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Waterworld

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© Courtesy of Atlantis

An engineering and architectural marvel, Aquaventure at Atlantis is much more than just a dazzling Bahamian theme park.

The green light flashes and I let go of the stainless-steel han­dle. Descending rapidly into watery darkness, my body goes through a series of sensations that I can only describe as spir­­itual. My brain generates thousands of rapid-fire philosophical questions on death, which I am unable to answer. Next, I ex­­perience a moment of weightlessness, as if floating in a dream. I don’t even have time to scream as g-forces push me against the slippery surface beneath, then there’s a burst of daylight and splash! I open my eyes and realize I am in a cenote—an underground cave filled with water typically found in the Yucatán. I laugh like a crazed junkie, anx­ious to do it all again. Making my way back up the stairs of The Abyss—this heart-stopping water­slide at Aquaventure in the Bahamas— I ask a middle-aged mom if she enjoyed it. Her response? "I think that’s what it must feel like to be born."

Creating this balance of fear and joy, the release of organ-thumping adrenaline followed by the rush of endorphins is what makes a water park successful. And it was exactly the sort of experience that Sol Kerz­ner, the 72-year-old owner of the mas­sive Bahamian resort Atlantis, had in mind when he cooked up the idea for Aquaven­ture. "I let my imag­ination go wild," says Kerzner, who was born in South Africa. He has indeed let his imagination loose before. Previously built water attractions at Atlantis include such eye­poppers as the Leap of Faith, a near-vertical slide that trans­ports riders in a tube through a pool of live sharks.

But this is Kerzner’s most am­­bi­­tious water park to date. At a cost of more than $110 mil­lion, it fea­tures a mile-long river sys­tem and four waterslides housed in the castlelike Power Tower. But the price tag was just a drop in the bucket for Kerzner, who spent $1 billion to expand Atlantis in the past two years alone. He added the 600-suite Cove Atlantis Hotel, with in­­teriors by Jeffrey Beers and David Rock­well, as well as the Residences at Atlantis: 495 one- and two-bed­room junior-suite condos ranging in price from $750,000 to more than $3.5 million. The resort now has 2,917 rooms and 8,500 employees—up from a staff of just 2,500 when Kerzner bought the property in 1994. Among the new attractions are Dolphin Cay, where guests pay $150 to pet dolphins for an hour, the Mesa Grill by chef Bobby Flay, and a Vivre retail store. Kerzner makes sure visitors have plenty of opportunities to spend on amusements during their stay.

Covering 63 acres, Aqua­venture stylistically ties to­­gether the en­­tire 171-acre property into one fan­tastical water world. Guests rarely have to leave the water to enjoy the rides. Thanks to a sophisticated nexus of rivers, slides, and conveyor belts, one can traverse all over the park from the comfort of an inner tube. The ability to let visitors stay in the water as long as possible, along with reducing wait time for rides, is key to a water park’s success and sustainability.

John Schooley and his partner, Jeff Henry, are park engi­neers who helped design the slides at Aqua­venture. They’re also the mas­­ter­minds behind three Schlit­ter­bahn water parks in Texas, which are considered the best around. Their first one, built in 1970 in New Braunfels, Texas, features rides in excess of 45 minutes thanks to the sloping topography. It is consistently heralded as the industry’s model park.

Back in the early nineties, Henry and Schooley conducted a comparison study of numer­ous facilities to understand why their park was so successful. They looked at classic designs, where they found long lines and short rides. That observation sparked the idea of "transportainment"—using attractions to actually move people from one major slide to the next so they would hardly need to leave the water. Keeping people in the water longer results in what the industry refers to as "a pleasurable guest experience." The duo’s Schlitterbahn park on Texas’s South Padre Island opened in 1999, featuring conveyor belts and Master Blaster technology, which uses a series of high-pressure water jets to pro­pel inner-tubers up, to, and around slides like a roller coaster. It revolutionized the business. Today Schlitterbahn’s South Padre Island and Galveston parks, along with Aquaventure, are the only ones in the world that utilize this technology.

