By Hilary Danailova
From the venerable attractions of Disney to just-opened resorts, waterparks around the country are stepping up their game with thrilling new rides to wow guests old and new.
What do many of these rides have in common? Exclusivity and speed. From Colorado’s first simulated beach to groundbreaking aquatic coasters, waterparks are offering high-octane experiences that are new to their regions.
There are watery coasters, downhill slides at ever-faster speeds, waves to surf, and multi-lane racing rides that encourage whole families to compete. There’s even a simulated shoreline at Water World Colorado in suburban Denver, which this year debuted what Manager and Communications Director Joann Cortez described as “the first beach in a completely landlocked state.”
That would be Cowabunga Beach, marketed as the first such ride of its kind in the U.S. and already a hit for its three jump-off points and surfable waves in a sparkling beach cove. For legions of outdoorsy, thrill-seeking Coloradoans, the $2 million installation — on the site of a former wading pool — is an opportunity to transfer their snowboarding skills to the waves, Cortez said. “You have to time it perfectly to catch that wave and get a ride,” she explained, noting that 30 people at a time can join in, with traffic up to 1,000 people per hour.
A high-traffic, highly visual attraction was the goal at Water World, a community-owned, 37-year-old quasi-governmental facility overseen by the local parks department. “We try to add something new every year and a half or so, and we always listen to the guests as they’re coming to the park to determine what would be most meaningful,” said Cortez. With Cowabunga Beach, she added, “everything turned out just swimmingly” – so to speak.
Many of the newest rides at waterparks nationwide are high-speed watery slides or coasters, often with steep and abrupt drops – such as the Drop Tower at the Kalahari Resort Waterpark in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., where a young, adrenaline-hungry clientele piles into chambers that drop down a slide and open from the bottom with a giant splash.
At Kalahari’s other locations, Thatcher Robertson, the resorts’ director of waterparks, has observed that patrons are flocking to aquatic takes on high-speed coasters. The Pocono Manor, Pa., waterpark, which opened last summer, features an “Anaconda” coaster-style boat slide, while the Sandusky, Ohio, location has a Zip Coaster, a conveyor belt that zips around watery curves at 20 miles per hour, said Robertson. “The roller coaster concept in itself is popular,” he explained.
At Sahara Sam’s Oasis Indoor & Outdoor Water Park in West Berlin, N.J., the new, 10,000-square-foot Mirage attraction opened this summer with “Tut’s Twisters,” two head-first racing slides, said Brandon Moore, vice president of operations. In Gulf Shores, Ala., six to eight people can race through the water on a new raft ride at Waterville USA – “something the whole family can enjoy together, and a popular ride all over the country, but [that] nobody else along the Gulf Coast within 80 miles of us has,” explained General Manager John Turberville.
Another relatively new ride at Waterville USA, 2014’s six-lane mat racer, is wildly popular for its competitive thrills: six lanes coming down from a 60-foot tower, making a 360-degree horizontal loop, then coming down a steep hill, said Turberville. “It grabs the eye, and it’s thrilling,” he noted.
That steep drop sensation also powers thrills on the Jersey Shore, where a new “aqua drop” slide at Jenkinson’s Breakwater Beach Water Park splashes riders from way up high. And in Riviera Beach, Fla., Rapids Water Park sends its riders down seven stories at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour on its new Brain Drain enclosed capsule tube slides, where the floor drops out from underneath.
“It received a lot of media coverage, including one of our local TV station’s morning anchors screaming all the way down,” noted Bryan Megrath, the park’s general manager. “It went viral.” Megrath said social media has fueled the Brain Drain’s success, with riders tagging their friends and daring them to try it – and bringing new crowds to a 36-year-old park that sees about 400,000 visitors annually.
Indeed, Instagram-worthiness is an important factor in the popularity of this year’s drop slides, racing lanes and wave installations. Breakwater Beach, Manager Maria Mastoris said a recently added wave pool was “a definite hit,” with a photo-ready waterfall gushing from the adjacent mini-golf course. “It’s really attractive to look at,” said Mastoris, who added that after last year’s major renovations, the park is waiting before adding more rides.
While some waterparks are planning expansions with new rides for 2017, managers marvel at the enduring appeal of some of the oldest installations. The Teamboat Springs family raft ride at Disney’s Blizzard Beach waterpark in Orlando, Fla., is a longtime favorite that’s still the most-popular attraction there, according to Senior Duty Manager Ron Hood.
Meanwhile, the classic wave pool at Disney’s nearby Typhoon Lagoon waterpark in Lake Buena Vista – the country’s largest wave pool, Hood noted – remains the resort centerpiece, drawing perpetual crowds. Even without any new rides for 2016, “they continue to be two of the most visited waterparks in the world,” Hood said, adding that lines are typically shorter than those at Disney’s more famous theme parks – “and you get a whole lot wetter.”
At waterparks everywhere, low-impact, family-friendly rides like lazy rivers and wave pools top the list of classic rides that draw consistent crowds year after year, according to park managers. “The lazy river is always something that everyone loves, especially during the heat waves we’ve just had,” said Mastoris. “It’s a way to relax for every age.”
The FlowRider line of surfing rides is also a hit at parks across the country, attracting novices as well as experienced boarders eager to show off their moves. At both Sahara Sam’s and Rapids Water Park, managers said the FlowRider is among the most popular rides, along with giant slides, wave pools and lazy rivers. The 25,000-square-foot wave pool is also perpetually mobbed at Waterville USA, according to Turberville, while the FlowRider never loses its appeal – for spectators as well as participants. “It’s a show, man,” laughed the manager. “People ride it over and over, they learn to body board and do standup surfing on it. And they enjoy watching others do it.”
Like many of her colleagues with decades in the business, Water World’s Joann Cortez noted that family-friendliness – offering something for everyone — is the common denominator behind successful rides, old or new. “We pride ourselves on variety,” said Cortez. “If people want to kick back and have that lazy river experience, they can do that, but we want to have a lot to offer, from the friendly to the ferocious.”
The durability of waterpark staples explains why many new installations are essentially spiffier versions of the classics – such as the 100,000-square-foot expansion at Kalahari’s Poconos waterpark, due to open in March 2017, which will have a wave pool, a FlowRider, and a bi-level lazy river with a conveyor belt that transfers riders between levels, said Robertson.
And at waterparks everywhere, one area remains sacrosanct: the kiddie pool. Robertson learned that the hard way when he closed the always-mobbed children’s area for renovations. “I got more heck for that, and I will never close that again,” recalled Robertson with a rueful chuckle. “Anything else I can close, but not that. The kids just love it. I learned my lesson real quick.” ∝