America’s waterpark wasteland could fuel a huge boom in wave pools

Take a look at America’s cultural waste bin and you’ll find alongside those neon Gotcha thigh-high shorts the bleached-out fiberglass waterslides born in the Regan era. But all things old become new again. Don’t they? Sometimes they even make sense. And while something like a retro fixed-gear bike doesn’t really make sense, a dilapidated waterpark transformed into a next-generation wave pool makes perfect sense. Rebirth and all that.

Building a surf park is a huge undertaking requiring land acquisition, infrastructure, zoning, neighborhood restrictions and more. By having a few of these needs already met, development can move along much quicker.

“Some of the biggest challenges for a surf park development are land-use zoning and access to water,” says Skip Taylor of Surf Park Management. “These legacy commercial water park projects provide developers with both. Plus they have parking and other civil hookup infrastructure to allow a much quicker entry into surf pool marketplace.”

In Utah, the old Raging Waters facility in the Glendale section of Salt Lake City, looks post-apocalyptic. Standing water, rusted-out machinery and broken features make the one-time family fun destination a liability for the city.

Over the years the 17-acre site went through a series of names including Wild Wave, Raging Waters and Seven Peaks, all with the wave pool as the central feature. It has been closed since 2018 and now city officials and contractors are running through bids to price the tear-down work. Costs to disassemble what remains of the water park are projected to be between $500,000 and $600,000, about what cafe and surf shop facility construction costs at several of today’s surf parks.

Glendale Community Council Chair Turner Bitton told a local news station that it’s rare to find property at that size in such a central location.

“We have a really great opportunity here as it’s hard to find that kind of undeveloped land in a community that’s growing,” said Bitton.

He added that they are reaching out to the community to get input from residents on what would best suit the neighborhood saying that the space is large enough to accommodate several community usage areas. But what it will become, they don’t know.

Glendale Community Council has come up with five scenarios for a “shared vision.” They include remaining a water park, becoming a water feature and open use area with splash pad and public pool or a mixed-use water feature recreation space with sports courts and a park. Estimates to repair the water park to its former glory are estimated at $20million according to Salt Lake City. The cost for an Endless Surf ES4800 wave pool is around $16 million.

1300 miles east in Little Rock Arkansas the Wild River Country water park sits abandoned as well. Although not in as much disrepair as its Utah counterpart, the 26-acre facility’s 13 attractions sit empty and dilapidated. Julian Jones of Little Rock made the recommendation that the abandoned waterpark Wild River Country could be repurposed and renovated to house surfing while still remaining a key community element as a family waterpark.

First opened in 1985, the waterpark was bustling for three decades hosting up to 1800 people at a time during heat waves. It was popular with church groups, kids and even hosted an “adults only night” with booze.

The best example of an abandoned-water-park-to-surf-pool feel-good story is the Wet N’ Wild Palm Springs attraction that Cheyne Magnusson and Tom Lochtefeld are currently transforming. The old facility’s Riptide Reef attraction is the same pool used in the movie “The North Shore” and became an internet celebrity this summer with everyone from Mason Ho to Blair Conklin performing in the newly crated surf.

The financial motor behind the new desert surf project is SoCal’s Pono Partners, LLC who purchased the site from Wet N Wild in January 2019 with an eye on family inclusivity.

“We are going to build a state-of-the-art wave pool as our centerpiece,” Pono CEO James Dunlop said at the time. “We are going to provide a new experience for families to enjoy.”

Co-founder of Pono Eric Munoz echoed how the waterpark-to-surf-utopia route.

“We’re very excited to call the shots and deliver our own brand to Palm Springs,” said Munoz. “This is the future of surfing. We are very fortunate to open in Palm Springs for a number of reasons. Because we’re going into an existing water park, this will also really accelerate our delivery.”

“Tom Lochtefeld presented us with the opportunity and right when he mentioned it I definitely connected the dots on all the advantages of doing so,” says Cheyne Magnusson. “We made the case to our investors and inner circle… But the credit belongs to Tom for coming up with the plan and we (Palm Springs Surf Club) were fortunate enough to see the vision and be able to execute with him. Tom is a legend!”

Nick Hounsfield’s pioneering journey to create The Wave in a sheep paddock in Bristol spanned 10 years and three separate wave-making technologies. Skip Taylor added that revamping last century’s attractions could become the fast-track du jour to create surf-able wave pools if future projects take notes from Palm Springs.

“I am sure we will be seeing more of this type of project development in the future with other defunct or struggling waterpark locations becoming new, vibrant surf attractions.”

We spoke with Central Arkansas resident and writer Julian Jones about the Little Rock water park…

“What would you see as a best use scenario for the space?”
Wild River Country has been such a staple in the Central Arkansas community since the 80s. This was the waterpark everyone here looked forward to opening when spring would come around. The local grocery stores would sell tickets as well as have family coupons available. While we do have Magic Springs in Hot Springs, their water feature Crystal Falls didn’t come until later, and with such a large water park as Wild River Country was, you didn’t have to drive 40+ minutes to Hot Springs to visit one. WRC would have special days like Church group Sundays, Night Water, as well as a number of other events. Plus every few years they would add a new water slide or attraction to the park. One of the biggest thing about the waterpark was if you had a seasonal pass, you were somebody. 

With the park being closed and for sale, and on top of that due to its vacancy, being vandalized, everyone’s memories and experiences have been affected by its current state of disrepair. I personally remember going to the waterpark a couple of years ago on a Sunday after work just to chill in the wave pool for the evening before going skating that night. 

What I envisioned for the space or would like to have happen is first have the park recognized as a historic entertainment location for Arkansas, in hopes that this would make it eligible for grants for renovations or improvements to help bring it back to life. I would like for the waterpark to still have its water slide and entertainment features and to have the wavepool updated with modern technology that would produce nice beautiful surfable waves in a safe environment. The wavepool can function like it used to with family-friendly waves, and then be able to have sizeable waves for surfing events and exhibitions. With the waterpark next to Interstate 430 and Interstate 40, it is an ideal location for surfers or interested parties passing through Arkansas. The adapted wavepool could also be part of a major surf feature project within Central Arkansas for the years to come. 

“How do you think the community would react to a wave pool?”
I believe the community would be ecstatic at the idea that first of all the waterpark isn’t going anywhere, that it is here to stay, that it will be renovated and modernized, as well as have a new surfing feature. This would be the first of it’s kind for Arkansas, aside from the Flow Rider feature at Magic Springs Crystal Falls. We have quite a large middle age (30-50) base group here in Central Arkansas that I feel would take a big interest in the surf feature. 

“Could we see some promising surf talent come out of Little Rock in 5-10 years?”
This I do see, Arkansas has alot of natural features for the outdoor type from hiking to swimming, and a surfable wavepool waterpark would be one of the top favorites for the locals. It would put Arkansas on the map as a prime central location for surfing lessons for students and general public, bridging the gap from here to anywhere that they may choose to compete in. Also, it would give local surf board collectors an added purpose other than a wall ornament, table holding plants or a conversational trophy piece on a car or truck.