Spend any time at Atlantis and you can see that Kerzner and com­pany have worked hard to stay true to the theme of a lost un­­derwater civilization; light fix­tures wrapped with octopuses and other kitschy sea-inspired motifs abound. So it is not sur­prising that the last thing Kerz­ner wanted was a bunch of bright fiber­glass slides ruining the view. To hide the four main ones, Kerzner envisioned a build­ing with the look of a Mayan temple, which would complement the existing aesthetic. He called Charlie White, an artist in Venice Beach, California, who had de­­signed theme park attrac­tions for Disney and Uni­versal as well as the ex­­te­rior ornamenta­tion and dec­o­rative art for the Bel­­lagio hotel in Las Vegas. White was an ob­­vious choice because he had al­­ready created The Dig at Atlantis, an un­­derground ar­­chae­ological-themed aquarium.

For inspiration, White examined Gothic cathe­drals and explored the idea of build­ings functioning as machines, dovetailing with the Atlantis myth of a technologically so­­phis­ti­cated lost culture. A whop­ping 13,600 square feet, the Power Tower rises 120 feet in the air and dominates the beachfront skyline of Atlantis. White wanted the structure to look strange, to "have a mystery to it," he says. The exterior is designed to resemble hammered bronze, and the result is impressive when you consider that its façade is nothing but fiberglass. "It’s a colossal building," says the 67-year-old White, who sounds a bit like a So-Cal teenager on the phone. "It was very brave on Kerzner’s part to go there."

On each of the four corner towers are massive 12-foot-tall yellow bulbs crafted from fiberglass and steel that mimic the petals of a flower. Surrounding the courtyard on the roof of the build­ing, more of those "petals" are used to shield guests from the sun (no small accomplishment on a scorching Bahamian day) as they wait for two of the highest slides—the only two rides at Aquaventure that people must leave their tubes to get to.

Not all of White’s ideas made it to the finished structure, however. The giant stained-glass-inspired wheel on the side of the Power Tower was supposed to drip water to enhance the machinelike effect, but that never happened. The exterior hi­­­­eroglyphics was supposed to light up at night, but that concept also wound up on the cutting-room floor along with the plan to have the giant yellow flower petals act as power-generating wind turbines. "The frustration of being an artist," says White, "is to convince the brick-and-mortar guys where you’re coming from."

Upon initial inspection a waterslide might look low-tech, and that was indeed the case in the infancy of the industry. All sorts of ter­ri­ble designs—metal tubes with rivets, for example—caused injuries and worse. Today, however, such rides are jewels of advanced engineering. Take The Abyss. It’s 65 feet high, 237 feet long, with a diameter of 32 inches. Simply referred to as Project 14338 by maker Whitewater West Industries of Richmond, British Columbia, it is a high-speed slide, propelling riders at a rate of 30 feet per second. Costing in the neigh­borhood of $150,000, it was created using sophisticated 3-D computer software that attempted to calculate everything from the slope of the slide to g-forces to the effect that suntan lotion, bath­ing suit fabrics, and a person’s muscle tone have on drag. Add H2O to the equation and the whole process in­­volves some serious number crunch­ing. "Water is the ul­­ti­mate chaos theory," says Marvin Hlynka, vice president of special projects for Whitewater West. "You cannot cap­ture its true behavior in any meaningful way." Even with the aid of computers, Whitewater’s engineers rely on their 20 years of experience to tweak final designs.

The most ambitious aspect of Aquaventure’s design is the mile-long river system that snakes around the property be­­tween pools and patios. Like the slides, this is much more than a two-foot-deep con­crete gutter filled with running water. It features meticulously placed boulders, banks, trees, and curves to achieve the desired result. Kerzner admits that since nothing like Aquaventure had been built before, "some of our folks had to take a test drive and there was some pain and suffering that went along with it."

Indeed. John Schooley had to submerge himself in the partially completed river and use his body to simulate a rock. "In the rapids I had to fix a spot where the water hydraulics were a bit strong and might flip a rider," explains Schooley. "I fixed it with a small stone about the size of a football." Adjustments were made at night un­­der floodlights after the river was drained. In the morning they turned on the water and repeated the process over the course of two months. "It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life," says Schooley. "But failure was never an option."

Water for Aquaventure’s river system—about 62,000 gallons rush by a given spot every minute—comes from a pump house directly op­­-po­site the Power Tower. Inside, two 25,000 gallons-per-minute (GPM) pumps chug away to fill huge tanks from which water is re­­leased into the river. In all, they churn out 112,000 GPM to help cir­culate the 4.25 mil­lion gallons of ­water.

