Image courtesy of Phil Dixon Jr.
With a 35 percent increase in surf participants in the United States in the last decade, it might feel like everybody’s surfing.
Contrary to popular opinion, surfers don’t just live on the coasts — they live in landlocked states as well. A major contributing factor to surfing’s recent ascendence is its new Olympic status. The sport will be included in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games as well as the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games, which typically results in a surge of money and exposure that will fuel participation and spectatorship well into the future.
For those of us without access to killer waves along the coast — the rise of human-made surf parks is bringing the sport inland and making it more accessible to the masses. At its heart, surfing is more than just riding waves — it’s a culture that brings people into the outdoor and coastal lifestyle, and similar to rock gyms, human-made surf parks have the potential to spread that “pura vida” feeling and become a tourist destination.
With multiple surf pool technologies available, there are many operators and investors, as well as residential and commercial developers, who are looking at the potential of this quickly evolving market. While first-generation wave pools were novel, they didn’t provide surf-worthy rides. However, today’s advanced wave-generation technology provides consistent, quality waves. It has been a game changer for the sport — and for a growing number of communities that are getting in on the action, including Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It’s there where American Surf Parks, a leading developer and operator of surf parks, is partnering with the city of Myrtle Beach to build its first surf and adventure park in the U.S.
“It started as a passion project. Just trying to solve our own problems. We love to surf, but being a surfer in Myrtle Beach is like living in Purgatory,” said Phil Dixon Jr., CEO of American Surf Parks. “We have the ocean right there, but the way we sit on the coast, it’s very infrequent that we get good waves. So even though we live a few seconds from the beach, we’re still driving an hour and a half north or south in the hopes of catching waves.”
Image courtesy of Phil Dixon Jr.
When completed, Surfworks Myrtle Beach will encompass about 23 acres between Broadway at the Beach and the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. The park’s centerpiece, Wavegarden Cove Surf Lagoon, is designed to accommodate up to 84 surfers at a time. The surfable wave pool will be over five acres in size and hold seven million gallons of water. A pier will cut through the middle of the wave pool, and underneath it will be the module system that generates up to 900 waves per hour with each wave lasting up to 20 seconds. There will be four areas within the cove, each offering waves of different sizes and power, making it ideal for beginners and high-performance surfing and coaching alike. The hope is that new athletes and competitors will emerge.
Surfworks Myrtle Beach will also feature a walkable viewing pier, Adventure Lagoon (which includes a pool), Slip n’ Fly Slide, a free solo climbing wall and diving platform, bungalow rentals, plus a volleyball court, a kids’ playground, a surf training facility, a skatepark, the Sunset Cantina, and an amphitheater that will seat up to 10,000 people. The total cost of the project is $54 million and is expected to drive over $1 million in tax revenue per year.
“You can do big things here in Myrtle Beach. This is one of those things. Grand Park was big. The Sports Center was big, especially when we built it. There aren’t many surf parks. This is another big thing. . . We’re very bullish on it,” said Myrtle Beach City Manager Jonathon “Fox” Simons Jr. about the project.
Simons’ excitement for the project is palpable, which is understandable when you consider the success of another wave park located nearly 1,200 miles away in the heart of Texas.
Waco, Texas is about as landlocked as it gets. However, it’s home to appropriately named Waco Surf, a resort featuring the Waco Surf Hotel, a cable park, a lazy river, and the surfing lake which is about two acres in size. The park has similar provisions for various skill levels to the planned Myrtle Beach project and has gained praise and notoriety from fans and industry insiders because of its combination of realistic waves and affordable prices. Waco Surf is open to the public and can be surfed for just over $100 an hour. However, the venue is often booked by private parties.
The resort complex is having a notable impact on Waco’s burgeoning tourism industry. A heat map report from Placer.ai, a location analytics company that tracks a location’s traffic via cellphone data, showed the following regarding Waco Surf: “Approximately 62 percent of the visitors to Waco Surf traveled to the property from a hotel, indicating that the majority of the visitors live further away from the Waco and Austin areas, and that approximately one-third of the overall visitors traveled more than 250 miles to the property.”
The report went on to say that the lack of surf parks is the primary cause for this trend and is an indicator of its potential popularity.
Image courtesy of Phil Dixon Jr.
Dixon and Simons hope that the waves of success in Waco, a city not known as a tourist destination, can be a tsunami in a city known for drawing millions of visitors. “Myrtle Beach is a very established tourist destination, so we get the numbers, which make a project like this viable,” says Dixon. The Myrtle Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau reports that the area receives over 20 million visitors annually.
For Surfworks Myrtle Beach to go from a viable idea to reality, there are several considerations. Dixon noted that some of the challenges that a project of this magnitude faces are “finding the right piece of land, securing funding, determining the engineering, and a water treatment plan.”
Equally important is community buy-in. “The city of Myrtle Beach has been exceptionally supportive, and we couldn’t have done this without them. Collaboration is the biggest thing when working with the city,” said Dixon.
Along with selling the land to Surfworks for the project, the city has worked closely with the company to ensure that the plan for the park positions it to achieve revenue goals and attracts families locally and from other parts of the country. “The site plan would look very different without them, and we love our site plan. It’s turning into something really special,” said Dixon.
With construction and completion of Surfworks Myrtle Beach still two to three years away, the excitement for its arrival is tangible — as much for the park itself as for its potential to capture a rising movement in consumer interests. It’s the latter that’s exciting for Matt Hayden, chief strategy officer of Surfworks, who is hoping the emerging interest in surfing will push the project over the top. “Surfing is highly addictive, and in places where there are waves, soaring numbers of kids and women have taken up the sport, turning it into a family activity. Similar to when ski lifts were introduced, we believe surfing will follow a similar trajectory with the big exception that, at our park, it’s a powder day, every day.”
Dixon adds, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get asked multiple times about the surf park — surfers, non-surfers, everyone’s interested in it. Over the next one to two years, wave parks will start to become more of a known entity. Once we start moving dirt in Myrtle Beach and people see it, it will become much more real.”