The nation’s largest, most elaborate waterpark recently earned a new distinction — but don’t expect to see it on its billboards.
State officials report that Kalahari Resort in Sandusky is cited more frequently for safety violations than any other Ohio water park.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture’s amusement ride safety division has taken disciplinary action against the resort five times since it opened in 2005.
Only one of Ohio’s more than10 waterparks — The Beach near Kings Island — received a single citation since January of 2005, an ODA spokeswoman said.
Reports from the department show officials assessed $64,500 in fines to Kalahari, but the company paid a total of only $5,500 through settlements.
Four of the five case files involving the resort are now closed, but the most recent one, filed in May, is still pending.
Kalahari President Todd Nelson said safety continues to be the park’s chief concern.
He attributed the number of complaints to the size of the resort and the volume of guests it receives compared to other waterparks.
“We have one million guests who visit Kalahari Resort each year,” Nelson wrote in an e-mailresponse. “And, those guests take more than 15 million rides on our attractions. Kalahari Resorts are known for our exciting water rides and resort entertainment, but we want travelers to know that we are extremely committed to their safety.”
With 173,000 square feet of entertainment, Kalahari dwarfs most other parks.
But with great size comes sizable responsibility.
Nelson said the waterpark management team and in-house emergency personnel work diligently to uphold national and state standards.
The park undergoes regular inspections by the American Society of Testing and Materials in addition to required state inspections, and its lifeguard staff is held to some of the industry’s high standards.
Lifeguards must pass skills tests and participate in continuing education in addition to becoming state-certified, Nelson said.
Many are also trained through the Waterpark Action & Visionary Education (W.A.V.E.) program.
Though Nelson said the number and placement of lifeguards on duty at Kalahari exceeds state requirements, many of the state’s complaints allege negligence. The most recent complaint cites a total of 11 violations in eight separate areas in the park. At least five lawsuits were filed against Kalahari by people who say they were injured there, including a Newark woman who said she broke her back on a slide, according to a Columbus Dispatch report.
In a letter addressed to Nelson on May 7, 2008, Amusement Ride Safety Division Chief James Truex said inspectors found the resort had 14 fewer guards than its plan specified. At least two guards on duty had invalid certification.
The department also found that “many water rides were operated in a careless and unsafe manner.”
Truex proposed the resort pay a total fine of $55,000.
“As you are aware, the Kalahari in Sandusky has been fined for similar violations each of the past three years,” he wrote. “This was taken into consideration when determining the amount of fine per violation.”
Previous violations include a failure to enforce height requirements, an accident involving a female rider on the Zip Coaster water slide, signs that weren’t legible and guards allowing too many riders on family rafts.
In response to the letter, Kalahari officials requested a hearing with a legal counselor. ODA spokeswoman Cindy Brown said if Kalahari continues to violate regulations, the state agency can impose steeper fines. They may also conduct more frequent inspections to ensure Kalahari’s staff is following the rules.
“Our role is to bring these companies into compliance and not put them out of business,” Brown said.
Only one complaint was lodged against Kalahari’s Wisconsin Dells resort in the past year, but officials did not find evidence of any misconduct, said Stephanie Ward, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Aleatha Ezra, spokeswoman for the World Waterpark Association, said waterparks in general are among the safest places for families to have fun in the water.
“Waterparks serve about 80 million people a year,” Ezra said. “While there are tragedies, they really are statistically small compared to community pools or other water recreational activities.”
Managers of area waterparks said extensive lifeguard training, equipment maintenance and well-planned attractions help keep their parks safer.
Rain indoor waterpark manager Mike Sortino said in addition to staffing more lifeguards than the small park requires, he provides them with certification and continued training through the American Red Cross.
“We have one tower and two splash points, so we have four guards when we’re in full operation,” Sortino said, adding that the park averages about 300 guests each day.
He also uses ultraviolet lighting to sterilize the water, minimizing the need for chemicals.
Nick Klein, area manager for Cedar Point’s Soak City, said he uses a private firm to train guards for both the 18-acre outdoor waterpark and Cedar Point’s indoor resort, Castaway Bay. The firm, Ellis & Associates, has more stringent requirements than standard certifications, he said. It also performs regular audits of its guards and provides continual training.
Both parks also implemented a new policy last year requiring all guests shorter than 46 inches to wear life jackets and be accompanied by an adult in the wave pools.
Maui Sands Resort spokeswoman Lexi Robinson said the area’s newest indoor waterpark certifies its guards with the National Aquatic Safety Company and requires in-service training. In addition to routine state inspections, the resort’s pool operators are certified by the National Swimming Pool Foundation and perform daily and monthly safety inspections on each of the park’s attractions. Two area waterparks, Great Wolf Lodge and Monsoon Lagoon, did not respond prior to the newspaper’s deadline.