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The rise of surf parks in experiential design

What does the future hold for the surf park trend?


By Ingrid Vaivads, senior designer, FORREC and Dr Jess Ponting, co-founder, Surf Park Central, and director, Center for Surf Research San Diego State University.

On the topic of surf parks, a hot trend in the attractions industry right now, FORREC’s Ingrid Vaivads is in conversation with Dr Jess Ponting of Surf Park Central.

The rise of surfing

Ingrid Vaivads_FORREC
Ingrid Vaivads

Ingrid Vaivads: Before even ‘diving’ into surf parks, it’s important we look at water in relation to how and why people interact with it, especially in the form of recreation and play. The earth’s surface is over 70% water. So, it’s no wonder people are so drawn to it, it’s the world’s first playground!

For millions of years, humans and our ancestors before us have needed water to survive – or at least benefited from its presence. Water is life-giving in every sense. We use water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, working and exercise, as well as play and travel. It’s where we came from originally and it’s also where we naturally flock to recharge, rehydrate, and reconnect.

Studies have even shown that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water. It can make us happier, healthier, more connected, and also increase innovation.  We are inspired by water, hearing it, seeing it, smelling it in the air, photographing it, and of course playing in it and creating lasting memories.

Water is a very powerful design and fluid element. So, creating purpose-designed and built water parks and surf parks are a natural progression of how we interact with it.

Why surf parks, and what makes them unique?

IV: Interest and participation in surf is also growing around the world; the sport made its debut appearance in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. However, for the everyday person who wants to ‘test out the waters’, surfing can feel inaccessible. Most people don’t live near a beach and also surf waves can be unpredictable.

Surf parks bring surfable waves to people in a fun and safe environment. Surfers (new or experienced), friends and families can visit surf parks locally or travel to foreign destinations in urban and rural settings that offer high quality and predictable waves.

The appeal of water to excite, refresh or entertain is universal. To experience the surf lifestyle and the pure exhilaration of riding a wave is truly unforgettable.

What makes surf parks unique is not only can they be stand-alone attractions, but they can also be integrated into a variety of commercial real estate, recreational and entertainment development projects including water parks, theme parks, adventure parks, resorts, retail, dining, and entertainment (RDE) or residential mixed-use developments.

The appeal of water to excite, refresh or entertain is universal. To experience the surf lifestyle and the pure exhilaration of riding a wave is truly unforgettable.

The rich history of surfing

JESS-PONTING_surf park central
Dr Jess Ponting

Jess Ponting: There are several elements that make surf parks unique. Surfing is an ancient Indigenous sport with a rich history and deep culture that also continues to evolve and expand. The ability for a water-based recreation attraction to tap into and celebrate this culture and history, and to create links to real-time issues, environments and professional sporting leagues, even Olympic competition and national pride that goes beyond the attraction itself is singular in the space.

Plus, surfing is a skills-based activity that draws participants back for incremental improvement that they can feel. Most surfers find the activity addictive for these reasons. There are few if any other activities that can offer this kind of skills progression addictiveness in water-based recreation in a relatively small physical footprint.

Surfing’s place in popular culture also reaches an enormous audience of non-surfers through exposure to the professional sport, surf influencers’ social media reach, the Olympics, and all kinds of Hollywood films and marketing campaigns for all kinds of consumer products. I like to say that there are two types of people in the world. These are those that surf and those that want to.

Surf parks are a learning curve decimating, hazard removing, safety amplifying, petri dish in which would-be surfers can flourish into actual surfers and escape the tyranny of easy coastal access that has prevented many people from living their surfing dreams.

How have surf parks evolved over time?

JP: The history of human-made waves dates to 1887 in the Venus Grotto of the ‘mad king’ Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Linderhof castle. A wave machine directly applied electricity to the water to create ripples across a small artificial lake – 100% safe, right?

Then, in 1903, a hydraulic flap system was patented. This created breaking waves in a pool to provide an enhanced swimming experience thought to have health benefits. It was trialled at the 1912 International Hygiene Exposition in Dresden. The wave pool could handle 7500 paying customers a day. It rapidly became a popular addition to leisure and recreation centres, with around 500 being built across the 20th century.

Disney's Typhoon Lagoon Logo

Actual surfing came to surf pools in the mid-1960s beginning in Japan and then the purpose-built Big Surf attraction in Arizona. This opened in 1968 and was first surfed by world champion Fred Hemmings.

These were small, sluggish, spilling waves that were the pinnacle of surf park performance until the late 1980s when Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon began producing soft but very well-formed peeling waves. In the early 90s, Ocean Dome in Japan made it possible to get barreled in a surf park for the first time. Then, the Wadi Adventure Park in Al Ain, UAE opened in 2012. This produced short but relatively high-quality waves capable of providing a short barrel or a viable air section.

