As Oakland's two water parks gear up to finally open, expect some changes

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

The last time Waterford Oaks Waterpark was open, there was a different president in office and gas wasn't $5 a gallon. Not even close.

But things have changed as they have at Michigan's oldest wave pool, which will finally reopen to the public Sunday for the first time since 2019 after a two-year closure because of COVID-19 and then a nationwide lifeguard shortage.

Now, with higher wages in place for lifeguards and bonuses to keep them until Labor Day, Oakland County parks officials say they're ready for the waves to roll again at Waterford Oaks, though it'll only be open three days a week.

"It's been a long, long process, a very difficult process to get enough (lifeguards) to that level where we felt comfortable to open a water park," said Mike Boyd, park supervisor of Waterford Oaks, which besides the water park includes a BMX area, picnic shelters, trails and more. 

Waterford Oaks hasn't been open since 2019. It finally reopens Sunday.

Sunday's opening comes after a national lifeguard shortage last year foiled any plans to open Waterford Oaks, located on Scott Lake Road, though Oakland County's other water park, Red Oaks, did open but with fewer attractions.

This summer's lifeguards will work between both Waterford Oaks Waterpark — which will be open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays — and Red Oaks Waterpark — which will be open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. A shuttle will take staff between the two parks.

Boyd said they used to rely on word of mouth to hire lifeguards but once the two parks stayed closed in 2020 because of the pandemic they didn't have that anymore. They've spent months recruiting staff — hiring more than 40 lifeguards — and county officials boosted starting wages to $15.35 an hour to start for lifeguards. They also added a $300 bonus for new lifeguards and $500 for those who work the entire season. 

"Right now a new lifeguard is going to get $800 and all lifeguards will get at least $500," said Boyd. "... And all the water park workers, the ticket takers and team leaders, everybody that works there Memorial Day to Labor Day will get another $1 an hour to start. So that's nice. The staff, as I'm onboarding people, seem happy."

The children's play area has been drained of water inside the closed Waterford Oaks Waterpark, in Waterford, June 30, 2021.  The Oakland County Parks system had to close some pools and attractions due to a shortage of lifeguards.

Boyd said they're training the last of the lifeguards they've hired now and their goal is to possibly expand operating hours at the parks, but it'll depend on lifeguards' availability. He said fewer people want to work full-time these days.

"The staff tend to want to work less. They don't have the drive and need to work as much anymore," said Boyd. "So where you used to have a couple dozen people who wanted to work 35-40 hours any day of the week, it's now when you ask, 'Well, I'm thinking about 20 hours but I can't work Sunday, Wednesday, Friday.'...That's a challenge now, working with their availability."

Waterford Oaks first opened in 1976, one of the first wave-action pools in the country. In 1996, the water park's capacity doubled with the opening of several new attractions, including the Group Raft Ride, Big Bucket and children’s water playground.

"It's holding its own. It's the last of an original kind," said Boyd.

All of the park's attractions will be open this summer, said Boyd, but its concession stands will remain closed.

"People can bring in their own food and always have. If we can get enough staff and focus on concessions, then we will reopen it, but that would be late summer," said Boyd.

But big changes could be ahead for Waterford Oaks, Boyd said. The park, including the water park, could go through a major overhaul down the road and the aging wave pool could potentially be replaced with something else, though nothing has officially been decided. Boyd said improvements have been put off for years because of other priorities and budget issues but that could change in the next few years.

Patrons, meanwhile, are eager to finally hit the waves at Waterford Oaks. Boyd said the wave pool has been around so long that residents who went to the park as kids are now bringing their grandkids.

"There's a lot of hype that it's going to reopen," he said. "And the wave pool is the same. So yes, it's older, but it's exciting. They're excited to share it with the next generation and just get back themselves to enjoy it."