As you might expect with 5,000-plus riders a day, all sorts of impurities—suntan lotion, cos­metics, and, yes, even bird droppings, urine, and fecal matter from babies and toddlers—can enter the water. A host of bacteria (such as salmonella, E. coli, and Legionnaires’ disease, not to mention pathogens like ringworm) must be stopped from potentially spreading and breeding in the water.

Keeping all that water clean and safe is one of the most fascinating technological feats of the whole complex. "Essentially you have five to six thousand people sharing a bathtub," says Greg Cloward, founder and CEO of ClowardH2O, a water-en­gineering firm in Provo, Utah, which built all the water features at Aquaventure.

Filtering such a vast quantity of water requires three steps. First it is run through sand filtration, which takes out small particles, from peeling sunburned skin to hangnails, and then it’s fed through chlorine, which acts as an oxidizer and burns up any organic molecules such as bacteria or a virus. But chlorine cannot kill everything because the sweat of your body, like urine, is a nitrogen compound. So when it combines with chlorine it creates chloramine—the stuff that causes red eyes, dry, itchy skin, and the smell we associate with backyard pools. In short, it means there is not enough chlorine in the water to burn up the chloramine. Used to combat this prob­lem is the secret weapon of ozone.

A gas six times more powerful than chlo­rine, ozone will com­pletely burn up all the nitrogen compounds that chlo­rine can’t. There’s just one problem: Ozone has a life span of only a few min­utes once it is made, so it must be pro­duced 24 hours a day and delivered into the water via huge pipes at a rate controlled by ORP (oxygen-re­­duction po­­ten­­tial) mon­itors at all times. The Power Tower’s basement is equipped with nine ozone gen­­er­ators. Inside are elec­tri­fied glass plates that cre­ate thou­sands of little elec­trical charges. When oxy­gen passes through the cham­bers, the miniature lightning strikes split the oxygen molecules and turn them into ozone. If you have ever experienced that unique and fleeting fresh-air scent after a thunderstorm, says Cloward, that’s the smell of ozone.

Today Cloward is busy with Kerzner’s up­­coming Dubai Aquaventure resort, as are Charlie White, Marvin Hlynka, John Schooley, Jeff Henry, and others. They all express awe at Kerzner’s energy and drive, which prevail despite the tragic loss of his only son in October 2006. Destined to take over the reins from his hard-charging father, Butch Kerzner was killed in a helicopter accident in the Domini­can Republic while exploring a property for a new family ven­ture. "I was keen to cre­ate more ex­­citement and uniqueness at Atlantis," explains Kerzner. "Certain as­­pects of the Aquaventure in Du­­­bai will be much bigger."

Part of a $1.5 billion development deal, this Middle Eastern Aquaventure will be the fourth trans­por­tainment water park in the world. While Kerz­ner isn’t disclosing details about the resort, Whitewater West’s Hlynka is already busy building the slides. It is safe to say that more thrills are in store. After all, says Hlynka, "In Dubai you have to be super intense just to get noticed."

Evan McGlinn wrote about Fly-Fishing in new Zealand For the July 2005 issue.

Uncovering Atlantis

The good news is that Atlantis has gone even more upscale in terms of its accommodations and dining. To com­plement Nobu in the Royal Tower hotel (from $550; atlantis.com), a new Bobby Flay Mesa Grill is located off the open-air lobby of the Cove Atlantis (from $745; atlantis.com). This recently completed 600-suite hotel has its own private pool and spa, which provide a much-needed haven away from the resort’s main attractions of Aquaventure and the kiddie pools. Fans of the Vivre catalogue can find its luxury goods at owner Eva Jeanbart-Lorenzotti’s store, also located in the Cove Atlantis lobby.

Just five minutes by taxi from Aquaventure is the One & Only Ocean Club (from $750; oneand onlyresorts.com), also a Kerzner property and a refreshing antidote to the kid-friendly Atlantis. This is the perfect spot to repair your body after a day on Aquaventure’s slides. On the former estate of A&P heir Hunting­ton Hartford, the Ocean Club has 121 beachfront and garden-view rooms, suites, and cottages. There are also three private villas with 24-hour butler service. Dune, the Ocean Club’s restaurant overlooking the beach, is under the direction of star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

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