Drop Into the Perfect Wave, No Ocean Necessary
The recent rise of high-tech surf parks has made the benefits of catching a wave more accessible than ever.
From the air, Palm Springs has always appeared like a surreal mirage—an endless expanse of mountainous beige, specked with skinny green foliage, scattered with cool blue rectangles. Those rectangles are lifelines. Temperatures in the summer can climb as high as 120 degrees; having a swimming pool is practically a requisite.
Now, as you descend, one particular pop of turquoise may steal your attention from the others. Squint and you may even witness magic—its glassy lifeless mass rising into full, undulating waves. This is Palm Springs Surf Club, a new state-of-the-art wave pool that’s bringing surfers to where they never thought to hang ten before: the middle of the desert.
Locals may know it as the old Wet ‘n’ Wild family-friendly aquapark, repurposed for the serious wave-catching set. When I was there in mid-December, the hype machine was already in overdrive. Though not officially open, pro surfers like Blair Conklin and Jamie O’Brien have already sung its praises. On a cloudless 80-degree day, I watched a private session booked by a surfing group from Laguna Beach, who’d driven two hours inland for the promise of bliss. Out in the ocean, you never know what’s coming. Here, every wave is a sure thing.
Across 21 acres, Palm Springs Surf Club will feature two winding waterslides—left over from the Wet ‘n’ Wild—a wading pool, splash pad, lazy river, two restaurants, three bars, and an amphitheater. And it will soon have some company. It is one of a handful of next-generation surf parks opening over the next few years, poised to bring a whole new community of landlocked surfers into the fold. Three will be in the Coachella Valley alone.
Up in a poolside operations tower is one of the designers, professional surfer Cheyne Magnusson, who tinkers with settings to create infinite variations of swells two to seven feet high via a pneumatic technology churned out from three massive engine rooms. Eventually waves for each session will be programmed ahead of time, according to the skill set of those who book hour-long sessions for $100 (beginner), $150 (intermediate), and $200 (advanced). “It literally looks like a Spotify playlist,” says marketing manager Gabriela Rezende. Pair it with a music soundtrack, video backdrop, and zealous surfers, and it’s the splashiest pool party in Southern California.
It was 2015 when the first perfect artificial waves stunned the surfing community, thanks to pro surfer Kelly Slater’s Lemoore, California–based Surf Ranch. Certified and now owned by the World Surf League, the facility’s waves crested as high as six feet in the air and offered rides up to a minute long. But a steep price tag of $5,000 to $7,000 per day meant the ranch primarily attracted professionals looking to up their off-season game. Just knowing the technology existed, however, allowed enthusiasts of all levels to daydream. Maybe one day, there could be a wave pool in every city, they thought.
We’re not quite there, but thanks to the proven financial viability of those early wave pools, we are at an inflection point. There are currently 17 surf parks open globally—from Melbourne, Australia, to Tenerife, Spain, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And according to Jess Ponting of San Diego State University's Center for Surf Research, there are an additional 120 to 150 more projects in the pipeline.
Some assuredly will, ahem, make a splash. A new Kelly Slater Wave Pool is set to debut in Abu Dhabi in 2024. Arizona’s upcoming Revel Surf Park is planned for Cannon Beach, a 37-acre mixed-use development featuring a four-story hotel, office buildings, and a co-working space. One of the latest technologies, the highly anticipated Endless Surf by Whitewater, will be the centerpiece of blockbuster properties in Munich as well as in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s new 145-acre Qiddiya giga-project. Featuring heart-shaped pools with 360-degree access and six surf zones, from boogie board level to advanced, Endless Surf, like the SurfLoch technology used at Palm Springs Surf Club, relies on a customizable pneumatic system to create waves as the crowd demands.
When Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch debuted, there were a little more than 2 million surfers in the world. Today, some 25 to 35 million people claim to surf regularly; in the US, participation in the sport has risen 94% over the past seven years. Some, like Palm Springs Surf Club developer Colin O’Byrne, got into it during the pandemic. Others were inspired by the addition of the sport to the Olympics in 2020. But they’ve all discovered the open secret: Equal parts zen and full-throttle adrenaline, a day chasing waves is akin to natural medication.
