It’s strange to watch your kids age in place. Like many others during the pandemic, mine missed out on in-person school, parties, vacations, and sleepovers. In what felt like one 14,609-hour-long day, they’ve grown taller, wiser, and, of course, older: my pre-pandemic nine- and twelve-year-old kids have turned eleven and fourteen. Now as the mother of a middle schooler and a high schooler, I’ve noticed windows of opportunity closing. I feel the need to milk this age, to stare at them when they’re not looking, to make up for a year and a half of experiences lost out in the world.

We’d been resorting to easy thrills. Back in March 2020, armed with a power drill, I’d handed them some old screens from a neighbor’s tear-down so we could enclose their playscape fort, and they’d gamely complied. If I were to suggest this kind of activity today, I can predict the response: “We’re good.” Gone are the days from the previous fall, when, out of boredom, they bagged red-oak leaves for five bucks’ pay. With COVID restrictions easing, we figured we must be able to do something besides the usual outdoor chores and sports. Could we even remember what we used to do on weekends?

Last November, I’d read that the $550 million Kalahari Resorts & Conventions opened in Round Rock, an adventure that seemed as feasible to me then as a trip to the center of the Earth. At 1.5 million square feet, Kalahari, which “combines America’s largest indoor Waterparks with the magic of Africa,” includes a hotel, restaurants, adventure park, and a water park with thirty (thirty!) waterslides. A year later, thanks to chemical disinfectants and Texans’ thirst for water-based fun, Kalahari was marking its first anniversary.

I had clearly underestimated my kids’ need for thrills. When I showed them a few YouTube reviews of Kalahari and asked if they wanted to check it out, I expected some hesitation. They’d grown self-conscious about, well, everything. “Sure!” was the quick response. I didn’t understand their reasoning until my eldest, Mia, explained: “The best thing? I won’t know anybody there.” It was decided.

We set out for Kalahari around 10 a.m. on a Saturday. It was a gorgeous, 70-degree day, perfect for being not indoors, but when we arrived, we were hardly alone. In a parking lot the size of a few city blocks, we wound our way to a space and witnessed the arrivals: families pushing strollers, prepared like professional attendees with their swimsuits and suitcases. They were coming in droves, though the place was so spacious that inside, it still looked pretty empty. We walked through the adventure park, past the zip line and the tiny roller coasters, and paid $120 each for water-park day passes.

The humid, chlorinated fog hit us as soon as we opened the glass doors and entered the massive space. My son Nick asked us to “remember how much of this water is basically pee,” before begging that we start with a three-minute round on the Lazy River—a way to get used to the water temperature, which proved barely cool. His imagery gave me pause, but apparently desperate times had erased my children’s misgivings. The two kids were already heading in, baptizing themselves in their first normal fun activity in ages.

I’m never sure why Nick thinks lazy rivers are races. As Mia and I floated, he ditched the tube to see how many floating visitors he could pass on foot, using the current as his turbo boost. Initially, I tried to maintain some line of sight of my minors, but gave up halfway around and let the ride take its course. I bounced like a pinball off the walls—and some other tubers. Trying to social-distance on a lazy river would be pointless—at least there weren’t so many guests that we were jammed in together.

Then we did it all, starting with the Barreling Baboon, the Serengeti Spinner, and the Swahili Swirl, followed by the Tanzanian Twister, the Kenya Korkscrew, the Zig Zag Zebra, and the Stingray. Though the ride entrances were always inside the park, much of the slides’ inner workings strayed outside the building proper, leaving each ride with an air of mystery, no path you could retrace from the interior grounds. Some slides dropped you like a stone before throwing you up against a curved wall, while others wove down easy circuits that ended with a shrug. But these were the welcome surprises.

Standing in line for The Smoke That Thunders, a four-person tube ride, I was facing forward with my hands on my hips, listening to the kids as they discussed what exactly was “smoke” that “thunders,” when I felt something unusual on my left elbow, something rough and warm and wet. For a second, I couldn’t place the feeling—it landed in such an unexpected context—then I realized: someone had licked me.

Now, as everyone knows, you shouldn’t go around licking people—especially during a worldwide pandemic—but if you are going to lick someone, you choose a fleeting moment. You wait until they can’t spot you. You lick; you’re gone. You do not lick someone and then stand next to them, trapped in awkward silence for ten more minutes. Curiously, the teenage boy behind me wasn’t big on strategic thinking. I spun around and said the only thing that came to mind: “Agch!” His eyes grew wide and he turned away, pretending nothing had happened while his friends giggled and avoided eye contact.

“Dude just licked me,” I told my kids, pulling my elbows in and letting the drama add some welcome excitement to our waiting period. Nick and Mia craned their heads around me to get a look at the offender as Whitney Houston’s climactic chorus of “I Will Always Love You” blasted from the sound system and echoed through the building. I held out for the strong antibacterial properties of the Kalahari chlorine.

I noticed, around two in the afternoon, that the lines up the staircases to the slide entrances were getting longer. On the floor, the tables around the wave pool, the kiddie areas, and the Lazy River were filling up with folks eating pizza, wrestling toddlers into life vests, and not-so-secretly sniffing baby diapers.

“Is this a typical weekend crowd?” I asked the overseer of The Smoke That Thunders.

“It’s always like this,” she said. “Like not weekdays, but yeah, weekends.”

Traffic was confirmed by another employee who was walking past me later in the day. “All the pictures I’ve seen showed this place pretty empty,” I said. “Has the crowd picked up in recent months?”

“No,” she explained, “we take the photos before anyone enters the park; that’s why it looks empty. But it has been full for months.”

Months. During the months when we wouldn’t leave the house, others were frolicking down the Serengeti Spinner and (possibly) licking strangers. And because the slides are indoors, the crowds will continue to surge as fall turns to winter. I shared a tube with a dad who’d driven in from Katy; he said that all the Houston-area water parks were outdoors, so he’d rented a Kalahari room for his family for the weekend.

I’m not sure my crew could handle an entire weekend of waterslides, outside or in. After five hours, which included lunch of pizza and chicken fingers in the center of the park, we were tapped out. I grabbed our gear from the lockers before I sat the kids down behind a giant TV screen that was showing a football game.

“So what did you think?” I asked.                 

“Better than I expected, because the videos sucked,” Mia said.

“Wow, you’re a good faker; I thought you were excited,” I said.

“It’s a mix of a lot of different water parks,” Nick said.

“I would say if Schlitterbahn is a ten, then this is seven-point-five,” Mia said.

“I’d say nine out of ten,” said Nick. “Though compared to Six Flags this is way more calm.”

“Yeah, this is way more for young kids; it’s not scary,” said Mia.

Young kids! I felt like someone squeezed my heart. The next day, after some discussion about our pandemic playscape, Mia and Nick admitted they probably wouldn’t use it again, and to prepare it as a giveaway, I began to disassemble all their sort-of-dangerous (and exceedingly thorough) construction from the screened-in fort. I removed the Magic 8-Ball, the marshmallow shooters, and the water guns and put them in a bin. From a corner of the fort, I dug out a dirty rubber chicken and wondered, Do I keep this? Do I trash it? How much longer do I have left before this era of motherhood ends? I wiped off its beak and wings, and put it back in its place.