How did water parks develop?

Figure 1. Image showing perhaps the first built water slide.

For many children, and even those young at heart, water parks are a key pastime of summer and, increasingly, winter. With indoor parks, it is now possible to play year-round in many places. The history of water parks is relatively recent. In particular, it is after World War II when they became popular. But they have evolved rapidly in the last few decades from simple places of amusement to complex parks that compete for status symbols such as the 'largest water park' or 'tallest waterslide.'

Where was the first waterslide built?

In the late 1940s, with the country recovering from World War II and beginning to contemplate more fun as normal life resumed, the United States began to look for new amusements. Many outdoor pools and lidos had existed already, but only a few had diving boards. Even fewer had slides. However, by the late 1940s, more pools began to integrate slides and even began to include water being incorporated into the slide to ease movement down towards the pool. Although this is often seen as the beginning of water parks, the waterslide appears to have first developed in New Zealand during the 1906 International Exhibition (Figure 1). There could be earlier versions of such slides, but New Zealand's slide was the first to attract major attention.

In an exhibition called "Wonderland," a chute was installed that allows swimmers to slide right into the pool. The chute moved people down in a wooden ramp that then allowed them to briefly skim across the surface of the water as it came in a slight angle. In fact, almost all early waterslides mostly skimmed riders rather than directly inserting them into water. In 1906, even government officials, such as the speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, were impressed and gave the slide a try. In the 1910s and 1920s, similar slides were created, with most being features at fairs and special summer events.[1]

Perhaps the first document waterslide in the United States was in Faribault, Minnesota, created by furniture maker Herbert Sellner in 1923. He created a water toboggan slide that would have riders going on a wooden sled and then slide into the water, skimming the surface in a similar manner as the New Zealand slide. It was given a patent, number 1,737,032, later influencing waterslide design. In fact, similar slides were being built throughout the late 1920s, and a few parks in the United States began to have slides built in them.

Water slides were not the main feature in all these cases but just one feature among other, mostly land-based amusements. Most of the slides were based on Sellner's original design, but soon some began to do away with the sled. Most slides allowed one to go to the top, get on a sled or simple down without a sled, and then go off at a slight angle towards the water.[2]

What was the first waterpark?

Figure 2. Wet n' Wild in Orlando was the first purpose-built water park.

George Millay, who famously founded Sea World in San Diego and later Florida, took the ideas of waterslides and increasingly noticed in the 1960s and 1970s that pools began to incorporate splash pads, and even the first wave pool opening in Alabama had proven to be major attractions. People often wanted to enjoy the water without having to get directly deep into the water. Waterslides also became very popular within existing parks, so much so long lines were always evident. All these gave Millay the idea that a purpose-built water park might be enough to be profitable. He needed a warm, year-round place to have such a park to keep revenues steady.

As Orlando, Florida already hosted well-known amusement locations, took advantage of an existing tourist market, and had the weather that Millay needed. This allowed Wet n’ Wild to be founded there as the first purpose-built water park in 1977 (Figure 2). When it opened, the first year proved disappointing, losing about $600,000. However, Millay did not fret, and from the second year, it began to make a profit, never looking back. The wave pool and its large waterslides became key features in the park. Although the park closed in 2016, it became the blueprint for most other parks in the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia.

The industry largely considers it the inspiration for all modern water parks. Demonstrating the park's success, Wet n' Wild averaged about 1.3 million visitors a year in its later years. Millay took the Wet n' Wild brand to many areas and other countries, expanding the brand and building new water parks.[3]

Since the 1970s, there has been a rapid expansion and often competition among parks to develop new types of slides, rides, pools, and even novel features within water parks. For instance, for northern regions of the United States, where the weather is too cold for much of the year for water parks, a novel feature has created an ice skating rink in the main plaza by placing underground cooling pipes.

By the early 1980s, communities around the United States realized that they could make their area more appealing to tourists by building water parks. This was the case for Wisconsin Dells in southern Wisconsin, not far from Chicago. In that case, five major water parks were built near each other, allowing the town to claim itself as the "water park capital" of the world. This inspired new water parks to be built across the country, where today there are more than 1000 water parks in the United States, but ideas to best competition continued to grow. Routinely, water parks became ranked across the United States, with other countries sometimes following. This has also helped to inspire the explosion of innovation in waterslides, rides, attractions within water parks.[4]

Modern Trends

Despite the success of places such as Wisconsin Dells, cold regions still struggled to build water parks that could attract enough profits and continue to have new tourists come to them throughout the year. Given such challenges, the first indoor water park was built in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1985 at the West Edmonton Mall. This soon proved successful, inspiring other locations, including in the UK, to create their own indoor water parks.

In 1994, the first significant indoor water park built in the United States was in Wisconsin Dells at the Polynesian Resort Hotel. The success of indoor water parks made business investors realize that water parks, incorporated within hotels and indoor resorts, allowed places to extend the tourist season. The Great Wolf Resorts/Great Wolf Lodge developed as the first company to build hotels around indoor water parks.[5]

Other innovations included developing faster waterslides, new types of water features, including tube, rides with mounted crafts, and large rafts that would be sent hurtling down large themed-slides. The Verrückt, located in Kansas City, became the tallest water slide at 168 feet, although it closed down in 2016 due to a tragic accident. The success of indoor and outdoor water parks led to a few trends. First, many existing community pools began to cater to the desire for water parks by adding slides and features such as wave pools.

In effect, they became small water parks that catered to local communities during the summer months and holidays. Water parks began to create amusement areas, such as in Wisconsin Dells, where new amusement parks began to develop as the Dells tried to keep tourists around longer. Local recreation centers even began to develop miniature indoor water park features, such as lazy rivers and slides. Water parks today bring in about 3 billion dollars annually. Indoor parks and municipal water parks or water parks incorporate within community recreation centers are perhaps the fasted growing segments of the water park industry.[6]


Water parks continue to be very popular, where they are now found perhaps in over 100 countries. Water parks have also proven to be great economic engines for communities, generating tourist revenue in economically disadvantaged areas. Water parks have also generated new forms of tourism, with year-round indoor water parks, hotels and resorts built around water parks, and new amusement attractions incorporated in areas that feature water parks. Although water parks have come a long way from the first waterslides, the core thrill of combining speed, water, and excitement has allowed waterslides and water parks to be highly successful.


  1. For more on the earliest slides used for water amusement, see: Patrick, B. K., & Thompson, J. M. (2009). An uncommon history of common things. Washington, D.C: National Geographic, pg. 164.
  2. For more on the slide developed by Sellner, see: Anderson, N. D. (1992). Ferris wheels: an illustrated history. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, pg. 230.
  3. For more on George Millay and the development of Wet n' Wild, see: O’Brien, T. (2005). The wave maker: the story of theme park pioneer George Millay and the creation of Sea World, Magic Mountain, and Wet’n’Wild. Orlando: Ripley Pub.
  4. For more on how water parks spread, see: Hamilton, S. L. (2016). Water parks. Minneapolis, Minnesota: A & D Xtreme, an imprint of Abdo Publishing.
  5. For more on recent trends in water parks and indoor water parks, see: & Hamilton 2015: 12
  6. For more on water park trends and industry, see: