Best Water Park 2015 | Big Surf | Fun & Games | Phoenix

At 13, we rode our 10-speed to Big Surf in Tempe with a friend on one of the hottest days of the year and suffered from a small bout of heat exhaustion, vomiting what little breakfast we'd had on the side of McClintock Drive. With only enough money to get in, we quenched our thirst from the water fountain and ate ketchup from our fingers, pretending we had fries to go along with it. It was one of the best days ever. We took our pilfered rafts to near the wall where the waves start, riding them across the backs of other swimmers waiting for the surge to take them, too. When we grew bored of the rafts, we gave them to some little kids and tried to body-surf among the crowds of bikini-clad women, muscled dudes, and children who hopefully held their pee until the bathroom. Decades later, amazingly, we can have the exact same experience — only better, because not only do we drive and have the money to pay for lunch, but because Big Surf is better than it used to be. Featured in a 1960s National Geographic issue, Big Surf has changed dramatically over the years to include an array of water slides (some not for the timid) and a play area for smaller kids. The sand that nearly produced third-degree burns in the summer has been long replaced by cooler Astroturf. The staff is more professional than ever, keeping an eye out for mischievous 13-year-olds. We try not to cause too much trouble for the sake of our kids.

Let's be honest, there's no substitute for Las Vegas. But if you've got money to burn and no time (or urge) to travel, Talking Stick Resort will be happy to accommodate. Talking Stick is bright and noisy in all the right ways, with more than 50 table games, over 800 slot machines, and the state's largest poker room. Looking for a break? Check out cuisine with themes ranging from Creole to Southwestern, along with plenty of bars and lounges at which to regroup, refresh, and count your winnings.

Readers choice: Talking Stick Resort

Steve Thomas and Mike Lovato are what you'd call old-school gamers. The two grew up during the golden age of arcades (read: the 1980s) when said establishments were dimly lit dens filled with blaring rock music, the glow of pixelated graphics, and dozens of games powered by quarters instead of cash cards. And both have cherished memories of spending countless hours at such spots, battling hordes of invading aliens, maneuvering through mazes while munching dots, or rescuing princesses from dastardly villains. So when Thomas and Lovato, who have become collectors of vintage coin-op games in the ensuing years, wanted to open an arcade of their own, they drew inspiration from some their favorite gaming haunts of the past.

The result is StarFighters Arcade, a 4,000-square-foot joystick joint situated in a Mesa office park near Falcon Field. It features a treasure trove of more than 100 classic titles, including many culled from Thomas and Lovato's collections. As a neon Pac-Man hanging from one wall looks on, gamers of every age gather on weekend nights to get their hands on such old-school favorites as Paperboy, Omega Race, Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Spy Hunter, RoadBlasters, and Tempest. There are also clusters of games grouped together by manufacturer, such as a row dedicated to Williams classics like Sinistar and Moon Patrol, as well as such hard-to-find gems as the 1976 submarine game Sea Wolf or sit-down version of the old Atari dogfight game Red Baron. The arcade, which is open only on Friday and Saturday nights, requires the purchase of a membership, ranging from $14 for a single evening or $30 for a month to $120 for an entire year. It's a small price to pay for a chance to take a trip through a warp zone to gaming's yesteryear.

Readers Choice: Dave & Buster's

Plenty of Phoenicians still shake their heads in disbelief when it's said, but it's true: Sunnyslope is pretty cool. Don't believe us? Look no further than Let It Roll Bowl. The independently owned bowling alley has everything you need when you're rolling, with league meetups and cosmic bowling nights, but its charm goes even deeper. The plush bar is sleek and modern but custom-fitted to the building's original 1962 roots. There's a reason the Somewhat Annual Local First Arizona Independent's Bowl tournament is held at Let It Roll: Its funky vibe fits the groovy event like a perfectly selected pair of bowling shoes. 

For nostalgic adventures in goofy golf, you can putt your colorful balls into a replica of the Alamo on the Flying Dutchman course, nab a hole-in-one along King's Arthur's Quest, or chip some dimples into a castle on the Princess Path. Each of the three 18-hole courses at retro Golfland is nestled within a moat of water slides from the adjacent Sunsplash Water Park, allowing for waterfalls, fountains, and mature foliage to help keep things cool and shady. Obstacles such as loop-the-loops, windmills, and fountains make for classic miniature golf staples with wheelchair-accessible options along each course. Each course is ranked by difficulty and boasts distinct themes with corresponding hazards and traps. Whether you foozle or bag the clutch putt, the classic courses at Golfland make the perfect game plan for a retro family fun night.

For a long time, the Stadium Course at TPC was known for being the location of the Valley's lone PGA Tour stop (even if it changed the name to sound more like a weird bathroom joke and less like a somewhat significant professional golf tournament), but not for being a course worth playing on. Last year, the course underwent considerable renovations, and it now boasts one of the better playing surfaces and atmospheres around. As a bonus, it's pretty sweet to be hitting the same links as the best players in the world do when they roll through town every February.

Phoenix Rock Gym was the first rock-climbing gym in the Valley, and it's retained a strong sense of community over the years. Starting in 1992 on South Roosevelt Street in Tempe, the gym moved after a couple of years to its present location, where it's outlived many other businesses in the Aztec Plaza strip mall. If you used to work out there 10, 15, even 20 years ago, you'll remember some of the same faces. We mean the customers, mainly, but co-founder Paul Diefenderfer, a.k.a. "Dief," still puts in hours there — his short beard perhaps a little grayer.

As old school as this gym is, Dief and the rest have done a good job keeping the place fresh. Taped climbing routes are replaced and rerouted often, and one wall always seems to be under renovation, which is a good thing. The gym hosts several 30-foot top-roping walls, one wing dedicated to lead climbing with an awesome roof section, and two first-rate bouldering rooms. If you have grand outdoor climbing ambitions, this is also a good place to meet an experienced belay partner. Hand strength and forearm muscles may fade, but you can always count on the Phoenix Rock Gym to be there for reconditioning.

When most people think of Arizona, they imagine miles and miles of dry rock, sand, and mountains — and the occasional saguaro. Though we can't deny parts of our state fit that description, those who know better also are aware of places like Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, home of Tonto Natural Bridge Falls. This impressive waterfall spills over the side of the Tonto Natural Bridge, which is known to be the world's largest natural travertine bridge. Visitors can see the 183-foot waterfall from observation decks at the top of the canyon or take the easy 300-foot hike to the bottom to get a dose of perspective and realize the scale of this natural wonder.

We asked a hardcore hiker for his favorite early-morning hike — the one offering the best view of the sunrise. He laughed and replied, "The sun is the last thing I want to see on an early-morning hike!"

Buzzkill. But, hey, we get it. In Phoenix, it's a race against the heat. So instead of a mountaintop, we have a different suggestion for getting a bird's-eye view of the desert sunrise: a ride in a hot air balloon. There are several companies that offer rides at all times of the day — some even include a champagne brunch! — in different parts of the Valley, so we'll leave the Googling to you. Enjoy the view and hold on tight.

Readers Choice: Camelback Mountain

The desert has always been said to have healing powers. Maybe it's the fact that plants, animals, and people are able to thrive in this harsh climate, or maybe there actually is something different about this arid place. If you're going to try to tap into these mysterious environmental powers, South Mountain Park, the world's largest municipal park, is the place to do it and the fourth Sunday of each month is the time. Dubbed Silent Sundays, these specific days are meant for cyclists, skateboarders, wheelchair users, and strollers to take over the roads when the main access points are closed to motor vehicles. Appreciate the park peacefully, and let us know if you find any of those fabled powers.

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