On October 24, 1969, Tempe’s Big Surf water park put Arizona on the shredding map when it opened and debuted Waikiki Beach Wave Pool, the nation’s first man-made wave pool – 3.8 million gallons of water and a brisk tide for desert-dwelling Gidgets and Moondoggies to pop up and catch a wave. “It opened to a lot of fanfare,” says Big Surf’s public relations honcho and “de facto historian” Jeff Golner, who notes surf legend Fred Hemmings visited from Hawaii to attend the opening.
It started with a man obsessed. Four years before the opening, engineer and construction manager Phil Dexter was working for Del Webb in California and squeezing in as much beach time as he could. “He was just fascinated by waves,” Golner says. “When he saw people riding the waves, he was blown away. He basically said, ‘Why can’t that be done inland?’”
Dexter relocated to Phoenix and started mocking up models of a mechanical wave machine. He knew he could replicate his models on a larger scale, but lacked the $800,000 he estimated it would take. Dexter persuaded haircare company Clairol to back him. “They make waves in hair, why can’t they make [real] waves?” Golner says. Clairol flew in a Norwegian physicist to analyze Dexter’s largest model, which he constructed in an abandoned pool hall around 14th and Van Buren streets. He got the green light and construction began on a 40-acre plot of land in Tempe.
Clairol backed out in 1971 and sold the park to the El Paso, Texas, family that owns it today. Dexter was summarily fired and never returned. “It was kind of sad,” Golner says. Dexter died last October, but not before the Big Surf staff self-published a book for him about the park. Golner says Dexter was amazed at the changes over time – the coming and going of bumper boats, the removal of sand from the wave pool’s “beach” and reduction of water (it now holds 2.5 million gallons), and the addition of slides and rides, including the Mauna Kea Zip Line. The park hosted Dexter’s family this spring and the staff and surfer regulars did a surfers’ circle/paddle-out memorial ceremony in the wave pool to honor its late founder.
“I think there’s a nostalgia to this place. There are two and three generations coming here now,” Golner says. “I kind of consider it the Fenway Park [of water parks]. It’s got a lot of layers of paint on it, it has a little bit of wear to it, but it’s kind of cool and nostalgic. There’s a reason why it hasn’t been knocked down.”
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