Showcase AZ: Big Surf Waterpark

Sandy shores, waves up to five feet tall, and people surfing for hours are things not commonly found in the middle of the desert. Yet that’s exactly what Big Surf Waterpark – which claims to be the oldest operating waterpark in the nation – brought to the Valley when it first opened in 1969. 

“No other waterpark is celebrating 50 years”, said Mary Phillips, Waterpark Ambassador at Big Surf. “When Big Surf hits 100 years, it’s gonna be a big deal.” 

The park employs about 350 people during its peak season. Five decades after it opened, Big Surf remains a popular summer attraction, drawing tourists from as far as New Zealand and Germany, according to park officials.

While Phoenix is home to several other waterparks, including Golfland-Sunsplash and Six Flags Hurricane Harbor, Phillips says Big Surf’s history is a big part of what makes it unique.

Big Surf was created by Phil Dexter, a California construction engineer who, as the story goes, would often pull over during his commute to watch surfers ride waves out in the Pacific Ocean. He became fascinated with the idea of a “surf center” and spent his free time prototyping designs in his backyard for what would eventually become North America’s first commercial wave pool. 

Dexter’s prototype successfully produced 60 thousand rolling waves over the course of one summer, so he patented the design and began enlisting talent to help build Big Surf in Tempe, Arizona. When the park opened in the fall of 1969, it looked drastically different than it does today.

“Big Surf started as just a surf park—you only came here to do surfing,” Phillips said. “There was no playing in the water like you see today, no slides, no attractions like that.” 

Even the wave pool has changed dramatically over the years – it initially bared a stronger resemblance to a real beach, with a sandy shore and flowing waterfalls along the back wall of the pool. 

“We quickly learned that sand in an Arizona desert wasn’t the best way to go,” Phillips said. 

To help prevent burnt feet, the park tweaked the design of the wave pool area and replaced the sandy shore with grassy hills and sidewalks of flowing water. 

Since then, the park has continued to evolve. Numerous attractions have been added, including seventeen water slides and a toddler play area. What was at one point an arcade is now a bar. The park has always hosted live music, but the genres have changed – a venue that once hosted Pink Floyd now houses a multi-day electronic music festival called “Wet Electric.” 

But Big Surf’s wave pool — named “Waikiki Beach” after the popular Hawaiian shoreline — has always been its defining feature. It’s also a place where Dave Manning has surfed for the last fifty years. 

“You walked in, it was like a paradise,” Manning said. “It was a magical thing to have here in the Valley.” 

Manning said he first surfed with his father in Hawaii in 1962. While growing up in Arizona, particularly before Big Surf existed, he often traveled to California to continue surfing. When the surf park opened during his teenage years, Manning said he spent most of his summers riding the waves there.

“I think we surfed a total of maybe 6 hours a day back then,” he said. “You could waste an entire summer doing nothing but that and be completely irresponsible.”

Throughout the past fifty years, Manning has been a frequent visitor to the park, where he has continued to surf whenever possible. Manning also spends time teaching younger generations as a surf instructor. 

Surfing doesn’t happen at Big Surf nowadays as often as it used to; today, the activity is restricted to one-hour time blocks before the park opens and after it closes. There was even a period when the park didn’t have surfing at all, after a different management company took over. Surfing eventually returned to the park in the early 2000’s when park management shifted again. 

“When it came back, it was a huge deal for me,” Manning said. “They weren’t sure if it was still viable to be surfed and asked me and one of my friends if we could test it, which we, of course, were glad to do.” 

Fifty years of visiting Big Surf leaves a lot of room for memories, but Manning said there’s one that stands out the most — surfing with his daughter.

“When my daughter was born in 1990, she only heard the stories of Big Surf,” Manning said. “But surfing was revived around 2003, and she came out and surfed with me. That’s unquestionably my best moment here.”

Manning said he’s grateful that he’s still able to visit the park. 

“I just love being here,” he said. “It’s remarkable that I can still ride the same wave today that I rode 50 years ago.”

Nick Serpa

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