If you haven't been to King Spa & Sauna, you're missing out on one of the most unique cultural experiences in Dallas. Called jjimjilbangs in Korea, these sometimes gender-segregated, sometimes co-ed bath houses offer an opportunity to detoxify (whatever that means) in ornately decorated saunas, eat Korean food, have a massage, sleep, maybe even sing a little karaoke while you're there.
Until a few months ago, King Spa was largely a place to go when you wanted to sweat out a few months worth of brown liquor and late-night Whataburger. Now, though, King Spa offers a new kind of relaxation with a brand new water park that is practically a grown up's version of Hurricane Harbor. As always, it's about to be hotter than hell in this city. Sure, you can always go jump in the pool at your apartment complex or desperately douse yourself with a water hose, but King Waterpark is like a mini-vacation to South Korea while you try to stay cool, without the jet lag.
See: Best of Dallas 2009
As soon as you walk through the turnstile, you're immediately ushered into a locker room where you can shuck your clothes and change into a bathing suit. After changing, you walk through a hallway into the water park, where things really start to get interesting. People relax in huge pools equipped with massaging jets and high-pressure shower head, perfect for massaging away muscle tension.
Mercifully, the kiddie pools are separated from the rest of the park. There were only a few stray children running around the "adult" side of the park, and a stern looking lifeguard put the kibosh on any horseplay soon after it started. Unlike the public pool, there's an unspoken agreement that everyone is at King Waterpark to relax, so there are no annoying loud drunks or unruly packs of dudebros to kill your vibe.
It can get loud inside the park, but the noise is actually somewhat calming. There's no pressure to maintain conversation, which means that you can just lay back and enjoy the people-watching, and it is certainly prime. It was especially interesting to watch guests who had no clue what they were getting themselves into begin to relax and enjoy the unique atmosphere.
If you're really looking to have a relaxing day, King Waterpark is a relatively economical alternative to European-style day spas. The spa had always offered massage services before, but the new water park space has added a full menu of traditional spa services. In addition to massage, you can now get facials, manicures, and body scrub in their new, extremely luxe spa setting. You can forget about all those racist jokes about seedy "happy endings" massage parlors, too -- the atmosphere here is as professional as any spa in a five-star hotel.
But it doesn't always resemble the spas that we're used to in the States. In one of the massage rooms, there was a bed filled with small, brown pebbles used for some kind of therapy, I never quite figured out what they were for. Aestheticians offered facials that promised "anti-aging" properties and acne reduction. The science behind most of these treatments may be dubious, but those scores of Korean grandmothers who line up to get these "magic cell scrubs" and green tea treatments might be on to something -- they all look much younger than most of the old white ladies I see walking around.
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The food court in the water park area is a much more Americanized version than the restaurant inside the spa. At the spa, you'll find a variety of traditional Korean dishes, including bibimbap and eggs that are slowly baked for hours in the spa's "fire sudatorium." The food court menu looks a lot like ballpark fare, with fried chicken sandwiches and burgers, but there are plenty of very Korean influences. You can still grab a fresh apple-carrot juice, or a drink made with aloe vera jelly if you're doing the whole detoxification thing.
Jjimjilbangs are a huge part of Korean culture. In South Korea, families flock to jjimjilbangs to both relax after a busy week and socialize with friends and family. In Dallas, though, people of all races and cultures were enjoying the water park. I shared a hot tub with a young Korean family who was there with their two children, then later eavesdropped on two Australian women who were traveling on business.
Some of King Waterpark's more traditional elements require a little adjusting for puritanical Americans. You'll have to get naked amongst a bunch of strange people of your gender in the locker room, and there will be a number of things that you just won't recognize. There are also swimsuits that you can rent to wear while visiting, which seemed a bit odd considering that you can't even buy a swimsuit in a store without trying it on with underwear. Still, while Korean television played on most of the screens, I watched Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta while getting my nails done.
The quirkiness and unfamiliarity of it all are where the fun lies, and it's impossible to not feel at least a little adventurous while you're here. Stepping into King Waterpark may be a complete culture shock, but there are still plenty of ways to be a boring American tourist while you're there. It may not be your thing to eat acorn jelly or lounge around in sweaty saunas all day, but King Waterpark will prove to be an oasis in the middle of our concrete city once this beautiful spring turns into hell on Earth.