It's more a happy accident of design rather than intentional civic promotion that has thousands of cross-country travelers wondering about the “amusement park” they see rising up along the Oklahoma River.
The sight of dozens of kids crawling all over the 80-foot-high SandRidge Sky Trail alone is proving to be a draw for some of the 111,500 motorists who travel the new highway daily. Mike Knopp, director of the Oklahoma Boathouse Foundation, can only imagine what the response might be once the master plan for the area is fully realized over the next few years.
“People see the Sky Trail, and they come here thinking it is an amusement park,” Knopp said. “And in some ways, you can say it is. We like to call it an adventure park.”
The draw of just the Sky Trail alone — a structure that includes an elaborate ropes course, the largest in America, the country's largest slide (80 feet), the 80-foot “Rumble” bungee jump and zip lines that soon will glide across the river, already is drawing families and groups driving from Dallas, Amarillo and Wichita who are traveling to Oklahoma City.
Their draw, Knopp says proudly, is the growing number of Riversport Adventures, including the Sky Trail, opening along the river.
The same draw is making the river a destination for locals as well.
Hallie Kasiri and her son, Connor, 3, spent a Wednesday morning playing at the children's park at the Sky Trail, a scaled down series of zip lines that also includes a bungee jump and a bouncing area that kept Conner entertained for more than an hour.
“We heard about it a couple of months ago — just through word-of-mouth,” Kasiri said. “It's really neat and really different from anything else in Oklahoma City. I like that they incorporated music into the experience and that it's accessible for kids of different ages.
Looking around at the architecture of the surrounding boathouses drawn up by Elliott Associates, Kasiri smiled. She remembered when the river, before the construction of dams and basic landscaping done as part of MAPS a decade ago, was an embarrassment to the city.
“It's something you don't see here a lot,” Kasiri said. “It's modern, it's hip, it's intuitive … you can walk all around and enjoy it.”
Rapid growth to continue
When the three dams were built a dozen years ago, along with trails and landscaping, a river materialized from what had been reduced to a large drainage ditch by a U.S. Corps of Engineers flood control project a half-century earlier.
In 2003, the river just south of downtown was home to some dirt turned for the first Chesapeake Boathouse and a temporary storage building for boats. A decade later, the area is home to the Chesapeake Boathouse, the Devon Boathouse, the Chesapeake Finish-line Tower, and the SandRidge Sky Trail.
About 1,500 people are enrolled in various rowing, canoeing and kayaking activities along the river at any given time throughout the year. About 20 rowers and 15 paddlers are engaged in Olympic training that takes place at the Oklahoma City National High Performance Center at the Devon Boathouse.
To date, investment just along the boathouse and river sports segment of the river south of Bricktown has totaled $100 million. That figure is set to at least double in the near future with these projects:
• Construction of the $35 million Whitewater Rafting & Kayaking Center, one of several improvements approved by voters as part of MAPS 3, is set to begin this winter.
• The Sky Trail, while operational and impressive to visitors, is far from finished. An extended pavilion with a possible spraygrounds and surfing pool remain to be built before the venue is finished.
• Stadium-style lighting along the rowing course, also part of MAPS 3, will be lit up this weekend, with future MAPS 3 improvements, including a south shore grandstands and wind-screening to follow.
• Construction of a river inlet that will extend the waterway under the new I-40 and connect people to the southern end of the Bricktown Canal either by foot or boat is set to be finished this summer.
• Construction is set to begin next year on the CHK Central Boathouse, which will host the University of Central Oklahoma's women's rowing team and will include a live music venue, outdoor performance stage and art gallery.
• Design work is underway for a University of Oklahoma boathouse. Further details about the project have yet to be announced.
• Boathouse foundation officials and other Oklahoma River promoters hope that a funding resolution for completion of the American Indian Cultural Center at the east gateway to the waterway at Eastern Avenue will be approved by legislators early next year. Organizers of the project predict the Smithsonian-affiliated historical and cultural site will match the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum as a top tourist destination for the city.
Pat Downes, a 30-year veteran of the riverfront redevelopment effort, predicts the effort to connect all the venues, and potential future attractions, will make the river a regional destination.
Downes, development director with the Oklahoma City Riverfront Redevelopment Authority, is in talks to add an equine center and horse trails to the mix to add to the number of activities available for visitors.
“It would capitalize on Oklahoma City's unique western heritage,” Downes said. “When people, especially from Europe and Asia, come to Oklahoma City, they want to see cowboys. And for that we have National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. And they want to see Indians, and we hope that will happen with the cultural center funded and completed. And they want to see horses.”
Knopp, meanwhile, is looking at the possibility of adding a bicycle track to the mix, which would enhance the foundation's Riversports existing biking program.
By connecting all these projects together, and adding a few smaller enhancements to the mix, Knopp and Downs believe the line of cars exiting I-40 to visit the river will get longer for years to come.
The white water center, designed by S2o, a firm that also built a similar attraction in Charlotte, N.C., will be built on 11 acres to the east of the boathouses. The course, with its own water supply separate from the river, will be built on the face of a 20-foot hill.
Gravity will send water rushing through concrete channels and across the elements that will create turbulence for the rapids. Users — on rafts or in kayaks — will traverse the circular course in about six to eight minutes with channels to be built for both beginners and experts.
Knopp believes that the white-water course, added to the Sky Trail, boating and other attractions along the river, will change visitors' expectations of 21st century amusement parks. The Charlotte white water center, without the benefit of the other amenities and attractions found at the Oklahoma River, draws 500,000 people a year.
