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10 tropical escapes for Pittsburgh families — without the airfare!

Sally Quinn
February27/ 2017

We could all use a getaway, but with school schedules, work demands and the cost of airfare, heading to tropical climes for a vacation is not always an option. But escaping for a weekend – or even just a day – is within your reach.

Read on for indoor water park destinations that are perfect for overnight trips, as well as a few local spots with plenty of humidity, tropical creatures, and even twisted viney paths to put your family in a tropical frame of mind.


Those who prefer a destination with crystal blue water can pull out the swimsuits and goggles to prepare for splashes and wave jumping. We have a wild number of indoor water parks within a few hours’ drive. No sunscreen required!


tropical escapes
Kalahari’s water park in Sandusky, Ohio, is the largest in the US. Photo courtesy of Kalahari Resorts

Kalahari Resorts Indoor Water Park

If size matters, welcome to the country’s largest indoor water park. The 173,000-square-foor African-themed Kalahari resort in Sandusky is aimed at families looking for adventure. Kids can learn to surf at Flow Rider, where they can catch the perfect wave. Ride a raft spinning 60 degrees around the Swahili Swirl. Experience an uphill roller coaster water slide – the Zip Coaster. Water-loving tots are not forgotten. Crocodile Cove and Tiko’s Watering Hole are geared for smaller paddlers. The newest Kalahari water park recently opened in the Poconos.

tropical escapes
Big Foot Pass at Great Wolf Lodge challenges balance and dexterity. Photo courtesy of Great Wolf Lodge

Great Wolf Lodge

We think a better name would be the Great “Big” Wolf Lodge. This resort brand has everything a family might desire in a getaway trip. The closest to Pittsburgh are in Sandusky, Ohio, and in the Poconos.

An amazing array of 11 water features includes four stories of fast-water thrills, riding a tandem tube, splashing along banked turns. Relax and float along a lazy river, while the kids test their balance and dexterity hopping on lily pads with a soft water landing for silly spills. Beyond the water, kids can take part in the Creation Station, PJ Party, and story times. Or indulge in the Scoop Kid Spa where girls can be, you know, girls!

tropical escapes
Swim under palm trees at H20ooohh! Water Park. Photo courtesy of H2Ooooohh!

H2Oooohh! Water Park

Who put the oooo in H2O? This wet and wild indoor water park, which is part of Split Rock Resort at Lake Harmony in the Poconos. Water attractions include a wave pool and five slides for body, tube and raft drops. The most extreme slide allows gravity to take the most courageous down four stories to a splash finish. Smaller adventurers will have fun at the Jungle Falls & Leapin’ Lizards area. Land sharks can unwind at a first-run movie theater, enjoy Cosmic Bowling, or play laser tag.

tropical escapes
A pirate ship is at the heart of Pirates Cover Waterpark. Photo courtesy of Conley Resort

Pirates Cove Waterpark at Conley Resort

North of Pittsburgh, in Butler, Pirates Cove Waterpark features a pirate ship complete with a water cannon and two twisty-turny slides for the kiddies. Grownups will enjoy taking turns in the sauna and hot tub. The resort is close enough – and small enough – to consider a group package for parties.


tropical escapes
Spills and thrills at Splash Lagoon in Erie. Photo courtesy of Splash Lagoon Indoor Water Park

Splash Lagoon Indoor Water Park

Erie is home to Splash Lagoon, an easy day-trip from Pittsburgh. But with three connecting hotels, an overnight stay could be even more fun. The 12-level interactive Tree House is a cool feature. Among its nine water slides are the Python Plunge, Big Kahuna, and Shark Attack. The Wild Waters Wave Pool lays claims as the largest in the eastern U.S. with 200,000 gallons of water. A dry attraction is the Tree Tops Rope Course where the challenge offers a view from three stories in the air. There are loads of tropical flowers, palm trees, and a steady 84-degree temperature to keep your tropical dreams alive.

tropical escapes
Lose yourself in the Caribbean atmosphere of Castaway Bay.  Photo courtesy of Cedar Point

