WisBusiness.com: It’s Father’s Day year-round at the Kalahari

By Colleen Flaherty

For America’s largest indoor water park in the Wisconsin Dells, every day is Father’s Day.

The Kalahari was built six years ago by the Nelson family – led by Todd Nelson Sr. – as a simple idea and a simple enterprise with 60 employees.

Today, Todd Sr. and his sons own and manage one of the largest grossing water parks in the Dells area – a business that now employs 2000 people.

“Father’s Day is a great reminder for me of the importance of family. I realize how lucky I am to be able to work closely with my own father as
well as my children,” he said.

Even before opening the highly successful water park, Nelson said his sons were being groomed to take over a previous family business.

The Nelson family owned a high-volume pizza place called Pizza Pub in the Dells area. “The kids started working as soon as they were old enough to bus tables,” Nelson said.

They’ve been involved in the family business ever since.

“I started [in the hotel business] when I was a senior in high school,” said Todd Jr., who began working at the Kalahari the day it opened and is now the manager of the new Kalahari resort and water park in Sandusky at age 24.

Travis Nelson, 21, is the manager of reservations at the location in the Dells.

Todd Sr. has more than just his sons working in his ever-growing resort. His mother is the group sales manager for the Wisconsin Dells; his dad drives the carriage offered to guests; his sister runs the Sweet Hut (a bakery in the resort) at both locations; and his other sister and brother-in-law run the Pottery Pizzazz at both properties.

Nelson says the idea for the new resort came when the family went to Africa and “fell in love with it.” The resort is named for the second-largest desert in Africa.

Every year people from the resort are sent to Africa to collect authentic objects to decorate and keep its genuine safari feel. Each of the sons have already traveled to the continent twice.

Nelson started in the water park business in 1997 when he built the RainTree resort, which included an indoor water park with a jungle theme. “(Indoor water parks) were something that no one else was doing,” he said.

Just over a year later, he sold the resort for $12 million in order to finance the Kalahari.

The important thing, says Nelson, is always staying on the cutting edge. “This is a unique business in that it reinvents itself every 18 months.”

When the RainTree opened, the resort was 19,000 square feet and the largest in America. The Kalahari now takes that title with 125,000 square feet under one roof.

The Kalahari is also leading the industry in new rides and attractions, he said.

Nelson said the hotel is open to using prototypes. He often allows waterslide manufacturers to try out their new ideas.

As an example, the Kalahari is home to the Master Blaster, one of the only indoor up-hill water roller coaster attractions. It stands 570 feet high and blasts 5,600 gallons of water per minute, propelling guests through a rip-roaring 35-second ride.

The growing indoor water park industry started by the Nelsons has also helped propel tourism at the Dells. In 2005, Dells tourism officials reported that tourists spent $870 million annually, more than triple tourism revenues in the area a decade ago.

The idea of keeping business in the family always appealed to Nelson and has always been one of his motivations. At the age of 14, he became the youngest auctioneer in the United States in order to follow in his father’s footsteps.