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.
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.