The third generation of suft parks

JP: After Wadi Adventure, a third generation of far superior quality surf parks came into being. These are pools capable of producing very high-quality waves. Wavegarden Lagoon and Kelly Slater Wave Co. (KSWaveCo) are based on different applications of the same basic concept: mechanical foils being dragged through the water; variation is achieved by dragging the foils faster or slower through the water.

Meanwhile, Surfloch, American Wave Machines, and Endless Surf all use sequentially fired pneumatic caissons to generate waves. They are capable of almost infinite wave variation. Wavegarden Cove uses electric motors to move paddles that generate waves on either side of a central pier. This is a very efficient system, which allows for wave variation but also accurate replication of wave types.

La Mer
La Mer

Surf Lakes uses an entirely different method. Essentially dropping a large weight into the lake to produce outward moving circular waves from a central point that are shaped and broken in a variety of ways using variations of bathymetry creating five distinct waves from each swell generated. The Surf Lakes system is capable of some wave variation provided by static bathymetry and varying the size and number of waves being produced.

Each of these third-generation technologies can create waves of incredible quality. Where previously surf parks were compared favourably with average wave conditions and quality breaks in nature, after KSWaveCo released its first video, the paradigm flipped and perfect surf breaks were compared favourably with surf parks. Wave generation technology has come a long, long way.

New leaps in technology

IV: As Jess mentioned, surfing has been around for hundreds of years; from its origin in Hawaii where surfing was seen as the pure pursuit of pleasure, to making its way to California, which provided great leaps in technology, enabling it to spread around the world including into water parks.

In the early days of water-based attractions, the wave pool, and even the surf pool, was the core anchor of a water park. As the interest in surfing as a sport grew beyond just recreation and the aspirational surf culture and lifestyle became more popular, development visions broadened. Stand-alone surf venues became more than a sport dedicated to a niche demographic.

American Dream surfer
Pro Surfer Rob Kelly Surfing at American Dream

The inclusion of broader audiences along with core surfers then forced surf parks to evolve from being a place that focused on wave technology that delivers the premium surf experience, to programming and designing the attractions and guest experience as a whole: the spaces, the site narrative, activities, facilities, and entertainment.

That’s where we creative designers and master planners came in. Financial success and environmental and social performance became key goals. Developers are looking to full-service firms like FORREC to partner with who understand market sectors, recreation, entertainment, and capacity and experience.

Why might a developer want to bring a surf park to their development project?

IV: There are a few reasons, but I would say there are three main ones. Firstly, with the growth of and a variety of new development project types, scales, and markets, we have been able to see a lot more market differentiation and complementary attractions.

Secondly, there is increased potential to appeal to a broader guest market: an opportunity to enhance guest satisfaction/enjoyment with a variety of additional amenities, increase the length of stay and additional revenue opportunities within F&B, retail, day and night programming, and accommodations.

Koh-Lan Island surf parks
Koh-Lan Island

Lastly, often public/private partnerships between the developers and a city can bring new recreational opportunities to municipalities that are growing and enhancing their active healthy community priorities.

Surf parks are anchor attractions

JP: As Ingrid mentioned, the surf park is an anchor for an attraction that will generate its own loyal following locally and beyond. It will also create an aspirational following of beginner surfers. It will bring non-surfing family and friends to watch the action, which is mesmerizing even to those who don’t surf.

Surfing is also an incredibly lucrative sport. Surfing comes with 30 to 40 million regular participants in over 100 countries

A surf park can be a cultural hub for a wider attraction, bringing an authenticity of experience that other components cannot emulate.

Surfing is also an incredibly lucrative sport. Surfing comes with 30 to 40 million regular participants in over 100 countries. Many of these travel internationally on a regular basis for the express purpose of surfing.

A recent study found that globally, surfers take an average of 0.928 international surf trips per year, with 40% taking more than one such trip each year spending USD$1,999.50 per trip for a total annual expenditure of between $31.5 (USD) and $64.9 (USD) billion dollars.

What do guests want in surf parks?

JP: There are several different types of guests with different needs. Experienced surfers want great waves without crowds and hassles at times convenient for them. Beginners are more focused on safety and lessons.

Other visitors, potentially non-surfing visitors are going to want great amenities beyond the wave pool itself. Research of the surfing market has shown significant interest in sustainability initiatives. Particularly among women, longboarders, and beginners – all important markets for surf parks.


IV: I’d add, people are looking for the essentials in addition to core surf. A park with a vibrant atmosphere, quality entertainment, and ultimately a place to escape, celebrate and create lasting memories.

