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Canada, the water park capital of the world?

One of Whitewater’s creations, the Happy Magic Water Cube in Beijing

Courtesy Whitewater

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."

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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.

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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.

That experience agreed with him. On the other hand, dressing hot dogs and firing lifeguards did not, and Chutter ended up operating the park for only two seasons. Fortunately, back in the early 1980s, everyone but everyone thought that their town needed a waterslide park; Chutter had design and engineering contracts before he even started operating his first park. Ultimately, Canada proved to be a less-than-ideal location for outdoor waterslide parks—something to do with temperatures, it seems—but by the time anyone realized that, Whitewater had already established itself across the U.S., and was on its way to doing so globally.

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As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, and business waned for those first primitive waterslide parks, the industry responded by expanding and diversifying its offerings. European wave pools and the kind of "leisure river" adventures popping up at tropical destinations were blended with North American slides to create complex attractions, with something for everyone. Companies like Whitewater expanded "to the dry side," incorporating boats, zip lines, rope courses and much more into attractions. In recent years, the challenge has been to add an element of gaming, with apps that can send kids with smartphones on quests and hunts, or even let them operate fountains and squirts. "Kids are very different than a generation ago," Chutter says. "But beyond that, it gives us a way to maintain contact after they've left the park, and it even helps manage the attraction—directing people away from a busy area to one that's quieter, for example." (The company figures that most smartphones will be waterproof in five years' time.)

Equally important was the industry's expansion to the four corners of the globe, a move that engendered plenty of skepticism. When Whitewater got its first African commission, in South Africa, Chutter was told it would never work because "Africans don't swim." That proved to be somewhat true, Chutter says, thanks in part to the predators that lurk in many of the water bodies there. But the water parks filled up nonetheless, turning the premises orange with life jackets.

In Japan the objection was that women couldn't abide the sun, since tans are declassé, denoting work in the fields. Part of the solution was to provide plenty of shade. In the Middle East, the problem was that women would never be allowed to bare their skin if men were present. So, at parks like the gigantic Atlantis, on Dubai's Palm Island, post-pubescent males are barred from the premises during designated hours. Meanwhile, a quarter of Whitewater's business now emanates from China. When one of the first water-park operators there decided to charge $30 a day instead of the more common $3 fee, people were aghast, says Chutter. But sure enough, it was a big success, he says.

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Operating in such a fast-growing industry, Whitewater's growth has been mostly organic, though there have also been some significant acquisitions along the way. The company's design director is Rick Briggs, a landscape architect whose waterslide experience predates even Geoff Chutter's. "I did the third one in North America," he says. "Tampa's Busch Gardens, in 1978."

Briggs works mostly out of his home in Springfield, Illinois, and if Laskaris's orb-based attraction gets the go-ahead at Wisconsin Dells, he'll probably lead the design team. "Three or four of us might work for a year or 18 months," he says. Whitewater will bring in industrial architects, structural engineers and other disciplines as needed—"maybe a dozen people altogether."

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That the dawn of a new ride should take place at a well-established park rather than at one of the ever more elaborate extravaganzas popping up around the world is to be expected, says Briggs. "The new parks need all the old standard stuff, but the old parks need really innovative things to market to families that are increasingly at home on the Internet."

Briggs—who Chutter thinks may be responsible for more water-park innovations than any other person—says he and Whitewater have about 10 new products currently in development. A park might spend $500,000 to $1 million on a typical attraction, and needs up to 20 of them, curated so that there's something for everyone in the family.

Another bit of calculus carefully engaged by everyone in the industry is the delicate matter of safety. "This guy has a weak heart," says Chutter. "That guy has fragile bones. And they may not even know that." Success depends on the ability of designers and engineers to deliver ever-escalating thrills while guaranteeing absolute safety. Almost always they succeed. And when they don't? "I carry a lot of insurance," Chutter says. "With a $250,000 deductible."

Whitewater offers customers some standard models, like the AquaLoop and Boomerango slides. But park operators resolutely believe that their attractions have to be different from those at every other location, so there are no robots or assembly lines at the Richmond factory. A staunch devotee of Good to Great management guru Jim Collins, Chutter also swears by kaizen, the Japanese system of continuous improvement, so down on the factory floor, lots of steps have been eliminated and actions colour-coded. About 60% of the company's manufacturing is handled at plants in China and the Philippines; all of the steel work and the labour-intensive design and formulation of individual characters takes place in Richmond, while the Kelowna plant has become an important centre for fibreglass innovation. Two of the company's products have been named Best New Technology by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. One of these products enables the company to produce fibreglass that's smooth on both sides—a key benefit at indoor parks and within the cruise-ship industry, which has become something of a Whitewater specialization. The other is a finish that resists fading while reducing gassing-off of styrene, a substance that faces increased regulation.

Chutter, who has twice run unsuccessfully as a Progressive Conservative candidate in federal elections, believes that outsourcing some of the manufacturing to Asia has actually increased Whitewater's Canadian employment because it has made the company more competitive. Certainly its growth has never been faster. In 33 years the only real hiccup came after 9/11 "when people decided to simply not leave the house," he says. The Great Recession has not been a problem for several reasons. One was the concurrent rise of China as a major customer. Another was that water parks are a natural excursion for budget-strapped families that stay home for the holidays. A final fillip was the amount of stimulus money that went into municipal pool and water-park facilities, especially in the United States. Whitewater is a private company (the handful of minority shareholders are mostly senior employees like Briggs), and Chutter doesn't reveal revenues, but allows that annual sales are substantially "north of $100 million."

Because Whitewater operates across so many segments of the amusement park business, including an increasing emphasis on dry-side attractions, it has no direct company-wide competitors. Individual business units, though, typically have several rivals. In the core water-park sector, two of the most direct are a Turkish company, Polin Water Parks and Pool Systems, and—perhaps strangely, considering Canada's own dearth of water parks—Ottawa-based ProSlide Technology. In places like Wisconsin Dells, the two Canadian companies divvy up a big chunk of the business.

In 2014, it's likely that Nick Liskaris's new orb will help Whitewater to have another good year. He's already a big fan of a company that found a way to give him the nine-foot wave he wanted for a surfing pool, and that convinced him to invest in Wisconsin Dells' Lost City of Atlantis, which has proven to be a huge success. The giant outdoor fortress is six storeys tall, with a geyser that shoots 120 feet into the air. To put that into perspective, two Trojan horses would almost fit underneath it.

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