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Zehnder's Splash Village Hotel and Waterpark offers a whimsical "new wave of adventure."

Frankenmuth's Waterpark Hotel
Adds Splash to USA's Largest Family Eatery

Bay County Economy Benefits From Effect of Bringing Tourists to the Area

June 10, 2006       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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For a $13 million investment, Frankenmuth has upped its attractiveness to families with the new Splash Village Indoor Waterpark and Hotel.

Just as a 400 gallon bucket at the waterpark dumps water every four to five minutes, tourists dump cash in Frankenmuth, said William A. "Bill" Parlberg, president and CEO of Zehnder's, a multi-faceted tourism operation that started in 1927 with family-style chicken dinners.

Starting as a dishwasher 29 years ago, Mr. Parlberg is the personification of the American success story as he now presides of the huge restaurant, retail sales and golf course besides the new waterpark attraction. He is a graduate of Northwood University, with Business Management and Executive Master of Business Administration degrees.

Besides the "Dumping Bucket," the new facility also offers "Giggling Gorge" and "Perilous Plunge" and a chance to relax in the "Whimsical Whirl" hot tub or just float along the "Crooked Brook Creek" lazy river.

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Zehnder's has a 1,500 seat restaurant and 750 employees serving 775,000 chicken dinners and a total of 1 million meals a year and is considered "America's largest family restaurant," he said.

Why would a place like Frankenmuth that attracts about 3 million visitors a year need a new attraction? Mr. Parlberg, noting that tourism "is a moving target," said to stay on top the firm "needs toconstantly reinvent itself."

The "reinvention" through conversion of the former Bavarian Haus Motel into the 152 room Splash Village Hotel and Waterpark has paid off with more than 100,000 visitors a year, Mr. Parlberg told the Tri-County Economics Club recently.

There are positive economic spin-off effects for Bay County, just as are anticipated with the Midland baseball team slated to "play ball" next spring. Any attraction that brings people to this area helps all the tri-county business community, according to officials.

"We need to work together in this region, build on the bright spots and make this a vibrant economy," said Mr. Parlberg, noting: "How you present yourself on the Internet is a key."

"Shirley Roberts, executive director of the Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, says:

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"The Tri-Counties of Bay, Midland and Saginaw share a great many things including tourists. Overnight guests to the region regularly find themselves searching for accommodations in a neighboring community when hotels book up for special events or large conferences. (Tall Ship Celebration: Bay City is a good example of that phenomenon.)

"Many visitors choose Bay City as the ideal 'hub and spoke' destination. They can find reasonably priced overnight rooms in Bay City and, after they've experienced our community, they are within easy reach of Midland and Saginaw county attractions like Frankenmuth."

The Zehnder's chief outlined the 'due diligence' conducted by the firm for two years before the waterpark project was started.

In 2003 the Frankenmuth folks met with indoor waterpark experts in Palm Springs, California. A feasibility study eyed other waterpark operations in the tourism hotbed of Wisconsin Dells,Wisconsin, and elsewhere in the Midwest.

"Citizens Bank and Wolgast Construction worked with usand thought, as we did, that this was one of the most exciting projects we could do," said Mr. Parlberg.

Once the numbers aligned, the project moved fast. Part of the old motel containing 48 of its 137 rooms was demolished, 63 large family rooms accommodating four to eight persons each were added along with the 30,000 square foot waterpark area.

A 135-seat restaurant and conference rooms-meeting facilities for up to 120, and a fireplace surround a giant tree from Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Workers danced around 89 motel rooms that remained open during construction. All rooms have two television sets and Nintendo, he said.

Tube slides were installed outside the building for added visibility and to save space inside the building. Lots of Disney-type youth-oriented touches like giant mushrooms and themed characters spice up the waterpark. A Jacuzzi is available for children.

The job got underway Sept. 18, 2004 and the new facility opened in just eight months, on June 17, 2005, the Zehnder's executive said.

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This is a massive operation: There are 60 lifeguards, with 11 on duty at any one time, said Mr. Parlberg.

Goal of the project was to increase occupancy from 63 percent to 74 percent "to even out the business cycle," he said, along with raising the average daily income from $78 to $120 per guest per evening.

While he warned "this is not a 'build it and they will come' proposition, waterparks have become a widespread phenomenon since 2000 in the U.S. and Canada. Some 23 waterparks were opened in 2005 and 23 are under construction so far in 2006, he said, including facilities in Dundee and the Muskegon area in Michigan.

"We never have a bad day in the waterpark," he exclaimed, issuing a call for tri-county cooperation.

"We need to work together in this region, build on the bright spots and make this a vibrant economy," said Mr. Parlberg.###

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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