Weekend Escape: Palm Springs : Slip Slidin' Away : Sizzling Family Fun, and Drama, at the Old Water Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jessica's dad and I scrambled barefoot up the stairs, dribbling water and debating whether to launch ourselves down the Rattlers, or the Sidewinder, this time.

Then Mark's eyes widened and he pointed up, forcing me to confront the biggest drag an adult faces in taking children to water parks: Every now and then, you've got to act like an adult.

There, on a platform high above the desert floor, my waif of a daughter stood behind a dozen or so wiry, hormone-emboldened adolescents, casually awaiting her turn to plummet 70 feet in a virtual free fall on the most horrifying slide in the park.

It was Ashley's ninth birthday, and my wife, Pam, and I had taken her and her friends, Annie and Jessica, along with our own younger children, Emily and Bobby, for a three-day and two-night vacation package offered by the Oasis Water Resort Villa Hotel in Palm Springs.

The Oasis' advertised summer-package rates ($119 a night weeknights, three-night minimum, including 10 water-park passes) get more complicated and expensive when a weekend is involved, and the representatives I talked to on the phone, uniformly afflicted with that weary whine of young Southern Californians, were not eager to help.

But check-in at the enormous complex, about a mile from the water park, was painless, and within minutes we were hauling suitcases and presents into a clean and sprawling two-bedroom, three-bath condominium with a full kitchen, two TVs and fold-out sleeper and a view of two pools, a fountain and the San Jacinto Mountains.

That evening, our friends Mark and his wife, Clare, who were staying at a friend's place nearby, dropped in and we grilled a feast of salmon, shark and Chilean sea bass on the condo's patio barbecue. Then, with the light on the tram visible high in the blackening San Jacintos, but the desert air still hot and clear, we trooped out to the nearest pool.

Palm Springs, with its eerie, daylight ghost-town demeanor and streets named after Dinah Shore, tends to give me the creeps. Now, though, as I ferried the kids on underwater dolphin rides, the pool's lights cast quavering shadows in the water, and I slipped back to my own childhood when summer nights in the Southern California desert were as dazzling as a mirage.

On Sunday morning, Pam and I let the kids bicycle, roller skate and roller-blade to the resort's free breakfast spread of cereals, muffins, juice and coffee, served poolside at the main clubhouse. As they rolled back, exploring the serpentine sidewalks that connect the pools, tennis courts (grass, clay and hard-surface) and 110 condos in the 27-acre complex, the lawn sprinklers hissed on, drenching and delighting them.

Because the water park doesn't open until 11, I decided to occupy the kids with a dare. "I wonder how long it would take you to swim in every pool in this joint?" I asked, tapping my watch.

The girls were off in a blur of flower-patterned spandex. Darting over the lawns and past puzzled sunbathers, they hurled themselves into each of the resort's eight pools, in what I suspect is a world record: 18 minutes and 47 seconds.

By the time they caught their breath, the park was about to open.

At 21 acres, the Oasis is small compared to other water parks. But that's an advantage when you're trying to keep an eye on seven kids (my sister, Laurie, had shown up with Peter, 11, and Stephanie, 6).

Our first step was to stake out turf in a far-too-rare swatch of shade. Then, with the kids sprinting ahead, we set out to face the water.

Bobby, at 3, dug sliding down Mr. Frog's padded tongue in the "squirt city" area next to the chaotically choppy wave pool. The 6-year-olds immediately took to the gentle Tortoise and Hare kiddie slides. But other rides, which spit swimmers into pools at speeds that mock the wildest playground contraption, forced the gang to confront their bravado.

Adults, meanwhile, grappled not only with their physical daring, but with another question: Did they have the guts to risk looking dorky in public?

I had answered that question a few years back, when I discovered water parks. I found myself trotting anxiously from slide to slide, driven by a nagging fear: These things are so much fun, someone's certain to declare them illegal any minute now!

I still felt that as I lay on my back on the Rattlers, and hurtled down the cork-screwing, translucent tubes, sloshing ecstatically up the side, dropping abruptly, and banking again at speeds attendants say can reach 43 m.p.h. Kicking up fantails of water as I skittered to a stop, I was as exhilarated as if I'd surfed a big wave, as relaxed as if I'd had an hour massage.

Other pleasures are soothing, if less frenetic. At one point, for instance, I grabbed an inner tube and plopped into the "river" that meanders in a lazy circle through the park. One by one, the kids paddled up on their tubes and "docked," locking on with arms and legs, until we resembled one of those barge conglomerations that float down the Mississippi.

By afternoon, most of the children had gathered their nerve and were blasting down the Roadrunner or spinning along in the open flume of the Sidewinder.

Only Annie had remained timid. Finally, peer pressure persuaded this 7-year-old cutie to give a moderately thrilling slide called the Centipede a try.

Annie stepped into the water and stared into the slurping tube that would carry her spinning into God-knows-what-sort-of aquatic nightmare. Behind her, a long line of impatient patrons watched as the attendant gently cajoled her forward. Slowly, Annie's face worked itself through a subtle array of expressions: anxiety about the ride, anxiety about her fears, fear about her friends' reaction to her anxiety and finally, simple terror at the whole dramatic spectacle, which manifested itself in heart-rending sobs.

Weaving through the line, I escorted her back down the stairs: "It's brave not to let people pressure you to do something you really don't want to," I said.

A few minutes later, Mark pointed out Ashley, who was working her way up . . . the Scorpion!

When I tried the Scorpion earlier, it felt as if I'd stepped off a seven-story building: My internal organs log-jammed in my esophagus as I dropped straight down, then rattled chaotically while my rubbery carcass hydroplaned to a jarring stop.

Figuring Ashley might not be ready for that, I sprinted up the stairs and reached her just as she stepped onto the fiberglass chute.

Ashley looked me in the eyes, then inched forward to stare far down at the sweeping panorama of desert. Waves of vertigo hit as I followed her gaze.

"Ashley," I said, knowing that I needed to finesse this, "I'd feel a lot better if you not do this today."

Slowly the raw fear on her face faded, and she replaced it with a familiar, eye-rolling scowl of tolerant annoyance--a look that also contained, I discerned, a dash of something more tender. Our hug as I carried her off the slide was the highlight of my trip.

Sipchen writes for The Times' Life & Style section.

Budget for Five Gas from Los Angeles: $23.00 Oasis package, two nights: $416.00 Groceries for condo meals: $135.00 Boogie board rentals for wave pool: $10.00 Ices, ice cream at park: $18.00 FINAL TAB: $602.00 Information on Oasis Resort packages, with water park passes, March through Oct. 30; tel. (800) 247-4664.

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