Feature Article - September 2009
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Sink or Swim

How Waterparks Are Surfing the Economic Waves

By Dawn Klingensmith

Welcome to the Jungle

Theming is another way to provide guests with a more immersive experience and to "be like Disney." And though construction starts on the whole are down, "We've seen a surprisingly fair share of projects come online this year that require theming," which attests to the popularity of theme-based waterpark design and marketing, said Chris Foster, director of marketing, COST of Wisconsin, a Jackson, Wis.-based theme and specialty construction company. "Interest in theming over the last year is greater than it was a couple of years ago."

Theming allows waterparks to take familiar attractions and make them their own, for a uniquely branded experience that sets them apart from competitors. For example, like just about every other waterpark on the planet, KeyLime Cove in Gurnee, Ill., has a tipping bucket, but KeyLime Cove's is shaped like a pineapple to tie in with the resort's island theme.

More elaborately, Dollywood in Pigeon Ford, Tenn., spent $5 million to make its water raft ride different from any other waterpark's, and to tie it in with Dollywood's Smoky Mountains theme. The River Battle ride consists of eight-person rafts equipped with soaker guns. Passengers take aim at each other and targets along the way, including animatronic beavers, skunks, otters and bears, which either shoot back or display a variety of special effects, so that no two rides are ever the same.

At certain resorts, themes carry over into guestroom furnishings as well as concessions and restaurant menu items. Usually, a clever or cutesy name ties a menu item or concession stand to a waterpark's overall theme—for example, Sharky's Big Bites concession stand at KeyLime Cove. But Surfari Joe's Indoor Wilderness Waterpark at the Ramada Hotel in Watervliet, Mich., goes a step further in its hotel eatery, Water Hole Bar & Restaurant. In keeping with the safari theme, the restaurant serves wild game such as alligator and elk.

Owned by a big-game hunter, Surfari Joe's has exotic animal trophies on display in the hotel lobby, including the massive head of a bull elephant the owner bagged in Zimbabwe. In hotel guestrooms, hand towels and washcloths are cleverly folded to resemble elephants.

At Enchanted Forest/Water Safari in Old Forge, N.Y., apes are all the rage. A campaign celebrating the 2009 debut of its double-tube water ride, called Curse of the Silverback, features the tagline "Go Ape … If You Dare." Named for the dominant male silverback gorilla, the ride joins Pygmy Pond (a pool area for tikes), the speed slide Killermanjaro and other aptly named attractions in carrying out the jungle theme.

Beyond creating a unique guest experience, the "Go Ape" campaign aims to make a difference. Enchanted Forest/Water Safari has partnered with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to raise awareness and funds to protect gorillas in their natural habitat. In December 2008, the waterpark adopted a silverback gorilla through the organization and in summer 2009 brought a fundraising initiative to the park called Coins for Congo that will support programs in Africa dedicated to gorillas' survival.

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