Fourth location for African-themed chain
Texas debuts nation’s largest indoor water park resort with Kalahari
AT: Tim Baldwin
ROUND ROCK, Texas — The adage “Everything’s bigger in Texas” is thrown about much too often. But in Round Rock, they mean it! Just 20 miles north of the state capitol, Austin, and home to Dell Inc., the city has a population of around 130,000. Acknowledged as a livable, safe city, Round Rock has a new resident: Kalahari.
“I love Texas,” General Manager Tim Arnold told Amusement Today. “This particular Kalahari is in more of a metropolitan area. Being placed where we are, we’re between some of the country’s largest cities. Most of our other resorts are in remote locations. This one is where we will pull in a lot of local business from local towns.”
The indoor water park resort chain opened its fourth location on November 12. Along with it came a slew of bragging rights, starting with America’s largest. Total square footage of the resort is 1.5 million with the water park itself boasting 223,00 square feet. With a global health crisis still lingering, the ability to have space to spread out is a plus. There are 975 rooms, among them one-, two- and three-bedroom suites.
Kalahari is more than just a water park, and it also caters to everyone. The beautiful 200,000-square-foot convention center boasts two ballrooms (40,000 and 22,000 square feet). Further event space includes 50,000 square feet of outdoor opportunities with covered terraces, an event barn and grand lawn.
Other activities include a 12-lane Brunswick bowling alley, a 250-game arcade, an arts-and-crafts Adventurers Club and indoor amusement park that features rides, a mirror maze (Family Entertainment Group), laser tag (Zone Laser Tag), a ropes course and climbing walls (RCI) and 10,000 square feet of retail space. Adults seeking pampering will find the Spa Kalahari and Salon. Keeping with Austin’s “cool music” vibe, Amatuli Marketplace fuses real artisans showing their handmade wares along with a live music stage. A central fire pit makes for an inviting area, even for the locals.
The resort was designed by HKS Architects out of Dallas and built by Hensel Phelps Construction (based in Austin).
Founder Todd Nelson got his start in Wisconsin Dells, a hub of indoor and outdoor water parks. A family trip to Africa more than 20 years ago inspired the theme to the first Kalahari resort. As the Texas facility is the chain’s fourth, the Nelson family continues to seek out ways to improve.
Natasha Nelson Lucke, one of Todd Nelson’s five children and co-owner, told Amusement Today at the resort’s opening, “We’ve improved our walk length by doing a spoked hotel, instead of the long runs at the other properties.”
The most captivating aspect of a visitor’s first impression is the art. Like the previous three facilities, it’s all authentic. Kalahari invested $600,000 in art alone. To date, Kalahari Resorts has invested more than $5.5 million in the purchase of African art, textiles and more to support African communities.
“We ordered 10 forty-foot containers this time around. We went to Africa about a year-and-a-half ago: Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya,” said Lucke. The diversity of the pieces ranges from small to giant, wall hangings to paintings to sculptures. “We unloaded incredible artwork.”
The primary lure to entice vacationers is the water park. With an array of colorful slides jutting from the resort’s walls, excitement begins for families as they drive on property. The primary supplier is ProSlide Technology.
“With each Kalahari Resort that ProSlide is a part of, the ride and attraction mix has continued to evolve and grow, including both new, innovative attractions and features, alongside proven guest favorites. Kalahari Round Rock shares many of those favorite attractions with other Kalahari resorts like the high-performance WaterKingdom RideHouse aquatic play center for families,” said ProSlide’s Senior Vice-President of Global Strategic Partnerships, Jeff Janovich.
In this property’s design, one of the goals was to open up more space inside. Even with an impressive array of 30 waterslides, 20 pools and outdoor attractions, the fun to be had spans three acres. A 21-and-older, swim-up bar caters to adults in a themed grotto.
“Every indoor waterpark tries to strike the right balance of indoor attractions and play features to create energy, excitement and anticipation for guests, while maximizing the valuable indoor space for pools, rivers, cabanas and lounging areas,” said Janovich. “ProSlide works with the owners and the aquatic designers to select the individual ride attractions for the resort. Together we then work on progressively more detailed concept layouts of the water park element and specific ride placement to meet the capacity and demographic needs of the park, while also respecting the overall budget for the project. Many of the most popular ride attractions have elements and features that are very large and not practical to locate indoors. We’ve come up with innovative ways of saving space by starting the ride indoors, continuing the ride path outdoors — where the larger features are located — and then returning the rider indoors, all in one seamless experience. By locating these elements outdoors, the indoor volume of the water park can be a manageable size and the outdoor features become colorful billboards to attract guests driving past the resort.”
“The water park is our driving force. People are amazed at the size of the indoor water park in Texas,” said Arnold.
The wave pool sports a gigantic ZeroVision display screen. For much of the day it provides popular music with musical artists being shown via video.
“That screen can come into play for many different uses. We can tailor it to the season, and our guests will see themselves on the screen from time to time,” Arnold said. “We can use it for birthday parties and close-up encounters.”
