The entertainment industry, from movie theaters to theme parks, is typically understood to be the domain of multinational corporations, but not so in the water parks market. Water parks have grown from wading pools and diving boards to huge, sprawling amusement attractions with complex slides, aquatic rides and more, and the industry is largely dominated by family-owned businesses. Schlitterbahn in Texas (and Missouri), Wilderness Territory in Wisconsin and Surfin’ Safari in Indiana are just three examples of large parks that make it tough for multinationals to compete. For more on this continue reading the following article from TheStreet.
"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood." That quote, from 19th century Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, might well be the motto for America’s water park owners.
Over the past three decades, water parks have moved far beyond simple swimming pools and water slides. They have become sprawling attractions that cover acres, encompassing everything from multistory aquatic roller coasters to indoor, manmade waves for surfing.
But what visitors might not realize as they zip down the slides is that their vacation dollars are supporting an impressive number of family-run, independently owned businesses. In a world where most entertainment options are produced by large, multinational corporations, water parks are one area where smaller companies can compete — and even beat — the big guys.
One industry pioneer was Schlitterbahn, opened by Bob and Billye Henry near the Texas Hill Country in 1966. By gradually adding larger and more dramatic water slides, as well as expanding the definition of what it meant to go "innertubing," the resort became a model for others. Schlitterbahn now has three locations in Texas and one in Kansas City, Kan., with the three children of the founders involved in running the company.
Wilderness Territory, a sprawling development in the water park mecca of Wisconsin Dells, Wisc., is run by four grandchildren of Oliver "O.P." Helland, who started out running sightseeing tours by boat in the 1920s. Today, the resort includes a range of hotels (from luxury condos to rustic-style cabins), an 18-hole golf course, numerous restaurants, and — of course — indoor and outdoor pools and waterslides that cover a total of 500,000 square feet.
In the town of Santa Claus, Ind., the Surfin’ Safari water park operates as part of the Holiday World amusement park, opened in 1946 by Louis J. Koch; one of his grandchildren is now the park’s president. The water park’s newest attraction, debuting this summer, is a waterslide/roller coaster combo called the Mammoth: six-person rafts are pulled upward via conveyor belt and hurtle downward, going up a total of seven stories and covering one-third of a mile.
Overall, this is a good time to be in the water park business, says David Sangree, president of the consulting company Hotel & Leisure Advisors in Cleveland. "The recession did have an impact on the industry, but not as great as some other travel industry components," he says. "Because water parks primarily attract customers who drive to them versus fly, they have not been as affected by the increased travel costs caused by higher airline prices."
This year’s weather — dry and hotter than usual in much of the country — has gotten the water park season off to a busy start. But to attract customers and retain them, given the competition from theme parks and other entertainment options, family-owned parks cannot simply follow the examples of their parents or grandparents. In this industry, novelty is key.
"Water Park owners have to continually innovate," Sangree says. "Customers expect something new and different every year or two in order to keep coming back. Water Parks that do not add new facilities and rides show a decline in attendance over the years."
Successful water park owners also deliver exceptional customer service, which in turn becomes a successful marketing tool. "If visitors feel they got value for what they paid for, they will tell their friends," Sangree says. "Word-of-mouth marketing is especially important with teenagers, who are a large part of the water park target market."
Attractive designs and appealing themes can also draw in customers by promising an escape from the everyday. The independently owned Kalahari resorts, with locations in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., and Sandusky, Ohio, have an African theme, with bellmen in safari jackets and animal sculptures in the lobbies. To create an authentic look, many of the hotels’ decorative accessories were bought in Africa by Kalahari staff.
Water Park-owning families certainly don’t have it easy. They have to think big and deliver dramatic results continually. They have to staff their parks with employees who are friendly, reliable and can be trusted to oversee the safety of thousands of visitors (after all, accidents and injuries can be devastating to a park’s reputation). And they never get a summer vacation.
But those who can master all those moving parts can win big. And this summer, thanks to the hot weather, it looks like all will go swimmingly for the owners of America’s leading water parks.
This article was republished with permission from TheStreet.