Iowa is famous for being the most productive corn-producing land in the United States. It is not surprising that you could drive for miles and see nothing but cornfields punctuated with a scattering of gently rolling hills. What you may not expect to find in the middle of this agricultural landscape is an island oasis, complete with palm trees and tiki huts. No, it’s not a mirage. What you have stumbled across is The Lost Island Water Park, the “island of lost souls.”
The Lost Island marks its 10-year anniversary this year. The facility opened in 2001 as a result of a family dream made reality. Gary and Becky Bertch knew nothing about running a waterpark. In the 1970s they started a cabinet manufacturing business that did very well and eventually provided the capital to build The Lost Island. What they did know about waterparks was how much they enjoyed spending time at them with their two children, Eric and Elizabeth. According to their son Eric Bertch, co-owner and general manager of the park, “They were waterpark nuts, traveling to places such as Florida, California, the Caribbean and Texas just to try out a new park.” In the early 1990s, when Eric was getting towards the end of his high school career, the family took a trip to Wisconsin Dells to visit Noah’s Ark Water Park. His father and grandfather, who were in the construction industry, started discussing whether or not something like this could survive in Iowa. The concept started out as a joke but around 1996 they conducted a feasibility study to see if a venture like this could stand on its own. Initially the idea started as a philanthropic endeavor with the family wanting to do something for the community. Coming from a completely different background, each member of the family jumped in with both feet and have not looked back since.
They met their designer, Bruce Robinson of Bruce D. Robinson Design Group located in Cincinnati, Ohio, while attending an IAAPA trade show. Bertch commented that Bruce was “one of the best architects they have ever worked with. He welcomed any feedback that the family had and turned out exactly the kind of product they were looking for. He also had some great ideas and was very instrumental in getting us to the final product.” The Bertch family came up with the initial concept and theme, but Bruce had a lot to do with putting it down on paper. The family’s initial investment to get the park open was in the area of $7.5 million dollars. The park sits on 27 acres but there is room to expand on to another 150 acres. They have considered using some of this land to build an indoor waterpark, but have shelved this idea for now. Their current project involves building a campground, which will be part of the KOA franchise, and should be open by 2011. Bruce Robinson is once again working with the family to design the addition, which will utilize a geo-thermal heating system.
Having had no experience in running a waterpark, Bertch noted that their first year was filled with challenges. He felt that the majority of their original client base was primarily due to word of mouth. “I was a pretty shameless promoter in my college years and would take boxes of brochures and put them in every gas station on my way down to Drake, which was two hours away from where the park was located. It was amazing how much of an impact word of mouth had in those early years.” The waterpark did not see much play from radio and TV commercials due to the limited buying power and the time of day the commercials were running. The park saw about 60,000 attendees that first year, which has steadily increased to over 120,000 annually. This year the Bertch’s are hoping to see 150,000 people visit their park.
Bertch believes that you need to be proactive in this industry in order to be successful, commenting that, “If you allow yourself to be stagnant, people will get bored and go somewhere else that’s new.” He feels it is important to keep things fresh. When the park opened in 2001, it included five water slides, a wave pool, a lazy river and two children’s play areas. There was also a satellite facility with an 18-hole miniature golf course and a 1,500-linear-foot go-kart track. In 2002, a second 18-hole miniature golf course was added. In 2003, there was a major expansion to the waterpark with the addition of a family raft ride, the Proslide CannonBOWL™ ride, and a second restaurant facility. Between the 2004 and 2005 seasons, another minor waterslide and a double sided play area with a deep end for water volleyball, basketball and crawl nets on one side and a play area geared towards infants and toddlers on the other side were all added. Two-thousand and six saw the addition of the Molokini Crater – a Proslide TORNADO™, a one-of-a-kind ride that begins with a dark tunnel and a full 45-degree drop, accelerating riders into the immense funnel at a pulse-pounding 20 mph and propelling riders high up the opposite side of the funnel to experience a momentary Zero-Gee experience. At the time this ride was placed in the park, there were only a total of 20 of them in the world. Not surprisingly, the TORNADO™ is one of the most popular rides in the park. Bertch said they positioned this ride so the large funnel end is open to the rest of the park, which acts as a megaphone so the guests can hear people screaming as they ride it.
The family took a break in 2007, but added yet another attraction for 2008 with a new four-lane OctopusRACER™. Lost Island will open the 2010 season with the addition of the HydroMAGNETIC ROCKET™. This ride is a one-of-a-kind, four-person in-line water coaster that utilizes a combination of water lubrication and downhill and uphill gravity so riders experience the “magnetic pull” of the ascent followed by the exhilarating speeds of the downhill. Bertch feels that they are staying on the cutting edge of waterparks considering there are only two other HydroMagnetic Rockets in the United States at this time.
The decade of hard work has paid off for the Bertch family. What started out as a summer side business has become a full-time job for the family. Bertch admits that Lost Island has not been marketed as well as it could have been over the years as he has come in contact with people in the Waterloo area that do not know about Lost Island. This has prompted the family to hire their first new full-time employee since opening in 2001. Briley Peters now oversees marketing for the park, starting with the promotion of their 10-year anniversary. As part of their 10-year “Island Fest” celebrations, concerts have been added, fireworks will be set off on the 10th of every month, and contests and events will be facilitated throughout the summer. This summer the park will be hosting an overnight stay for RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), the oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world. Participants come from all over the world. (RAGBRAI XXXVIII will wind through northern Iowa from Sioux City to Dubuque from July 25-31. Ten thousand riders will navigate the 442-mile route.)
As part of the new marketing efforts, the marketing department is expanding and maximizing the website to try to attract more people from outside of the region. There are about 90,000 people within a 20-45 minute drive. Waterloo and Cedar Falls make up the closest towns. The next largest urban population is Des Moines, which is about 100 miles away. Bertch explains, “Based on our very ‘unscientific’ method of determining where our guests are coming from, which is to stroll through the parking lot on occasion and look at the license plates, we see about 70 percent coming from 45 minutes or further away.” The majority of the season pass holders come from Cedar Rapids and as far away as Des Moines. The park has recently started utilizing social media marketing opportunities and is currently on Facebook. Bertch stated that even with his limited knowledge of technology, within the first four months of launching their Facebook page, they had over 5,000 fans. The majority of people to initially join were season pass holders who want to know what is happening in the park.
The Lost Island’s newest neighbor is the Isle Casino and Hotel, which opened in 2007 and is located just north of the park. According to Bertch, the Isle Casino property owners felt there was a natural synergy between the waterpark and the hotel/casino. They felt it would be great to have the waterpark as a neighbor, especially considering that the properties have similar themes, with the casino’s being a Caribbean theme and the park having a Polynesian theme. The destination area creates a southern island feel in the middle of Iowa.
What are the major challenges of operating a seasonal waterpark?
With a smile, Bertch answers instantly: “The major operating costs must be constantly evaluated. These are (in no specific order) insurance, chemicals, water, and of course payroll. Our great challenge is striving to instill a work ethic for the staff (16-22 years old.) The trend has become more where they really don’t need a summer job. We provide orientation/training, especially for the lifeguards and show them that the job can be both fun as well as rewarding.” Bertch is optimistic that over the next few years, due to the economy, that the work ethic of teens throughout the United States will improve quite a bit.
Bertch summarizes with this, “I feel that The Lost Island is one of the best kept secrets in the Midwest. When people are visiting the area from out of town, they’re expecting it is going to be miserable going to a waterpark in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa. Yet when they walk in, their mouths drop. They cannot believe where this beautiful oasis is located. You feel like you are on a tropical island, not in the middle of a cornfield.” –
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