At 223,000 square feet, the indoor water park at the newest Kalahari Resort is among the world’s largest. Another 200,000 square feet of the massive Round Rock, Texas, complex is devoted to a convention center. Opened in the middle of the global pandemic, the property also features 975 guest rooms and suites. The indoor Tom Foolerys Adventure Park boasts 250 arcade games, a ropes course, climbing walls, an indoor zip line, bowling, and miniature golf—adding an additional 80,000 square feet to the total of 1.5 million square feet.
With all the amenities under one roof, one may suspect Kalahari is primarily an indoor water park resort targeting families. Or, with its convention centers, is it really geared more to business travelers? Then again, might it best be considered hotels that use attractions and conventions to drive occupancy rates? The answer? None of the above, according to the family behind the resort chain.
“We’re a food and beverage company first that happens to have water parks, convention centers, and hotel rooms,” asserts Natasha Lucke, a second-generation co-owner of the company along with her four siblings.
Despite the fact that the resorts include a variety of places to enjoy a meal and grab a drink, it may seem surprising to focus on dining alone. But the food connection makes more sense when tracing the origins of the company. Lucke’s parents, Todd and Shari Nelson, parlayed a restaurant in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, into a thriving chain of four mega-resorts.
According to Todd Nelson—founder, owner, and the company’s driving force—food and beverage accounts for about 35% of Kalahari’s business. “But it gets the most of my attention,” he says. “It’s what I enjoy. It’s what I’m passionate about.”
Talk with Nelson for even a few moments, and it immediately becomes clear that he actually loves everything about the company he and his family built. Whether it’s the dining, water parks, meeting spaces, or any other aspect of the resorts, they are all about delivering memorable experiences. Nelson’s passion is infectious; he has passed along his life-affirming enthusiasm for the industry to his five children who are now his Kalahari partners.
A Farmer in the Dells
Nelson grew up on a farm in Wisconsin Dells. Rather than following in his dad’s footsteps as a farmer and auctioneer, he and Shari (high school sweethearts who met in driver’s ed class) leased a bar when they were 18 years old. Three years later, they bought a restaurant and transformed it into Pizza Pub, following their gut instinct, since they both crave pizza. To this day, the 600-seat eatery remains a Dells fixture.
Nelson didn’t launch the Dells’ indoor water park phenomenon that began modestly in the early 1990s when the Polynesian Resort added a small water play structure to its indoor pool. But he says that he and Shari were immediately intrigued by the concept, wanted in, and had the vision to realize its potential.
“Nobody saw what we saw—that indoor water parks would be huge,” notes Nelson. “And we were going to lead the way.”
The couple started relatively small by opening the Raintree Resort in 1997. Nelson marvels that the project cost $7.7 million, compared to the $550 million price tag for the new Round Rock resort. They sold the Raintree in 1998 and turned their sights to something much more ambitious.
“We knew that indoor water parks were going to be the size and scope of Vegas hotels, but without the casinos,” Nelson says. “The water park is our casino.”
Knowing the resort needed a compelling theme, the couple batted around a few ideas. They strongly considered an Australian motif but rejected it because they didn’t want to travel too far to conduct research. Yet, on a whim, the Nelsons hopped on a plane and visited South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. They instantly fell in love with the culture and people of Durban, an eastern coastal city, and the port city of Cape Town. It was on this trip the Nelsons say they decided to purchase artwork from local artists to fill their resort, with the goal of bringing the atmosphere of the KwaZulu-Natal province back to Wisconsin.
To date, the Nelson family has donated more than $5.5 million to support local artists and craftspeople through the purchase of art and textiles showcased throughout the resorts. As a supporter of the Mandela Poster Project—a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela created by nearly 100 artists from across the world—Kalahari sponsored the North American debut of the art exhibition in 2015.
Making a Model
The original Wisconsin resort, opened in 2000, set the Kalahari template. The resort features an enormous indoor water park (after expanding, it is now 125,000 square feet) that includes most of the slides and attractions one might expect to find at a major outdoor water park. The water park is balanced by an expansive convention center (now 212,000 square feet) to attract visitors when children are traditionally in school. Nelson says the Dells convention center generates 50% of the resort’s business. Spacious rooms and suites keep customers on property, as do an indoor theme park, a large outdoor water park, compelling dining options at a number of price points, a spa, and other amenities.
