On April 29, Big Surf Waterpark in Tempe, Ariz. will serve as the venue for Wet Electric. It’s an electronic dance music festival with an underwater dance floor and where superstar DJs float on an elaborate stage with pyrotechnics and a dazzling jumbo monitor on one of the largest wave pools in the nation.
For the waterpark industry, such an event provides a way to generate additional revenue through an exclusive, ticketed event catering to those who are prone to spend money on cabanas with bottle service (i.e. childless adults). Outside the industry, it also demonstrates how an underground music scene -- which includes a broad spectrum of subgenres including "house" and "trance" -- has become so mainstream and domesticated that even waterparks will cater to it.
Indeed, such an event would have been inconceivable a decade ago, when organizers of such festivals had a hard time shaking off the perception that they were hedonistic, drug-fueled revelries.
“Most corporate waterparks really wanted to stay away from those kinds of events,” said Steve Thacher, Wet Electric’s creator and producer. “The business is moms and kids.”
But waterparks have warmed up to the idea in recent years. Though park managers might not know the name Diplo -- the big-deal EDM artist headlining this year’s Wet Electric -- they’ve likely heard his music on the very radio stations they advertise on. “Now you turn on KIIS FM at noon and all you hear is EDM,” said Thacher, also president of Premiere Media Group, an ad agency serving waterparks. "That opens up the conversation."
The inaugural Wet Electric kicked off at the now-defunct Wild Rivers Waterpark in Irvine, Calif in 2010. In 2012, the festival enjoyed a run at Island Waterpark in Fresno before moving to Tempe, where it’s been held at Big Surf since 2013. Big Surf, with its epic wave pool, is no stranger to concerts. Pink Floyd, Elton John, the Beach Boys, Sting and Rod Stewart have all played there.
Thacher said his events routinely sell out.
He declined to discuss specific financial details, but outlined several ways in which waterparks make money from the functions and account for safety. One is for the production company to buy out the park for the day. The waterpark supplies the lifeguards and operates the rides, while the event crew handles everything else, including security. There is one security guard per 100 guests at the Big Surf event. It’s an 18-and-over party. IDs are checked at the gate. Alcohol is managed through a wristband system identifying those old enough to imbibe. In some arrangements, there is a joint revenue share in concessions, merchandise, parking and lockers.
All in all, it’s a tame event. Thacher insists there haven't been any major incidents.
“It’s from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” Thacher said. “You can hardly call it a rave.”
Big Surf isn’t the only waterpark to offer Vegas-style pool parties. Schlitterbahn in Corpus Christi, Texas attracted spring breakers to “Bahn Blast” last year. And Hurricane Alley, also in Corpus Christi, hosts Wave Rave.
The combination of recreational water and electronic beats continues a tradition that can be traced back to the genre’s roots. Ibiza and other Balearic islands off the coast of Spain were renowned for their lively nightlife and beach dancing. Vacationing Brits first experienced the music there and brought it back to the U.K., resulting in the first big "rave explosion" of the 1980s, said Robert Fink, a musicology professor at UCLA in an email to AI. (Yes, he actually lectures on the subject.)
“DJs back in London started having ‘Balearic’ nights, which tried to recapture the sun-plus-water-plus-drugs-plus-dancing vibe of Ibiza, and that’s how house started taking over the nightclub scene in Britain.
“So, EDM started near the water,” Fink added. “Why shouldn’t it go back there?”