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After long search, national resort company zeroes in on Florida expansion

As Great Wolf Resorts looked for where to build in Florida, it became clear Collier County and Naples was the just-right spot.

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When it came down to it, the decision was fairly easy. Naples made sense. It met the criteria. It hit every metric.

Despite that, a decision of this magnitude is not simple to make. Nor, once the decision is made, can it be executed with the snap of a finger. 

Let’s face it, building a 20-acre resort is tough business.

Still. Once Great Wolf Resorts picked Naples as the site of its new resort everything else began to fall into place.

“These are not easy deals,” says Steve Jacobsen, vice president of domestic development at Great Wolf. “They’re very complex as it relates to what we do, how we operate. And Collier County checked every one of those boxes. So that’s why we’re there.”

What Jacobsen is talking about is the $250 million resort and indoor water park the Wisconsin-based company broke ground on in July, on the eastern end of Collier County, near the Paradise Coast Sports Complex.

Great Wolf Resorts will open a lodge in Naples sometime in 2024 which will include a 100,000-square-foot indoor water park. (Courtesy photo)
Great Wolf Resorts will open a lodge in Naples sometime in 2024 which will include a 100,000-square-foot indoor water park. (Courtesy photo)

Great Wolf is one the largest family of indoor waterpark resorts in North America. The company has 21 lodges in the U.S. and Canada and is working on projects to expand into England and Mexico.

The Naples resort will feature 500 suites and a 100,000-square-foot indoor water park with body slides, tube slides, raft rides, activity pools and splash areas. The water is heated to 84 degrees. In addition to the park, the resort will have a 62,000-square-foot entertainment center for families as well as activities including MagiQuest, a live-action adventure game, Yoga Tails, a morning exercise program and Hustle & Howl, an evening dance party. Dining options will range from pizza and burgers to upscale.

Work on the resort is expected to take about two years, with an opening set for the spring or summer of 2024.


Location, location location 

The $250 million for the project, officials have said, comes from Great Wolf shareholders Blackstone and Centerbridge Partners. And Collier County commissioners have approve $15 million in incentives.

The resort is expected to bring up to 500 construction and trade jobs and more than 600 full- and part-time jobs when it opens, according to the company.

Great Wolf, Jacobsen says, decided on the Naples location after about a five-year search.

“Well, first of all, we have a fairly sophisticated system that takes a look at where our customers are,” he says. “Basically, our customers are families ages two through 12 with a disposable income of about $19,000.”

The company, when doing its research, uses an in-depth system that looks at everything from public to private schools, taxation and a series of other metrics that narrows down where its customer are located. The metrics are similar to industry reports that track room occupancy and revenue per available room. But these go deeper.

About five years ago, this system informed Great Wolf it needed a presence somewhere in South Florida.

The question, one anyone looking to expand into Florida has asked themselves a hundred times, is exactly where is the perfect spot? So, for five years Jacobsen says “we have pounded the pavement trying to find that needle in the haystack.”

Steve Jacobsen, the vice president of domestic development at Great Wolf (Courtesy photo)
Steve Jacobsen, the vice president of domestic development at Great Wolf (Courtesy photo)

“We looked on the east side, west side, north, up past Fort Myers, close to Tampa Bay. You know, it’s just tough to find the right site in Florida.”

One of the main criteria the company looked for in its search is road networking. Jacobsen says about 65% of Great Wolf’s customers drive at least four hours to the resort, so while it’s important to be off the beaten path and away from other major attractions, the land must also be accessible to major highways.

Naples hit that mark with easy access from Tampa, Orlando and other markets to the north and Miami, Miami-Dade County and Broward County to the east.


In this together 

As important as all the other metrics, though, is the relationship with local government. Jacobsen says putting together a deal for one of its resorts is complex, and for it to work a locality must be willing and sophisticated enough to handle the nuances. 

A challenge Great Wolf faced in Florida is unlike in other markets, where it takes a bigger share of the hotel tax the first five years rather than getting money up front for a locality, that’s almost impossible given Florida's tax structure and how the revenue funnels through the state.

But for Collier County officials, working with Great Wolf made economic sense. According to a financial feasibility study, the resort, over the next 30 years, is expected to generate over $5 billion in net new spending, $2.4 billion in net new earnings and bring more than 1,400 new full-time equivalent jobs. This in addition to $150 million in property tax collections.

A county staff report says the $15 million in incentives to cover land, impact and permit fees would be repaid in four to five years.

Especially attractive to county leaders is the jobs Great Wolf will create. Collier County Commission Chairman William McDaniel says “the complexity of operating a water park and resort will require a number of skilled, higher-paying technical and management roles, offering opportunities for (county) residents and helping to maintain our economic growth trajectory.”

Jacobsen says despite all the time, effort and money that goes into the studying, there are intangibles that also helped inform the location decision.

He says no business model can project, nor metric can measure, the “treasure trust of value” the number of retirees living in the area can deliver. He believes when kids and grandkids visit relatives, they’ll head to the waterpark for a day, giving Great Wolf “another great boost of input into the revenue” of the resort.

“What a great place to go for a day,” he says. “And you’re not driving to Disney, you’re not paying for parking, getting on a shuttle. You drive to ours, you park for free and you can have an incredible day or two days at our lodge.”



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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