Water Parks Aren't Just Family Fun -- They're Family Run
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.