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Wild Rivers Returns to Orange County in 2020
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Long an icon in Orange County, Calif., Irvine’s 25-year-old Wild Rivers attraction closed in 2011 after its lease with the Irvine Company expired, and the land it was on was used to develop apartment complexes. The waterpark opened in 1986 on the site of the former Lion Country Safari just off the 405 freeway. 

Now, it’s about to make a splashing return, pending the outcome of an environmental study and finalization of lease terms.

Scheduled to open in May 2020, the new $50-million iteration of the waterpark unveiled its new site plan earlier this year, featuring water slides, raft rides and a lazy river. According to the park’s CEO Mike Riedel, the park rides will be “dramatically different – the rides are far and away better,” than in the original park. Riedel had originally hoped to open the park in the summer of 2019, but details of the design and financing were not ready to commence the project in time.

The new water park will be leased on the southwest corner of Irvine’s Great Park.

The park will be 50 percent larger than the original waterpark, the river will be 400 feet longer, and the wave pool will be larger as well. Riedel is planning to create two beloved attractions for nostalgic guests: the Bombay Blasters slide and a new version of the park’s classic Congo River Rapids ride. The park is also planning to include an uphill water coaster, and a variety of water play structures for small children among its features. 

The Bombay Blasters was the old park’s fastest slide, literally “blasting” riders underground, offering a fast shot out from the start at approximately 40 miles per hour. The riders were deposited into a seven-foot pond at the end of the slide’s drop. 

Congo River Rapids included a thrilling moment in which riders were flipped backwards. Also popular were the pitch-black Abyss, and Switzer Falls, which was described as similar to a river ride at Disneyland. Cobra offered lateral slides as a unique drenching experience. Along with floating in an inner tube on the lazy river, guests also enjoyed a wave pool, cabanas, and a bevy of other slides.

When the park closed, it was a summer entertainment loss for the city, and Irvine lost over 2000 seasonal jobs as well.

Riedel’s exclusive agreement to negotiate with Irvine for the Great Park land expired late last year, but City Manager John Russo gave Riedel an extension to complete his financing. The city of Irvine, it’s council, and of course Riedel himself want the project to work. 

Great Park itself could also use the boost: several projects have been in the works for some time, including a firefighting museum and a veteran’s cemetery. The 688-acre large green space has been underutilized, but currently includes a 40-acre nature area, walking paths, and a dog park. A children’s museum, water polo complex, and an indoor volleyball and basketball facility will join Wild Rivers at the park.

All in all, the city of Irvine has developed just 200 acres of the park’s land. Amenities currently include what is known as the “Great Park Balloon,” a giant, suspended orange ball that is easily the park’s most well-recognized attribute. There is also a carousel, visitor’s center, kid’s rock play area, and a walkable historic timeline. An arts complex, horticulture area, and sports field are joined by the Hangar 244 event center. 

The 1,300-acre former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro site owned by the city could match the size of San Diego’s Balboa Park when – and if – it is fully developed.

The water park will be a part of the 94-hectare Cultural Terrace, which is currently in development. The terrace will include an amphitheater, lake, library and museums. Development of the water park will also include a 1,200 space $11.7 million parking lot.

The waterpark will make a welcome addition to the South Orange County region; currently Knott’s Soak City in Buena Park, and the Great Wolf Lodge in Garden Grove, are the nearest waterparks to the city of Irvine. 

There is only one caveat to the excitement of a new waterpark opening in 2020 – having postponed the start date for a year, despite unveiling the full site attraction map in April 2019, it is possible that the promised rebuild might end up all wet. Several other proposed construction and opening dates have appeared in the past, only to fade away, the most recent having taken place in 2014, when the venue was also proposed for Great Park.

In the last Irvine City Council Meeting, the mayor announced that Wild Rivers and the city have agreed on the economic terms of a ground lease, per Riedel. “The next step is to have the Council agree on a ‘lease to form.’ Basically lease as to form means that the City Council thinks that the actual lease will look very close to the lease as to form. City Council cannot approve any lease if there is still an environmental review in process,” according to Riedel.

Nothing has changed since the park’s set-up was revealed in late April: city council members and Riedel remain mum on the topic; May 2020 is still the park’s scheduled opening date. Here’s hoping Wild Rivers will make a big splashing return soon.  
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