Waking up one summer morning, the first thing Miss Three said was: "Are we going to Rainbow Springs today, please?" That night, the last thing she uttered was, "I love Rainbow Springs" (although I hadn't fulfilled her wish to go) and promptly fell into a deep sleep, no doubt filled with dreams about her new favourite place.
Ever since we visited the Rotorua native wildlife park in January, Miss Three has spoken daily of her wish to return. Clearly, the place has had an impact. Then again, a boat ride along a lazy river, past roaring dinosaurs and a soaring Haast's eagle, which ends with a plunge over a 12m ravine will make an impression on a junior adrenalin junkie. So will a live bird show with brightly coloured exotic parrots soaring overhead.
It's nearly a three-hour drive from Auckland to Rotorua; a little less from our place on the city's southern flank. Either way, if you're going for a day trip you want to leave early and have a clear idea of what you want to do to maximise your time.
On the day we drove through Cambridge and Tirau - love those corrugated iron art works and sculptures - along the Thermal Explorer Highway. We had our sights set on one destination: Rainbow Springs. The kids had seen newspaper and TV ads, which seemed to be on high rotate during the summer holidays, and focused on the Big Splash (more on that later).
Pester power won out and on a blisteringly hot day, we headed south. It's cool inside the park with shade provided by native trees and a multitude of streams and pools - packed full of fat trout and long fin eels - keeping temperatures pleasant. It's $99 for a family pass. Two adults, two kids, although those under 4 get in free, and additional children pay just $8. That raised eyebrows among friends, but I think it's a price well worth paying.
It gives you entry to the 8.9ha park which revolves around Rainbow Springs' role as the country's largest and most successful kiwi conservation centre. There are four brown kiwi in the nocturnal house and two in an outdoor, glass-free enclosure for night viewing. Because tickets are valid for repeat entry on the day of purchase, you can return at night to see these two. Separated from the kiwi by just a knee-high fence, there's something special about being so near to our national bird in a habitat as close to natural as you can get.
In addition to kiwi, Rainbow Springs has 15 breeds of native birds including a hand-reared kea called Jenny who's quite the entertainer. Most of the birds, which include kaka, tui, weka, banded rail, kereru and ruru (morepork), are in free flight aviaries so you can walk among them. There, are regular keeper talks - we passed two in progress - and if you get there early enough, you can help feed the birds their breakfast.
Rainbow Springs has a well-appointed tuatara and exotic lizard enclosure, which we passed through on our way to the Big Splash.
Opened in January 2012, the $10 million ride combines adventure with education. It's a nine-minute water ride in which boats (each holding up to eight people) drift through NZ's ecological history starting with prehistoric times, characterised by a roaring animatronic dinosaur, onwards into pivotal moments in our development, namely Maori then European settlement.
Complemented by further animatronics (the Haast's eagle, for example) and projection technology, running commentary provides sobering information about the impact humans have had on ecology, but also offers a message of hope by urging us all to do our bit for the environment.
The final thrill is a 12m plunge into a small lake - the Big Splash - which is a guaranteed rush as well as a way to cool down, because you're going to get wet.
We then saw the exotic bird show (also included in the entrance price) which features avian "artists" who obviously enjoy playing for a crowd - and it was a large crowd that gathered in the purpose-built auditorium to see macaws, galahs and sulphur-crested cockatoos do their stuff. All parrots, these are among the most intelligent birds on Earth and they seem to benefit from and enjoy the stimulation they get from performing.
After about half an hour of watching their games, tricks and general antics, we headed to the children's playground. This opened shortly after the Big Splash and as the kids weren't tired out, they enjoyed swinging, sliding, climbing and using the flying-fox.
We exited through enclosures of exotic birds and the gift shop. As an attraction with appeal to local and international visitors, this is well-stocked and I would be neglectful if I didn't end by saying Miss Three thoroughly enjoyed picking out a stuffed toy kiwi to take home as a memento. Aside from another ride on the Big Splash, I think she'd like to come back to Rainbow Springs to do some more shopping.
Need to know
Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park is at 192 Fairy Springs Rd, Fairy Springs, Rotorua, and opens daily from 8.30am until late. The Big Splash operates daily from 9am-5pm and is included in the ticket price. You can ride as often as you like as long as you are 80cm tall if accompanied by an adult or 110cm tall if not. Call (07) 350 0440 or see rainbowsprings.co.nz