MANATEE -- When Lost Lagoon water park opens in 2017 in a vast open area of East Manatee along Interstate 75, developers envision it as the start of a new tourist destination.
"We wanted something that more represented Manatee County and Old Florida," said William Gridley, spokesman for Lost Lagoon. "Lost Lagoon is an opportunity to rediscover something that's been here all along."
While the Manatee County Commission must give its stamp of approval before construction can begin, the county's evaluation committee, which consists of Dan Schlandt, deputy county administrator; Charlie Hunsicker, director of parks and natural resources department; and Melissa Wendel, county purchasing official, already liked what they saw, recommending the county to begin negotiations with Lost Lagoon Development LLLP.
In the park's design, developers wanted to keep an old-time Florida feel, Gridley said. Lost Lagoon would be built on a 20-acre site, at 400 Cypress Creek Blvd., part of about 200 acres at the county-owned Tom Bennett Park. The closest water park to the property is Tampa's Adventure Island.
Lost Lagoon proposes more than a dozen rides, including a ropes course, wave pool, lazy rivers and a number of slides. Developers are also proposing possible future expansions, including an amphitheater, small-format zoo, miniature golf and aquatic or athletic facilities.
"Lost Lagoon will be the start of what we hope will be a tourism destination," Gridley said. "A park that isn't just a playground for kids but places where families can go but also draw tourists. This can be the start of something much bigger for Manatee County."
Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said a water park would appeal to the residents and regional visitors while extending tourist stays.
"Any time our community can add a tourist-related attraction, it would enhance and continue to diversify our product in the marketplace," Falcione said.
Lost Lagoon can be a "fantastic weekend destination" as people can turn the one-day visit to the water park into a multiple-day visit to Manatee County by going to Anna Maria Island, Gridley said.
"It is a reason other than the beaches to come into Manatee County," he said.
"Part of what we want to do is work with the county to find the best way for Lost Lagoon to fit in with the rest of natural attractions in Manatee County," he said.
State-of-the-art water park
While multiple representatives who will be working on the water park have previous experience working on projects at amusement parks such as Disney and Universal Studios, Lost Lagoon will be built in a way that is "appropriate to the scale and character of Manatee County," Gridley said.
"We don't want this to be a big tourism eyesore on the side of the highway," he said.
Lost Lagoon will be comparable in quality to Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon but not as similar in the size and scale, Gridley said.
"It's more about the character and quality," he said. "We want this to be a place that people are excited to go to."
Lost Lagoon promises to be home to "truly state-of-the-art attractions," Gridley said.
"Between the caliber and just the talent we have for this project, this should be an outstanding addition not to Manatee County but to the whole water park scene in Florida," he said.
Gridley said they realize Lost Lagoon won't be one of a dozen attractions like in Orlando.
"We want to be an exciting addition in Manatee County," he said. "We want the county to be excited. We want the residents to be excited.
Idea was unsolicited proposal
In fall 2014, the development team, now called Lost Lagoon Development, approached the county with an unsolicited proposal about a water park in East Manatee, said Manatee County spokesman Nick Azzara.
Last September, the county commission unanimously supported opening a public request for proposal to build a water park at Tom Bennett Park. Two Florida companies submitted proposals for the water park, Manatee Lost Lagoon Development LLC of Orlando and Hans Carl Clausen of Bradenton.
During two evaluation committee meetings, county staff discussed the proposals. After determining the proposal from Hans Carl Clausen was not responsive, the committee invited Lost Lagoon Development to offer an oral presentation before recommending County Administrator Ed Hunzeker authorize the county to negotiate with the company.
"It is a good solid group that has been assembled in order to address this project," Mike Whelan, of the county's parks and natural resources department, said at a March 27 meeting. "Their proposed water park is tight designed, and it is going to offer the community a very exciting and fluid set of activities and facilities that will be, I think, very well-received by the community."
On Tuesday, Hunzeker authorized county staff to begin negotiations with Manatee Lost Lagoon Development. Once negotiations are complete, there will be a public meeting before the proposal goes to the county commission for approval. Azzara said there is no timetable for when it would go before the board but doesn't expect it before the commission's summer recess.
According to Lost Lagoon's proposal, the water park has a tentative grand opening date of Feb. 25, 2017.
Resort welcomes water park
Located about 15 miles from the beaches on Anna Maria Island, Encore Manatee RV Park resort's manager said the water park would offer children a place to go that doesn't require a 15-mile drive from the resort located at 800 Kay Road NE. The RV park is located on the other side of Interstate 75 from Tom Bennett Park.
"It would definitely boost the area because now there is not that much for children to do," resort manager Amanda Grice said.
Grice said the water park would definitely boost the resort's business.
"It would really help to boost our traffic, especially during the summertime when we have more families visiting," Grice said.
Lost Lagoon developers say the water park will bring increased tourist dollars, higher tax revenues and new business to Manatee County, Gridley said.
"We want to partner with the county so they are getting a strong return on their investment and they are doing something that is benefiting their citizens," Gridley said. "That's our whole goal behind the destination approach."
With several hotels near the proposed site, Gridley said the water park can benefit them.
"Let's increase the room nights," he said. "Let's increase the dollars spent at restaurants and businesses. It becomes a benefit not just to the county but to businesses and people that live in Manatee County."
With the location of a water park on the mainland, Falcione said it would help pull business from the islands for a day trip.
"This additional type of asset should help push dollars toward the mainland that could be used to help redevelopment in that area of our community," he said.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau would add the water park to its marketing and public relations initiatives, Falcione said.
"We would be excited to partner with the water park officials," he said. "A water park located on our mainland can extend the stay of our visitor and can increase regional visitation especially when we are talking about a venue just off I-75."
Experts weigh in
Over the past decade or so, water parks have been developed in a way that all ages can enjoy the amenities, according to Aleatha Ezra, director of park member development for World Waterpark Association, a member trade association serving the water leisure industry.
"Water parks are one of the safest places families can come together and enjoy water recreational activities," Ezra said.
Visitors "spend an entire day enjoying the park together, creating memories and taking photographs and have that family togetherness," she said.
Rides such as lazy rivers and wave pools lend themselves to families riding together, Ezra said, adding that there are also more high thrill rides for the older visitors. Lost Lagoon is proposing a ride where the floor will open, shooting the rider straight down into water.
Water parks "provide a variety of ride experiences and water parks also have done a lot to have cohesive themeing and a lot of mixed use opportunities such as retail, food and beverage," Ezra said. "Water parks create the full attraction experience."
After hearing the plans for Lost Lagoon, Ezra said it sounds like it is going to be more of that type of water park, developed to provide multi-generational use visit.
"Water parks of a certain size can have a huge appeal to the local market but certainly can be tourist attractions," she said.
Even as the economy improved, staycations are still popular and attractions such as water parks are a "huge driver" in that, Ezra said.
"They have that big, fun memory-creating experience," she said.
There have been a lot of water parks developed near natural bodies of water, she added.
"Oceans are great but they are a different experience," she said. "It's a nice partner because you can have that experience where you are enjoying wave pool, slides and the other day enjoy the beach."
From a statewide perspective, Florida is an attraction mecca, said Bill Lupfer, president and CEO of the Florida Attractions Association.
"Everyone wants to be in Florida," Lupfer said. "The unique part of Florida is the diversity. No place in the world has such a selection of natural and manmade attractions. Certainly Florida has the perfect climate but nobody in the world has the variety of attractions we enjoy in Florida."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.