One of the pioneers who helped transform Wisconsin Dells into a year-round destination and one of the country’s most recognized vacation spots has died.
Andrew “Turk” Waterman, who co-founded Noah’s Ark Water Park and built Great Wolf Lodge along with several other successful businesses, died Thursday in a hospital near his home in Florida. He was 77.
Waterman had been diagnosed with liver cancer nearly 20 years ago but continued to be a driving force in the “Waterpark Capital of the World,” where tourism is now more than a $1 billion industry.
“He’s about as driven of a man as you’ll ever find,” said his son, Andrew, 44. “He was a great leader and a great dad, and a great businessman. He created a lot of opportunities.”
Turk Waterman’s accomplishments include some of the most well-known businesses in the Wisconsin Dells.
In addition to the sprawling Noah’s Ark and Great Wolf, which now has 16 resorts across North America, they include Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Co. and the Tanger Outlet Mall (now Outlets at the Dells). He turned an old dog track into Buffalo Phil’s Restaurant and founded Knuckleheads Bowling and Indoor Amusement Park. Other Dells-area projects included three Houlihan’s restaurants, The Copa Cabana Resort and Timber Falls Adventure Park, as well as The Cove of Lake Geneva in another Wisconsin resort destination.
In 2013, Waterman, who helped create the World Waterpark Association, received a lifetime achievement award from the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau, where for 11 years he also served as director of the bureau’s marketing committee.
“It’s been a family business,” Waterman said through tears after receiving the award in front of 500 people at the awards banquet. “I’m just lucky to be a part of it.”
Tom Diehl, owner of the Tommy Bartlett Show and a good friend of Waterman’s, called Waterman “a tremendous visionary thinker” whose projects helped elevate the region. Just before Waterman and his brother Jack Waterman opened Noah’s Ark in 1979, Wisconsin Dells was losing thousands of customers from southern Wisconsin to Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. The waterpark, which would grow over the years to the largest in the country, helped return more day-trippers to the Dells.
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“Once Noah’s Ark opened, it took on a life of its own,” Diehl said.
“The area has lost an iconic leader,” he said. “Turk was an absolute one of a kind.”
The Waterman family has been part of the hospitality industry since 1895 when it purchased the Rose Hotel in downtown Wisconsin Dells and renamed it the Waterman Hotel.
The first business for Turk and his wife Judy was a bar in the Dells called Turk’s Leper Colony. They owned the business for four and half years and in the meantime, Turk and his brother Jack started working together and founded Midwest Amusements, a shooting gallery and video arcade.
In 1978 Turk and Judy and Jack and his wife, Mary, purchased a sliver of land along Wisconsin Dells Parkway for the construction of a five-acre amusement park. Noah’s Ark now covers 70 acres and is known worldwide for its wave pools, water slides and other water features.
In 1994, the Watermans sold the business to the Gantz family; it was sold again in 2012 to Palace Entertainment in Newport Beach, California, one of the largest amusement and waterpark operators in the country.
In 1997, the Watermans returned to the waterpark industry just as indoor waterparks were beginning to take hold. They opened the 117-suite Black Wolf Lodge near the intersection of Highway 12 and Interstate 90-94. Two years later they doubled the size of its waterpark to 40,000 square feet and expanded to 309 suites. It now has 437 suites and 76,000 square feet of waterpark attractions. The Watermans sold the company in 1999 and it was renamed Great Wolf Lodge.
In 2007, Turk helped his children open the 80,000-square-foot Knuckleheads Bowling & Family Entertainment Center in what had been the grandstand building of the former Wisconsin Dells Greyhound Park, which the Watermans purchased in 1998.
Turk spent scores of hours shaping and finishing spindles used in railings throughout the restaurant and bowling center. All of the wood was harvested from his late grandfather’s 120 acres in the town of Dell Prairie, about two miles away.
“Gramps left us a legacy,” Turk Waterman said. “You can see his inheritance all over this place.”
Turk is survived by his wife Judy, their four children and 10 grandchildren. Andy Waterman said a memorial service would likely be held later this summer or in the fall.