Cedar Point’s Castaway Bay Indoor Waterpark

The Caribbean theme at Castaway Bay will make you forget you’re really in Sandusky, Ohio. This five-story island paradise includes a water coaster, wave pool and all the slides and kiddie play areas a family would want. The vaulted ceiling encloses inland lagoons, towering palm trees and huts. Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang invite kids to join them in dance parties, karaoke, and craft activities.

tropical escapes
Splash down at CoCo Key Water Resort! Photo courtesy of Cherry Valley Lodge

CoCo Key Water Resort at Cherry Valley Lodge

Key West is the theme for this 50,000-square-foot park in Newark, Ohio, about 25 miles east of Columbus. Younger kids can splish splash in Parrot’s Perch with interactive water play, including water cannons and a huge dump bucket, along with a zero-depth area. Older aqua-nuts can grab a tube for the excitement of Coconut Grove Adventure River. The Activity Pool includes floating basketball. There are opportunities for relaxation, as well as more thrilling waterslides.


Who would have imagined a minimum of five tropical forest settings in Pittsburgh? Someone, alert National Geographic! An added benefit for Mom? Think of the steamy climate as a mini-facial.

tropical escapes
It’s hard to resist the photo drama of holding up this leaning tree in the Orchid Room at Phipps. Photo by Sally Quinn

Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens

Fantasy can easily overtake reality when walking the narrow paths of the lush, fragrant rooms under glass at Phipps. Kids can imagine living within the tangled vines and towering trees of the Palm Court. Was that a monkey behind that tree? Maybe not — but it’s fun to pretend!

Kids can name the goldfish swimming lazily in the pond in the Orchid Room. Or they might gather forces to hold up a falling tree. (Don’t worry, Mom, it’s not really falling, but it does make a great photo opp!)

Transport the kids to a Congo rainforest in the multi-story, 12,000-square-foot Tropical Forest Conservatory. Kids can make themselves at home in a little hut, while a cascading waterfall conjures up a nifty place to shower. Inventive little minds can walk a plank bridge to check out the view from a treehouse perch, or shop at a village food stand.

Education stations and regular programming enhance the jungle experience.

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An Aviary experience can include feeding free-flying birds from the palm of your hand. Photo courtesy of the National Aviary

The National Aviary

Another steamy spot is the historic Tropical Forest at the Aviary, one of three free-flight rooms at the facility. Watch for the fancy-feathered Victoria crowned pigeons, turacos, and fairy bluebirds.

A second humid jungle room — the Wetlands — brings together bright pink flamingos among its free-flying birds.  Brown pelicans and Roseate spoonbills might spark memories of a tropical vacation – or a flashback to “Finding Nemo.”

Regularly scheduled interactive feedings bring kids up close to their feathered friends. Brave ones can volunteer to hold up the food to be plucked from the air by free-flight birds.

tropical escapes
Make monkey faces at the White Cheeked Gibbons at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Photo by Paul A. Selvaggio

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Head to the 5-acre Tropical Forest at the Pittsburgh Zoo, where primates from around the world swing from trees, play with tires, and hoot at kids who hoot right back. The lowland gorillas are the biggest attraction, size-wise, but kids find more humor in the howler monkeys, White Cheeked Gibbons and Bornean orangutans.

Skedaddle over to the PPG Aquarium where tropical sights include gentle seahorses, translucent jellyfish and neon fish darting about. The giant, two-story tank has circling sharks among its inhabitants – and the occasional SCUBA diver, cleaning the glass or offering treats to the sea creatures.

Take the trail through the sultry rainforest setting, where the mist rises from the rocks. Look for silver-glinting piranha and other exotic fish. At the bottom of the path, crawl through the passage and pet the stingrays. It’s an experience that’s hard to beat.

Sally Quinn

Sally Quinn is an award-winning writer and editor who has been covering her favorite city for more than 20 years. She welcomes comments and story ideas for Kidsburgh.