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Making a Big Splash Through the Years:  The History of Carowinds Water Park 

Andrew Stilwell

Andrew Stilwell is a writer for and was a member of the Carowinds “Caroblogger” Program from 2015-2017. You can follow him on twitter at @stilwell and on twitter at @Coaster101.

Carowinds Classic Water Park Wave Pool


For more of Carowinds history from Andrew visit 

Though not an original park attraction, Carowinds’ water park has been constantly evolving since its opening in 1982. As Carolina Harbor opens for its 5th anniversary later this season, we wanted to take a look at the history of the water park and how it grew from humble beginnings into the “largest water park in the Carolinas.”

That history begins with the water park’s first years as Ocean Island and Riptide Reef.

Ocean Island (1982-1989)

Carowinds Retro Water Park Ocean Island Photo

While admission to Carolina Harbor has long been included with park admission, Carowinds’ first “water park” was actually a separate ticketed attraction that was owned independently of Carowinds.

Opened in 1982, and located between Thunder Road and the former “White Lightnin” Shuttle Loop coaster, “Ocean Island” was a 700,000-gallon, 25,500 square foot wave pool that featured waves reaching heights of five feet. The idea was pitched to Carowinds by a local pool company in nearby Rock Hill, SC.

“Bill Baker, who was over Paddock Pools, came up to Carowinds and talked to [former Carowinds GM] Dean Nahrup and proposed the idea for a water park adjacent to Carowinds,” recalled longtime Carowinds Vice President of Operations, Jerry Helms, who was also responsible for Ocean Island after it opened. “Bill worked with Kings Entertainment Company on the design. The entranceway was all the way around the back side of the parking lot. You drove in and under and through Thunder Road into what was former employee parking lot.”

The complex also featured other standard water park amenities including picnic and sunbathing areas, shower and changing facilities, a snack bar, game room, raft rentals and a gift shop. One of the sunbathing areas was actually located atop the gift shop. According to Helms, it wasn’t the most ideal of tanning locations.

“There was an AstroTurf sunning area on top of the gift shop,” he remembered with a laugh. “Of course, no one would go up there because it was the south and it got very hot up there during the summer! As I remember, they had AstroTurf around the wave pool itself as well.”

Despite having one water attraction in the park already with the park’s original Powder Keg Log Flume, opening a wave pool was truly “uncharted waters” for Carowinds. In those uncharted waters, there was a bit of a learning curve for the operation of the wave pool, which produced at least one hilarious moment early on.

“There were eight cylinders that went up and down to create the waves, and they were testing the waves and the sequence,” Helms said. “One evening, someone said ‘I wonder what would happen if we fired them all at the same time.’ All I can say was that the maintenance guys who were at the edge of the pool found out how fast they could run. No one was ever in danger, but when people saw the first wave come up and started scrambling – still to this day, it brings a smile to my face.”

Carowinds Retro Water Park Ocean Island Brochure

Ocean Island Advertised Inside of Carowinds' 1983 Brochure. Photo courtesy of Ken Rutherford,

Ocean Island had an operating schedule similar to that of Carowinds’ operating schedule: weekend-only operations in early May until approximately Memorial Day and all-day operations through Labor Day Weekend.

Carowinds Classic Water Park Ocean Island Wave Pool

 Ocean Island Wave Pool. You can also see White Lightning and Carolina Cyclone in the Background. Photo:

For those who wanted to visit Ocean Island, there were two separate entrances, one inside the park where guests would walk on a bridge over White Lightning, and one outside the park. If you entered Ocean Island from outside Carowinds, admission prices in 1982 were $4 for individuals age 12 and older, and $3 from ages 4-12. If you entered from inside Carowinds, admission was $3 for all ages.

For several years in the 1980s, Ocean Island was thriving, but towards the end of the decade, Carowinds knew that if the water park were to remain successful, it would have to expand. Enter RipTide Reef.

RipTide Reef (1989-1997)

Under the ownership of the Kings Entertainment Company, Carowinds purchased Ocean Island in 1987, and began to develop their newest water park concept, which would open during Carowinds’ 17th season in 1989. The six-acre RipTide Reef was part of a $3.75 million improvement project for that season, and much of this new water park was located on the land formerly occupied by White Lightning.

When it opened in 1989, RipTide Reef gave Carowinds the distinction as the first theme park in the country to offer a full-water park experience included with theme park admission in one combined ticket.

“It got to the point in the latter part of the 1980s that Ocean Island wasn’t going to stand alone on its own,” Helms said. “That’s when we started to create the ‘two parks in one’ plan that tied the water park to the main park.”

Carowinds RipTide Reef Classic Water Park Slides

Carolina Pipeline. Photo: Images of America: Carowinds by Scott Rutherford, Page 88.

As part of the water park’s name change and expansion, the Ocean Island wave pool was renamed “Tidewater Bay.” Riptide Reef also saw the addition of the “Carolina Pipeline” slide tower, featuring two dueling 350’ long tube slides, the 52’ long “Racing River” speed slide, and a new children’s area with water features and smaller slides for children – the "Fun-L-Tunnel," "Silly Slides," and "Splash Factory."

One of Helms’ favorite attractions at Riptide Reef was the “Racing River” slide. It was also quite popular with guests, so much so that Carowinds wanted to attempt to increase the slide’s throughput and capacity. On a slide, the only way to do that was with a new type of raft.

Fortunately for Carowinds, a prototype had been developed at Canada’s Wonderland, who like Carowinds, was owned at the time by Kings Entertainment Co. Unfortunately for Helms, whose job description meant he would be testing the new prototype, the weather forecast during his scheduled visit to Canada was incorrect.

“My boss and I flew to Canada to take a look in September. The weather was forecast to be unseasonably warm.” Helms remembered fondly. “I remember sitting in a restaurant with him and looking out the window and saying ‘I think it’s snowing.’ He turns around and looks and says, ‘I think so too.’ We asked the waitress and she said ‘oh no. That’s not snow. It’s not supposed to snow for 2-3 weeks. We never have snow this early!’ There were seven inches of snow when we got up the next morning, and the temperature was hovering above freezing.”

Not one to be deterred by the weather, Helms boarded the two-person prototype slide in the front with a mechanic from Canada’s Wonderland seated behind. It wasn’t too long into the ride when he realized it needed some adjustments.  

“We were pioneers!” Helms said with a laugh. “There was no road map. It hadn’t been done before. After I stopped the sled and everyone laughed for a few minutes, I told them we needed to work on the design.”

The ride never made it into production. In today’s world, ride testing is done a lot differently.  

Carowinds Classic Water Park RipTide Reef Brochure

Riptide Reef in the 1990 Carowinds Brochure. Photo: TPR User Montezooma

Like Ocean Island before it, Riptide Reef featured raft and towel rentals, locker rooms, a gift shop, and dining options. According to the 1990 Carowinds map posted above, there was a Pizza location, as well as a dining outlet named The Oasis.

In 1992, Carowinds, along with sister Kings Entertainment Company parks Canada’s Wonderland, Great America, Kings Dominion and Kings Island, were purchased by Paramount Communications Inc, who formed Paramount Parks. However, it wouldn’t be until 1997 when RipTide Reef would see its next major changes…

To be continued…

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Andrew Stilwell

Andrew Stilwell is a writer for and was a member of the Carowinds “Caroblogger” Program from 2015-2017. You can follow him on twitter at @stilwell and on twitter at @Coaster101.

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