To give you a personal example of where Wet 'n Wild stands in the larger Florida theme park ecosystem, I'm having a hard time remembering if I ever went there as a kid. I have flashbacks of a giant park with a lot of big slides that definitely wasn't one of Disney's carefully themed and branded water parks, nor was it as landscaped as Tampa's Adventure Island, but it was larger than regional parks like West Palm Beach's Rapids. I texted my family members to see if they remember, and my mother replied, "I think so but not sure." It must have been Wet 'n Wild, if only by process of elimination.
But if Wet 'n Wild seems generic compared to Florida's other chlorine-filled destinations, it may be because it helped set the template for today's extreme water park. Sadly, Universal, which now owns the park, announced it will close permanently the last day of 2016.
"As America’s first water park, Wet ‘n Wild has been the birthplace of numerous innovations that are now considered a common part of the water park experience," reads a statement from the company. "Today, we are announcing that the park will close permanently on December 31, 2016."
However, Wet 'n Wild is not technically America's — or even Orlando's — first water park. Disney's now-closed River Country deserves that title, but it, like many of Wet 'n Wild's predecessors, was more about rest and relaxation and less about colossal slides and other thrilling attractions.
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Opened in 1977 by the creators of SeaWorld, Wet 'n Wild featured rides like the Disco H2O, which spins riders in an enclosed tube; Der Stuka, which is a towering free-fall water slide; and the Storm, which funnels riders into a giant bowl. Universal Orlando bought the property in 1998.
Throughout much of the '90s, Wet 'n Wild was Florida's most visited water park, but attendance has sagged in recent years. Still, the Orlando Sentinel points out it remains the world's tenth-busiest water park. However, that still means it's only Orlando's fourth-busiest. Walt Disney World's Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach and SeaWorld's newer Aquatica regularly attract more visitors. Wet 'n Wild has become a bit washed-up.
Undoubtedly, Universal's decision to close a water park that still attracts 1.4 million visitors a year has something to do with the opening of another water park under the Universal umbrella. Volcano Bay is scheduled to open in 2017. It will take cues from Disney parks and feature a visual thematic centerpiece — in this case, a volcano. The company claims it will "completely redefine the water park experience for our guests." Volcano Bay is being developed on separate land, and the company has no comment about what will become of the land where Wet 'n Wild now stands. However, it does say that Wet 'n Wild employees will be able to find new positions at Volcano Bay and Universal's two other Orlando theme parks — Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
Orlando's parks could also soon face competition from Miami-Dade. American Dream Miami, a megamall proposed for West Dade, will include a water park. 20th Century Fox is also pursuing plans to build a theme park on land near Zoo Miami. In addition to a traditional theme park, that plan also calls for a 16-acre water park.