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Affordable family fun while staying close to home

Editor’s note: While looking at vacation options for the summer months and taking into consideration the high cost of gasoline this year, The Tomahawk will be introducing a new special section in June entitled “Summer Guide to Family Fun.” This edition will explore many relaxing and enjoyable ways to spend your vacation time this summer while staying relatively close to home. You may be surprised to find a variety of activities and adventures while never leaving the boundaries of Johnson County. We also plan to visit neighboring Ashe and Watauga counties in North Carolina, Damascus and Washington County, Virginia, Carter County in Tennessee and possibly venture back to the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge area.
If you would like to share a special getaway or fun-filled destination with our readers, give us a call at 423-727-6121 and we'll take it from there.

By Lacy Hilliard
Gatlinburg and its surrounding areas has long been the site of East Tennessee family fun. Dollywood, The Ripley’s Aquarium, Wonderworks, several whitewater rafting outlets, ziplines, and even ghost tours are all located in this region. You’re hard pressed to drive the main highway, U.S. 441, through Gatlinburg and not find roadside temptation.
Wilderness at the Smokies is Tennessee’s largest indoor water park resort. Located in Sevierville, the resort is only a two and a half hour drive from Mountain City. Recently, my family and I took the plunge in celebration of my brother’s eleventh birthday. I stumbled across Wilderness at the Smokies while surfing the Internet in anticipation of this event. By searching “affordable family getaways in Tennessee,” Google led me to this hidden chlorinated oasis in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains. It wasn’t long after I viewed the first photo of crystal blue pools and bubbling hot tubs that I knew that Google hadn’t failed me.
Don’t let the resorts claims of being the largest indoor water park in Tennessee fool you; Wilderness at the Smokies is an intricate web of both indoor and outdoor aquatic activities. The indoor park, dubbed the “Wild Water Dome” is open year round and houses the majority of the resort’s main attractions –the waterslides. It also houses the giant wave pool, several large play areas, and Magnolia Springs (an indoor/outdoor hot tub comprised of several private coves) to name a few. Perhaps one of the most interesting attractions within the indoor park is the surfing. Yes, you read that correctly – surfing in the middle of the mountains. The Wilderness makes it possible with their “Surf the Smokies” attraction, a huge pressure generated wave where the bravest park goers can choose from body boarding or surfing and can even take private lessons with qualified instructors. Leading into the Wild Water Dome is a towering arcade that has floor to ceiling attractions. Below you can find any arcade game you can imagine and if you look up, you will see a web of challenging rope courses. The arcade also contains a laser tag room and mini bowling alley. If you venture outdoors, you will find Lake Wilderness. This mini outdoor park contains an elaborate lazy river complete with waterfalls and gentle waves and a mini golf course. If you travel to the other side of the resort you will find Salamander Springs- the larger of the two outdoor parks. This park has a large swimming pool complete with aquatic basketball, two slides, a large play area with a bucket that spills every few minutes, dumping 1,000 gallons of water on anyone within its reach, and another large hot tub.
The three-year-old resort occupies a massive sprawl in Sevierville and is divided by a road into two separate sides, The River Lodge Suites and The Stone Mountain Inn. The more affordable Stone Mountain Inn is located on the Salamander Springs side, while the River Lodge Suites are attached to the Wild Water Dome and the Lake Wilderness attractions. Admission to all of the water parks the resort has to offer is included in the price of your stay and whether you choose to stay at the River Lodge Suites or the Stone Mountain Inn, transportation is provided via a free shuttle bus that runs to and from each pack for the duration of the day. The bus runs frequently and is climate controlled and spacious.
With all of its features and amenities, you might expect this fun family getaway to cost a small fortune but the cost of vacationing at the Wilderness really depends on you; if you choose to stay at the Stone Mountain Inn, you will save a significant amount of money. The inn provides what you would expect in any traditional hotel room and a few extras like the extra large capacity mini-fridge and a microwave. The River Lodge Suites range from upscale rooms to mini-condos capable of housing up to 15 people. Depending on the size of your party, each can be a good value. Free wireless Internet is made available to guests and an armband is provided for each room occupant that will allow free admission to the various water parks. However, there are few wallet-draining catches to be mindful of. If you visit the resort’s website you might see the ad boasting “kids eat free for breakfast and dinner.” The Wilderness contains several restaurants and this offer is good at the buffet style restaurant, “The Thirsty Miner.” One child eats free for every purchase of an adult buffet. So what’s the catch? The unimpressive buffet carries a hefty price tag at $17.95 per adult for the dinner buffet and $11.95 per adult for the breakfast buffet. Drinks are not included in this price tag. Another disheartening tourist trap is the prohibition of outside food and drink within the water parks. Each park contains at least one snack bar and while the food is satisfactory, guests should expect to pay typical inflated amusement park prices; however free refills are given with fountain drink purchases. To avoid going over budget, we opted to stock our mini fridge and dine in the room or we drove to one of the many surrounding unaffiliated restaurants. Though it was a bit less convenient, the escape from the noisy and action packed water park proved to be a welcome break.
The atmosphere of the resort is what one would expect and even offers a bit of the unexpected. As you pass other guests on the way to each attraction, the attitude is always hurried excitement. The hallways can tend to get quite loud but the noise level in the guest rooms is peaceful. During the weekends, the resort is extremely crowded, especially the indoor water park. But if you arrive early, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a table or chairs to relax for the day. If you can arrange to stay at the resort during the week, you will see a significant drop in the number of people utilizing the parks.
All total, my family of five spent about $400 for a two-night three-day stay at the resort. This includes what we spent on gas, food, and the price of the room. If you factor in all of the provided amenities, Wilderness at the Smokies proves to be a fun-filled and affordable vacationing option for East Tennessee residents.
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.