DINNIGAN’S DIVERSIONS

Coco Key: Water park in winter

LIZZ DINNIGAN

I nstead of buying our sons gifts for their birthdays, my husband and I give them a fun, interactive “experience.”

Our boys were born in December and January, so between the overwhelming number of presents received at their birthday parties, Hanukkah and Christmas, there is nothing left to buy them that would stand out. So we decided to create memories for them instead.

In the past, we took them to see the circus at the IZOD Center and “Wintuk,” a children’s acrobatic show developed by Cirque de Soleil, at Madison Square Garden. Ironically, the lasting memory my older one has of “Wintuk” is overdosing on butter-soaked popcorn and throwing up all over my husband near the stage in front of 2,000 people.

We had better luck on this year’s adventure to Coco Key Water Resort, attached to the ML Hotel in Mount Laurel, N.J., near Philadelphia. Formerly a Marriott, the hotel is under new ownership as of last May.

The property was easy to access – just 500 feet off NJ Turnpike Exit 4. Our first impression was that it resembled a business hotel. Except for a tiny, almost unnoticeable sign, you would never know there was a spectacular water park here.

Play and stay

Booking a one-night “Splash and Play” package entitled the four of us to a standard room and water park passes for two days, starting from park opening at 10 a.m. on the day of check-in (even if your roomis not ready for occupancy) until 2 p.m. the second day. My sister and her family booked an adjoining room. Including the AAA discount, we paid a reasonable $207 before tax. Children under 2 are free.

When we initially tried to make the reservation, therewas no one live to take the call. We left a message and waited for a callback.

Our room, which was not supposed to be available until 4 p.m., was ready when we arrived at 11 a.m. Wewere placed as close to the water park as you could get in a motel-style annex, which was a wing off the main hotel and served as the connecting corridor to the water park. Water park details The two-story, 55,000-square-foot indoor water park is phenomenal. I highly recommend going during the winter when you’re aching to go swimming. It’s a balmy, constant 84 degrees inside. Lifeguards are strategically positioned everywhere, but still keep your eyes on your children. It’s suitable for infants up to 11 years old.

The centerpiece of the lower level is Parrot’s Perch, “floating” in less than a foot of water. Kids can climb this multilevel, interactive playground contraption, with a 300-gallon dumping bucket, net staircase, two twist slides, water guns, water table and baby slides. It’s mainly enclosed by a low fence, so it’s easy to see if your kids are escaping into deeper-water areas.

On the right side of the playground is the access point for the lazy river. Simply wade into the zero-depth-entry pool and grab an empty tube as it comes around the bend.

Adjacent to the lazy river is a circular, 3- foot-deep basketball-dunking pool, the only actual “swimming” pool. Several hoops are fastened to a “tree” anchored in the center, and basketballs float in the water.

On the left side of Parrot’s Perch is a lily pad waterwalk, where kids grab onto overhead ropes and cross a pool by stepping on foam lily pads. Near the lily pads is a very large indoor/ outdoor hot tub for adults only, as well as three 40-foot-long body and tube corkscrew

slides (height requirement is 48 inches). The longestwaitwas 10 minutes.

On the upper level is a 1-foot-deep pirate ship pool perfect for infants and toddlers. Therewere built-in baby bungee seats and two slides.

In summer, there is a large outdoor pool.

Although there were a lot of people there, it never felt crowded. There were ample seating areas, aswell as lockers, showers (wear flip flops) and changing rooms. Pack your own beach towels.

Within the water park is a concession stand and tropical bar. The grill served up such fast food as burgers, hot dogs, fries, onion rings, chicken nuggets and pizza. Unfortunately, there was only one employee manning the grill. Each time we ordered it took 20 minutes to receive our food. Plus, the condiment counter was a mess, with garbage and dirty napkins left behind.

Outside food and beverages are not permitted, except for baby food and baby bottles in plastic containers. After about six hours here, we headed to a Cracker Barrel (instead of the hotel restaurant) for dinner. Also nearby are On the Border Mexican Grill, Pizza Uno, Wendy’s and a diner. Other hotel options include a Westin, Aloft, Wyndham and Knight’s Inn.

Staying over

After dinner we returned to our rooms. Upon closer inspection, we realized the handle on our backdoor was broken, letting in a freezing draft. In my sister’s room, the tub was filled with water when they arrived, and she had no toilet paper or towels. When she called housekeeping, no one answered. The rooms did not have hairdryers but did come with microwave, mini-fridge and coffeemaker.

If you prefer not to stay overnight, day passes cost $24.99 per person Mondays to Thursdays, and $32.99 per person Fridays to Sundays. Call 877-494-2626 or visit www.mtlaurelcocokey.com.

Another indoor water park option in New Jersey is Sahara Sam’s Oasis (www.saharasams.com). Choices in eastern Pennsylvania include Great Wolf Lodge (www.greatwolf.com/poconos/waterpark), Splash Lagoon (www.splashlagoon.com) and Split Rock Resort and Golf Club (www.splitrockresort.com).

Email suggestions for future columns to jjoedinn@aol.com.