|By Dawn Bryant, The Sun News, Myrtle
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 28, 2006 - Move over lazy rivers: Today's hotel guests want more of a thrill from their trip to the pool.
Casually coasting on an inner tube meandering along a slow-moving current -- the must-have amenity for Grand Strand hotels in the 1990s -- doesn't cut it any more. Families who tire of the ocean or the hotel pool want the excitement of a mini-water park just steps from their room.
"We went through an evolution from pools to everybody had to have a lazy river. Now it's water parks," hotel developer Bert Anderson said. "The bar has been raised. The big resorts are going to be judged by their water park."
The water adventures -- with waterfalls streaming from a colored dome or buckets dumping water on tops of kids' heads -- are popping up at hotels along the Grand Strand so quickly that state officials have trouble putting a number on them, especially with several awaiting final inspection before the busy tourist season kicks off in a couple of weeks.
"That is a big trend," said Jim Ridge, the recreational waters compliance coordinator for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which inspects pools, lazy rivers and water parks. "That does seem to be a trend peculiar to Horry County -- the bigger, the better. You have to keep up with your neighbor," he said.
While growing in popularity, the hotel water features haven't significantly dampened business at the area's three major water parks, park officials said. They are more worried about bad weather ruining the bottom line than competition from hotels' water attractions.
"They are so small," said Mark Lazarus, who owns Wild Water in Surfside Beach. "They are a nice amenity, but they don't have the big slides [like we do]."
Sands Resorts, at 74th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach, was one of the first hotels to boast its own water adventure, opening in spring 2002. Easily seen from Ocean Boulevard, the colorful water park with twisting slides and faux palm trees, has turned passersby into hotel guests, marketing director Florence Collins said.
"Bubble pools, splash waterfalls. It's just fun," she said. "We wanted something different for the families. Anything you can do to attract the family business, they love it. They are always looking for things to do. They are looking for that added value."
Big resorts need some type of water attraction to give them an edge over all the other hotels at the beach, said John Daniels, general manager at The Breakers Resort, which has a pirate-themed water feature.
Hotels are fighting harder for business, as the supply of units has outgrown the demand. Since 1995, the number of available lodging units in Horry County has increased by 50 percent to reach nearly 90,000, according to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
"The water park became an amenity that became a necessity," Daniels said. "Most of the big resorts now have a water park. Now, some interactive water facility is a necessity."
The water attraction is what keeps Jennifer Hamrick of Columbia, a mother of three boys, staying at the Breakers every year.
Of the hundreds of hotels she could choose from, Hamrick doesn't pick based on location, how nice the rooms are or whether there's a free continental breakfast.
"This is the reason we come to the Breakers," she said, using her hands to describe the pirate-ship-shaped water feature she stood beside. "My kids talk about going to the one where the pirate ship is. They kind of always have known the pirate ship."
Kingston Plantation and Sea Mist Resort also have substantial water attractions. More are on the way as new lodging towers are being built.
Anderson has two water parks planned for expansions at the Camelot by the Sea and Atlantica, both in Myrtle Beach.
A water park consuming two lots and stretching 300 feet along the road will be the centerpiece of the Atlantica development at 17th Avenue North, which will open in two years. The rides in the water park won't be higher than 30 feet, but that will be enough of a thrill to cater to toddlers and preteens -- helping to attract the desired family vacationer, Anderson said.
"Families with small children don't always want to leave the property and go to a big park," he said. "It's a chore to get little kids loaded up."
While the waterfalls lure the kids, the convenience of having a park steps away from the hotel room is what wins over the parents. Donna Patterson, a grandmother of two from Fort Mill, tries to avoid the cumbersome, and frustrating process, of packing up the car and getting on the Grand Strand's congested roads.
"Once you get out in the traffic, the vacation is over," she said, enjoying the Breakers water offerings last week with her two grandsons. "This is nice because you don't have to leave here. There's everything to do right here."
Other tourists don't want to be stuck in one place for their whole trip, said Kimber Goolsby, marketing director of Family Kingdom. Families stop at that oceanfront park for a change of scenery, she said.
"They want to get out," Goolsby said. "They don't want to go to a resort and just stay there. It's fun for a little while, but we have more."
The hotels and the big water parks say there's enough tourists who desire to get drenched to keep them all busy.
The Grand Strand boasts three standalone water parks: Family Kingdom, Myrtle Waves and Wild Water in Surfside Beach. Wild Water switched from weekends only to a daily summer schedule Saturday. Family Kingdom and Myrtle Waves convert to daily summer hours next weekend.
"We don't compete with those," said Daniels, of the Breakers. "For the bigger slides and the deeper pools ... there will always be a market for that."
The hotel features, open only to hotel guests, have the walk-up convenience, while the three water parks have the elaborate water rides and 10-story-high slides that the hotels don't.
"You just can't get that same level of thrill," said Tim Ruedy, Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc.'s vice president of operations for the Sports, Entertainment and Recreation Division. B&C operates Myrtle Waves. Each summer, about 200,000 people go to the water park, which has 32 rides, the company says.
"The one thing that the miniparks don't offer is the big slides that we have," Ruedy said.
Hamrick acknowledges that her three sons -- ages 5, 3 and 2 -- likely will outgrow the pirate ship they enjoy so much now. But she's loving the convenience as long as she can, darting upstairs to her room when she needs lotion or an extra towel. The youngest one can even nap with grandma in the room while the older boys play.
The smaller water rides could work in the big parks' favor, whetting the kids' appetites for the more elaborate rides you can't find at the hotel, Lazarus said. "It's not competition," he said. "I think it gets them in the mood for more."
Now it's water parks. The bar has been raised.
The big resorts are going to be judged by their water park.'Bert Anderson | hotel developer
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