It’s impossible to list all the benefits of catching a wave. There are well-documented physical and mental rewards, most recently captured by Ralph Buckley in Ocean Sustainability magazine. “His back-of-the-napkin estimation was somewhere in the realm of a trillion dollars saved [in medication and therapy] globally from people who surf,” says Ponting. “They’re healthier, happier, and more productive.” It just so happens that using the body’s brute force to focus on nothing except gliding through time and space can do wonders for one’s state of being.
Surf parks also lend themselves nicely to adaptive surfing, where people with disabilities are able to ride waves in a controlled environment. Groups like the High Fives Foundation, a sports nonprofit dedicated to supporting veterans and injured athletes, practice at Waco Surf in Waco, Texas. Ponting tells me of a friend afflicted with myalgic encephalomyelitis, a.k.a. chronic fatigue syndrome, who now uses a wheelchair and turned to adaptive surfing in surf parks as a form of therapy. For her, using a surf park means not only are there people around to help her, but a concrete deck means she can wheel herself right up to the edge and take a rest between waves. “Everyone who surfs understands how powerful this is for well-being,” he says.
According to a study by Surf Park Central, which runs a Surf Park Summit overseen by UCSD’s Ponting, 92% of the surf community says they plan to go far and wide in search of perfect waves. If a surf park is nearby, they won’t have to, potentially saving the ozone some travel-related depletions. Parks are targeting efficiency at the ground level, too. DSRT | Surf—another park slated for the Coachella Valley—will be built on a preexisting golf course. By removing unnecessary turfing, the park promises to be net water positive. (“A two- or three-acre park uses about the same amount of water as one hole on a golf course over a year,” notes Ponting.) Hawaii’s LineUp at Wai Kai is offsetting its carbon footprint through a tree-planting project on Maui, and the first carbon-positive surf park in the UK is bringing solar-powered surfing to Bristol. Ponting suspects these models will become the status quo.
To further this, Ponting and his team have developed a sustainable-certification checklist for adventure travel and outdoor recreation industries, called STOKE (Sustainable Tourism and Outdoors Kit for Evaluation). “It goes well beyond employment practices and localizing supply chains and using local agriculture,” he says, explaining that the certification also encourages parks to give back by incorporating surfing’s Indigenous heritage, ocean conservation, and philanthropy into the guest experience.
Perhaps the closest current analog of the Palm Springs Surf Club entertainment complex is the aforementioned Waco Surf, 200 miles from the ocean. Currently one of the most renowned surf parks in the world, complete with a hotel, the location has a very Texas beginning: In 2012, Stuart Parsons, a roofer and barefoot-ski enthusiast (for the uninitiated, that’s water skiing… barefoot) bought land near some grazing longhorns and opened the Barefoot Ski Ranch cable park, or water park. In 2018, he installed technology by American Wave Machine, kicking off a trajectory that eventually drew in 70% of park-goers from out of state, riding high while local cowboys zip down slides and float atop a gargantuan lazy river, the biggest in Texas (they say).
In 2021, the park was acquired by a few swell seekers from San Diego who changed the name and began developing world-class surf halfway between Austin and Dallas. The team is focused on the beginner surfing space while also showcasing waves that they, as seasoned ocean surfers, would keenly ride.
All of this development is right on time, as adventure enthusiasts are increasingly looking for new ways to connect with the outdoors—and themselves. Having a wave pool within close proximity, for a fraction of the cost, ensures that more people can access its benefits. And even for seasoned surfers, the promise of catching the perfect wave, every time, is enough to lure them away from the coastline.
“You can spend a lot of money to go to a famous surf destination and you’re at the whim of Mother Nature,” says Waco Surf co-owner Michael Schwaab. “There might be no swell when you get there. In the surf park space, you know that you’re going to score.”