The crowd of swimsuit-clad youngsters was growing increasingly squirrelly standing in line under a broiling sun.
On a recent Thursday morning, nearly 40 families waited outside the gates of Big Sky Waterpark, patient yet anxious for the 11 a.m. opening. When the time finally arrived, the flood of kids poured in. Almost everyone disobeyed the “No Running” sign. Parents juggled beach towels and food coolers while trying to wrangle their young ones long enough to lather on sunscreen. But before the pasty cream could even sink in, the kids escaped with bright grins, dashing toward the neon water slides.
Brandi Roth barely had time to eat breakfast before her two young daughters were clamoring for her to hurry up and ferry them to the water park.
“This morning they already had their swimsuits on and were in the car before I could get ready,” Roth said.
The two girls were taking laps on the water slides while Roth enjoyed peace and quiet nearby at a picnic table in the shade. The family bought a season pass for the water park this summer, and they usually make the trip from Creston twice a week.
“They loves the slides,” she said.
Since opening in 1983, Big Sky Waterpark has remained a beloved staple of summer. Between the sunny months of June and September it’s a popular oasis off Highway 2 East that attracts both locals and tourists seeking respite from the hot temperatures, while the grassy campus is also available to rent for company parties and private junkets.
The largest waterpark in Montana is also one of the oldest in the Pacific Northwest. Generations of visitors have found adventure and refreshment among the many attractions. The site features 10 acres developed with 10 different water slides, including the daring 75-foot-tall Geronimo and 35-foot-tall Bonzai, as well as a miniature golf course, a bumper cars arena and a climbing wall.
“Everybody is on vacation when they get here, so they’re in a good mood and they have fun,” said Manager Roger Elliott.
Elliott has enjoyed the ride from the beginning. He started working for the water slides when they first opened in the summer of 1983 and is now in his 31st season with the park. When he started he was a local boy looking for a summer job and wanted to work in the sunshine. In 1989 he was named the general manager, a position he still holds.
“When we first started, it was the only water park in the northwest. You had to get over to Coeur d’Alene or Spokane to find anything like it,” he said.
Since then several water parks have surfaced, including facilities in Missoula and Kalispell.
“They all pretty much spawned from us,” he said.
One aspect that still makes Big Sky stand out among other water parks is that visitors are allowed to bring their own coolers of food and drinks. Most places make visitors purchase everything on site. Big Sky even encourages it, offering barbecue grills for visitors’ use.
“I think we’re the only park in the country that allows you to bring your own food in,” said Michael Dyon, assistant general manager. “We continue to do things to keep it affordable for people.”
Dyon is another longtime employee at the water park. He first started in 1987 when he was 18 years old. He was a slide monitor and then certified to be a lifeguard.
“It was an awesome summer job. I always enjoyed it,” he said. After college, he didn’t want to leave the Flathead Valley, so he kept his job at the water park. He even met his wife April at Big Sky.
“The cool thing is today I’m hiring kids whose parents I was working with,” Dyon said.
The water park employs between 60 and 80 staff members every summer. Those numbers shrunk during the recession, which hit the water park hard in 2009 and 2010. But things have brightened in the past three years, and Elliott said the new owners, who took over in 2008, will hopefully continue to reinvest in the site for the future.
“It’s an ongoing project,” Elliott said of keeping up the water park.
But, he added, “I think it’s been really good for the community and brings people to Columbia Falls.”
Big Sky Waterpark is located at 7211 Highway 2 East in Columbia Falls. Call 892-5026 or visit www.bigskywp.com.
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