As creative designers, we also need to consider what the client/park owners want to provide: lifestyle retail, facilities, accommodation, F&B, thematic programming, and complementary activities. We often look to the natural environment as inspiration for the park’s vibe and recreational potential.

Ultimately, sport and recreation haven’t changed at its base in that it creates places for people to gather, build skills, experience the “stoke”, and have fun with friends and family.

The challenges of creating and maintaining surf parks

IV: For any attraction we design, the owners conduct a feasibility study for market interest. We look at the hard numbers concerning performance and capacity. We also look at what guests want and what the developer wants to offer.

The project takes influences from several factors including site analysis and selection; water quality; geotechnical condition of the site; infrastructure; wave technology selection and performance; maintenance and operations; consideration for expansion or refresh; and of course, actual entertainment park capacity and performance to meet desired guest experience and projected revenue targets.

Song Do surf parks

Then, of course, there is the actual construction of the surf park, which can sometimes come with delays. All of these can absolutely create obstacles and challenges when it comes to creating and maintaining surf parks. Let alone achieving the targets of the business plan.

JP: Given the sector’s infancy, a lack of comparable track records is a challenge for many projects. These are capital intensive developments. While this is changing, many investors still feel a high degree of risk, particularly those unfamiliar with the incredible draw of surfing as an activity. This can create challenges when it comes to financing.

Another challenge is regulation and permitting. These projects are brand new and are running ahead of regulatory bodies and standard setters in many instances. While the industry is well down the path, remedying the situation approvals and permitting has proven to be just as complicated as you might imagine it to be.

IV: In today’s leisure world, recreational possibilities are practically endless and evolving. Surfers are more discerning than ever for high-quality guest experiences, atmosphere, additional recreational activities, and amenities. Not only do the action-purists need to surf, but there is also a need to play, eat and relax with the entire family.

In addition, the type of guests and their expectations are evolving and growing. Nowadays, surf parks see everyone from the experienced core surfer, the competitive athletes, casual participants, and of course, spectators.

As master planners and designers, we have to evaluate what makes “this surf park” distinctive from its competitors. For instance, brand and technology. But we also create spaces and places that will cater to the varying needs of so many different types of visitors. We need to provide a well-rounded vibrant experience. One that delivers on the client’s business model, the resident and tourist demand and offers an exceptional surfing experience.

JP: The surf park market is still in its infancy; there are approximately 10 third-generation surf parks currently operating. But best estimates put that number over 100 within five to six years. What we are now beginning to see is increasing sophistication and diversification in the business models, as Ingrid pointed out.

From private club-style real estate development to member-owned and financed models, to a far greater diversity of accommodation, retail, F&B, events, and complimentary attractions, all anchored by a surf park.

The environmental impact

JP: Surf parks have a physical footprint that varies greatly between the wave generating technologies used; they use significant energy to create waves and they rely on a large body of water as the medium of the experience they are creating. These footprints are like other similar-sized water or theme parks and each of these components has its environmental impact.

However, each of these areas can be minimized and managed in many ways. Happily, the surf park industry is cognizant of these issues and works hard to address them. They are concerned about the image of their industry and must perform well to secure local support for their projects.

Peru SurfStream AWM surf parks
Peru SurfStream by American Wave Machines

IV: Surfers inherently have a deep connection to the natural environment. So, it makes sense that in building a surf park we do everything in our power to minimize its ecological impact. It’s important we establish facilities and systems for sustainable development, integrated with the existing environmental conditions.

Surf parks are big consumers of water and energy; the project scale, physical location, solar orientation, prevailing winds, and organization of site elements greatly influence the amount of energy required to heat and cool a development.

By understanding the surf park context, creating, and promoting sustainable development, and looking at the region’s unique culture and environment, we can also induce significant savings in energy consumption, water usage, create a pleasant microclimate for the guest and support an authentic sense of place.

What can surf parks do to be more sustainable?

JP: There is a sustainability standard specifically for the surf park industry. This is STOKE, which stands for Sustainable Tourism and Outdoors Kit for Evaluation. STOKE is a sustainability certification body that provides standards specific to niche forms of tourism, events, and destinations.

Beginning with surf tourism and snow tourism, STOKE has developed standards. These are based on the gold standard of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council but adapted over years of consultation with each vertical market to ensure its standards are relevant, effective, and comprehensive.

surfer rides wave at offshore surf surf parks
Offshore Surf

Surf parks that are serious about sustainability are looking to engage with this standard and use its SaaS (software as a service) platform to implement, manage, track, report, and communicate their sustainability initiatives.

