Wet ‘n Wild Orlando – the waterpark that made waves in the industry

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Following the announcement that 2016 will be the last season for Wet ‘n Wild Orlando, Park World pays tribute to what is widely acknowledged to be the world’s first waterpark by publishing an exclusive extract from park founder George Millay’s 2003 biography The Wave Maker.

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George Millay in 1976

In June 1974, George Millay had left SeaWorld (which he also founded) and was in a fresh creative state of mind. The idea of a gated water recreation facility consumed him, but what it consist of? What would it entail? How much of a critical mass would need to be created to attract the hundreds of thousands of paying customers needed? Would people pay money to go swimming? Those were just a few of the questions that he was pondering.
Orlando was his choice to build such a facility, the closer to Disney the better.

Don Stewart of ERA was asked to conduct the feasibility study for the new park idea. “Being a totally new concept we didn’t have much to base the study on,” Stewart remembers, adding that the International Drive area in which George chose to build was nearly empty at the time. Wet ‘n Wild was the fifth development along the drive. “Even his early sense of selecting a site in a new untested market was uncanny,” Stewart said.

Between 1974 and 1976, Millay sold about a third of his SeaWorld stock, which amounted to approximately 30,000 shares. He knew he was selling them at lousy prices, but knew he had to in order to finance the early stages of his waterpark dream.

He had learned a great deal from his experiences at SeaWorld (describing his departure as “bitter, bitter, bitter, very, very bitter”) and had pledged to protect himself right from the beginning on his next venture. Before he had taken in a penny from the other Wet ‘n Wild investors, Millay had already invested $400,000 of his own money into the project.

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A ticket from the opening back in ’77

The early days of International Drive

During the winter of 1975, Millay and John Shawen, a former Disney financial planner, went to Orlando and struck a land deal with a local developer, Major Realty. They were given an option on 17-acres of land on International Drive. They got a split piece of property, a parking lot on one side of what is now Universal Drive, with the park on the other side, next to the lake.

The original Wet ‘n Wild was projected to cost approximately $3.5 million and by the time the first few investors bought in, Millay had put nearly $500,000 of his own money into the project. His one-time cosmetics partner, Al Slavik, had great faith in Millay and at one time during their relationship told him that he would gladly be a part of any of his future projects. Remembering Slavik’s comment, Millay called and invited him and his wife Joy down to Orlando to see the property and the plans for the waterpark. Slavik saw that site on International Drive and was ready to invest.

Slavik said, “Okay, George, I’ll buy the land and own it, and lease it back to you for 40 years, and I’ll also build two or three of the rides. You select them and I’ll build them. I’ll own the rides and I’ll lease them back to you over a seven-year period and after that you will own them.”

Slavik’s agreement to become a landlord instead of an equity investor finally solved the puzzle of “how in the world do we raise enough money for a prototype project that allowed Millay to maintain total control,” Shawen noted. “Once Slavik came forward, most of the other potential investors, all of which Millay had dealings with in the past, came aboard.”

George Millay samples Wet ‘n Wild in the 1980s with some visiting Japanese businessmen

A good deal for all parties

SeaWorld contractor Falck Neilsen and his wife Charlotte became equity partners, as did builder John Buchanan and his wife Jeannie, as well as Paul Hughes, who had been an original investor in SeaWorld with his Hawaiian Punch company. Tom Curnan, the company’s New York attorney came into the deal, as did Kelly Smith, their Orlando attorney.

Slavik’s total contribution amounted to nearly $1.5 million, and Millay and the other investors came up with the rest, about $2 million. With financing in place, the legal corporation for the Orlando facility was formed in March 1976.

To this day, Millay doubts whether he would have been able to build the park if it had not been for Slavik. It was a good deal for Millay because he got to create his park and maintain control, and it was an extremely good deal for Slavik. The land that was purchased in 1976 for $600,000 was worth approximately $25 million by 2003 and during the 23 years that Millay owned the company, Wet ‘n Wild paid nearly $20 million to Slavik and his family in lease payments.

When Slavik died, his three sons took over ownership of the land on which the park sits today. “That’s one of the reasons we sold to Universal in 1998. Our lease terms were extremely favourable for the first 20 years, but it had started to escalate a little each year and by 2007 it would have been overwhelming. In 2012, it would have gone through the roof. We were looking to the future,” Millay said.

Recognising that the park had such a very favourable lease, Slavik’s sons were after Millay for more money. “We were only paying $700,000 a year in rent, but since the land had escalated so much in value, the sons thought they should be getting more money. I wouldn’t negotiate. We never went to court, but they were chaffing because we were so successful.”

Before his death, Millay predicted that Universal, which purchased the park in 1998, would move Wet ‘n Wild from its current location to Universal Orlando resort property before the 2012 escalation in the lease. He was nearly correct. Universal will close the park in 2016 and in 2017 open an entirely new water theme park called Volcano Bay. It will be the resort’s third gated attraction.

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Innovation, not invention

The concept of Wet ‘n Wild, the world’s first waterpark, was one of innovation more than one of invention. Millay was the first person to bring various water-based elements together into one environment, put a fence around them and charge admission. He discovered many of the elements that would later be a part of his waterpark concept during his SeaWorld years.

His first “discovery” was in 1970 on the grounds of the Canadian National Exposition in Toronto. He and George Becker, then GM of SeaWorld Ohio, went up to look at a water ski show. While there, Millay became totally impressed by the water playground of Eric MacMillan, a Canadian architect. MacMillan would later be inducted into the IAAPA Hall of Fame for the creation of the interactive wet and dry playground industry.