“I don't think people know what's coming,” Knopp said. “It's so exciting. When you go into Charlotte, that place is so alive with activity, and it's all ages. When we opened the Bricktown Canal in the '90s, people couldn't wait for it to open. This will be like opening another canal, but it's with rushing water.”
The river inlet extension is one of several smaller improvements aimed to filling in the gaps between the various venues. With that one crossing, Downes notes, Bricktown and the river are connected.
“That extension connecting to the Land Run monument (along the canal north of I-40) and Bricktown is a very powerful thing,” Downes said. “Once opened, it's going to drive a great deal of interest by river patrons to Bricktown and interest by patrons in Bricktown to the river.”
The foundation, meanwhile, has added a transparent rock climbing wall inside the original Chesapeake Boathouse and created a parking bay where Knopp hopes food trucks will set up on busy days at the Skytrail.
The white water center, meanwhile, is ultimately set to include a gift shop, offices, meeting space and a restaurant.
In the meantime, the foundation has set up a large vending machine with a robotic arm that provides visitors with a range of hats, shirts, hygienic goods, snacks, drinks, meals and even fresh salads.
Just watching the large robotic arm in motion, Knopp jokes, is added entertainment for visitors.
The foundation also is gearing up to start up a short-distance shuttle that will connect visitors at the venues to water taxis along the Bricktown Canal. Those same visitors also will continue to have the option of enjoying a longer excursion on the Oklahoma River cruisers.
Knopp also is looking years ahead to when the American Indian Cultural Center and grandstands bookend the future south shore landing for the zip lines that will cross the river. One idea being contemplated is to establish a train ride that will go back and forth among the venues, and potentially even to a future parking area that could be built west of the Lincoln Boulevard bridge.
A tram along the river inlet and the Bricktown Canal also is a possibility.
If Charlotte serves as a guide for what's ahead, the white-water venue also will draw those who will want to relax, listen to music and simply watch the adventures going on the rapids.
Those visitors also will get to watch Olympic class canoeing and kayaking.
Joe Jacobi, president of U.S.A. Canoe/Kayak, oversaw the association's move from Charlotte to the Oklahoma River in 2011, and has observed a quick turnaround for the organization's finances. Whereas before the organization was struggling to keep bills paid, its board is now budgeting how best to use its healthier bank balance to promote its athletes.
The organization also just hired a part-time coach to oversee high performance programs.
Unlike other Olympic training programs where athletes stay inside secured, fenced sports complexes, the future Olympians are on the river for everyone to watch.
Jacobi notes that school kids, some from economically distressed neighborhoods, are getting a shot at such dreams at an early age. And with the venues available to them on the Oklahoma River, Jacobi believes it's only a matter of time before an Oklahoma City youth wins a medal in canoeing and kayaking.
“It's an advantage,” Jacobi said. “It takes us a little time to get there because most of our kids are 12, 14 and 16 years old, but I think Oklahoma City will eventually account for one medal a year in Olympic racing.”
Knopp had a vision of a world-class boathouse district when he led a group of rowing enthusiasts on a demonstration of the river's potential at the groundbreaking for the Eastern Avenue dam a dozen years ago. Back then, the rowing was only possible because the river had filled up with water due to rainy weather the prior week.
Now, as the list of attractions keeps growing and the river itself is drawing rowers from across the country for various regattas, Knopp is reconsidering what is possible.
Had Knopp suggested just five years ago that the Oklahoma River could attract a Great Wolf Lodge, Downes would have responded “sure — in 30 years.”
The combined resorts and indoor water parks are tourist destinations for cities like Grapevine, Texas and Kansas City, Kan.
Now Downes admits such an addition is far more likely in the much nearer future.
“That would match very well the other attractions that are currently in place or projected to be built in the boathouse district,” Downes said. “As a result of the Oklahoma River project, we now have three riverfront hotels open and operating in the aero Meridian corridor, two more under construction and two more being designed and proposed. That's a pretty significant change from what the intersection of Meridian and the river looked like just five years ago.”
The success of hotel development along the western anchor to the river, however, hasn't changed Knopp's opinion that most such investment should remain in Bricktown — and not mixed into the boathouse district.
The master plan for the river drawn up just a few years ago is tantalizingly close to becoming a reality. But Knopp admits that the vision is constantly evolving.
Even branding for the boathouse district is under discussion. When the stretch around Regatta Park was only home to boathouses, the moniker of “Boathouse District” seemed appropriate to the foundation.
But with the success of the Riversports programs and the added attractions, Knopp acknowledges a tweaking to the area's identity might be next. For Knopp, the past decade has been one incredibly exciting voyage that has no end in sight. With the support of civic leaders, universities and leading employers, Knopp believes the river's attractions are key to making the city a healthier and more vibrant community.
“While it may have the feel the feel of an amusement park, it is based upon the idea of inspiring movement by making fitness and calorie burning activities fun, exciting, and fulfilling,” Knopp said. “Families may come out and discover paddle sports through their Riversport Adventures day pass and then get inspired to join a program or a team. Children may even be able to earn a college scholarship or end up standing on a podium representing Oklahoma City or the United States.”
What is being developed along the river, Knopp boasts, is unlike any other outdoor sports venue in the country. “Having such amenities will infuse a robust outdoor and fitness-oriented culture,” Knopp said. “And that will hopefully turn the needle on one of Oklahoma's most challenging metrics.”
All of the Riversport Adventure attractions along the Oklahoma River, including the Chesapeake Finish-line Tower welcome center, are open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The attractions will be open until 10 p.m. on July 4.