"When I worked for my father and took over, I had been in university in Montreal and read a lot of things," says Drouin. "Marketing was new, and we kept being told it was the end of the industrial age and the start of a leisure age. There were very few parks offering water attractions anywhere."
The leisure age failed to materialize, but water parks took off anyway. There are now more than 1,000 of them in North America alone (including city and hotel pools with higher-end water slides), according to the World Waterpark Association. About 80 million people visited water parks in Canada, the United States and Mexico in the summer of 2008, and attendance rose by 3 per cent to 5 per cent annually between 2003 and 2008.
The tide turned in 2009 with the collapse of the economy, and so-called destination parks - those that cater to both tourists and locals - struggled to hold their share of consumers' declining discretionary dollars. Total visits to entertainment parks in Orlando, for example, fell by 9 per cent in 2009, according to the Themed Entertainment Association's global attractions report. But TEA noted that lower-cost regional parks often benefit during an economic downturn, as consumers shift to less-expensive entertainment options. Valcartier Vacation Village is a case in point: Attendance in 2009 rose by a healthy 5 per cent on a year-over-year basis, says Drouin.
His Quebec park has a huge advantage over its new Ontario cousin, however: It is open year-round.
Water parks have become the low-cost way for investors to get in on the amusement park business, says Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. Parks such as Canada's Wonderland, north of Toronto, and the Six Flags parks in the U.S., would cost upward of $500 million to build from scratch today, and that's assuming the land was reasonably priced.
Both water parks and amusement parks make most of their money at the gate, supplemented by food sales and other merchandise. A pair of adults with two young children will pay about $100 to gain entry to Calypso for a day; for season's passes, the same family will have to fork over a little more than $450. But prying entertainment dollars out of cash-strapped families won't be easy for even the biggest and best-located venues.
Water parks also face a peculiar challenge that Speigel has never been able to figure out. "It is the strangest thing," he says. "People will go to amusement parks when it rains; they'll happily line up to ride roller coasters. But they will not go to a water park, even though they intend to get wet when they get there. You simply have to have sunshine."
The Ottawa-Montreal corridor usually enjoys warm summers. Last year was unseasonably cold, however, making it more difficult to entice people to outdoor attractions. "This year we hope and we pray to see better weather," says Martin Roy, a spokesperson for La Ronde amusement park in Montreal. "It's all you can do-you plan, you add attractions. But if the weather does not help you, it can be a very bad year."
Drouin is well aware of the damage that cold, rainy weather can inflict on an outdoor water park's balance sheet, but he has some effective, if expensive, solutions. The water at Calypso will be maintained at an even 27 C-not quite up to bathtub standards, but comfortable enough that Drouin believes visitors will keep coming even when the air temperature dips. He won't say how much it will cost to keep the water toasty throughout the season, but acknowledges that utilities and labour will comprise his biggest expense.
Theme park consultant Speigel offers his own insight: "What? He's heating the water? It's not often done. And you know why, of course. It's incredibly, incredibly expensive."
The gas-fired boilers that heat the water are about as low tech as it gets in Drouin's park - everything else is strictly high end. The water is forced through fine sand and scrubbed clean every 90 minutes - among the fastest times in the industry. And since children's pools can be a breeding ground for disease if the water is not treated properly, Calypso will refresh them every 20 minutes. Over at the 50,000-square-foot wave pool, concealed fans generate an array of wave patterns towering up to 1 1/2 metres above the surface.
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