On the subject of theme parks, Nick Liskaris is not that easy to impress. Years ago, when other go-kart tracks were strictly ground-based, he and his father had been the first to put their track up in the air, on wooden bridges. He’s the guy who wrapped his track around and through a 65-foot-tall Trojan horse.
Liskaris is an innovator nonpareil in his business. Yet he’s still talking about the Canadian delegation that showed up in Wisconsin Dells back in February, to talk about their new concepts for water-park attractions.
While go-karts are still a centrepiece of his 156-acre Mount Olympus theme park, nowadays it’s the water-park component that Liskaris relies on most to keep his 1,000-room hotel full. Wisconsin Dells, an hour’s drive north of Madison, styles itself as the Water Park Capital of the World: 20-odd outdoor and indoor water parks, four million annual visitors and a TripAdvisor rating rivalling Disneyland and Disney World as America’s top family destination. Still, Liskaris was astonished when Whitewater West flew six guys down from Vancouver to quiz him about his deepest water-park fantasies. “I told them a few of my corny ideas,” Liskaris says, “and maybe they’ll build some of them.”
Whitewater being Whitewater, maybe they will. In late April it was Geoff Chutter’s turn to drop in on Liskaris. “We’ve been sketching something out,” Whitewater’s founder and majority owner says. Chutter can’t talk in detail about what he’s showing Liskaris because of, well, those 20 competing water parks. He can say that it involves a giant orb. Chutter has sketches for some of the other Wisconsin Dells water-park operators too, as well as for the operators he’ll be stopping in to see in Sandusky, Ohio, which has a half-dozen water parks of its own. Another pair of stops will be not Midwestern but Middle Eastern—Dubai and Bahrain.
As Chutter says, not a lot of people understand how big the water-park industry has become. And even fewer know that Whitewater is the largest designer and manufacturer of water parks in the world. The industry is growing so rapidly that Whitewater has been able to double its revenues over the past three years of dim economic recovery.
Whitewater is headquartered in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond. About 450 people work here and at a plant in Kelowna, joined by almost 100 more scattered among 18 locations around the globe. Most of the Richmond employees are desk-bound—designers, engineers and the usual array of head-office denizens—but about 35 people, working in two shifts, weld and whittle in the plant below. Every one of the roughly 230 projects that Whitewater works on in a typical year has its own theme, so each one of those pirates, dolphins or Lego characters (as happens to be the case the day I visit) began as a hunk of foam, carved into shape by a sculptor-cum-factory worker. Not the easiest hire, one might guess, except that Whitewater has been able to raid Vancouver’s suffering film industry for employees who are already skilled in such arts.
In 1980, Chutter was just 28 years old, and on the fast track toward a partnership at KPMG, when he became intrigued by a new waterslide park he happened to spot while on an auditing assignment in Kelowna.
Chutter decided to chuck the accounting life in favour of buying a property and building a waterslide park of his own, just south of Kelowna in Penticton. Skepticism about his life choice abounded. “I was branded a lunatic,” he summarizes. Waterslide parks were sparkling new, invented in Florida less than a half-decade earlier, so he and his handful of employees had to figure out everything as they went.
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