The use of renewable energy in this industry is imperative, along with the best possible water conservation measures, and where possible alternative water sources or rainwater harvesting. Choosing sites that are not of significant biodiversity or conservation value is equally important.

Beyond these most obvious of concerns, the STOKE standard also incorporates 90+ additional criteria across eight broad areas of sustainability. These are management & communication; safety and quality; design and construction; community development; fair labour; cultural heritage; supply chain; and energy and environment.

Examples of sustainable surf parks

IV: There are great stories from individual surf parks where different sustainability challenges have been overcome.

For example, all renewable energy powering the WSL Surf Ranch, URBNSURF Melbourne using recycled runoff water from the Tullamarine airport in Melbourne, DSRT Surf in Palm Desert offsetting water by replacing turf with xeriscaping, Surf Lakes re-introducing endangered plant species in its landscaping, The Wave Bristol prioritizing access for people with disabilities and various forms of surf therapy.

Surfer at The Wave, Bristol's inland surfing destination surf parks
The Wave, Bristol

IV: As designers, it’s important to integrate conservation and sustainable design thinking into every stage of a project. From the beginning with site selection, concept, master planning and thorough to detailed design, sustainable material specifications and construction techniques.

Of course, don’t forget about operations like implementing recycling programs throughout the development. Within F&B offerings, we also need to promote the idea of local food sourcing and sustainable, healthy meal options.

As Jess said, establish sustainability goals using STOKE, LEED, SITES and GREEN GLOBE certifications as benchmarks.

We use sustainable site design techniques and materials when thinking about the land, its resources and potential in how we develop the site design (i.e., preserving natural features and committing to working with surrounding natural systems and ecology.)

Beyond that, we can also plan for stormwater management using Low Impact Development (LID) techniques and green infrastructure, evaluate sun, wind, and shade impact to mitigate and enhance the environmental quality of the place and review the potential for nature-based programming and the site’s natural and cultural character to create distinctive, memorable, and sustainable surf parks.

How can surf parks incorporate more technology?

IV: From a guest perspective, incorporating smart park data or operations data management apps to help with the ticketing, queuing, in and out of park experiences feel seamless.

These simple yet important technologies enhance the guest experience. They help operators maintain efficiency by managing and monitoring facility performance. Operators can track where guests frequent the most, what food they like or dislike and better assess the length of stay. This all contributes to the operator and developer’s bottom line. 

JP: Surf parks are already integrating significant technology. Several wave technologies are using ‘internet of things’ platforms for preventative maintenance functionality. There are many untapped applications of technology, in use in some integrated resorts, theme parks, and cruise ships, to do with operational programming and payments.

surfing cloward H2O surf parks

The programming of waves is another cutting-edge use of technology.

Surf park wave programmers use their interface with the wave pool to essentially become virtuosos. They are playing what resemble huge mechanical musical instruments. Like a musical instrument, various combinations of air pressure and mechanical movement are skillfully applied to create the desired output. In both cases, this is a very particular kind of wave. In the case of the surf park, the wave is energy moving through the water. With a musical instrument, it is sound moving through air.

Another exciting way in which technology may feature is through cameras and cutting-edge analysis.

The future of surf parks

IV: As always with growth, I expect we will see more differentiation, authenticity of site, embedded surf culture, and complimentary programming. It will evolve into the next phase of entertainment with the application of branding and story development. Of course, we will also be rejuvenating existing successful parks and adding new attractions.

Furthermore, it’s important to keep surf parks fresh as participants learn to read the waves and their surf skills develop, and parks grow their repeat visitors, become more event-based, and market position is expanded. Projects will continue to develop in collaboration with specialists and partners who have more experience, knowledge, and expertise in the design and development sectors.

young surfer at The Wave, Bristol's new inland surfing destination surf parks
The Wave, Bristol

I also see an influx in action/adventure extreme sports and white-water competition venues. It’s a challenge to recreate natural wave conditions. But as technology continues to evolve and have an influence on the work we do, I believe surf parks will continue to take inspiration from nature and mimic even closer to the surfing conditions we all get “stoked” about.

More surf parks to come

JP: In one word, bright! I would expect to see over 100 surf parks in operation by the end of the decade. In addition, I’d expect to see the number of wave generation technology companies double in that time.

I think there is likely to be a professional sporting league based specifically in surf parks. The ability to know how long it will take to run a contest down to the minute and be able to guarantee perfect waves will lead to some innovative competition formats.

The exploration in this space is already fun to watch. The industry is figuring out new and interesting ways to activate wave pools in different settings. So, we are going to see some amazing new types of recreation experiences.

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FORREC is one of the world's leading entertainment design companies, creating places of escape and destinations of distinction.

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