SANDUSKY — A tourist destination along the Lake Erie shore is hoping to ride the latest wave of recreational entertainment — indoor water parks. The Kalahari Resort this month expanded to 173,000 square feet of slides, machine-driven waves and other wet fun. It’s billing itself as the nation’s biggest indoor water park.
But that distinction may not last.
Indoor water parks with attached hotels are the hottest lodging concept this decade, experts say. They attract families looking for new ways to be entertained and operators love them because they can keep customers coming year-round.
“It’s really that aspect that’s caused the current growth, if not explosion, in water-park resort development,” said John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors, a consulting company in Richmond, Va.
Forty-eight new hotel indoor water parks were planned for this year in the United States and another 49 were under construction or set to break ground, according to an industry report released in July.
There now are more than 180 such parks in the country — a 283 percent increase over the last five years. The idea has been around since 1994.
Stan Anderson, owner of the Polynesian Water Park Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., wanted to fill more rooms at his hotel so he added a water-play feature. Reservations increased and competitors began to copy the concept.
Wisconsin Dells now boasts 21 water parks. In Sandusky, there are three: Kalahari, Great Wolf Lodge and Castaway Bay; and a fourth, Maui Sands, is slated to open in April. The city is also home to Cedar Point, a popular amusement park.
“By 2000, word had gotten out that this concept was a boost to the lodging industry,” said William Haralson, president of William L.
Haralson & Associates Inc., a water-park consulting company in Alto, N.M. “It was like dropping a pebble in a pond and seeing the rings go out.”
Haralson and Gerner say all indoor water parks aren’t successful and a market can become too crowded. Indoor water parks typically have been built near tourist destinations, but now they are moving into residential areas, Gerner said.
“These types of projects sometimes lend themselves to what I call the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy,” he said. “Sometimes that happens but really these type of projects rely on a good strong market. Either the resident market or tourist market.”
The Kalahari hotel and park is offering a two-night special for $449 and a water-park only pass goes for $34.
The water park has been packed since the expansion opened Dec. 20, she said.
On Thursday, there were about 2,000 people inside bobbing up and down in the wave pool, coasting lazily on a raft, or waiting in line for one of the slides and other attractions.
Outside, the temperature was about 30 degrees. Inside, it was 86.
“Just the idea of being in a water park in the middle of the winter in Ohio is pretty cool,” said Chris Strolia-Davis, 36, of suburban Dayton.