By Hilary Danailova
Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps was on hand to fête the opening of the first U.S. Crystal Lagoon at Epperson, a new residential community in Wesley Chapel, Fla. As jet skis splashed through the sparkling turquoise water, mermaids in shimmering costumes posed on the lagoon’s manmade shores, and guests swayed to Caribbean music, tropical cocktails in hand.
It was a fittingly splashy inaugural for what Tampa-based Metro Development Group is describing as a game changer for both aquatic entertainment and property development — the first manmade, sustainable lagoon, complete with beaches and cabanas, to be installed in an American community using technology from Chile-based Crystal Lagoons. The seven-acre, 16-million-gallon pool, which took two years to build, was certified by the Chilean firm last spring; Metro expects it to open for use later this year, as soon as permitting issues are resolved with local authorities.
“This could honestly change the way that neighborhoods are built if we can make it sustainable and make it work,” said Eric Wahlbeck, the managing director for Metro Lagoons, a division of Metro Development that is planning nine lagoon-centered communities around Florida. “Inquiries from the general public have been overwhelming. We’ve brought the coast inland, and people are anxious to get in that water.”
A Metro Lagoon, he explained, serves as the anchor not only for a planned community, but also for a host of amenities that surround it — water sports and aquatic recreation, bars, restaurants and retail. The lagoon is expansive enough that — unlike a traditional swimming pool — it can serve as an all day activity, event venue, or setting for a wide variety of water sports, from kayaking to paddle boarding and even scuba diving.
Wahlbeck said the Epperson project was conceived about five years ago, when the Metro team decided to up its residential game with a blockbuster amenity that would generate excitement and sell more houses — something flashier than “the traditional model, which puts a golf course in or builds a community pool and walks away,” Wahlbeck added. “Thousands of communities get built like that. We wanted to do something really special.”
Metro anticipates 500 eventual daily visitors to the lagoon, which encompasses several distinct areas: the Gasparilla Island beach, with 500 brown-and-blue lounge chairs, a bath house, and palm trees planted around a manmade island and river; a Wibit aquatic recreation zone featuring a FreeStyle inflatable water slide, an obstacle course, and a retail shop alongside a bar and café; and the Cabana Cave, a fee-entry area with a tropical bar and more restrooms, where guests pay à la carte to rent navy and gray cabanas or umbrella-chair stations by the day.
Wahlbeck emphasized that priority access is reserved for what will eventually be about 12,000 Epperson residents. Metro has sold about 500 homes to a mix of families and seasonal residents, with about 4,000 total home sales projected by 2026. Initially, Metro will open Epperson’s lagoon to non-residents via day passes, but public access will be limited in order to keep residents happy; no lagoon discounts, group sales or other promotions are planned, Wahlbeck said.
“It’s like a golf course: You build it around a community, but you bring in guests to balance the cost,” explained Epperson’s General Manager, Aaron Taylor, a WTS International contractor who oversees everything from grounds and safety operations to the introduction of food, retail and aquatic recreation at the residential community. He pointed out that a Crystal Lagoon requires far less water than a golf course, making it a model for sustainable amenities.
However, any water attraction obviously comes with safety issues unique to aquatic facilities. Metro contracted Star Guard Elite to consult on Epperson’s life safety plan, and the staff will be fully trained in first aid, CPR and the use of on-site safety equipment, with attendants dedicated to monitoring children’s areas, Taylor said. All water depths are clearly marked throughout the attraction, he added, with extensive signage to encourage safety practices.
Like a golf course, the lagoon will also balance both revenue and guest satisfaction through a variety of amenities. “The big thing is catering to families, especially children, because that’s our big drawing point,” Taylor said. A counter-service restaurant will offer family-friendly fare like pizza and chicken fingers, alongside freshly made options like salads and cold sandwiches that appeal more to adults; the facility will eventually be complemented by a food truck with additional options. Several bars, including a swim-up bar, will add a tropical resort touch.
To keep the lagoon area clean, 43 trash and recycling receptacles are strategically placed so that guests can dispose of items at least once every 25 feet, Taylor said. In order to avoid placing ugly trash cans on the waterfront, his staff will walk around picking up litter along the beach and in other sensitive areas; they’ll also keep an eye on the condition of lounge chairs, the slide and other equipment.
For guests who may have forgotten sunscreen or mineral water, a convenience and souvenir shop will sell a variety of sundries adjacent to a swimming area, Taylor said. “We may run scuba lessons, so it’ll double as a scuba shop, and it’s also where we’re doing all our passes for the kayaks, the paddle boards and so forth,” he noted. Most guests won’t be tourists, but Crystal Lagoon logo shirts and branded water bottles will be part of the mix. “The average resident, I don’t know that they’re going to buy a shirt that says where they live,” Taylor said. “Maybe a visitor will. We’ll see.”