June 29, 2008

Resorting to water in the Toledo region  

Jon Chavez
Toledo Blade Business Writer


Water parks in the Toledo region are trying to wade through high gas costs, rising food prices, and a tough economy.

Some customers are staying away from higher-priced parks, and others are using the more expensive local ones for minivacations instead of taking longer trips.

And most users are penny-pinching.

Chuck Simpkins, his wife, and two children spent three days last week at Great Wolf Lodge in Sandusky as part of an eight-day driving trip to Ohio from Raleigh, N.C.

“We went back and forth on whether to even take the trip, but we had already made reservations in January and couldn’t cancel,” he said. “So, we’re bringing a lot of our own food.”

The day they checked out of the Sandusky resort, they splurged by going to a local pancake house for breakfast.
An hour and a half away, in Dundee, Mich., the three children of Atiya Naqui, of Sylvania, were having a great time frolicking at Splash Universe, a water park connected to a Holiday Inn Express. “We won’t go to Kalahari this year,” she said. “It’s too far away and gas costs a lot more now. Besides, my kids like this better,” she said.

The 25,000-square-foot park is reasonably priced, and her family can drive home to avoid a hotel bill, she said. The Naqui family used to take long vacations, but this year may opt for shorter minivacations.

Keith Alexander, general manager of the Dundee park near Cabela’s, said, “Everybody’s dollar is stretched, so everyone is first looking for ways their dollar goes further. Our main thing is to just get people in the front door. We think the water park speaks for itself after that.”

Until recent years, the region had just one water park, Cedar Point’s Soak City, an outdoor attraction dependent on the weather. But now, eight parks are within an hour’s drive of Toledo: Great Wolf, Soak City, Cedar Point’s Castaway Bay, the Kalahari Resort, and the Maui Sands resort, all in Sandusky; the Splash Universe in Dundee.

Also, the Monroe County KOA campground offers water slides.

All the indoor resorts but Great Wolf allow admission to their water parks without renting a room. Prices for daily admission range from $29 at Castaway Bay to $39 at both Kalahari and the Maui Sands. Kalahari charges $42 to use its park on weekends.
Water parks have been on the increase nationally for years. There were 169 of them last year, up from 81 three years earlier, according to a study by Jeff Coy, head of JLC Hospitality, of Phoenix, a water park consulting firm.

“People are still taking their vacation time with their families,” he said. “What they’re not doing is they’re not getting on airplanes and flying to Orlando as much.”

And people are balancing what they spend by cutting back on a resort’s expensive restaurants and souvenirs, he added.

Water Park consultant John Gerner, of Leisure Business Advisors LLC, of Richmond, Va., said park operators are concerned about being hurt by the economy and gas prices at about $4 a gallon, but there are no studies to indicate if revenues are dropping.

He said that unlike amusement parks, water parks draw customers from 25 miles or closer if they are outdoor, and 150 miles if they are indoor. “For the [indoor] water park resort, the gas situation would likely have a more significant impact,” he said.

He predicted most water parks will have revenue drops in the single digits.

Water parks have taken defensive postures this season by offering many promotions and discounts and cutting costs in the belief sales will bounce back next year, Mr. Gerner said.
At Dundee’s Splash Universe, Mr. Alexander, the manager, said his park charges a $32 daily admission but in June, coupons cut admission to $20 daily. Revenues this year, after a slow start, are on par with last summer’s when the park opened, he said.

Kalahari emphasizes that for a night’s stay, customers can use its water park two days — the day of check-in and for much of the next day after check-out.

Weekday customers tend to be different from weekenders in that most live nearby, usually bring their own food and drink, and often either rent rooms or rent one and bring the maximum people allowed, resort officials said.

Kalahari tries to encourage longer stays by offering seasonal specials and e-mailing former customers about daily and weekend discounted rooms that come up suddenly. It also has been adding packages that include free breakfasts or a $40 gas card with a four-night stay.

The best way to maintain its revenues is to keep providing luxury features so that customers will want to come back and will tell others to come, said Josef Haas, Kalahari Resorts chief operating officer.
The philosophy is similar to Walt Disney Co.’s. “We want to be the Mercedes of water parks,” Mr. Haas said.
“We try to create the ‘Wow’ effect.”

If Kalahari tries to be a memorable destination, young Jessica Ralph, of Sheffield Lake, Ohio, who visited the resort last week, felt the resort met its goal. “This is a dream come true for me,” the 9-year-old said, staring wide-eyed at the many attractions of 173,000-square foot water park. “I’ll be talking about this all summer.”

Her mother, Monica Ralph, was glad to take Jessica and two siblings to the largest indoor U.S. water park under one roof, but said a room, which costs between $280 and $500 a night, was beyond her price range.

A friend who had left a convention there a day early gave her a room for the night — and the use of the water park.

“It’s not something we could afford otherwise, what with the economy and the gas prices,” Mrs. Ralph said. “This is a large bonus for us.”

For Dave Rega, of Whitmore Lake, Mich., a three-day visit to the Kalahari with his family “is the big vacation for us.”
The economy is a big concern, as are gas prices, but a two-hour ride to Sandusky fitted their budget.

“It’s a little pricey here, but it’s that way everywhere you go now. We came here figuring we can get more fun for the money,” he said. Though it was nearby, Cedar Point got a thumbs down from the Rega family because its $43 daily admission was too much.
Matt Lawrence, general manager of Great Wolf in Sandusky, said he was concerned about how its 42,000-square-foot indoor water park would do this year. It is available only to lodge guests. But he said, “For the summer, we are booked up over last year in June, July, and August.

“We haven’t seen a difference in the length of stays. It’s still a one-to-two-night average. And our in-house spending has been consistent compared to the same time last year, so we’re very happy about that.”

A room that sleeps four is about $170 a night on weekdays, about $200 on weekends.

One of the region’s biggest water-park operators is Cedar Point, with its 18-acre Soak City and its 38,000-square-foot Castaway Bay, an indoor park and resort.

Bryan Edwards, a Cedar Point spokesman, said the water parks’ revenues are tied to nearby Cedar Point amusement park.

“Soak City is weather dependent,” he said. “Cedar Point can be open on a 60-degree day but no one will go to Soak City on a day like that.

“Castaway Bay, on the other hand, is a great hotel to stay at, and a lot of people treat it like weather insurance. If you come to Cedar Point and it rains, there’s your insurance, that’s your entertainment.”

In the past few years, he said, Cedar Point has noticed an increase in visitors from farther away, like Chicago, Indianapolis, and western New York. Many are opting to stay at Castaway Bay for three-day and four-day getaways.

“A lot of people can’t do a week’s vacation anymore, but they can do a three-day minivacation,” he said.

Added Mr. Coy, the analyst: “What I’ve learned over the years is Americans will not give up their vacation times, even in a down economy. That doesn’t mean they won’t cut back.

“They’ll spend less and stay closer to home, but they won’t give up that vacation.”



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