Feature Article - September 2009
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Sink or Swim

How Waterparks Are Surfing the Economic Waves

By Dawn Klingensmith

Surf's Up

One leading manufacturer's surf simulators generate a thin sheet of water that flows over a wave-shaped surface. Though riders on finless surfboards or body boards actually remain stationary, water moving beneath them at 30 to 35 mph creates the feel of riding a wave at a fast clip. Single-rider models are available, as well as side-by-side double models that allow riders to pit their skills against each other.

Opening in the past year or so and featuring this type of surf simulator are: Silver Rapids Indoor Waterpark at Silver Mountain Ski Resort in Kellogg, Idaho; H2OOOhh! Indoor Waterpark at Split Rock Resort in Lake Harmony, Pa.; and Sahara Sam's Oasis in West Berlin, N.J. All three waterparks give their surf machines top billing in their marketing campaigns.

Currently under construction, Waves of Fun Indoor Waterpark in Sandwich, Ill., will be home to the first "standing wave surf machine" in the United States. A newer twist on simulated surfing, the machine pumps water at natural gravity-fed speeds down a fiberglass channel with bottom contours that cause real, or "standing," waves to form. "This results in a deep cushion of water upon which surfers and body boarders alike can practice skills that are transferrable to the ocean," said Jenna Munguia, business operations coordinator for the Solana Beach, Calif.-based company that manufactures the ride.

The water is deep enough to allow riders to use real surfboards with fins. And several riders can participate at once, which "improves throughput, capacity and fun—important considerations for theme park operators," Munguia said. The hydraulics are adjustable so that different shapes and heights of waves can be produced.

Surf machines are skill-based attractions that challenge riders to develop new tricks and perfect their technique. In contrast, most waterpark rides are thrill-based, requiring no skills and providing no sense of accomplishment. The more a thrill ride is ridden, the less thrilling it becomes—a phenomenon described on one surf machine manufacturer's Web site as "thrill fatigue." By constantly challenging and rewarding riders, surfing simulators retain their interest and encourage repeat visitations, according to the manufacturer.