Limoges is, by every account, a sleepy corner of Ontario. While many of the town's 2,000 residents make the half-hour commute to Ottawa every day, others in these parts are kept busy plowing fields and raising dairy cattle.
Tourists have always been the folks who hurtle along the neighbouring Highway 417 to somewhere more exciting, not even bothering to stop for gas. The region's major attraction is a cheese factory, closely followed by a carefully tended swath of forest that is popular among hikers and cross-country skiers.
But "the coming of Calypso," as the locals like to say, may change Limoges forever. Starting June 7, when Calypso water park opened its doors on the outskirts of town, the quiet streets of Limoges could be filled with tourists. At least, that's the hope of Quebec amusement park veteran Guy Drouin, who is the owner of this sprawling $45-million outdoor entertainment mecca. Planted on 70 acres of recently deforested land east of Ottawa, the newly anointed largest water park in Canada features 35 slick slides and a wave pool the size of three National Hockey League rinks.
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If the park meets Drouin's deliberately modest targets, more than 350,000 people will pass through the gates over the three months between June and Labour Day, when Calypso closes for the season. On peak days, Drouin hopes that up to 12,000 people will exit the highway at Limoges, making the short hop from Ottawa or the 75-minute drive from Montreal.
The man behind this water park venture has reason to feel confident. After all, the profits from his first theme park, Valcartier Vacation Village near Quebec City, provided a big chunk of the capital he needed to build Calypso. That's just as well, because talking bankers into lending money to a seasonal business is as difficult as it sounds.
Still, everything will need to go right for the park to stay in the black and generate enough cash to keep its head above water - margins are super thin, utilities cost a fortune and there's always other tourist destinations competing for fickle family entertainment dollars. And then there's the weather (but we'll get to that later).
Drouin is aware of the risks, but he has done his homework. For starters, consumer demographics favour his choice of location in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, where the average family income in 2007 was $75,200, compared with the national average of $68,800, according to Statistics Canada. Even more attractive, says Drouin, is the lack of similar parks within a 100-kilometre radius. "There's no real park out there to compete with us," he says. "There are a lot of museums, but not a lot of outside activities. It's very expensive to do this, but if we can get 25 per cent market penetration, we are doing very well."
Drouin's preoccupation with theme parks has a uniquely Canadian beginning that can be traced back to a Quebec City toboggan hill. It was there, in 1963, that his father, Adrien, began charging patrons a small fee to slide down his rolling hills. Adrien's ambition for the business didn't extend far beyond sledding, but when his son took over in 1971, he modernized the hill, introduced cross-country ski trails and skating tracks, and hosted the park's first off-season event, a motorcycle competition.
Over the next 10 years, Drouin expanded the winter activities at Valcartier Vacation Village, constructing huge inner-tube slides and elaborate skating paths. And in 1980, he introduced water features, taking his cue from the Father of the Water Park, George Millay, "a man who turned water into gold" at his Wet 'n Wild park in Orlando.