Slippery slide: The decline of the Okanagan's waterslides | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Slippery slide: The decline of the Okanagan's waterslides

1981 photo of the Wild n' Wet water slides in Westbank.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK: Old Kelowna

They were once a mainstay of an Okanagan summer, where kids could burn off steam running back up the hill for another adrenaline-inducing ride down their favourite waterslide, while their parents relaxed in the hot tub.

In the mid-eighties, there were a dozen waterslides dotted around the province, with the majority in the Okanagan.

Nearly 40 years later just two remain in the southern Interior — Splashdown Vernon and the Salmon Arm Waterslides.

The reason for the demise of the once-popular attraction has been a question University of Northern British Columbia student Jillian Pearson wanted to answer.

And she just snagged herself $1,000 winning the Okanagan Historical Society essay competition in doing so.

Her aptly named essay: Rapid Descent: The Rise and Fall of Outdoor Waterslides in the Okanagan Region goes some way toward explaining why this once synonymous Okanagan attraction is now almost extinct.

Pearson said she grew up at the tail end of the waterslide era but has very fond memories of her family vacations in the Okanagan.

"Growing up we would go down to the Okanagan and visit family, and my parents on the days that we were being good kids would take us down to the waterpark. By the time I was six most of them had closed down," Pearson said. "It was a big family question: What happened to the waterslides?"

The simple answer to that question is development.

"The biggest killer was that they were able to sell and make so much more money than running these huge, huge waterslides," she said. "The Okanagan became extremely popular for living (and) the cost of living became bigger, lots of properties were sold for condominium development and other kinds of infrastructure that isn't waterslides."

While money was one issue, Pearson said a change in family dynamics also had a part to play.

As more women entered the workforce and divorce rates grew, the postwar nuclear family changed, and with it, family tourism industries took a loss.

Pearson's research found the way waterslides were advertised over the years changed, from 1980s ads revolving around the nuclear family to promos in the 90s encouraging parents to send their kids to the slides so they could have a round of golf.

By the late 90s and 2000s, ads focused on the family taking a break from one another rather than spending time together.

Pearson said another factor was safety standards.

"A general movement in the 2000s was safety became a lot more of a priority in most tourist attractions," she said.

While waterslide owners had made good money having their parks full all summer, the added expense of upgrading equipment to fit in with new regulations made selling to developers all the more attractive.

Wild N’ Wet in Westbank shut up shop in the late nineties and Kelowna's Wild Waters followed suit at a similar time. Penticton had Wonderful Water World which opened in 1996 and closed in the early 2000. Last year Osoyoos Campground and Waterslides nixed the slides.

Westbank's Wild 'N Wet in the 1980s.
Westbank's Wild 'N Wet in the 1980s.
Image Credit: Old Kelowna/Beautiful British Columbia Magazine

One waterpark that has stood the test of time is Splashdown Vernon, which is even growing.

The waterslides date back to 1983 and have had various owners over the years, including one that went into receivership.

In 2019, Atlantis Waterslides, as it was then called, was bought by Cultus Lake Waterpark owner Chris Steunenberg.

Steunenberg has been in the waterslide industry for 27 years and said it's not for the faint of heart.

"No matter how you slice it, we have a huge risk element: When it rains nobody goes watersliding," he said. "If we were open right now we wouldn't have any customers... it's quite a swing from profitability to actual losses."

Steunenberg said the golden years of building waterparks in the early to mid-eighties may have also led to the Okanagan being a little oversaturated.

And while the Okanagan's waterslides are a shadow of their former past, Steunenberg said there is competition in the Lower Mainland as waterslides have held steady.

Tsawwassen's waterslides, Big Splash Water Slide Park, has new owners and Aldergrove has the Otter Co-op Outdoor Experience, a smaller but inexpensive waterpark run by the City of Langley, and Bridal Falls Waterpark between Abbotsford and Hope is still going.

Steunenberg says it never crossed his mind to sell out, but admits it is not an easy business to be in.

"We run a profitable business, but it's not for the faint of heart," he says.

While most Okanagan waterslides did sell for various reasons, others never even took off.

The Skaha Lake Park development in Penticton was met with a lengthy backlash, got tangled in lawsuits, was eventually axed and likely cost the mayor his position.

So with only two waterslides remaining in the region, what are people missing out on, and perhaps more importantly why are people so fond of them?

"That's a question I've had to ponder myself," Pearson says.

And after hours of research and writing her essay she sums it up perfectly.

"Waterslides were just so much fun," she concludes.

Westbank's Wild 'N Wet in the 1980s.
Westbank's Wild 'N Wet in the 1980s.
Image Credit: Old Kelowna/Beautiful British Columbia Magazine

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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