in Williamsburg is a real plus. From here, you can pop into Colonial Williamsburg or shop top brands at the Williamsburg outlets.

As you look out of the darkness of these cold weather days and think of how you want to spend your holiday weekend this February, jump right in and enjoy our region’s watery world of wintertime fun.

Sue Bland lives in Hanover with her husband and two kids. She writes about travel in the mid-Atlantic.
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