Soaring attendance at BREC’s Liberty Lagoon prompts officials to plan new attractions for popular water park _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Park guests watch as Venessa "The Louisiana Mermaid" Lewis interacts with young children and other park guests at Liberty Lagoon in Baton Rouge, Monday, June 22, 2015. Vanessa will return to the park on July 13th for her last visit of the summer.

More waves, slides and shade are coming to BREC’s taxpayer-built Liberty Lagoon Water Park after it wrapped up this season with high attendance numbers.

Liberty Lagoon saw 79,411 visitors this summer — its second highest attendance in its five-year history — despite frequent storms forcing the park to close early or not open at all 31 times. BREC officials have taken it as a cue that the public wants more, and they are preparing to spend more than $1 million to expand the $7.2 million park.

The most unusual addition will be a FlowRider, dubbed “the ultimate surf machine,” that shoots out water and simulates waves where people can surf. Liberty Lagoon officials expect it to be a hit among teenagers and said the park will offer surfing lessons as well.

The FlowRider will replace an underutilized sand volleyball court at the water park. People will have to pay a separate entrance fee to have access to the FlowRider once they have entered the park, though BREC officials are still determining how much it will cost.

“It’s going to be a park within a park,” said Dale Auzenne, assistant superintendent at BREC.

Once the park closes for the day, groups will be able to rent the FlowRider for birthday parties, work gatherings and other events. The attraction is still being engineered for Liberty Lagoon, but BREC leaders said it should cost about $800,000.

Liberty Lagoon also will add two thrill slides. One of the water slides will simulate free fall, and the other will loop around before shooting out the rider into the water.

Together, the slides should cost about $250,000. The money for the FlowRider and slides is in Liberty Lagoon’s budget, according to BREC spokeswoman Cheryl Michelet.

The FlowRider and the new slides are still in their design and engineering phases, and BREC expects construction to finish sometime late next summer after the 2016 Liberty Lagoon season ends. However, BREC plans to hold a grand opening once construction finishes even though the park will have closed for the season.

Liberty Lagoon will expand in other ways as well. The park is getting a second entrance, a second concession stand and more pavilions. The expansion should increase the park’s capacity from about 600 people to 800 or 900.

Brett Weinberger, assistant director of athletics, aquatics and outdoor adventure, said lines to enter the park often snake around the block as people wait in the brutal heat. The second entrance, second concessions stand and new rides should alleviate lines for those waiting outside and inside the park.

Liberty Lagoon brings in about $750,000 in revenue each year, which makes it the biggest revenue generator among BREC’s aquatic facilities. Weinberger said expenses also are about $750,000 but BREC still covers some overhead costs for the water park.

Michelet said Liberty Lagoon is moving toward being self-sustaining and using its revenue to cover other aquatics costs within BREC, such as swimming lessons.

Admission prices for Liberty Lagoon went up by $1 this summer. Weinberger said final figures for this year’s revenue are not available yet.

Weinberger and Auzenne said Liberty Lagoon likely would have had record-breaking attendance this year if it were not for the bad weather. But they said it is not worth taking a chance and keeping the park open during a storm.

Liberty Lagoon was struck by lightning one day this July after the park was closed for inclement weather. The lightning strikes did not cause major damage, and Liberty Lagoon opened back up the next morning.

“That’s probably the toughest challenge that you have when you have to deal with Mother Nature,” Auzenne said.

Liberty Lagoon’s attendance numbers clearly show when Mother Nature was kind to the park and when it was not. Attendance reached its lowest level in 2012, with 62,368 visitors that year because Baton Rouge was inundated with summer storms.

Attendance reached its highest number in 2013, with 83,134 visitors better able to enjoy the park when the sun was shining.

BREC tracks ZIP codes of visitors, and they said more and more people come from other parts of the state and region. They expect the FlowRider to carry on that trend, as it will be the only one in the state.