Strangers are always telling Tony Hacker their childhood memories. It comes with the job when you’re general manager at Big Surf — 12 1 /2 acres in north Tempe billed as the nation’s original water park, whose 1969 grand opening coincided with the Nixon presidency, Neil Armstrong’s moon walk and the frolicsome youth of more than a few Valley parents.
"It’s just a common theme that I hear: ‘I remember when I came here for my graduation’ or this and that," says Hacker.
Sure, the 36-year-old park has changed and grown over the years — such as the array of water slides that offer incrementally higher levels of thrills. But the mainstay has been — and will always be, says Hacker — the 2 1 /2 million-gallon wave pool that does a pretty good job imitating San Diego surf.
"When you miss the ocean, this is what you do to pacify yourself," says Ray Fite, a 55-year-old Scottsdale businessman and a former resident of Hawaii and California. "It’s essentially the same."
Fite, who sells surfboards over the Internet, attributes the water park’s longevity to the Valley’s collective and enduring longing for a beach.
About 20 years ago, Zach Nichols and his teenage surfing buddies used to finagle ways how to get to Big Surf from their Tucson home. The idea was to hone surfing skills before heading off for summers in California.
"We did it every year from the time we were 10 until 17 or 18," says Nichols.
Now, the Gilbert loan officer cringes while watching his 4-year-old son, Cole, charge into the Big Surf waves that typically crest at 3 1/2 feet — a height Hacker describes as a "happy medium" for his surfing clientele.
"I’m glad it’s still around, that’s for sure," says Nichols.
The wave pool is one of the three largest in the nation, the others being in Colorado and Florida, according to Hacker.
Big Surf started out as the brainchild of the cosmetics firm Clairol. "They came up with the idea that they wanted to diversify a little bit," says Hacker. "So, they, with the help of a few engineers from Tempe and ASU specifically, built Big Surf."
Work on the water park started in 1966 and finished three years later, he says. Clairol owned Big Surf for only a few years. The current owner, Golfland Entertainment Centers, purchased the park in 1991.
Hacker says 500 to 1,500 visitors turn out on weekdays at Big Surf and 1,000 to 2,500 on weekends — despite the opening of other water parks in the Valley, such as Golfland’s Sun-Splash in Mesa or Waterworld Safari in Phoenix.
"We live in a state where it’s not uncommon to see temperatures of 110," says Hacker, "and what better thing to do than go spend the day in the water trying to keep cool while having fun?"