When many travelers think of water parks, the tropical climates of Florida and California usually come to mind. But tucked away in the Poconos Mountains is a delightful destination resort packing warm thrills indoors even while surrounded by stunning snowfall.
This past weekend, Kalahari Resorts officially unveiled a grand expansion to their Poconos location – one of three themed hotels with indoor water parks in the United States. This one has grown to a massive 220,000 square feet, larger than any other indoor water park in the United States.
In addition to two inviting new concept restaurants and some high-tech interactive attractions, this water park expansion makes this sprawling hotel in northeast Pennsylvania a must-see.
The Family behind Kalahari
No story about Kalahari Resorts would be complete without the story of the family who created the company.
To show off their expansion, Kalahari hosted me last weekend at their Poconos hotel, including airfare, two nights in one of their new suites, admission to the hotel’s indoor water park, a pair of dinners at their new restaurants, and some time spent in their arcade. And I wasn’t the only reporter there, joined by at least 20 others from around the country to absorb the hotel’s newest additions.
Usually when a company is able to spring for a lavish PR blitz like this, it means they are some large corporation with seemingly infinite resources. But that is not Kalahari.
As I quickly learned upon arrival, I was in the hands of caring family members who own and operate this chain of hotels that they have built from the ground up. The “tour guide” assigned to me within minutes of my arrival was not an employee paid for the job, but rather Travis Nelson, son of Kalahari Resorts owner and CEO Todd Nelson. Greeting me with a smile and an earnest handshake, Travis was genuinely excited for me to be there to see his family’s accomplishments.
While we wandered the hotel’s many winding halls, it was refreshing to not get the corporate line or scripted “talking points” that I’m used to receiving at similar press events, but instead honesty. (Sadly, it is rare to receive more than a verbal version of a press release at such events.) Bumping into Travis’ wife and other Nelson family members while walking around the resort was natural and not at all uncommon, apparently. They had literally been living at the hotel for nearly 3 weeks to prepare for the expansion’s opening – and that’s on top of running their two other similar operations elsewhere in the United States.
Travis was completely transparent, quick to answer all of my questions about the smallest of details of the company – even openly admitting to some of its faults and financial strategies, something a corporate rep would certainly never do. He was also quick to jokingly pat himself on the back as he pointed out new elements of the expansion that he personally came up with.
Over a cocktail hour in one of the hotel’s new restaurants, the entire Nelson family – all of whom work at Kalahari – gathered attending reporters together to share tales of their harrowing trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro through a wonderfully tear-jerking video. Instead of a presentation to the press, it felt like a gathering of friends. It was clear this weekend wasn’t just an opportunity for PR, but a chance for the Nelsons to tell the world about what they’ve worked so hard to create.
Todd – as much of a warm, friendly man as his son Travis – casually mentioned to reporters that the family was so moved by their recent trip to Rwanda that they are building an indoor water park in the African country at no charge, a charitable effort that deserve great applause. But the gesture is just another day in the life of the Nelsons, who open their hearts into every project they work on.
And therein lies the charm of Kalahari Resorts. It feels like stepping into someone’s home – albeit an enormous one themed to an African resort. It is enchantingly welcome and warm.
The Kalahari Resorts Poconos is quite an escape, sitting in practically the middle of nowhere. Getting there is less than a 2-hour drive from New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Flying into the Allentown, PA airport requires a 45-minute drive after landing. No matter the method of transportation, the arrival for grand opening weekend of phase two of the resort, which first opened in 2015, was stunning thanks to the large snowstorm that blew through just a couple days prior.
Winter is no doubt the best time to travel to this location, as the approach surrounded by several feet of fresh, white snow is nothing short of gorgeous.
It’s quite the contrast once you arrive inside, as travelers first enter in parks but are soon surrounded by guests wearing next to nothing, donning swimwear and towels darting to and from the attached (heated) indoor water park. It’s a juxtaposition that simply never loses its amusement.
Kalahari Resorts welcomes day guests to enjoy its amenities as well as those staying at the hotel overnight, so the hotel’s lobby is almost always packed with fast-paced guests moving in every direction. It’s quite the hub for commotion, as excited travelers line up to check in, dart toward three restaurants, an ice cream shop, multiple stores, a bar, and stairs leading down into the sprawling arcade and entrance to the water park (more on that below).
The African theme of the hotel is always present, though not always fully detailed. Some areas are lavishly decorated with authentic African furniture, sculpture, and artwork while others are rather sparse. Seating seems frequently an afterthought, with tables and chairs stuck in areas that really ought to be open pathways.
