Waldameer Park & Water World, which introduces a new attraction nearly every year, is adding something just as big this fall: more than 7 acres of land and buildings, including the Inn at Presque Isle, at Peninsula Drive and West Sixth Street.
The acquisition, to be final Oct. 2, will enlarge Waldameer to 52 acres, put park owner Paul Nelson in the hotel business and help launch an ambitious 10-year plan for the 116-year-old amusement park in Millcreek Township.
The plan, to cost more than $20 million, will feature a large wave pool, to open most likely in 2014, and the development, most likely five years later, of a secluded wooded area involving about 5 acres that Nelson’s family owns at the foot of a slope that overlooks Lake Erie.
The highlight of that long-awaited project, Nelson said, will be an incline railway to carry picnickers from the main park to the lakefront hideaway.
“We are talking about radically changing the park,” said Nelson, 78, who started working at Waldameer when he was 11.
The purchase of the property will expand Waldameer’s footprint from Lake Erie to the northwest to West Sixth Street to the southeast.
In addition to acquiring the 3.9-acre, 58-room Inn at Presque Isle — formerly known as the Beachcomber Inn and Scott’s Motel — Waldameer is buying a 0.7-acre mobile-home park just east of the inn and, adjacent to the mobile-home park, a 2.7-acre cluster of rental cottages known as the Cottages at Presque Isle.
The seller of all the properties, Nelson said, is the estate of Richard L. Carrara, 76, an Erie businessman who died in April. Carrara, who also owned Erie-based Amthor Steel, bought the Inn at Presque Isle in the 1990s and the Cottages at Presque Isle and the mobile-home park in 2006.
Nelson declined to comment on the price of the three properties.
“More money than I have,” he said with a laugh.
An executor of Carrara’s estate, Joseph Sadler, an Erie accountant, could not be reached for comment.
A desire for space
Nelson said Waldameer will start demolishing all the cottages shortly after Oct. 2 to make more room for parking. He said the park will give the tenants of the mobile homes six-month leases while he decides what to do with that property.
Waldameer will need more parking, Nelson said, to accommodate construction of the wave pool in what is now part of the Peninsula Drive parking lot next to Water World. Waldameer plans to build a children’s water play area near the wave pool, which Nelson said will be the largest of its kind “in the tri-state area.”
The land purchases “are a great opportunity to continue the growth of the park,” said Steve Gorman, 52, Waldameer’s president and Nelson’s son-in-law.
Nelson said he had long wanted to buy the Inn at Presque Isle and the adjoining properties to ensure that Waldameer — the 10th-oldest amusement park in the United States, with 75 rides and attractions — can grow.
“This is enough to keep us going for the next 10 years,” Nelson said.
He said he wants to draw more visitors from Ohio and New York, and to capitalize on recent changes that have boosted the park’s attendance, such as the introduction of season passes in 2010. Even before the wave pool opens in 2014, Waldameer will introduce a new ride in 2013 — the $1.5 million caterpillar-style Music Express — as well as fountains and gardens, with plans to one day turn the park’s large Merry-Go-Round Grove picnic shelter into an outdoor restaurant.
By the time the current 10-year-plan is over, Nelson said, Waldameer’s capacity will be about 50 percent higher than it is today, and its seasonal employment of about 400 people could grow by as many as 200.
Asked why he is launching a long-term plan at an age when most people have retired, Nelson smiled.
“I like what I’m doing,” he said. “It is having good faith in the community.”
Aiming for ‘repeat visitation’
The new plan for Waldameer is rooted in a tough decision Nelson made 28 years ago. After briefly considering retirement, he rededicated himself to Waldameer and sold the park’s original carousel, including its hand-carved wooden horses, for $1.2 million.
Nelson used the money to build Water World in the 1980s, which generated the revenue that soon allowed him to add a new attraction nearly every year. Among the most-heralded rides was the Ravine Flyer II, the roller coaster that gained national attention when it opened in 2008 and sent riders screaming across a bridge over Peninsula Drive.
The Ravine Flyer II, which cost $7.5 million, was the centerpiece of Waldameer’s most recent 10-year plan, which cost $15 million.
Waldameer has thrived as one of a dwindling number of family-owned amusement parks by adding new rides on a “cyclical investment schedule” to keep customers returning each year, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a Cincinnati-based management and consulting firm.
“Our industry lives on repeat visitation,” Speigel said. “You add a new ride to get people back.”
“He is on the right track. He is doing the right things,” Speigel said of Nelson. “They could have just as easily gone out of business.”
A promise to grow
As he steers the park through its expansion, Nelson is venturing into a new business — lodging. He said Waldameer will update the Inn at Presque Isle as needed, and market the motel to vacationing families who are visiting not only Waldameer but Presque Isle State Park, down the road on Peninsula Drive, and other local attractions, such as Splash Lagoon in Summit Township, which is owned by Erie developer Nick Scott Sr.
Nelson said he is willing to experiment on the Inn at Presque Isle.
“If I can’t make the same return … (as the amusement park), then the hotel will go,” he said.
On the other side of Waldameer, on the lakefront property, Nelson said he sees more ways to increase attendance at Waldameer and the Inn at Presque Isle.
The verdant parcel — squeezed between Sara’s Campground and the private cottages of Kelso Beach — will be home to, among other attractions, the incline railway, another water ride, a family ride, a restaurant and a picnic area, Nelson said. The approximately 5-acre property includes a beach, but Nelson said swimming probably won’t be an option — he doesn’t want the lake to compete with Water World.
Nelson’s voice jumped with excitement as he discussed the lakefront property — how Waldameer operated a swimming pool, trolley and other attractions there until a storm destroyed them in the early 1930s, and how the development will help fulfill his vision for the park.
“Most people don’t realize we own this land,” he said. “There is much more to our long-range plan than meets the eye.”
Nelson is insistent the patch of property will one day bustle with visitors. Just as he built Water World and the Ravine Flyer II, just as he will buy the Inn at Presque Isle, Nelson said he will finish the latest 10-year plan.
“We are not like someone from out of town who says they are going to do something,” he said. “Most of our stuff turns out to be pretty much true.”
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