A FlowRider supplied by Aquatic Development Group is a staple with the Kalahari chain.
“Kalahari Resorts has chosen the FlowRider time and time again because of its ability to hit the key teen demographic and continue to be a profit-center for their resorts,” said Ray Lauenstein, business development manager, ADG. “There is no other attraction that can accomplish as much as the FlowRider can, in regard to progressive skill-based experience, spectator appeal, and food & beverage revenue generation — in such a small footprint. Kalahari Resorts was one of the very first indoor water park facilities to have a FlowRider at their property in Wisconsin Dells back in 2004. And since then, they have included a FlowRider in each and every one ofs their resorts — adding not one but two in their Sandusky, Ohio, location.”
Among the attractions are themed areas aimed for the little ones.
“Weber themes our children’s areas. We dedicate these areas to certain age groups, so they can graduate up each time they come,” stated Lucke. “Eventually they get to the big thrill rides in the park.”
The resort also features outdoor pools, slides and activities that will be available from spring through October owing to the southern climate.
Design and construction of the water park was done by Neuman Pools and Water Technologies, Inc.
Another signature element of the resort is Tom Foolerys, an indoor amusement park. Upon entrance, one of the flashiest rides is Zamperla’s newest product, the NebulaZ. Called Red, White & Whoo at Kalahari, the spectacular ride is the first to appear in the U.S. outside the Luna Park Zamperla playground.
“The newest of our Tweener Rides, it truly captures what it means to be broad-appeal,” said Michael Coleman, North American sales manager, Zamperla. “The NebulaZ is a thrilling machine that captures the imagination of guests as small as 42 inches without being terrifying and has an impact great enough to impress the ever-hard-to-please teenage park-goer.”
“Nebulaz has been a great success for us. After the IAAPA Brass Ring Award won at IAAPA Expo 2019, the Nebulaz in Walibi Rhône-Alpes, France, has won the Europe’s Best New Rides 2020 given by the European Star Award,” said Nicholas Trentin, global marketing director, Zamperla.
“The unique ride experience of the never-before-seen movement in a small footprint provides a dual experience of forward and reverse airtime in a flashy package for all,” added Coleman.
Other rides in the mix were provided by Rides 4 U.
“This is exciting for me. We worked on the right mix for a couple years,” said Len Soled, owner, Rides 4-U. “They waited long enough to get the coaster of their dreams, which was the Big Air Coaster we displayed at IAAPA [Expo] last year. They rode it and loved it. Todd and his family all took a test ride and gave it their blessing. That’s, I think, the highlight of the rides. Roller coasters are always popular.”
Rides 4 U supplied multiple SBF-Visa rides which include the new pneumatic Drop ‘n’ Twist, a small micro coaster, a teacup and mini jet, several themed by the park.
The Round Rock resort represents an investment of $550 million. With a project this massive, the surprise arrival of a global pandemic was not ideal.
“We picked this date three years ago and we are so fortunate to be opening today,” Lucke told AT at the grand opening. “COVID didn’t slow us down. We’re following all state mandates. We have eliminated high touch areas. We have a wellness concierge, a new department for us. These are people who are trained specifically in COVID response to help keep people calm and safe. They walk around throughout the resort to help out.”
Following several weeks of operation, Arnold concurred. “We’re a family company. We’re serious about keeping families safe,” he said. “It’s added a new dimension to what we do, but it hasn’t slowed down our enthusiasm and passion.”
Kalahari Round Rock seems to have captured the spirit of Texas within its African theme. Because of the variety of offerings, locals can come out for dinner, live music or purchase a day pass to one of the parks, even if they don’t require an overnight stay.
“My favorite restaurant is Cinco Niños,” Arnold said of the chain’s first foray into Mexican cuisine. “It’s named after Mr. Nelson’s five kids. It’s Texas. You’ve got to have Mexican. And you’re going to love our pizza at Sortino’s. It’s the top of the top.”
Cinco Niños menu is far beyond the typical Tex-Mex fare with outstanding signature dishes.
“All of our food is made from scratch. We don’t buy and resell [product]. Our food is made by chefs. That’s a major difference between us and other resorts,” Arnold added.
“This resort caters to everyone,” said Travis Nelson, co-owner and one of the five Nelson children. “We cater to adults. If you don’t have kids, you’re going to have a great time. Lots of live music, 21-and-older spaces, beautiful pools indoors and outdoors, the swim-up grotto bar — it really is as much an adult destination as it is a family destination.”
“One of the big surprises has been Redd’s Piano Bar,” said Arnold. “We have that here that we don’t have at any other resort. It has live piano music nightly and really has a sense of hominess and kind of a contemporary urban feel that you would see in New York. It already has seen a lot of locals becoming regulars.”
“Music is so important here being so close to Austin. You’ll see that spread around the resort,” added Lucke.
“I’ve opened 15 or 16 resorts around the country. I’ve never come across a city council that have been so enthusiastic since day one,” said Arnold. “The local community is so supportive. And we’ve been able to give back. That’s important to us. We want to be a part of the community.”
Approximately 1,000 employees have been hired to date.