How Soaky Mountain Water Park Opened Despite COVID-19
Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains are one of America’s great natural landmarks and tourist attractions. Opened at the end of June, Soaky Mountain Waterpark in Sevierville, Tennessee, mirrors the Smokies in its name, layout, and style.
“If you’re putting something in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains—something this large in scale—then you have to scale your water park to match,” says David Andrews Jr., Soaky Mountain’s general manager. “That’s what we have done with Soaky Mountain.”
The 50-acre outdoor water park embraced its hilly terrain to create an expansive multilevel entertainment complex in harmony with its natural Smokies environment. (Fun fact: The Great Smoky Mountains are so-named due to the naturally occurring fog that hangs over them, which looks like smoke plumes.)
Matching Soaky to the Smokies
Aquatic Development Group (ADG) served as Soaky Mountain’s design/builder, construction manager, and supplier of the wave pool, tidal river, and many other attractions, which bejewel the park’s hillside site. The layout reflects a key objective in ADG’s design, which was to preserve and showcase the unique elevation grade as much as possible, rather than flattening it.
“Most water parks are built on relatively flat lands, which makes for straightforward layouts,” says ADG President Jim Dunn. “With its 100-foot elevation rise across the park, Soaky was a real challenge because we did our best to work with the landscape and indeed showcase it to park guests.”
To the untrained eye, Soaky Mountain’s attractions look as if they were simply grafted onto the hillside, but the truth is something else. Mainly comprised of shale rock, the Soaky Mountain site wasn’t easy to work with. ADG had to blast and then move 750,000 yards of earth and shale before beginning water park construction. All told, more than $13 million of the park’s $90 million construction budget had to be spent on material removal and landscaping.
To be true to its surroundings, Soaky Mountain’s attractions, buildings, and furnishings were specifically designed to blend visually with the Smokies. They incorporate naturalistic colors from the blue skies and vibrant red-pink-orange sunsets above to the green forests and fields below.
“We wanted to avoid the cliché of ‘mountain’ design and colors, which tend toward logs and khaki,” Andrews says. “We call our updated approach—which complements the landscape without being kitschy—‘Mountain Modern.’” The move allowed the park to create its own brand and be instantaneously identifiable.
A Dazzling Array of Attractions
The stunning beauty of Soaky Mountain’s layout and design is matched by its collection of attractions.
The park’s “Soaky Surge” WaveTek wave pool measures 35,000 square feet in size, with a wide walk-in beach and generated waves up to 6 feet tall. That’s high enough to surf, which is precisely what pro surfer Ben Gravy did before Soaky Mountain opened to the public.
Gravy also surfed Soaky Mountain’s 24,000-square-foot “Black Bear Rapids,” which is anything but lazy. ADG has equipped this WaveTek attraction with wave generators that create rolling swells up to 3 feet in height. They run down the entire length of the river.
“You can certainly take a relaxing float down our Tidal River in a tube,” Dunn says. “But we like to spice things up a bit by offering faster, more turbulent water along the way to make things more interesting. Ben Gravy was surprised when he experienced his first swell on the Tidal River, but he loved it.”
Gravy raved about surfing at Soaky Mountain on his personal YouTube channel. “This is the best! Soaky Mountain water park in Tennessee by far blew my expectations of what this ‘surf trip’ was going to be like,” he posted as the description to his video “This is the BEST man-made Novelty Wave in America!” “When I agree to surfing weird waves like this, I usually have no idea what to expect, and it can be scary. But, when we saw that river turn on, we knew the stoke was on.”
When it came to choosing the water slides, ADG wanted to incorporate something unique to Soaky Mountain. So the company turned to ProSlide for its innovative, one-of-a-kind attractions.
The “Avalaunch Watercoaster” is a two-person tube attraction where riders zoom through twisting tubes into four FlyingSaucer spin zones, with RocketBlast water jets boosting their speed both uphill and down. A hill in the flume gives riders a brief feeling of weightlessness and a false ending to the ride instead propels them into a final speed frenzy, putting “Avalaunch Watercoaster” in the thrill ride category.
