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Business Resources - July 2016

A Snowy Makeover

‘Winterfest’ transforms a Florida water park into a holiday wonderland

by James Careless

WINTER CARNIVALS ARE NOTHING NEW, especially those that provide outdoor ice skating and ice slides. But winter carnivals in Florida with outdoor ice skating and sliding? Now, that is different.

Since the winter of 2011, Adventure Landing, Shipwreck Island’s water park in Jacksonville, has played host to these outdoor winter activities and more, warm weather notwithstand- ing. And that’s not all: Starting in October each year, Adventure Landing’s elves—aka staff—transform the water park’s grounds into Blizzard Bluff Village. The heart of Jacksonville’s annual “Winterfest,” this water park becomes a winter wonderland of shops, exhibits, Christmas trees and lights, and seasonal outdoor happenings.

Blizzard Bluff Village is even home to Santa’s Workshop, where kids can meet with the jolly old elf himself. Santa’s deci- sion to locate here every year makes sense; after all, Adventure Landing is probably the only place in Florida where it snows on a regular basis.

“Our Blizzard Bluff Village is truly a magical winter loca- tion,” says Natalie Dunlap, Adventure Landing’s vice president  of marketing. “And it is also popular: During our last season, which ran from Nov. 20, 2015, to Jan. 10, 2016, we attracted 30,000 visitors.”

Why Winter Makes Sense in Jacksonville

Given that millions of people escape to Florida annually to exchange blizzards for beaches, one has to wonder why Adventure Landing would want

to import the cold? The answer is economics: Compared to other parts of the year, winter is the slow season for Adventure Park’s water park here. Yes, Florida can hit the high 80s in temperature at this time of year, but it also can fall into the low 50s or colder.

As a result, Shipwreck Island’s official season only runs from mid-March (spring break) through Labor Day, with a few weekends added in September until the water park shuts down for the year.

In a bid to boost traffic during this offseason—and to bring in more visitors  for Adventure Landing’s year-round attrac- tions like mini-golf, go-karts, laser tag, arcade, and batting cages—park manage- ment decided to build the first Blizzard Bluff Village in  2011.

“The response that first year  was astounding, with 22,000 guests com- ing to our ‘Winterfest’ event,” says Rick Deutscher, the park’s general manager.

“The response was so positive that we’ve been doing ‘Winterfest’ every year since then.”

Last winter’s 30,000-person atten- dance proves the event’s growth is on the upswing, with no end in sight.

An Outdoor Ice Rink in Florida—Really!

The undeniable highlight of Blizzard Bluff Village is its 40-by-80-foot outdoor skating rink. It is home to public free skates plus demonstrations by local fig- ure skaters. Despite being in Florida, the cold temperature above the real ice sur- face requires skaters to dress for winter weather, mittens and gloves included.

So how does Adventure Landing manage to operate an outdoor ice rink in Florida for almost two months?

“First, we build it using a proper under-ice refrigeration system, which keeps the ice hard and solid at all times,” says Deutscher. “The actual cold to freeze the ice is sup- plied by an outdoor freezing plant. It is located on a tractor- trailer, which we rent from a third party. Second, we build the rink within an outdoor tented pavilion with side flaps. This keeps the sun off, and helps keep at last some of the cold air in.”

The same approach is used on the village’s “Alpine Racer Ice Slide.” This is the 130-foot- long ice slide park staff build every year. It includes high hockey rink-style side boards and an overhead canopy—again to keep off the sun and hold in the cold—an under-ice freezing system, and the ability to host both single and double- rider inflatable tubes. These are the tubes used in Shipwreck Island during the regular season.

Mindful that few Floridians have skates of their own, Bliz- zard Bluff Village offers skate rentals at its outdoor rink. This is the power of offering such a novel attraction in Florida: The skating rink not only attracts paying customers to the park, but visitors usually have to rent the equipment to enjoy it.

Other Winter Wonders

The real draw of Blizzard Bluff Village is to provide visitors with an as-close-to- real winter experience as they can have in outdoor Florida, rather than just warm weather visits to an enclosed skating rink and ice slide. This is why Adventure Landing transforms so much of its water park into a pretty realistic alpine town.

“We build a central gathering place for outdoor activities near the rink and ice slide, using false-fronted, cheerfully- painted buildings that simulate a small winter-oriented village,” says Dunlap. One nice touch: Each of the “buildings” contains a lighted display window and overhead sign for an actual Jacksonville retail business, which rents the space and exposure from the water park.

Not all of the buildings in Blizzard Bluff Village, are simulations. The water park is able to use its actual onsite facili- ties to host Santa’s Workshop, the Sweet Adventures Sweet Shop, and the Teddy Bear Factory. Visitors can also purchase hot chocolate, coffee, and treats from the Crystal Creek Lodge; decorate ornaments and Christmas cookies outdoors; play in a bounce house; or take part in competitive “Reindeer Games.”

“We also offer marshmallow roasting and s’mores—making over an outside fire pit, a hologram light display that requires 3-D glasses to see the hidden sights in the lights, and ice sculptures carved on site  by local artists,” says Paden Woodburn, Adventure Landing’s assistant general manager. “Add the real wooden sleigh where you can get your photo shot along- side Santa, and there is a lot of see and do here.”

The crowning glory to Adventure Landing’s winter in Florida is the nightly snowfall. To be fair, the “snow” isn’t actu- ally made from frozen water. “Instead, it is comprised of thin soap flakes, which are blown into the air so they fall like snow,” says Dunlap. “But considering we are in Florida, the illusion is pretty convincing. The flakes fall gently like soft, fluffy snow from way up north.”

A Successful Response to the Winter Slow Season

For the past five winters, Adventure Landing has succeeded in bringing a surprisingly authentic cold-weather experience to America’s warm-weather playground. In particular, the park’s decision to operate an authentic outdoor skating rink and ice slide in Florida is both gutsy and innovative.

It is also smart. These two attractions anchor Adventure Landing’s other “Win- terfest” offerings. Along with the nightly snowfall, they provide the false-fronted village, Santa’s Workshop, and other operating venues with the credibility they need to win visitors over. Without such authentic outdoor winter experiences, visi- tors to Blizzard Bluff Village would find it far harder to suspend disbelief and accept they are in a genuine winter setting.

“Operating ‘Winterfest’ here has been great for ourselves and our guests,” says Deutscher. “We intend to keep bringing ice and snow to Florida as a result, for years to come.”