Limoges is, by every account, a sleepy corner of Ontario. While many of the town’s 2,000 residents make the half-hour commute to Ottawa every day, others in these parts are kept busy plowing fields and raising dairy cattle.
Tourists have always been the folks who hurtle along the neighbouring Highway 417 to somewhere more exciting, not even bothering to stop for gas. The region’s major attraction is a cheese factory, closely followed by a carefully tended swath of forest that is popular among hikers and cross-country skiers.
But “the coming of Calypso,” as the locals like to say, may change Limoges forever. Starting June 7, when Calypso water park opened its doors on the outskirts of town, the quiet streets of Limoges could be filled with tourists. At least, that’s the hope of Quebec amusement park veteran Guy Drouin, who is the owner of this sprawling $45-million outdoor entertainment mecca. Planted on 70 acres of recently deforested land east of Ottawa, the newly anointed largest water park in Canada features 35 slick slides and a wave pool the size of three National Hockey League rinks.
If the park meets Drouin’s deliberately modest targets, more than 350,000 people will pass through the gates over the three months between June and Labour Day, when Calypso closes for the season. On peak days, Drouin hopes that up to 12,000 people will exit the highway at Limoges, making the short hop from Ottawa or the 75-minute drive from Montreal.
The man behind this water park venture has reason to feel confident. After all, the profits from his first theme park, Valcartier Vacation Village near Quebec City, provided a big chunk of the capital he needed to build Calypso. That’s just as well, because talking bankers into lending money to a seasonal business is as difficult as it sounds.
Still, everything will need to go right for the park to stay in the black and generate enough cash to keep its head above water — margins are super thin, utilities cost a fortune and there’s always other tourist destinations competing for fickle family entertainment dollars. And then there’s the weather (but we’ll get to that later).
Drouin is aware of the risks, but he has done his homework. For starters, consumer demographics favour his choice of location in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, where the average family income in 2007 was $75,200, compared with the national average of $68,800, according to Statistics Canada. Even more attractive, says Drouin, is the lack of similar parks within a 100-kilometre radius. “There’s no real park out there to compete with us,” he says. “There are a lot of museums, but not a lot of outside activities. It’s very expensive to do this, but if we can get 25 per cent market penetration, we are doing very well.”
Drouin’s preoccupation with theme parks has a uniquely Canadian beginning that can be traced back to a Quebec City toboggan hill. It was there, in 1963, that his father, Adrien, began charging patrons a small fee to slide down his rolling hills. Adrien’s ambition for the business didn’t extend far beyond sledding, but when his son took over in 1971, he modernized the hill, introduced cross-country ski trails and skating tracks, and hosted the park’s first off-season event, a motorcycle competition.
Over the next 10 years, Drouin expanded the winter activities at Valcartier Vacation Village, constructing huge inner-tube slides and elaborate skating paths. And in 1980, he introduced water features, taking his cue from the Father of the Water Park, George Millay, “a man who turned water into gold” at his Wet ’n Wild park in Orlando.
“When I worked for my father and took over, I had been in university in Montreal and read a lot of things,” says Drouin. “Marketing was new, and we kept being told it was the end of the industrial age and the start of a leisure age. There were very few parks offering water attractions anywhere.”
The leisure age failed to materialize, but water parks took off anyway. There are now more than 1,000 of them in North America alone (including city and hotel pools with higher-end water slides), according to the World Waterpark Association. About 80 million people visited water parks in Canada, the United States and Mexico in the summer of 2008, and attendance rose by 3 per cent to 5 per cent annually between 2003 and 2008.
The tide turned in 2009 with the collapse of the economy, and so-called destination parks — those that cater to both tourists and locals — struggled to hold their share of consumers’ declining discretionary dollars. Total visits to entertainment parks in Orlando, for example, fell by 9 per cent in 2009, according to the Themed Entertainment Association’s global attractions report. But TEA noted that lower-cost regional parks often benefit during an economic downturn, as consumers shift to less-expensive entertainment options. Valcartier Vacation Village is a case in point: Attendance in 2009 rose by a healthy 5 per cent on a year-over-year basis, says Drouin.
His Quebec park has a huge advantage over its new Ontario cousin, however: It is open year-round.
Water parks have become the low-cost way for investors to get in on the amusement park business, says Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. Parks such as Canada’s Wonderland, north of Toronto, and the Six Flags parks in the U.S., would cost upward of $500 million to build from scratch today, and that’s assuming the land was reasonably priced.
Both water parks and amusement parks make most of their money at the gate, supplemented by food sales and other merchandise. A pair of adults with two young children will pay about $100 to gain entry to Calypso for a day; for season’s passes, the same family will have to fork over a little more than $450. But prying entertainment dollars out of cash-strapped families won’t be easy for even the biggest and best-located venues.
