What to know about Connecticut’s water parks as Foxwoods Great Wolf Lodge nears debut

With the development of their new indoor waterpark resort in Mashantucket, officials from Great Wolf Resorts, Foxwoods Resort Casino and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation celebrated the “topping out” of the water park, slated to open in early 2025. The event marked the placement of the final beam of the exterior structure and the announcement of a launch date for reservations at the state’s first Great Wolf Lodge, which will feature 91,000 square feet of water park, a 61,000-square-foot entertainment center, and 549 hotel rooms. As experts in the waterpark field, H&LA’s David Sangree was included in the article, giving his opinion on the future of the project and its impact on the area. Foxwood’s hope to be seen as more family-friendly and to attract a wider range of people with the addition of the indoor waterpark resort.

Publised by: CT Insider/Liese Klein
Published date: June 2024

If the recent warm weather in Connecticut has you sweating, how about an afternoon of “body slides, tube slides, raft rides, activity pools and splash areas” only steps away from an air-conditioned casino?

That’s the sales pitch for the new Great Wolf Lodge Mashantucket, a $300 million water park and hotel under construction next to the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket.

On Wednesday, officials from Great Wolf Resorts, Foxwoods Resort Casino and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation will celebrate the “topping out” of the water park, slated to open in early 2025. The event will mark the placement of the final beam of the exterior structure and the announcement of a launch date for reservations at the state’s first Great Wolf Lodge, which will feature 91,000 square feet of water park, a 61,000-square-foot entertainment center and 549 hotel rooms.

CT outdoor water parks make a splash

But even as the state looks ahead to a brand-new indoor water park — the first such venue since Waterbury’s CoCo Key closed in 2016 ‒ Connecticut’s veteran outdoor water parks are gearing up for a busy season.

Visitor numbers are approaching pre-pandemic levels at the Crocodile Cove water park at Lake Compounce in Bristol, which features a Storm Surge “classic lighthouse” water slide, Venus Vortex mega-slide and other splashy rides.

If dry weather continues, the park plans to also open its namesake Lake Compounce for swimming later in the summer for the first time in several years, said General Manager Doug Hemphill.

Lake Compounce is also anticipating increased traffic this summer as it reopens the Wildcat, a 97-year-old classic wooden roller coaster that has been refurbished for a smoother and faster ride. “The real reason to come this year and come back is to ride the Wildcat,” Hemphill said.

The recent hot and sunny weather has Hemphill and other water park operators hopeful that 2024’s water park season will greatly outperform last year’s run of rainy weekends. “Overall, the weather has been a real positive for us compared to last year,” he said. “With the size of our water park and the number of elements that we have in it, we really expect it to be pretty popular.”

Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury is touting its affordable water park and family-centered rides and events as its peak season heats up, said George Frantzis, one of the park’s owners.

“With prices skyrocketing and the cost of living going through the roof, we’ve made a conscientious effort to try to be user friendly,” Frantzis said. “We thought that it was important this year to maintain our price structure and try to give people a break.”

Last year Quassy’s Splash Away Bay water park debuted the Rocket Rapids Water Coaster, the first ride of its kind in Connecticut. Water jets propel rafts into dips and turns at high speeds and the ride has been a big hit, Frantzis said. “It’s been well received and it’s very unique for this area,” he said.

Warmer weather this year has also enabled Quassy to host more school trips and events like graduation parties, Frantzis said.

“We try to pick things that are really geared toward family and also that high school, college kid,” Frantzis said. “That’s why this Rocket Rapids ride was such an intriguing piece for us to bring in, because it’s so unique and it is a thrill ride.”

CT venues add water attractions

Water-based thrills are also drawing visitors to venues like Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort in Middlefield, which has revamped its offerings beyond winter skiing in recent years to drive year-round traffic. For the past several years, up to four inflatable water slides have been set up at Powder Ridge and visitors who ride the chairlift can enjoy a 500-foot run.

“It’s really a lot of fun because we’re using the mountain,” Powder Ridge spokesperson Laura Loffredo said, “We call it ‘Slide on the Slopes.’”

New this year at the park is a partnership with concert promoter Manic Productions to bring national acts like Dark Star Orchestra to an outdoor amphitheater as part of the Mountain Music Series.

Powder Ridge’s sister attraction, Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park in Portland, has also seen early action this year thanks to the good weather. The park’s location in a former quarry also allows for its water to be swimmable sooner, as the brownstone walls retain heat overnight and act as a “solar blanket,” Loffredo said.

“Guests are enjoying the warm water already, and as long as we don’t get rain on weekends… You know, last year was a bummer,” Loffredo said.

As a new challenge for park-goers, Brownstone has added a new inflatable obstacle called Nautilus, which includes a climbing wall, water slides and “cliff jumping” feature. “It’s got everything,” Loffredo said.

Water park industry thrives post-pandemic

Families seeking group activities are helping to drive growth in the water park industry nationwide, said David J. Sangree, an Ohio-based analyst who specializes in tourism sectors at his company, Hotel & Leisure Advisors.

Indoor water park resorts alone are slated to open 583,000 square feet of new space in 2024, according to Sangree, adding 1,567 new hotel rooms and surpassing 2023’s expansion. As of February 2024, 1,222 water parks were operating in the United States and Canada.

Business will likely be especially good for the planned Great Wolf resort at Foxwoods, according to S&P Global Ratings. The agency issued a report in February ahead of a $1 billion mortgage loan secured by eight Great Wolf Lodges — including the nearest one to the new Foxwoods park, in Fitchburg, Mass.

Great Wolf in Fitchburg reported occupancy levels of 95 to 100 percent on weekends year-round and revenue in 2023 surpassed pre-2019 levels due to “pent-up demand,” the general manager told S&P.

For Foxwoods, adding an upscale water park like Great Wolf Lodge resonates with an overall strategy to broaden its appeal as competition intensifies in the region for entertainment dollars. The resort has upgraded its casino areas and restaurant spaces in recent years and new entertainment options add to its appeal to families.

Great Wolf breaks ground with new parks

The new Great Wolf at Foxwoods represents a new milestone for the water-park industry and the Great Wolf chain, which operates 20 properties nationwide, Sangree said. Instead of renovating an existing property, the developers are building from scratch and including state-of-the-art water-park attractions and features.

The Connecticut Great Wolf will also be the first park in the chain to be adjacent to a casino.

“I know Foxwoods’ goal is to be more family friendly, and to attract a wider age or wider range of people,” Sangree said. “(Great Wolf) went there because of the large number of visitors coming to Foxwoods, and I’m sure because Foxwoods must have offered an attractive package for the site to get them to come down.Top of Form

Great Wolf’s target customers are families with younger children who prefer the tamer rides and 84-degree water of an indoor park, Sangree said. Older teens and young adults prefer the thrills of an outdoor water park, he added.

Hot trends in the water park industry include indoor surfing venues, like the Skudin Surf facility at American Dream mall in East Rutherford, N.J. The only other indoor surfing complex in the Northeast is in Nashua, N.H., but limited capacity and price tags upward of $80 million to build surf attractions are likely to keep most Connecticut developers off the waves for now, Sangree said.

Indoor properties like Great Wolf Lodge represent an upscale future for the water park industry, Sangree said.

“I have been tracking this project since it started,” Sangree said of the Foxwoods Great Wolf Lodge. “It should have a lot of the most current amenities that they’re expecting to include in the brand. It’s very exciting to see this actually finally happening.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Foxwoods Resort Casino is located in Mashantucket, on land separate from the surrounding town of Ledyard.