The Art of Attractions - May 2017

Water, Water (Parks), Everywhere

I love the smell of chlorine in the morning.

I was recently at the Kalahari Resort in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains to celebrate its expansion. With 220,000 square feet of slides, hot tubs, and swim-up bars, the massive property now lays claim to the title of America’s largest indoor water park. As I was wandering around the bustling lobby on a Saturday morning along with other guests staying in the hotel’s nearly 1,000 rooms, the aroma of the free-trade coffee imported from Rwanda that is served in the café mixed with the scent of chlorine wafting from the water park. It was the smell of fun.

As with his two other enormous Kalahari Resorts in Ohio and Wisconsin, Todd Nelson is the visionary behind the African-themed water park hotel in the Poconos. The owner and president is a relentless dreamer who likes to think big. Nelson took obvious delight in showing me around the resort.

We stopped at a magnificent 41-foot-tall sculpture of a tree and a leopard that adorns the entryway to Kalahari’s 100,000-square-foot convention center. “We estimated it would cost about $80,000,” Nelson said. Like nearly all of the themed accessories throughout the resort, the company’s in-house workshop designed and built the tree. “It actually ended up costing over $300,000,” he added with a smile and a shrug. As head of the family-run organization, Nelson likes to have the freedom to bring his vision to life.

He also likes to play as hard as he works. To help maintain authenticity at the resorts, Nelson and his family regularly visit Africa. They take inspiration from its culture, art, and people, and participate in adventures. For one of their more extreme escapades, they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

The indoor water park phenomenon began by accident in Nelson’s hometown of Wisconsin Dells. On a whim in 1994, Tom Lucke, former co-owner of the Polynesian Hotel, installed a water play area in the indoor pool. “We just wanted to shore up business in June. It’s an iffy weather month, and we thought this would guarantee weatherproof fun,” Nelson said. Instead, visitors went crazy and booked reservations year-round. Entrepreneurs took notice and began building bigger and bigger indoor parks.

Now that Nelson has the country’s biggest indoor park, he’s not about to rest on his laurels. He has another Kalahari Resort planned for Texas and is building a water park in Rwanda as a gift to its people.

Heed the examples of Todd Nelson and Tom Lucke: Think big, and don’t be afraid to go outside the box—or inside the box, as the case may be. I’ll see you at the water parks.