“ProSlide has really outdone themselves with this unbelievably thrilling attraction that ends with a massive sweeping TornadoWave finish,” says Andrews. “The excitement and anticipation of this breathtaking ride are definitely not for the faint of heart.”
That’s not all: ADG’s park design called for almost a dozen water slides throughout the park to meet the desires of every age group. Other ProSlide water slides at Soaky Mountain include the “Blue Mountain Mayhem” four-person raft slide with “two massive gravity-challenging walls”; the “Whoop” and “Holler” single-rider body slides; and the “Splash & Furious” four-lane mat racing slide. Additional water slides feature translucent tubes that generate a swirling array of light effects, while “Rainbow Revenge” is themed to every color in the spectrum, and “American Racer’s Rush” is decorated with red, white, and blue stars and stripes.
Boomers Bay is a children’s activity pool area with smaller versions of the adult-size slides, so younger children can experience the thrills and chills of the water park at a less-demanding level. Boomers Bay also includes “The Hive” water-play zone, a 3,800-square-foot flat-water cabana pool for relaxing poolside, and “Hang 10essee,” a double FlowRider surfing simulator.
All of the slides and rides use the latest in modern water park technology, from variable-speed pumps to conserve power to sophisticated ride control and monitoring systems. These are the high-tech necessities that the guests never see, but which keep Soaky Mountain moving.
In addition to the attractions, Soaky Mountain has creative food and beverage outlets and vehicles. Tacolicious is an authentic English double-decker bus that has been themed into a taco truck. Another is a refurbished vintage school bus known as Rolly Macaroni.
Even before COVID-19 hit, Soaky Mountain was faced with many challenges. Shaping the shale-laden landscape was one of them. The 60 days of precipitation that soaked outdoor construction was another.
“We got hammered by an unseasonably high amount of rain,” says Dunn. “It seemed like it rained every few days, and with so much soil opened up, the job site just became a slick and slippery mess.”
The ADG build team managed to cope with rain delays, only to be slowed by late deliveries due to the pandemic lockdown.
“COVID-19 was not our best friend,” Dunn says. “I have to give credit to our construction team for soldiering on regardless. They moved forward with heads held high and managed to get the project done. This included altering the park site to make it compatible with social distancing and other public health requirements.”
Soaky Mountain expected to attract up to 400,000 guests in its first season before the pandemic hit. But with admissions deliberately restricted to enable social distancing, this isn’t likely to happen in 2020.
“We’re not going to be able to hit our pre-COVID-19 projections, but what we can do is provide our guests with the most normal experience possible,” says Andrews. “When we do have to restrict admissions, we’re coping by giving preference to season passholders. They’re loyal customers who have invested in us, and we want to repay them for their faith in us.”
Since Soaky Mountain opened later than expected in 2020, the park gave 2020 season passholders who purchased their tickets prior to June 26 access to the park in 2021 as well for the price of $99.99 per person. “Before we were able to set the June 27 opening date, we just didn’t know when Soaky Mountain would open its gates,” Andrews says. “This is why we gave season pass buyers who bought in early all of the 2021 season as well. We thought doing so would help build their loyalty to us, and it has.”
Soaky Mountain Waterpark earned its “claim to fame” as the only major water park to open in the United States during the 2020 pandemic. Yet, it is the Smokies’ landscape, the park’s exciting attractions, and its stunning setting that will keep guests coming back to Soaky year after year.
James Careless is a Canada-based writer who covers the water park industry for Funworld.
Clockwise from top left: Tidal River delivers waves as high as 3 feet throughout its entire length for a non-lazy river experience; “Soaky Surge” is a 35,000-square-foot wave pool that has a walk-in beach and waves up to 6 feet in height; a water slide tower includes “American Racer’s Rush,” “Copperhead Clash,” “Cottonmouth Coils,” and “Timber Rattler’s Rage.” (Credit: Soaky Mountain Waterpark)
Soaky Mountain’s kids area features smaller versions of the park’s water slides. (Credit: Soaky Mountain Waterpark)