Ohio based Cedar Park Entertainment is purchasing Schlitterbahn parks.
Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment is purchasing Schlitterbahn parks. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

An Ohio-based amusement park company with parks across the country has signed an agreement to acquire the Schlitterbahn waterparks in New Braunfels and Galveston.

Cedar Fair Entertainment announced Thursday it was purchasing the Schlitterbahn parks for $261 million, and the deal is expected to close during the second quarter of this year.

Cedar Fair also paid $6 million for the rights to acquire the Schlitterbahn park in Kansas City, Kansas, which has remained closed since a fatal accident in 2016.

Cedar Fair operates 13 parks across the United States and Canada, including California’s Great America and Knott’s Berry Farm in Calif., Canada’s Wonderland in Ontario, King’s Island in Ohio, King’s Dominion in Virginia, and Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom in Pennsylvania. In 2018, Cedar Fair entertained 26 million guests and reported $1.35 billion in annual net revenues.

Schlitterbahn would be the company’s first parks in Texas. A statement from Cedar Fair put the number of guests at the two Texas water parks at 1.2 million guests in 2018, generating annual revenues of $68 million.

“We are very excited about the opportunity to bring these two award-winning Texas water parks into the Cedar Fair family,” stated Richard Zimmerman, Cedar Fair’s president and CEO. “These properties represent new markets for us with attractive demographics in the growing Central Texas region, and they align with our strategy to identify compelling opportunities to accelerate our growth and profitability.”

A Schlitterbahn spokeswoman said the sale is really great news. “There is talk of them doing really great things and we’re really excited,” she said.

A statement from Schlitterbahn said the company’s South Padre waterpark and resort will be owned by a member of the founding family and will be rebranded. The Corpus Christi park will remain a Diamond Beach property. There is no word yet on whether Cedar Fair will replace the Schlitterbahn management team headquartered in New Braunfels.

Schlitterbahn opened the 2019 summer season in May with a year’s worth of events planned to celebrate the park’s 40th anniversary as its founders came up for air after a spate of tragedies, scandals, and financial struggle.

Though Schlitterbahn has celebrated previous milestone anniversaries throughout its history with multimillion-dollar expansions, installing thrilling new rides, and celebrating attendance records, this time around, it is selling the world-famous water park and all its assets.

Schlitterbahn first opened in August 1979 at a rustic riverside resort with four slides and a make-believe castle tower along the banks of the spring-fed Comal. Today, it is quadruple the size with pools, rides, slides, and chutes of all sizes, and serves as the mothership for parks in Corpus Christi, Galveston, South Padre Island, and Kansas City.

Amusement Today has named Schlitterbahn the best water park in the world, and recognized it for numerous innovative “firsts” in the industry. Though known best for its tube rides that connect each ride and attraction by water, Schlitterbahn introduced the first shallow wave pool, the first bodyboarding ride, soft-sided elements in children’s play areas, and the uphill water coaster called the Dragon Blaster.

But its four decades of growth and innovation hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the family that started the New Braunfels park and, until now, still co-owned or operated the park’s other locations as well. Besides the accolades, the company founded by Bob Henry, and now led by his children, Jeff, Gary, and Jana, has in recent years faced a wave of financial and legal trouble.

Jeff is the reported mastermind behind many of the park’s rides and thus the primary focus of criminal investigations, subsequent indictments, and much media attention following a 2016 accident that took the life of a 10-year-old boy at the Kansas City park. Though criminal charges against him have been dismissed, Jeff is now under investigation for sex and drug crimes.

In 2017, the owners of the Corpus Christi park, Jeff, Gary, and a North Padre Island landowner, filed for bankruptcy protection, and the park was put up for auction. With no buyer found, the lender took possession of the resort. Schlitterbahn still manages operations at the water park while the new owner, IBC Bank’s Diamond Beach Holdings, has put $8.5 million into rebranding and upgrading the resort’s hotel, which is now called the Waves Resort. A spokeswoman for Diamond Beach said the resort will not be affected by the sale of the other parks.

Prior to the acquisition by Cedar Fair, Gary Henry was CEO and the Henry family managed all the parks. Through a partnership, they also ran a park in South Padre, which opened in 2001, and another in Galveston, which opened in 2006. A fifth park opened in Corpus Christi in 2014.

When the Rivard Report spoke with Terri Adams, Schlitterbahn’s chief operating officer, in April, she would not confirm rumors that the park would be sold.

In New Braunfels, Schlitterbahn employs 1,300 people, 250 of them full time, making it the largest employer after the school district. Unlike other amusement parks, at water parks, every bend of the river or ride must be staffed by a lifeguard.

“Add to that the cost of maintaining water quality of a world of fun made mostly of water – multiple layers of filtration, treatment, pumps – and it requires a good deal of maintenance,” said spokeswoman Winter Prosapio. Also, unlike other area amusement parks, parking is free and guests can bring their own food and beverages. “It’s just a different model.”

The financial struggles seemingly behind them, the gruesome death at the Kansas park still haunts the park and its staff. “The tragic accident in Kansas was the worst day ever,” Adams said. “And the tsunami of negative media from that accident is ongoing.”

Last year, attendance at the Texas parks remained flat, Adams said, but current season pass sales and room bookings are up again. “There have been a lot of water parks added in Texas,” Adams said. “Schlitterbahn is the real water park. We continue to be the leader.”

With the Schlitterbahn parks soon to be in its portfolio, Cedar Fair will consist of 15 parks, resort accommodations totaling more than 2,000 rooms across six parks, more than 600 luxury RV sites across four parks, and two marinas.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...