Why Orlando is the best place in the world for a new wave pool

There’s always been a heavy Shakespearean duality to Florida. Few places in the universe can hold both pinnacles of happiness and tragic depths of despair. It’s home to Disney World, the happiest place on earth, but many people know it as the place where a guy high on bath salts ate someone’s face. These extremes extend into the wave pool world as well.

Kelly Slater is a Floridian. He built the world’s best wave for surfing in an abandoned waterski ranch in Lemoore. When he tried to build the same wave in his home state it seemed a surefire win. But the gods frowned, opened up a big can of “nope” and dashed the hopes of thousands of surfers.

Typhoon Lagoon is here – the most successful pre-surf park wave pool on the planet. This first-generation design is the glimmer of light that seeded a thesis by former East Coast Surfing Magazine editor Mitch Varnes. His thesis, “Wave Pools: Taking Surfing to A New Level” earned him a Masters’s Degree from Georgetown University. Mitch is turning gears to inspire Florida’s next wave pool development. We spoke with him to find out why the Sunshine State is the best place on earth for a wave pool, and why it’s history suggests it’s the worst place on earth for a wave pool.

Kelly Slater at the Surf Ranch
Kelly Slater tried to bring his wave technology to his home state of Florida but the WSL pulled out of the project citing water table issues – an issue many larger hotel and resort pools have successfully navigated.

First off, Florida doesn’t seem to have much luck with wave pools: Disney in the 1970s, Ron Jon’s, and the Kelly Slater Wave Co all failed or pulled out. Can Florida rise to the occasion and build a surf-focused wave pool?
No question that Florida is a premier location for a surfing wave pool. It is both one of the biggest and fastest-growing states in the nation and has a large core surfing population. Outside of lightning and tropical storms, it is a waterspouts friendly state with warm year-round temperatures. Between Frieda Zamba, Lisa Andersen, CJ Hobgood, and Kelly Slater, Floridians own 20 professional world championship titles. Add in 2019 WSL World Longboard champion Justin Quintal and you have 21 world titles, which I think is about five times as many world championships as Californians have earned.

Typhoon Lagoon at Disneyworld is still relevant (in its own way) part-time wave pool. They are booked out more than 300 evenings and early mornings a year for private surfing events. It is accessible and still kind of fun decades after being built. The Ron Jon Pool was just a poor design – they were smart to pull the plug when they did.

There is no logic explaining the disaster of the Kelly Slater wave pool in South Florida. Anyone who has ever paid to have a swimming pool built in Florida knows that you hit water about three or four feet down in much of the state. The WSL using a high water table as an excuse to cancel the construction of that pool is bogus. Or it means they had a lousy research team working for them. There are some massive resort swimming pools in Florida, so a high water table can certainly be worked around. I think it came down to a cost/reward thing with the WSL recognizing they had picked a poor location and had a loser on their hands. Why they didn’t pick Orlando – other than the fact that Dirk Ziff has lived near the Palm Beach County wave pool site – is beyond me.

Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon kicked off the wave pool dream and inspired many of the projects we see today around the globe.

But why Orlando and not, say, Tampa?
Orlando is basically the center part of the state and just over an hour away from both the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Orlando is the theme park capital of the United States and had more than 77 million visitors in 2019. The core surfer aside, Orlando offers up an opportunity to present surfing to millions of vacationers – something not possible in Tampa or even Miami.

You suggested Wavegarden technology in your thesis. But why not a larger PerfectSwell or Whitewater design?
There are a handful of good machines out there. But I like Wavegarden for its range of waves, reliability, cost and energy efficiency, and overall aesthetics. The build of people coming to a wave pool in Orlando will be beginners or weekend warriors so you want to have the total experience for both advanced surfers and first-timers. The footprint of Wavegarden also allows for other large-scale activities to occur immediately outside of it such as a Lazy River etc. Other technologies would also work. But I prefer Wavegarden.

Which type of venue would be the most successful – bright waterpark with giant Shrek or serious action-focused BSR setup?
For Orlando, you want something to draw the tourists in so I say bright giant Shrek with a splash of BSR.

Is anyone building a surf park in Florida at the moment?
I have heard a couple of rumors. But to my knowledge, no one is now building a wave pool in Florida.

Mitch Varnes earned his Master’s Degree from Georgetown University.

Endless Surf 2023A