The formula worked. Along with other major indoor water park resorts—including Great Wolf Lodge, Wilderness Resort, and Chula Vista Resort—Kalahari helped turn the Dells into the indoor water park capital of the world. Once a summer vacation spot, visitors now flock to the town year-round. The indoor water park resort concept worked, prompting the Nelsons to spread their brand. The family opened similar sprawling Kalahari locations in Sandusky, Ohio, and the Pocono Mountains region in Pennsylvania before embarking on their latest venture in Texas. All are strategically located in markets that have huge population bases within driving range. How did Kalahari plan its evolution? “There was no grand plan,” Lucke says about the trajectory of the company. “It just kind of evolved.”
The Family that Plays Together
“We grew up poor, but we had a lot of love,” Nelson says about his and Shari’s upbringing and their drive to succeed. “When we got something that we could put our arms around, we jumped on it. How fortunate we were to be on the crest of a wave for a new industry.”
While they may not have initially known what business they would eventually develop, Nelson says the goal was always to make it multigenerational and family owned. “We don’t have a board of directors,” Nelson notes. “We work with our kids. I see all of them nearly every day.”
Travis Nelson, a financial analyst, oversees the hotel rooms, while Todd Nelson Jr. is operations director and handles the food and beverage side of the business. Among the couple’s three daughters, Ashley Nelson covers the convention centers and catering services, Alissa Gander manages all online sales and retail operations, and Lucke serves as the interior designer for the resorts. Family businesses can have their challenges, but Lucke says everyone is able to work well together because each person has his or her own lane on which to focus.
One thing the entire family does together is make periodic trips to Africa. As the Texas property was under construction, the Nelsons embarked on a 12-day art buying excursion in October 2019. Wooden art pieces, furniture, murals, and the other treasures they purchased filled five shipping containers for the new Texas property. In the same year, Kalahari Resorts and Conventions partnered with Ithateng Mokgoro of Gamatong Foundation to sponsor a design competition for artists from across Africa to interpret and illustrate the beauty of the continent. Winning designs will be featured in the resorts.
Everything Is Bigger in Texas
In developing the 350-acre Round Rock resort, the Nelsons applied some lessons learned from the other three properties. For example, instead of the Poconos’ two eight-story wings, which create long walks for guests staying in the outer reaches, the Texas property has five 11-story towers all located near each other. Also, neither the Ohio nor the Pennsylvania resorts have indoor family entertainment centers. Kalahari Round Rock’s 40-foot-tall Tom Foolerys Adventure Park incorporates a custom theme based on a rambunctious boy and his family. Michael Montgomery, owner of Big Dreamer Design, created the concept and oversaw the park’s development. Among the attractions are “Scream’n Centipede,” a coaster from SBF-Visa Group; “Red, White, and Woo,” a Zamperla NebulaZ ride; and a large ropes course from RCI Adventure Products.
“It’s got to be the prettiest resort between Vegas and Orlando, hands down,” Montgomery says about Kalahari Round Rock. “When I saw it for the first time, my jaw dropped.”
The water park, which is the largest the Nelsons have built to date, features slides and attractions from ProSlide. Both the theme park and water park have lots of room to accommodate future expansions, another lesson the Nelsons gleaned from experience.
New concepts at the Texas property include Cinco Niños, a Tex-Mex eatery that offers 100 different kinds of tequila, as well as Redd’s Piano Bar and Lounge. Among the 10,000 square feet of retail space is Amatuli; it will showcase South African and Texan artists plying their trade, along with shopping.
Nelson says he especially enjoys developing new ideas like Amatuli and bringing them to life at his properties. He also gets a huge kick out of creating audacious indoor water park resorts, each one bigger and grander than the one before. Nelson offers a simple explanation for what motivates him and his family to one-up themselves and challenge the industry: “We like to win.”
Arthur Levine covers the attractions industry for USA Today and authors Funworld’s “The Art of Attractions” column each month.