George Millay ventured into uncharted waters when he developed Wet ’n Wild.
The attractions industry hadn’t seen anything quite like the sprawling water playground that Millay, also famous for creating SeaWorld, developed on International Drive.
When Wet ’n Wild opened in 1977, Walt Disney World had already unveiled the smaller, rustic River Country. But experts say Wet ’n Wild was the first major standalone water park.
On Saturday, almost 40 years of splashing and screaming will cease as owner Universal Studios Water Parks closes the attraction. A next-gen water park called Volcano Bay will open next summer across I-4 at the Universal Orlando resort. Universal has not revealed development plans for the Wet ’n Wild land.
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Despite the anticipation of Volcano Bay, Universal Orlando Resort President Bill Davis said, “A lot of folks are a little sad to see Wet ’n Wild closing because it’s been a part of the community for 39 years. There are an awful lot of people who have been there – millions, literally – and an awful lot of people who have ... worked there over that 39 years.”
When we opened River Country, we thought it was fantastic because we had three slides and a big swimming pool. Then along comes George Millay with Wet ’n Wild and we kind of go, ‘Oh, wait a minute.’ He really took the River Country concept and really stepped it up and went a lot further.
Former Disney executive Duncan Dickson
The 250 or so permanent Wet ’n Wild employees are transferring to other parts of Universal, Davis said.
Water parks have become ubiquitous since Millay, who died in 2006, took his big plunge.
INDUSTRY REVOLVED AROUND WET ’N WILD
Today, the United States has more than 744 outdoor water parks with three or more slides, according to Hotel & Leisure Advisors. Orlando has a heavy concentration, with four of the world’s top 10 most visited parks – including Wet ’n Wild.
The business model became popular because “it was a much more reasonable way for someone who wanted to get into our industry to come into it,” said Dennis Speigel, president of the International Theme Park Services consulting firm. “The capital was so much cheaper and it didn’t require all the real estate.”
As it grew, “the whole industry kind of revolved around Wet ’n Wild,” said Rick Hunter, chief executive officer of ProSlide Technology, which builds major water park attractions.
Disney, for example, took note of Millay’s success with his combination of waves and water slides.
“When we opened River Country, we thought it was fantastic because we had three slides and a big swimming pool,” former Disney executive Duncan Dickson said. “Then along comes George Millay with Wet ’n Wild and we kind of go, ‘Oh, wait a minute.’ He really took the River Country concept and really stepped it up and went a lot further.”
Despite ever-increasing competition, Wet ’n Wild in Orlando continued to attract visitors — 1.3 million in 2015, according to industry estimates.
Disney opened the more elaborate Typhoon Lagoon in 1989. Disney’s Blizzard Beach, built around the theme of a melted ski resort, followed in 1995. SeaWorld in 2008 opened Aquatica, which features a water slide that shoots people through Commerson’s dolphin habitat.
As competitors became more creative, Speigel said, Wet ’n Wild began to have “a very utilitarian kind of feel about it.”
Still, it continued attracting visitors — 1.3 million in 2015, according to industry estimates.
The park was popular with locals as well as tourists. Former longtime general manager Michael Black said about 40 percent of guests came from Florida.
Wet ’n Wild always aimed to stay on the cutting edge.
It opened slides with sound effects and lighting, and rides that accommodated more than one passenger.
Those multi-rider attractions came about because customers wanted “to enjoy the park as a family,” Black said. “We started installing ... attractions so the whole family could get in an inner tube and enjoy the experience together.”
Black, who worked with Millay, said the man known as “the father of water parks” would be happy to see how the industry he spawned has evolved.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR PARK’S PROPERTY?
The park not only influenced the industry, but it had an effect on the surrounding International Drive area. Hotelier Harris Rosen remembers when Wet ’n Wild first opened, there wasn’t much in the area but “a couple of hotels, a lot of vacant property.”
Rosen had a hotel that was across International Drive from the water park.
“We were delighted that Wet ’n Wild was there,” Rosen said. “We’re going to lose some of that allure when they close it.”
Many experts think hotels might replace the attraction, since Universal has ambitious plans for more lodging.
I don’t get emotional
Universal Orlando Resort President Bill Davis
Universal’s parent company bought the water park — which by then had grown into an international chain — in 1998. The other parks were quickly sold, but Orlando stayed part of the Universal portfolio.
“It helped round us out as a resort,” Davis said.
Universal added more attractions there, including Disco H2O, where riders travel through tunnels with lighting effects and music. It began offering features such as cabanas and family dining plans. In 2012, Wet ’n Wild opened Blastaway Beach, a kid-friendly area with a 60-foot sand castle, slides, soakers and jets.
“It’s a terrific park,” Davis said.
“I don’t get emotional on too many things, but this is a little bittersweet. On Dec. 31, I’ll probably swing by and I may be there as the last person leaves. ... I’ll probably have a tear in my eye.”