The next big discovery took place during the summer of 1974, after Millay left SeaWorld. On vacation near Lake Tahoe he saw a group of kids sliding down a hill into a natural, dirty watering hole. It was a little gunite flume, crude and hard. The total drop was no more than 25 feet, and It dumped riders into a water hole where cows would come to drink. Millay thought to himself that this was really something. He now had at least two elements for the waterpark, slides and an interactive playground.

He next learned of something called a wave pool in Decatur, Alabama. George was amused by the concept. “You mean it actually makes waves in a swimming pool, no kidding.” Big Surf in Phoenix had been in existence for 10 years and it had a large tsunami wave pool that offered swimmers one big rolling wave. It was too big, didn’t have enough capacity, and was too specialised for what George was looking for.

The next day George was on a plane to Decatur. It was a hot night, the lights were on and the wave pool was packed. “I put on my bathing suit and got into the pool, and I had a ball.” By the time George finished playing that night, he knew he had found that one large, missing element for his waterpark.

He now had slides, a children’s playground and a wave pool. That was the core of the first Wet ‘n Wild, along with all its auxiliary gift shops, restaurants, first aid and maintenance. No one had ever combined those elements into one large offering.

On June 2, 2012, Wet ‘n Wild Orlando celebrated the grand opening of its newest attraction, Blastaway Beach - a family-friendly, sandcastle-themed water playground. It is the largest water playground of its kind in Florida and Wet ‘n Wild’s first new attraction in over four years. Built around a sandcastle rising 60-feet high, Blastaway Beach spans an acre and features 15 slides and expands across two pools with 160 soakers, jets, waterfalls and water cannons. Photo Wet 'n Wild Orlando

Father of the Waterpark Industry

Millay is given the credit for creating the first waterpark and is fondly known as the “Father of the Waterpark Industry.” He had the forethought to be the first. The waterpark elements were all appearing one at a time without Millay, but he was the one who had the vision to put them together to form a unique complex.

By early 1976, Millay had a concept, had proposals, proformas and feasibility studies, but no name. During lunch with potential investor Chuck Pratt, Millay explained, “You know, it’s very wet and wild.” Pratt stopped George. “That’s the name of the place right there, wet and wild!” George liked it and sat down with a graphic designer who created the Wet ‘n Wild logo and the two mascot characters, Splish and Splash.

Walt Disney World’s River Country had been open a year when Wet ‘n Wild Orlando opened. Whilst Disney’s park contained several water attractions, it didn’t have a wave pool and had only one major slide. However, it was the closest thing to a “water park” that existed at that time.

When Millay first envisioned his water-based concept, he didn’t call it a waterpark. He was calling it by several names, including a water playground and an outdoor water recreational playground. Nobody knows for sure who first called an attraction of this genre a waterpark. They didn’t officially start calling it a “waterpark” until the third season.

In creating the first television spots for Wet ‘n Wild, shareholder John Seeker realized more than ever that he was dealing with an entirely new industry. “We had no stock film to use, as everyone does now,” he said. “We ended up working with photos and film that weren’t of our park.”

After forgetting to make arrangements with a campground in California, Millay told Seeker to show and start shooting water slide footage anyway. He hired a local cameraman and they got enough footage before the owner came out. He was quite angry, even after Seeker explained what they were doing, and kicked them out of the park. “Thank God we had enough we could use for a TV spot,” says Seeker. “He had no idea we used the film in Florida.”

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Slow start, long legacy

When Wet ‘n Wild Orlando opened, business was slow. The concept was new and fun, but George found that its scope wasn’t large enough. “He realised very quickly that the number of elements and the entertainment value were not enough to give it the breadth and value to make it a standalone park,” Shawen said.

As per any new, successful concept, it wasn’t long before copycat waterparks started showing up all over the country. George had been warned of that possibility by a venture capitalist years before. He spotted something before construction even started on the first park, when George was out trying to raise money. He said, “You know, George, you have a great idea here, and wouldn’t it be great to build five of these at one time in strategic sunny locations across the country so nobody could compete with you?”

George started thinking again that he should develop multiple parks. When he sold the company in 1998, there were Wet ‘n’ Wild parks in Arlington (Texas), Las Vegas and Brazil. Some of these have since changed names or been replaced by new versions from new owners (as is the case in Vegas), and the original park in Orlando will soon be no more, but George Millay’s legacy as pioneer of the waterpark industry remains.

The Wave Maker, by Tim O’Brien, is published by Casa Flamingo Literary Arts and still available in print via casaflamingo.com and amazon.com. Edited extract used by permission.

 

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‘I was hooked from the start’

Park World asked World Waterpark Association Hall of Fame member Tim Gantz, who founded the large Noah’s Ark waterpark in Wisconsin Dells and is one of the owners of the new Camelback Resort in Pennsylvania, why he believes Wet ‘n Wild Orlando was so significant to him and the wider waterpark industry:

“For me personally, it was one of the first waterparks I went to in my late teens early ’20s, and I was hooked from the start! I continued to seek out waterparks as an option for entertainment every since that initial visit.

In term of slides I remember my first experience on the Bomb Bay capsule slide, so much so that it was an attraction I wanted to bring to Noah’s Ark for many years, but was always told it was under patent. A few years ago that patent expired and we brought the first looping waterslide with a capsule to North America and resulted in one of our most successful years at Noah’s Ark!

Wet ‘n Wild proves just how long a waterpark can remain relevant by doing the right things, adding new attractions, taking good care of guests and of course providing a safe environment. Wet ‘n Wild Orlando excelled on all those accounts and it certainly showed due to the fact they we able to succeed in such a competitive market where announcements of full-sized competing waterparks were frequent. I can’t thank them and George Millay enough for what they’ve done for me personally, as well as their industry wide contributions.”

Posted in: Park Profiles