Waterbound in Wisconsin

Blue Harbor Resort & Conference Center
Sheboygan, Wis.

By Jenny E. Beeh

It's true Wisconsin is known for its dairy cows rather than its balmy beaches.

But with its impressive expanse of Lake Michigan real estate on its eastern shores, the Badger State's claim to some prime beach property is not really so far-fetched.

One new development is the Blue Harbor Resort & Conference Center in Sheboygan, which just opened for business this summer. This $54 million, 16.75-acre family destination resort with Grand Victorian character and jam-packed with nautical theming offers 183 guest suites (some as huge as 2,000-plus square feet); four restaurants; a spa; a 29,605-square-foot conference center and more than 1,400 feet of that all-important Lake Michigan beachfront property.

Of course, that picturesque shoreline wasn't always so appealing. As an industrial storage site for coal, clay and oil, the parcel, located in the city's South Pier District, had been an eyesore for years. Not exactly the kind of place you would want to stretch out under a beach umbrella and enjoy the view.

Seeing recreation potential, however, in its location, location, location, the developer—The Great Lakes Companies, Inc.—worked closely with the city to remediate the property for the Blue Harbor project, which is also part of a larger revitalization effort for Sheboygan.

Not only has the beachfront location proved ideal for a resort, but so has its greater geographical position: Blue Harbor is just 45 minutes from Milwaukee and an easy two-hour drive from Chicago, perfect for vacationers residing more than a thousand miles from the nearest ocean and for business travelers looking for a unique conference space and nearby golf courses.

Planners conceived the beach resort to be a year-round destination, which might lead to some head scratching if you've ever suffered a Midwestern winter with the winds howling off Lake Michigan. But that leads us to the project's not-so-secret weapon: its four-story, 40,000-square-foot indoor waterpark dubbed Breaker Bay, which features 200,000 gallons of 84-degree heated water, whatever the season.

"This is a venue that everyone can enjoy," says Doug Pagel, director of key account sales for KoalaPlay Group in Englewood, Colo., which designed the waterpark. "You don't need any equipment. It doesn't require skills like golfing. It's good for all ages. It's always the same temperature year-round. You don't get sunburn; you don't get frostbite."

True, but you gotta love water. Breaker Bay boasts seven water slides (two three-story dueling tube slides, two body slides and three kiddie slides), four pools (an activity pool with basketball hoops and floating soft-foam creatures, lazy river, kiddie pool and whirlpool), as well as a towering ship play structure complete with bridges, cargo nets, web crawls and nearly 60 guest-activated water effects that shoot and spray. Did we mention the 48-foot-tall sinking ship that drenches an entire lighthouse with 1,000 gallons of water every three to five minutes?

Part of Breaker Bay's appeal is its thorough nautical theming from stem to stern.

Like Hollywood artists, KoalaPlay Group's designers use storyboards to create a theme for a site, says James Zazenski, president and COO of Koala Corporation. Theming is not just about decorating a facility but rather about developing a detailed story and background for that facility, giving it character.

With a theme in place, individual modular elements like pools, slides and play structures are selected according to the budget, and the floor plan is mapped out.

Although some of the components are massive, sightlines through the structures are crucial for supervision, Zazenski says. Breaker Bay has a staff of more than 60 lifeguards.

Another important key is to make sure that the theming is multidimensional—and sometimes multifunctional.

"We pay particular attention to how things look underneath and on the side," Zazenski says. For example, some theming elements even pop up in seemingly out of the way places—like the seaweed surrounds under and around the body slides. Not only do they add to the overall watery look, but they do double-duty as fences of sorts by keeping kids from running under the slides. Some things may look like just art and add to the ambiance, but meanwhile they can be a good way to disguise and perform vital safety functions.

A great waterpark also must have logic to its layout.

For example, multiple entry and exit points throughout the components can encourage fresh exploring and adventures, compared to a linear layout that allows for no variations or choices, which can get old quickly.

Likewise, it's not a mere coincidence that the more relaxing and mellow activities, like the Molly's Moat lazy river and Turtle Tub whirlpool, are strategically located together and slightly away from the "high-energy" slide and play areas. It's just good waterpark sense.

Another aspect that planners wanted to pay particular attention to involved the smallest patrons. While some waterparks treat the tiniest of tots almost as afterthoughts—perhaps giving them a token wading area—Breaker Bay offers the S.S. Minnow, a shipwreck pool just for babies and toddlers, with zero-depth entry (of course), slides, 15 squirting floor geysers and spray features. All adding up to a fun, colorful and safe harbor for little ones.

"It really serves small children; I hear a lot of positive comments about that," says Josef Haas, Blue Harbor's general manager. "It's a delicate balance between theme and safety."

A universal truth, for sure.

For more information
Blue Harbor Resort & Conference Center: 866-701-BLUE
or www.blueharborresort.com

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