Water parks also face a peculiar challenge that Speigel has never been able to figure out. “It is the strangest thing,” he says. “People will go to amusement parks when it rains; they’ll happily line up to ride roller coasters. But they will not go to a water park, even though they intend to get wet when they get there. You simply have to have sunshine.”
The Ottawa-Montreal corridor usually enjoys warm summers. Last year was unseasonably cold, however, making it more difficult to entice people to outdoor attractions. “This year we hope and we pray to see better weather,” says Martin Roy, a spokesperson for La Ronde amusement park in Montreal. “It’s all you can do—you plan, you add attractions. But if the weather does not help you, it can be a very bad year.”
Drouin is well aware of the damage that cold, rainy weather can inflict on an outdoor water park’s balance sheet, but he has some effective, if expensive, solutions. The water at Calypso will be maintained at an even 27 C—not quite up to bathtub standards, but comfortable enough that Drouin believes visitors will keep coming even when the air temperature dips. He won’t say how much it will cost to keep the water toasty throughout the season, but acknowledges that utilities and labour will comprise his biggest expense.
Theme park consultant Speigel offers his own insight: “What? He’s heating the water? It’s not often done. And you know why, of course. It’s incredibly, incredibly expensive.”
The gas-fired boilers that heat the water are about as low tech as it gets in Drouin’s park — everything else is strictly high end. The water is forced through fine sand and scrubbed clean every 90 minutes — among the fastest times in the industry. And since children’s pools can be a breeding ground for disease if the water is not treated properly, Calypso will refresh them every 20 minutes. Over at the 50,000-square-foot wave pool, concealed fans generate an array of wave patterns towering up to 1 1/2 metres above the surface.
Perhaps the most important technological investment at Calypso is its point-of-sale system, which uses a swimmer’s fingerprint to process transactions. When patrons arrive at the front desk, they leave behind their fingerprint impression and credit card number, and simply point at whatever they want to buy throughout the day. Drouin’s company developed its POS system with the help of Quebec-based Softicket. Disney uses a fingerprint scanner that prevents guests from sharing their tickets, but only a few other parks have the technology. It’s all about getting consumers to spend on discretionary items without having to reach into their pockets — a real challenge when the majority of people are wearing bikinis or swim trunks.
Drouin may be a visionary, but his introduction to the region was nothing short of a disaster. After convincing local officials that the water park — and its 500 jobs — would be a good fit with the community, he gave the facility a name that didn’t translate well into French. In this predominantly French-speaking area of Ontario, where people’s identity is wrapped up in their linguistic heritage, Drouin made the mistake of naming his park Sunnyland.
Residents took this as an insult, a sign that Drouin cared more about the town’s proximity to major arterial routes than its people. The uproar — well, the mumbling — forced him to issue an apologetic press release expressing his desire to see the project “unfold in harmony with the local community.”
“We became aware of the comments concerning the linguistic concerns of the region’s residents on the choice of Sunnyland and we decided to change it to a bilingual name,” he said in the release. “We feel confident this change will help make Calypso park a source of pride for the residents.”
While the naming misstep was easily addressed, the locals initially had concerns about “the coming of Calypso” that weren’t so easy to fix. They were ambivalent about its presence in their midst, wondering if they really wanted the influx of visitors and traffic problems.
As for the many trees that were removed from the land that Drouin purchased from the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, “we were able to keep that from becoming a distraction by recycling all the wood,” says Sylvain Lauzon, Calypso’s executive vice-president, who was hired two years ago to manage the development. “It’s used in the bridges around the park, and we also planted hundreds of new trees to recreate some of the green space.”
Local concerns appeared to evaporate as the park edged closer to completion, and thousands of spectators flocked to the preview days last fall. When an exit sign was posted on the highway, it seemed to spark a realization that the project was happening—whether they liked it or not.
The county’s preliminary study forecasting economic spinoffs of about $750 million over 10 years was met with widespread cynicism in the local press, but there are some small signs that the park may act as a catalyst for growth. Limoges now has its own tourist information centre, and thousands of new homes are set to be built around town. And while local politicians aren’t convinced the park is responsible for the sudden explosion of construction, there’s nevertheless a boomtown feeling in the air.
“Is this park a good idea? I wouldn’t do this if I did not think so, and I’ve been doing this a very long time,” says Drouin. “We are close to Ottawa, which has nothing like this. We are close to Montreal. There is nothing else like this anywhere around.”
He won’t know if the business model is a success for several years, he says — long-term feasibility can’t be gauged in one season. Nor will he talk about his target for season’s passes, although he’s clearly comfortable with the 6,000 of them he has already sold. “We have now sold the type of number that makes it much easier to sleep at night,” he says. “Now we wait for the sun, and hope for the best.”