Monday, October 11, 2021

America’s first waterpark turns 50: Here’s what it looks like now

Written by Hannah Montkart, CNN

The Entertainment Capital of the World is on the market.

The site of America’s first waterpark, Legacy Tourist Park in Gurnee, Illinois, has become available for $11 million — though potential buyers should be cautioned that the park may sell in parts, with portions carrying an even lower price tag.

Legacy Park President Bob Rathbun has his hopes set on a buyer interested in the amusement park’s popular outdoor grotto, the only one of its kind in the Midwest, and who can also expand its boardwalk and picnic areas.

These will provide additional seating for up to 30,000 people and meet future growth needs, according to John Scarfone, vice president of investor relations for The Americas at Walsh Companies , the real estate development and asset management company that is handling the sale.

Legacy Waterpark

Legacy Waterpark opened on November 14, 1958, having been built by the then owners of the U.S. Army’s legendary Rock Island Arsenal, the Gurnee Manufacturing Company, as a tourist attraction, and then expanded for another 20 years. At the time of its closing in the late 1980s, the company owned close to 300 acres surrounding the waterpark, and boasted that its industrial and historic parkland created the “complete picture of a classic American family campground.”

Two additions to the land that were not part of the original park — a swimming pool and cafeteria/restaurant — were constructed and remain there today.

Now, a small but growing population in the nearby city of Gurnee is likely to bring new life to the once-iconic site, which was recently designated a National Historic Landmark. Many people would have likely enjoyed waterparks as children, and Legacy Park has maintained a dedicated following over the years, though many families are no longer able to visit.

Rathbun told CNN that since the closing, the waterpark has seen a steady decrease in the number of people visiting, but he is optimistic that there is still a market for a truly unique waterpark experience.

‘The greatest generation … is passing away.’

Legend has it that the idea for the first waterpark was hatched during a visit by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, when he was struggling to maintain his New Deal policies. Following his break with the four-day workweek, he decided that leisure-loving members of the middle class would be the perfect demographic for the park.

The fact that his wife, Eleanor, “said, ‘What’s this? Another amusement park?’ said a lot of people,” Rathbun told CNN. “But Mr. Roosevelt liked the idea.”

“They went in with no money and the deadline was December 21, the last day of the war. They were going to build it without any equipment. I’m sure they did quite well for themselves. Everyone was coming back from World War II — the greatest generation — was passing away, they just wanted something that was different and the president said they were going to have it.”

Legacy Waterpark With Remaining Land

Photos of the past

Rathbun expressed great disappointment in the time and effort the park took to be built, admitting it was likely due to a bad business plan that the company didn’t thoroughly explore before going forward.

“The great thing about the park was that he was such a good businessman,” he said of Roosevelt. “The natural thing was to see how he could increase the number of people, but then he drew up something that was way too great, way too complicated, and they didn’t do it until they had a deadline to build it.”

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