The hotel’s long hallways and areas surrounding a somewhat confusing series of elevators are often equally frenetic, as there are children running at top speed in every direction while adults frequently get lost at first. It’s an environment that jumps between exciting and exhausting, depending on your mood.
But even amidst the somewhat sporadic theming and nearly constant chaos, nearly every guest walks around beaming with a giant smile, all the time. It is a striking contrast to watching downtrodden tourists at Orlando’s major theme parks, worn out from the sun baking overhead and overwhelmed by the hundreds of attractions they feel the need to cram into their short time on vacation.
During my two nights at Kalahari, I did not witness a single meltdown – from a child or an adult. Instead, I found practically every guest to be polite and enthusiastic to be there, never giving off the feeling of entitlement that so often flows from theme park guests. There’s something comforting and contagious about seeing others in a state of simplistic happiness. It creates an overall aura of excitement that permeates throughout the hotel.
Since expanding, Kalahari Resorts Poconos now features nearly 1,000 guest rooms, having recently added 520 new ones.
These additions include two-bedroom and three-bedroom family suites as well as the “Big Five Suites” that feature 1 king bedroom with master bath, 4 separate bedrooms with 2 queen beds each, a full-sized sofa sleeper, fireplace, and a large balcony.
It is impressively quiet inside these rooms. The earth tones used to decorate each room creates a warm atmosphere, indicative of the African theme – and particularly important when there is more than 2 feet of snow sitting just outside.
Beds are quite comfortable and showers pump out unlimited hot water instantly.
The suites are particularly advantageous in their size, enabling plenty of room to sprawl out as needed.
At first glance, room prices seem a little steep, starting at around $300 a night and going up (way up) for the larger suites. But considering each hotel guest gets unlimited water park admission included – the main draw for staying at the hotel – it’s well worth the price.
The majority of those staying at Kalahari are weekenders coming from nearby New York, New Jersey, or elsewhere in Pennsylvania. People show up en masse on Saturday, so it’s worth booking time during the week if possible to avoid the influx of crowds.
The Indoor Water Park
The idea of an indoor water park is nothing to to those living in more frigid climates up north, but for this native Floridian it was an entirely new concept to me. There was no better place to be introduced to it than in the country’s largest, now expanded to a massive 220,000 square feet.
It was impressive to hear how Kalahari divided the water park into phases, literally erecting (and ultimately tearing down) a giant wall between the two halves while construction on the second half completed.
The indoor waterpark now features eight new slides, a wave pool, an enhanced children’s area, an extended lazy river, and additional adult swim-up bars.
One of those amenities Travis was happy to point out as his idea was the highlight of the entire stay for me: the Paxton Grotto swim-up bar. This dark and mysterious cove tucked away in a corner of the indoor water park is open to ages 21 and up and the only way inside is to swim. Generously poured drinks and thumping dance music instantly hide adults from the hectic, kid-dominated environment of the rest of the water park. And for added fun and privacy, the grotto connects to an outdoor area where the heated waters are flanked on all sides by freshly fallen ice and snow (at least, during the winter). It’s a bit cliche to say, but it’s a rather magical experience.
Adult time aside, this indoor water park does not miss a chance to cram in as many attractions as its roof can hold. Water slides range from simple fun to oh-my-god-we-are-going-to-die thrills. Just about every kind of water attraction is there, from drop slides to racers to giant tubes that protrude outside of the building for another bizarre visual as bathing suit-clad guests stay warm hovering over the icy terrain outside – a sight that never gets old.
All of the water is heated and it gets rather humid inside as a result, reminding me of summers back home in Florida. But being indoors, there is nowhere for the noise to escape, so between the sounds of water splashing and constantly screaming kids, it does get extremely loud inside the park, forcing guests to practically scream to one another constantly. I found myself with a sore throat at the end of day one.
Much like the rest of the hotel, the theming is sporadic and often sparse within the water park. Kalahari boasts its own design and fabrication shop where they have created many of the colorful characters and scenic elements seen throughout the park. But a little green foliage would go a long way to break up the stark, bright white-ness of the entire space, especially under its many bright lights.
It’s by no means the most comfortable space ever created, but it is easy to slip into full-on kid mode while bouncing from slide to slide. And just when it feels overwhelming, there’s always that dark grotto to retreat to.
The Arcade and Other Attractions
Directly connected to the water park is a huge arcade, packed with the latest HD video games (mostly shooters and driving), redemption games (to win tickets for prizes), and a set of mini attractions scattered throughout. It’s like a Dave and Busters – but with an attached water park, another one of those bizarre juxtapositions Kalahari is so good at creating.
