20 years for water park

05/27/2010 12:00 AM |

Patrons float down Splish Splash’s Lazy River attraction during the Riverhead water park’s first season in 1991.

When Splish Splash water park opened its gates for the first time Memorial Day weekend 1991, Chip Cleary, the park’s senior vice president and founder, was frantic.

The plastic tubes were inflated, the water was flowing down the park’s slides and the restaurant was stocked with burgers, fries and hot dogs.

But there was one question left to answer: Would anyone come?

Mr. Cleary, who admittedly hadn’t slept much in the seven months prior, said he had his hand in every department that first day, from checking on the filter pumps to selling admission tickets.

“If it meant cooking food or cleaning, I was there,” he said.

As soon as he saw the parking lot filling with cars, it became clear that Mr. Cleary’s work had paid off.

The water park, then affiliated with Farmingdale’s Adventureland, attracted 4,000 people that first Monday alone, three times the number management expected.

“I went home and said, I think we’ve arrived,” Mr. Cleary recalled.

Twenty seasons later, the park, located just off exit 72 on the Long Island Expressway in Calverton, is consistently rated one of the best water parks in the country by the Travel Channel. It attracts nearly half a million visitors each summer, and has given thousands of local young people their first job.

What began as a small family-owned business with three rides and a lazy river, has exploded into a major East End destination now featuring more than 36 rides and attractions, and entertaining guests from every state and beyond.

Splish Splash has also served as an economic engine for the area, attracting customers to nearby restaurants and the Tanger Outlets. In addition, the park’s owners, Palace Entertainment, will pay just under $300,000 in school and library taxes this year, and about $130,000 in town taxes.

However, the road to where they are today wasn’t always an easy one for Mr. Cleary, who said he dealt with naysayers who said the park couldn’t be a success.

“There were a lot of people at that time who I don’t think understood the concept of a water park,” he said.

Opinions were mixed when the idea was first proposed two decades ago, with the idea of building a water park in the Pine Barrens raising plenty of questions.

The Town Board voted 4-0 to grant the park’s permit in 1990, though some environmentalists were more reserved.

Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper noted it was included in a lawsuit involving 234 projects filed by the Pine Barrens Society in 1989 against several municipalities. The lawsuit sought an environmental review of any project proposed within the Pine Barrens.

Despite the ongoing litigation, Splish Splash moved forward with construction, one of only two projects named in the suit to do so. The other was a strip mall on Middle Country Road in Lake Panamoka.

Mr. Amper said the Pine Barrens Society lost the case in state Supreme Court, but a ruling in the appellate court necessitated the creation of the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act in 1995, a move he said would have prevented a project of Splish Splash’s size from being built at its current location.

“If Splish Splash were to be proposed today, it would not qualify for approval,” he said.

Then town supervisor Joe Janoski told the News-Review he thought the park was a “beautiful addition to the town” the week Splish Splash opened in 1991. “I think everyone would agree now, even those who had reservations, that they have done exactly what they said they would do.”

Original opposition aside, by all accounts the water park has been a resounding success.

“No one ever thought it would get as well known nationally as it is,” said general manager Mike Bengston.

Though the park sits on what was once undeveloped land, Mr. Bengston said Splish Splash has made it a point never to cut down a tree. Instead, trees are moved during construction to another area of the 96 acre property, or attractions are built around them. Rides are also built mainly using wooden beams, rather than steel supports.

“We’ve kept the natural beauty of the area,” he said.

Mr. Bengston added that chemicals are removed from the 2 million gallons of water used every season before it is returned to the ground.

To celebrate the start of the 20th season, the park is offering $20 admission tickets during opening weekend. The park kicks off its 20th season Saturday at 10 a.m. Also, 20 lucky guests exiting the park will be given a free pass to return.

Mr. Bengston said the park will continue to grow and that it adds, on average, one new ride every other year to keep customers coming back for more.

“Guests want to see something different,” Mr. Bengston said. “For us, it’s about adding to the experience.”

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