Irvine warm to possible return of Wild Rivers at the Great Park

IRVINE – Wild Rivers, the water park where many Orange County residents spent their childhood summers, is setting the stage for a comeback.

Backers of the Irvine park, which closed after a 25-year run in 2011, turned out Tuesday for a mid-afternoon meeting at City Hall to back a proposal from Wild Rivers President Mike Riedel to reopen at the Orange County Great Park.

It’s been nearly a decade since Riedel first approached the city about moving the attraction to the Great Park, but financing issues and a separate deal with the county gone awry have stymied plans to reopen.

At the meeting, Irvine officials unanimously directed city staff to pinpoint land in the Great Park that could accommodate a water park.

Councilwoman Christina Shea, who put Riedel’s presentation on the agenda, said staff should consider several park sizes as they research where such an attraction could go.

The move came after council members, as the Great Park board of directors, heard more than a dozen people speak in favor of reopening Wild Rivers in the Great Park.

“We are ready to do business,” Riedel said Tuesday, noting that his proposal would bring the city more revenue than the agreement Irvine recently signed with a nonprofit organization backed by the Anaheim Ducks hockey team to build a public ice complex at the park.

“We have a proven track record and our financing is ready to go,” he said.

Wild Rivers would bring Irvine $500,000 annually through rent and employ hundreds of local youths, he said.

Building a 27-acre water park at the Great Park would cost about $45 million, he said before the meeting.

“This is the kind of draw that brings people to your community,” Irvine resident Burke Mucho told council members. “Please, bring it back.”

Loretta Herrin, a member of the Lake Forest Parks and Recreation Commission, said reopening Wild Rivers would improve the quality of life for residents countywide.

Other speakers said the water park’s return would give families an affordable, high-quality entertainment option. Some recalled their experiences at the water park as children, and said they would like the chance to bring their own children there, too.

Riedel said the park would employee more than 1,000 teens each summer, and with “very few peak hour traffic trips” would not clog nearby roadways. The park would have “relatively low water use” for a commercial operation because once filled, it would use recycled water, he said.

Although Irvine officials are in the midst of planning the Great Park’s future Cultural Terrace area, Riedel said the water park could go in other areas, such as land set aside for a 188-acre golf course.

That land is part of the 688 acres being developed for the city by developer FivePoint Communities in exchange for the approval to build roughly twice the number of residential units around the park than initially allowed.

Tuesday’s decision came about a month after an indoor water park opened in Garden Grove. The Great Wolf Lodge Southern California, a $250 million indoor water park and 603-suite hotel, welcomed its first visitors Feb. 19.

It took nearly a decade for Great Wolf Resorts, a Wisconsin-based chain, to open a water park in Garden Grove.

In response to the big turnout in favor of the Irvine water park’s return, Councilwomen Beth Krom and Lynn Schott said public engagement should play a significant role in the broader Great Park development process.

In that vein, Schott requested the city begin an outreach program to residents to find out what they want at the Great Park, especially within the future Cultural Terrace.

“This is a big project and it’s so important for the future success of this city,” she said.

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