It is easy to spend at least half a day playing these games. I won 1,000 tickets by toasting the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in a “Ghostbusters” game and had a blast pummeling pop-up clowns with an onslaught of rubber balls. The carnival feel is real here.
The attractions impressed me less, obviously purchases made from third party vendors that were simply plopped in place at the hotel. There’s a blacklight mini golf course that’s fairly standard for shopping malls across the country. There is a “4-D” movie that’s less than impressive as well as a laser maze that’s pretty typical as well.
Coming soon is a small Egyptian-themed escape room that appears to be another off-the-shelf purchase.
But the highlight of the bunch is the unique VR experience called The Arena, offering two different 15-minute fully immersive games. This free-roaming VR experience is a first-to-market endeavor from Zero Latency, a company that has also set up a similar attraction in Orlando.
It’s an impressive and fun use of virtual reality that is sure to wow any guest who has never strapped on modern-day VR technology. Though it can be clunky at times, this experience definitely speaks well for the future of VR.
(I’ll share more about The Arena in a separate article here on ITM soon.)
Kalahari Resorts Poconos has no shortage of places to eat. Since opening in 2015, they’ve already had a decent selection of offerings in the hotel’s lobby, including a gastropub, bar, standard table service restaurant, and buffet. (Skip the breakfast buffet if you can. It’s a bit of a mess.)
As part of its recently-opened expansion, the resort now features two new signature dining restaurants: Double Cut Charcoal Grill and Sortino’s Italian Kitchen.
Double Cut is a steakhouse that’s an original concept for Kalahari, but could easily be featured in any high-end shopping and dining district around the country. It has a sleek, modern feel that’s perfect for an elevated evening for adults. Kids are allowed into this restaurant, which may be a mistake on the resort’s part as by the end of a rather lengthy meal nearly every young one was squirming and ready to move on. (It’s hard to resist the temptation of that ever-present water park just down the hall.)
Double Cut’s cocktails are delightful and gorgeous but it really shines in its selection of charcoal-grilled entrees. The veal chop is particularly good, though you really can’t go wrong with any of their steaks. The restaurant’s family style sides are a bit lacking in originality or boldness, easily tossed aside in favor of focusing on the meat. Among the appetizers, the braised beef tacos are a must-have as well.
Sortino’s Italian Kitchen isn’t quite as clear with its direction, sitting somewhere in the middle of a classic old-school Italian restaurant and a modern open-kitchen concept. It’s a little confusing.
But even the pickiest Italian eater (like myself) will find delight in its dishes. While the garlic bread severely lacks garlic, the entrees live up to expectations. The red sauce is delicate, not overly salted or acidic like so many establishments. Pasta is cooked well, with some made in-house.
The highlight of a night at Sortino’s, however, is dessert – specifically, the “Cannoli Cart.” It’s like table-side guacamole, but for a cannoli. You choose your shell, filling, and toppings, and can select up to three of them for $12. Sweet, delicious, and not a bad price at all.
On opening weekend, it was clear the wait staff and kitchen were not fully ready for the influx of guests, as many complaints were registered with managers about how long it took to get food out, sometimes more than 2 hours. Again, this was not a kid-friendly experience as the little ones tend to have little patience for their food, especially at the end of the day.
But as the weeks move on, Kalahari will no doubt fine tune the flow, resulting in two much-needed additions to round out the resort’s offerings. I wouldn’t eat anywhere else on property.
I went into Kalahari without knowing what to expect. Coming from the high expectations of Orlando’s world class hotels, I worried that I’d find Kalahari to be underwhelming.
But I left completely fulfilled, having experienced a weekend of simple fun surrounded by an unexpectedly warm welcome – snowy weather and all.
It is refreshing to travel somewhere where you don’t feel like just another body, moving through the turnstiles with tens of thousands of others. Kalahari manages to strike a perfect balance between being quite successful at bringing thousands of guests in each weekend while still maintaining a fun, family atmosphere where no one feels overlooked or undervalued.
For those who frequent Walt Disney World and are looking for a similar family-friendly trip elsewhere, you won’t be disappointed by branching out to stay at Kalahari Resorts Poconos, particularly in the winter time. There is truly nothing like comfortably lounging in an African-themed hotel in a swimsuit while watching the snow gently fall outside. It’s the oddest sensation that I’d be happy to return to one day.
Find out more information including pricing and availability at KalahariResorts.com.
More photos from Kalahari Resorts Poconos: