By Emmett Burnett
Rising 114 feet above Baldwin County, Rollin’ Thunder’s passengers can view the Gulf of Mexico all the way from Foley. But not for long.
Within seconds, roller coaster fans plunge 56 mph through twisted paths, hairpin turns, and a harrowing straightway. Passengers disembarking the expansive blue track all agree – Tropic Falls at OWA rocks.
But Tropic Falls at OWA is no longer just for attractions on land (or in the air, if you’re on one of the roller coasters or other thrill rides). The new Tropic Falls Indoor Water Park is the largest indoor water park on the Gulf Coast; the project is perhaps OWA’s most ambitious expansion to date.
“From an investment standpoint, this is the biggest single attraction we have had,” says Kristin Hellmich, OWA’s director of marketing and public relations, about the $74 million project under a 100,000-square-foot roof. “The waterpark costs more than the entire original theme park from when we first opened.”
She continues, “We wanted an indoor water park partly because of our weather. It was part of our overall vision when we first opened. It’s a great option to get out of the sun, rain, or cold. It is fun indoors without feeling like you are indoors.”
The mammoth undertaking is a two-phase roll out. Phase one opened June 29 with six thrill slides, a lazy river, indoor dining, party rental rooms, an indoor arcade, and a children’s play area with five family-friendly slides. Two thrill slides rise to new heights: Tangerine Scream, a 75-foot free-fall, and Piranha Plunge, also 75-feet tall with a super loop and drop floor.
At press time, phase two was under construction, with only the 30,000-square-foot outdoor wave pool left to complete. Other phase two attractions include a surf simulator and additional dining and beverage locations.
Tropic Falls is currently the only indoor waterpark in the U.S. with both a retractable roof and wall. The park is open year-round.
Additional features include Castaway Creek/Lazy River, private party rooms, private cabanas, Grub (a quick service restaurant) and Libations, a tropical themed cocktail bar.
OWA is also undertaking a $2.5 million rebranding project. Henceforth, the theme park and attractions will be known as Tropic Falls at OWA. “It includes everything behind the theme park and water park single gate,” Hellmich says, as we explore the newly named attraction.
Something for everyone
For the novice, OWA has two components – Tropic Falls, which includes the theme park and water park side, and Downtown OWA, with shops, shows, restaurants, gathering spots, and more.
“Most people do not realize how big OWA is,” Hellmich says as we walk around the lake. “It is much bigger than it looks from the road.” She is correct.
The complex spans 520 acres. Tropic Falls is 14 acres and the lake separating the two is over a mile in diameter. Plan at least a day to see it all – and that does not include the new water park. Add another day.
“I believe one of the best values we offer at OWA is something for all,” Hellmich says. “Some come for the theme park rides, including teens and spring breakers, and college kids. But others, often an older crowd, visit for a good meal and to take in a show. We are not just a theme park. We are not just a water park. We are a year-round entertainment destination for everybody.”
Emphasis is on year-round. “Summer is our peak season,” she says. “But fall/autumn is moving to second place with spring. We fully embrace Halloween season here.”
Halloween season features include haunted attractions, a walk-through hay maze, weekend trick-or-treats with characters and more, every weekend during fall.
Peak season starts around Memorial Day as OWA prepares for summer. The massive July Fourth fireworks presentation is one of the largest on the Gulf coast.
Christmas is spectacular, starting with the lighting of the Christmas tree in November.
Eateries and shops
“Incidentally, she just added shrimp and grits to her menu,” Hellmich says, pointing to Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen restaurant, with entrees including fried chicken kissed by angels.
Other culinary adventures include the Groovy Goat, Sassy Bass Amazin’ Grill, Sushi Co., Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar and Restaurant, and C’est Le Vin Wine Bar and Shop.
Just as the theme park offers something for everyone, so does Downtown OWA’s shopping district – from fine jewelry to clothing to jelly beans. One of the newest shops, Native Treasures, offers crafts, jewelry, and clothing made from or inspired by Native Americans.
Downtown also includes the Fairhope Soap Company, Alvin’s Island Tropical Department Store, the Spice and Tea Exchange and Body Tune Plus.
Another new spot lifts your spirits with spirits of Alabama moonshine. Murder Creek Distillery is so named for Escambia County’s tributary with the charming name, “Murder Creek.” Sample tastings are available for brews, ranging from gentle and mild, to robust beverages, duplicating the Rollin’ Thunder roller coaster without actually riding it.
OWA does not release attendance data, but Hellmich says “Our attendance is significant and has grown every year since startup.” She credits the site’s popularity to what one would expect – great value and quality attractions. But guests are also drawn here by a behind the scenes factor – cleanliness.
OWA is cleaner than your living room. “We have people complimenting our cleanliness,” Hellmich says. “Our crews work nearly round the clock keeping the grounds and restrooms, all areas clean. It is a priority.”
With cleanliness comes safety. All rides are checked daily and evaluated before the theme park opens and monitored closely throughout the day.
In winter the park has about 100 employees, but during the peak summer months the number swells to 500 to 700. Of that, about half will work in the new water park, probably by the time you read this.
As for today’s visit, Tropic Falls visitors eagerly board rides, including Aero Zoom, Crazy Mouse, Alabama Wham’a and about 20 more. Nearby, there is that Gulf Shores beach thing, down the road.
But in Foley, twisting and turning above it all, Rollin’ Thunder rolls again. And so does OWA.ν
For more information, contact visitowa.com