Aaron Smith was on a mission.
He wanted to be the first one down the water slide in Harford County's first water park.
The 9-year-old waited at the Arena Club in Bel Air on opening day until the lifeguards cut the yellow tape blocking the park entrance.
The Elkton resident made a beeline for the slide and was first in line. He climbed the stairs to the 25-foot structure and got into the ready position at the top of the tunnel-like slide. The lifeguard gave the signal, and Aaron let go. About 10 seconds later, he flew off the end of the slide, crashing into the water in the landing pool.
After pulling himself from the water, he gave the unmistakable sign of approval - two enthusiastic thumbs up.
"I thought it would be scary," Aaron said, shaking water off his hands. "I was afraid it was going to snap when I was on it, but it held up. It goes fast, but it was fun."
With the arrival of summer, pool operators across the county have opened the doors to a growing crush of swimmers looking to wash away the effects of heat and humidity. And despite the new water park at the Arena Club, pool managers say they are expecting another season of big crowds.
Across town at the Bel Air Athletic Club, pool manager Lauren Harris said the club's five pools have been packed every afternoon.
"It's a sea of people," she said.
Membership typically increases in the summer, but the county's population growth has sent it soaring, Harris said. A club membership is required to use the pools.
"For the last couple of months, all of the sales people have met their membership quotas," she said.
The Arena Club built its water park to help relieve crowding in its four pools, as well as to separate recreational swimmers from lap swimmers and seniors, said owner Kathy Rawlings.
"It's a place where people of all ages can have fun and not worry about who gets splashed," she said.
The new facility has two 125-foot-long twisting slides and a T-shaped pool with water basketball hoops and a retractable volleyball net. At one end of the pool is a 9-foot-deep diving well that includes a diving board. Palm trees shipped from Florida surround the pool.
On opening day, more than 300 people showed up. At times, every poolside lounge chair was occupied, as were spots at picnic tables around the complex.
The water park is free for club members. Walk-in visitors can pay $25 for an all-day pass.
Cooling off with her three children, Amy Cassilly of Bel Air said the water park provides a new option for family use and is just what the county needs to spice up the summer for youngsters.
"By midsummer, going to the pool gets boring," she said. "The water park adds excitement and it will keep the kids busy until school starts again."
Her 7-year-old son, Ned, agreed.
"I like this pool because it has really deep water and the water slides are awesome," he said.
Cassilly predicts that the park will attract people from other pools in the county that are crowded at times. Some pools, such as the Fallston Swim Club, have waiting lists. The club has had a two-year waiting list for the past few years, but manager Marge Quinn said that the projected wait is optimistic given the low turnover rate. Annual dues are $400 at the 750-member club, which has four pools.
"Currently there are 185 families on the waiting list," said Quinn. "And we only lose about 60 or so families a year."
In some cases, once people become members, they stay members, she said.
"We have people that have been members since the club opened in 1969," Quinn said. "Others are members as children and when they grow up, they join the club with their children."
Other clubs in the area, including Mariner's Point and the Aberdeen Swim Club, are experiencing a rise in membership.
At Mariner's Point, membership is 20 percent above the same time last year, said manager Rachel Fishbain.
And Mark Bonitatibus, the manager of the Aberdeen facility, said he's noticed an increase in the number of walk-in guests.
Lisa Coskun of Bel Air joined the Arena Club just to use the water park.
Coskun, 33, stood in line behind her 8-year-old son Brendon for a chance to zip down one of the slides. After testing slides at water parks such as one at Walt Disney World, Coskun couldn't resist taking a spin on the local ones.
"I'm a connoisseur of water slides," she said. "I'm just a big kid at heart."
And even though Brendon said he was nervous about heights, the thrill of the ride was too much for him to miss.
"It just looks so awesome. I have to try it," he said.
Alas, there was a hitch. After about a dozen people rode down, the water squirting down the slide stopped. About 50 people who were in line had to come down off the structure and wait for about 30 minutes for repairs to be completed. The other slide needed a part and wasn't scheduled to open for a few days.
"These slides are very technical, and we have to take every precaution to keep it safe and fun for everyone," said Julie Roby, the marketing director.
Across the park, Ann Vogt of Bel Air benefited from swimmers' attraction to the new slides. She luxuriated in the hot tub alone - something she said rarely happened in summers past.
"This is just wonderful," she said. "I can sit here and relax while the kids play in the water park. What could be better than that?"