Economic Development

On the Slopes of Texas

"Fake" parks are the newest breed of sports venues.
by | October 2006

If all goes as planned, starting in 2009 skiers and snowboarders will have another ski hill to conquer, in--of all places--Dallas, Texas. The Big D, of course, is mostly flat and receives an average snowfall of only 2.5 inches per year. Yet it will be home to America's first indoor/outdoor ski resort.

The $375 million Coolzone Winterplex will feature a 60-acre hill that rises 20 stories and is covered in a lattice-like "carpet" that imitates the properties of snow but doesn't need to be kept cold. Dallas' ski resort, which will also feature a concert venue, an ice trail and a skating rink, is just one example of a new breed of attractions opening in cities around the country.

These so-called "fake parks" are bringing year-round activities that mimic nature to urban areas. Skiing is the last thing most people would ever think to do in the Lone Star State. But it didn't escape developers' notice that a hefty number of the more than 58 million skiers and snowboarders who will hit the slopes in the United States this year are Texans. One partner in the Coolzone venture, Steve Baker of the Baker Leisure Group, believes Dallas "is a strong market" for the new park.

According to Susan Mosedale, executive vice president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, developers "do a lot of studies and economic analyses before they even break ground." In 2005, 335 million people visited more than 600 amusement parks in the United States and spent an estimated $11.2 billion. "These investors have an idea before they open for business how many people their attraction is likely to draw, where these people will come from and how much they'll spend," Mosedale says.

A survey taken by the IAAPA this year found that almost half of Americans surveyed cited "non-summer" as their favorite time for visiting an amusement park. This trend is evident in the increasing number of year-round indoor water parks. A few months ago, for instance, the world's first convertible water park opened on Galveston Island in Texas. Wasserfest can be transformed from an outdoor water wonderland to a cloistered water world in less than eight minutes with the closing of its translucent walls and roofs.

Ron Jon--the surf shop best known for its colorful T-shirts--is opening a surfing park in Orlando, Florida. It claims to be the world's first and only wave pool built specifically for surfers and bodyboarders. It can produce a full spectrum of wave types, from slow, peeling 3-footers to 8-foot barrels that roll 60 to 100 yards down a big saltwater pool.

Artificial whitewater river courses exist in urban areas for elite competition throughout Europe. And indoor ski resorts are also a familiar attraction abroad. There already are about 35 indoor ski resorts in the world--most of them in Japan--and by now, almost everyone has heard about Dubai's indoor resort--the third largest in the world.

The first such high-adventure sports park in the United States opened in Cleveland just last year. Avid mountain-biker Ray Petro, frustrated by the sport's weather-dependent nature, opened the world's only indoor mountain biking venue inside an old converted warehouse that now sports an obstacle course of wooden ramps, turns and tracks.

The emergence of fake parks may speak to Americans' desire to have every recreational option in their own backyard. Jeff Wise, the visionary behind the $35 million nonprofit U.S. National Whitewater Center, dreamed up the 307-acre river course after he got "tired of driving three hours" every time he wanted to raft. The center, now open, sits 10 miles outside Charlotte along the slow-moving Catawba River. It is the world's only multi-channel course and the largest re- circulating artificial whitewater river in existence. The center has already attracted three-time U.S. Olympic slalom kayaker Scott Shipley to train, but Wise maintains he's more excited about the guided rafting tours offered to the general public.

If fake parks take hold, a growing number of Americans will need to drive only a few minutes to get a version of the experience residents of Summit County, Colorado, or Waikiki, Hawaii, already enjoy. And Dallas' new slogan "Live Large. Think Big" may need to be revised again soon--to read "Live Large. Think Big. Ski Year-Round."


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