It’s four hours before the Water Wizz waterslide park might turn off its faucets forever. After 40 years, owner Michael Kells is not feeling even remotely sad or sentimental. With the upbeat tone of a pub trivia night emcee, he points out the squinting view of Taylor Swift’s oceanside mansion and notes that his brand was once a joke in a Jay Leno monologue on the Tonight Show.
“Somebody sent Leno a Water Wizz T-shirt years ago, and he actually did a little bit on his late-night talk show,” Kells recalls. “He was like, ‘Can you imagine? Who would name their place Water Wizz? Is the water yellow as you’re going down the water slide?’ Yeah, it was a nice plug.”
Celebrity name-dropping aside, there’s nothing extraordinary about Water Wizz of Westerly. It’s a cozy no-frills attraction overlooking Rhode Island’s public Misquamicut Beach at the southern tip of the state near the Connecticut border. Its two 50-foot-high speed slides and four 35-foot-high curvy slides aren’t the biggest, the fastest, the steepest, or the scariest. (For truly scary, see the infamous 70mph Verrückt — German for insane — waterslide in Kansas City.)
But this is the best playground on the Westerly strip: a refuge for safe, supervised play when the novelty of the ocean waves wears off.
“There’s a lot of pride in running a family-owned business, but whether you’re running a hotel or a restaurant or a waterpark, the hours are really long.”
A business autopsy of Water Wizz would reveal no single conclusive cause of the park’s death. Competition can’t be blamed. The nearest rival slides are 25 miles away and the rest of the strip features old-fashioned entertainment choices like an antique carousel, go-karts, and even a makeshift drive-in that shows decades-old movies. (Grease, Jaws and Ghostbusters were some of this year’s crowd-pleasers.) Westerly isn’t Vegas and doesn’t try to be. The vacation town’s main attraction is nature.
But it was nature that put Kells in a deep financial hole that he’s struggled to climb out of. He’s still recovering from $60,000 in damage in 2012 from Hurricane Sandy that wasn’t covered by insurance. He also blames rising labor costs and government regulations for dampening his enthusiasm for being the boss.
“The state wanted me to put little jets on the side of the pool (at the bottom of the slides), because they said my water wasn’t circulating enough,” Kells says. “My engineer and I both shook our heads because we have 25-horsepower motors pushing water up to the top and have people going down the slides every 10 seconds, but these little one-inch jets are supposed to stimulate the water more? I don’t want to fight anymore.”
But the main culprit in the demise of Water Wizz might be just plain fate. According to the Conway Center for Family Business, only 30% of family-owned businesses pass the torch to the second generation, with 12% lasting to the third generation and 3% surviving four generations and beyond. Echoing this statistic, the 2019 US Family Business Survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reveals that 42% of family businesses have no succession plan – and of those that do, most only have informal directives.
David Sangree, president of Hotel and Leisure Advisors, a national consulting firm for luxury hotels, casinos, golf resorts and amusement parks, says he has witnessed this trend in the hospitality industry.
“There’s a lot of pride in running a family-owned business, but whether you’re running a hotel or a restaurant or a waterpark, the hours are really long,” he says. “It’s pretty common for the children and especially the grandchildren to not share the same passion and want to do something different.”
It’s not just an amusement park issue, either. One report suggests that 6 out of 10 businesses could end up on the auction block as a record number of business owners hit retirement age with either no family to hand the business down to or no one in the family wanting to take the reins.
Looking back on his second-generation tenure – Kells’s father Raymond bought the then-two-year-old park in 1981 – the Water Wizz owner takes pride in his longstanding anti-helicopter-parent policy, which restricts the slide area to paying customers only. Keeping the phone camera paparazzi behind a chain link fence not only keeps the slide area unclogged, he says, but also instills a sense of confidence into boys and girls taking the plunge for the first time.
“On a day like today, when we’re lucky to get 100 customers, it barely covers payroll and the pumps, the chlorine, the electric bill, water quality tests, the insurance – want me to go on?”
If you’re a 200-pound dad, the Wizz slides are a speedy experience. If you’re a 50-pound kid, not so much. Contradicting the law of gravity is a child’s perception of speed. Joshua Bentley, of nearby Ashaway, Rhode Island, says his fourth grade daughter Samantha (one of eight children) thought the slides were “plenty fast.”
“It’s too bad this is closing,” he says. “Water Wizz is an iconic spot for the locals and offers something different when people are here on vacation and get island fever. After a while, you run out of things to do on the beach – and having one less thing to do now is not good for tourism.”
On August 7, 2019, when Water Wizz announced on its Facebook page that it would be shuttering its doors for good on Labor Day, it received 323 comments from fans sharing their favorite memories. But few of those supporters, perhaps deterred by grey skies and sputterings of cold rain, showed up to say goodbye in person.
For Kells, the cruddy weather provided an exclamation point reaffirming his decision to leave the outdoor waterpark business. No towels on the beach means there’s no one shopping for an adrenaline rush. At one point of the day, reporters from three different news organizations comprised most of the foot traffic around the slides, but a steady trickle of customers later instilled life in the park again.
“On a day like today, when we’re lucky to get 100 customers, it barely covers payroll and the pumps, the chlorine, the electric bill, water quality tests, the insurance – want me to go on?” says Kells.
Kells has provided dozens of local teens with their first jobs over the years. Ben Monroe, a freshman business major at the nearby Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), says he could have got a better paying job elsewhere “but I’ve loved this place ever since I was a kid. I’ve been to a lot of birthday parties here. I feel like it’s been busier the past three weeks than it has been the whole three summers I’ve worked here. Generations of people are sad it’s going to be gone.”
“My next job is probably not going to be as much fun.”
“This job is very calm and relaxed. It’s not hectic like other jobs,” adds co-worker Nick Lessing, a sophomore at Westerly High School. “My next job is probably not going to be as much fun. I hope someone buys the park so I could come back next year.”
Handing out mats at Water Wizz was also the first job for Kells. He was 12 years old the first summer his father Raymond ran the park with his mother Patricia and sisters Rebecca, Melissa and Melanie. Before diving into the waterslide business, the senior Kells was the national sales manager for a fiberglass sailboat company and then founded his own boat business, Kells Yachts. Ever the entrepreneur, he opened up two other entertainment parks, Water Wizz of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Adventureland of Narragansett, Rhode Island. Both parks are still open, but are no longer in the family.
“It was tense sometimes when your father and mother were the boss,” recalls Kells. “I bought this Water Wizz when my dad passed away 11 years ago. Even though I have no relatives working here, I treat my employees like family. I’m sad for them not having jobs here anymore, but I have an overall zen attitude about this place closing. Sentimentality holds people back and not knowing the future is scary for the insecure. But if you throw your hands up and believe everything will be alright, you’ll do alright in life.”
The silver lining from the recent parade of journalists stomping through his park is that social media may have kept it on life support. WPRI Eyewitness News recently reported that a local entrepreneur has expressed interest in buying Water Wizz – Kells doesn’t own the land – and keeping it open next summer. (A week after closing, Kells confirmed he was in negotiations with the prospective buyer, but nothing had been finalized.)
In the meantime, it’s safe to say he is out of the Wizz biz for good.
“Don’t ever hire friends and family in a family business because they can take advantage of you and will take advantage of you,” warns Kells. “Hire people you don’t know, but treat them like family. That’s the best advice I can give. Anybody who has ever been involved in a family business will know exactly what I’m talking about.”
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