Splash Valley: Ireland's newest aqua park goes wild in Wicklow
Pól Ó Conghaile splashes down at a new, 1,800 square-metre aqua park in Hidden Valley, Co Wicklow.
‘Jumanji!’ I roar, whizzing down a slide with the shocking acceleration - and involuntary yelping - only a wetsuit on wet rubber can bring.
Oh well, at least it’s not a curse (we’ve been warned about that at the family-friendly briefing). 'Jumanji' it is, as I whoosh arse-first into the River Avonmore.
Welcome to Splash Valley, a spanking new aqua-park debuting this summer at Hidden Valley Holiday Park in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow.
The 1,800-square-metre park includes some 30 obstacles arranged around a small, manmade lake. Think bouncing platforms, inflatable climbing frames, zippy slides, a seated swing, “tunnels of doom” (as my nine-year-old christens them, sloshing about on a thin film of water) and lots of wobbly walkways, just for starters.
Within minutes of lifeguards giving the all clear, our session splashes down in the peaty water, and is soon crawling all over the course.
How does Ireland’s newest playground work?
Splash Valley is open to both campers and day-visitors, with hour-long slots priced at €20 for adults and €17 for kids (see below for pricing and discounts). The slots include a 10-minute safety briefing and 50 minutes on the water.
Yep, it’s cold. That first jump from the deck – when the tea-brown water of the Avonmore River flushes up your wetsuit – will perk you up for sure.
From there, it’s a short swim to the first inflatable platforms.
At first, we wonder if there are too many people. Up to 80 are allowed on the course in a single session, but they soon disperse around the obstacles, and we never have to wait more than a minute or two for the best slides.
After cribbing a bit about the cold, we start traipsing and toppling (I am pushed into the water by my ungrateful children more than once) our way around the course.
The slides are great craic - two measure five metres or more in height - and there’s a seated swing at the far end that you can jump off in mid-flight.
The whole experience feels fresh-out-of-the-box. Wetsuits are new, showers hot and changing rooms clean and spacious. The campus is fairly small too, which can mean the odd bottleneck at busy times, but also no long walks between bases.
Staff already feel like pros. There’s no joshing around at the safety briefing, for example (most important note: do NOT swim under any of the obstacles). Attendants are spaced out well and any questions I ask are answered quickly and authoritatively.
"How deep is the water?" is a case in point.
"About three metres. You won’t be hitting the bottom.”
There are lots of bigger kids and Dads (like myself) momentarily released from the prisons of their 40-something bodies, but the exuberance is well supervised. We come off with a few scrapes and rubber-burns, but nothing you wouldn’t imagine beforehand.
Hidden Valley was named Ireland’s Favourite Small Stay in the Irish Independent’s Reader Travel Awards this year. And walking around the Wicklow oasis, it feels like like the golden age of home holidays has returned for a new generation of families – the kind who want a safe, gated resort where kids can ramble and cycle around as barbeques are fanned, cars move at snail's pace and activities range from kayaking to cinema nights and bumper boats, all less than an hour from Dublin.
Despite the old-school approach, however, owners Molly and Lloyd Williams (pictured) are on a mission to add new activities - ranging from Christmas Santa experiences to Combat Laser Tag and now the aqua-park, set alongside a whole new lakeside restaurant complex on the resort.
“I wondered what the hell I was doing,” Lloyd confides, remember a winter spend digging a green field for the manmade lake.
But judging by the squeals from the slides, and the lines of adults and kids queuing up for wetsuits and buoyancy vests, the work has paid off.
The obvious comparison to draw is with Baysports, the pioneering inflatable aqua-park at Hodson Bay on Lough Ree (see video below).
Splash Valley claims to be larger, but what that actually means it that it has more obstacles. Baysports is spread out over a larger area and involves longer swims between some obstacles, but the best slides are far taller.
The Lough Ree park is cheaper too, at €17/€15 per session.
Our other quibbles are small ones. The Lakehouse is a lodge-style hub doing a spread of hot food and treats you'll dive into after the park, but as with many resorts, we'd like to see less single-use plastic (little spoons for the ice cream, for example).
Oh, and that guy shouting 'Jumanji!' was pretty annoying.
Other than that, an excellent day out.
How much does it cost?
Splash Valley costs €20/€17 for adults/kids per one-hour session. Double sessions for day visitors cost €35/€29.
A multi-pass buys you five sessions for the price of four at €80/€68 – handy for campers or return visitors. You can also buy aqua park and day pass packages that give combined access to other activities on site.
Campers staying at the park can get better value again, with second sessions priced at €15/€12 and all extra sessions half-price at €10pp.
See irelandholidaypark for more.
Top 5 tips for Splash Valley
1. Measure up
You need to be aged 7 or over, and at least 110cm tall, for the aqua park. Measure up beforehand to avoid disappointment – it’s a valid restriction, as smaller kids may not have the height and strength to scale a lot of the obstacles.
2. Get there 30 minutes early
Or more. This is to park, check in, get your wristbands and get kitted up with wetsuits, helmet and buoyancy aids. Sessions include a 10-minute safety briefing and 50 minutes on the water, so you don’t want to miss any precious time on the obstacle course.
3. Work ahead on the waiver
Another time-saving step is to read and sign the obligatory waiver online before you leave home. You can bring the email (with PDF attachment) on your phone.
4. Slap on the Sunscreen!
The water is chilly, and you’re more likely to be shivering rather than worrying about the sun as you get dressed. But a couple of hours later, your arms and legs will look like cuts of smoked salmon. Slap it on a half-hour before.
5. Finish up five minutes early
This will allow you to beat the crowds to both the hot showers and limited number of family changing rooms. We got there early, but passed a few shivering adventurers in the queue as we left.
What to pack
3mm ‘shorty’ wetsuits are provided, but if you’re prone to the cold and have a longer or thicker suit, you’re welcome to bring that.
You’ll need togs to wear under wetsuits and towels for changing. Pack a fleece to warm up afterwards, too.
Remove jewellery or watches other than studded earrings, and note that no footwear is allowed on the slides.
Go-Pros or cameras are not allowed (though spectators can take photos from the banks).
NB: Prices subject to availability and change. Pól and family were guests of Hidden Valley Holiday Park.