Wet and Wild
Wilderness at the Smokies in Sevierville, Tenn.
By Sutton Stokes
During these times of economic trouble, many vacationers are scaling back their plans and sticking closer to home. Though such a trend is hurting some tourism destinations, it seems to be working out well for Wilderness at the Smokies, a resort in eastern Tennessee that opened in June 2008.
"Most of our customers come from a 300-mile radius," said David McGregor, the general manager at Wilderness at the Smokies. "These days, it's better to be a regional destination than a national destination. The downturn has affected us, but not as much as it has affected attractions that people travel further for."
Wilderness at the Smokies is the latest project of the Wilderness Development Corp., whose previous ventures include a 600-acre water park and resort complex in Wisconsin Dells, Wis. called Wilderness Territory. Wilderness at the Smokies, the group's first foray outside Wisconsin, is part of a larger development called Bridgemont, a joint effort between the city of Sevierville, Tenn., and private partners.
Bridgemont, which includes Sevierville's new Events Center, is close to Interstate 40 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Once completed, Bridgemont will include amenities such as 36 holes of golf, restaurants, a mall and a large Bass Pro store, in addition to the overnight lodging and other attractions offered by Wilderness at the Smokies.
Accommodations at Wilderness at the Smokies include hotel rooms, multi-room suites and condominiums. Guests and residents of Wilderness at the Smokies have exclusive access to a 40,000-square-foot outdoor waterpark called Salamander Springs and a 60,000-square-foot indoor water park called the Wild WaterDome. Another outdoor waterpark, Lake Wilderness, opened in June 2009.
The marquee attraction at Salamander Springs is a four-story water-play structure by SCS Interactive called Lunker's Landing. The structure is equipped with two water slides, 50 play-and-spray features, and a 750-gallon tipping bucket. (A similar feature inside the Wild WaterDome, also designed by SCS Interactive, is called Washout Mountain.)
Though Lunker's Landing has zero-depth entry and little standing water, making it accessible even for small children, Ellis-certified lifeguards monitor activity and enforce a 42-inch minimum-height requirement on the structure's slides. Parents who prefer not to get wet can keep an eye on their children from an adjacent dry area. The structure's tipping bucket is its most eye-catching component, with a bell that rings 15 seconds before each water dump.
"Kids just love the bucket," McGregor said. "When that bell rings, they come running."
Amanda Eaton, the resort's aquatics director, is particularly enthusiastic about the play structure's interactive features. "There are hoses everywhere—people can even squirt each other going down the slides," Eaton said. "There are bright colors, places to climb, different textures, a great view from the top. All of your senses are engaged. Even for older kids, it's a dream come true."
The multi-story shape of Lunker's Landing was influenced in part by the limited footprint available for the Salamander Springs waterpark, explained Patrick Helland, a co-owner of Wilderness at the Smokies.
"Because of the space restrictions for the site, we knew we needed to build up instead of out," Helland said. "We took our requirements to SCS Interactive, because we've worked with them in the past and they always come up with unique, creative designs. We were really pleased with their ideas for Lunker's Landing."
Part of what attracted the Wilderness Development Corp. to this project was Bridgemont's geographic location.
"Our plan was two-fold," said Wilderness at the Smokies co-owner Patrick Helland. "We wanted to give our guests the ability to have two or three days of family fun, but we also wanted to have the resort close to other attractions, such as Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So we're not just a destination, we also offer a base for exploring the area."
Whatever else guests might be planning to do in the area, however, they are definitely spending a lot of time enjoying the resort's waterparks. All of the water attractions and play features are popular—during the shortened 2008 season, Salamander Springs alone saw about 40,000 visitors—with Lunker's Landing leading the pack.
"Without a doubt, Lunker's Landing is what draws people to the waterpark," McGregor said.
Eaton agreed. "People love water, and there's nothing else like this in the area," she said. "I have visited a lot of pools and other water attractions, and Lunker's Landing is one of the most exciting I've seen."
In fact, Lunker's Landing has been so popular that McGregor thinks anyone designing a waterpark should consider including a similar attraction.
"If you need to draw more people in, something like Lunker's Landing is the way to go," McGregor said. "Judging by screams, laughter and squeals, I'd say Lunker's Landing is our most successful feature."
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