Big Surf

Phoenix’s closest surf spot started as a backyard experiment and is now an aquatic theme park.

Big Surf is a water park in Tempe that only opens in summer. It is a good place to escape the Arizona heat, but it can get crowded. The main attraction is the big wave pool. This and other slides and rides will keep children splashing around for hours.

Big Surf’s major claim to fame is Waikiki Beach, the first wave pool in the U.S. It was the brainchild of engineer Phil Dexter who generated ocean-like waves in a backyard swimming pool in 1966. He then scaled it up in an abandoned building and finally constructed a perfect model out in the desert. In 1969, the pool, with a beach, opened up as Big Surf. 

Today the beach is gone, but the wave pool is still one of the largest in the world. It generates a wave every three minutes. Dive in for a swim, go surfing or float on a raft to get an ocean experience.  Thrill seekers can plunge down giant slides like the Tornado Twisters or race along the Kilauea Cove slides. For the very brave, there’s the steep, dark Black Hole tube ride. 

The water park features a designated toddlers’ play area. Every weekend, surf is up during the last hour of the day when the pool is given over to boarders for some real wave action. The park is also the setting for concerts. The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are among the many famous bands that have performed here. 

Big Surf is open from Memorial Day (May) to Labor Day (September). Get there early because it fills up quickly and the lines for the rides can be long. You can rent rafts, boards and lockers, and buy beachwear. You can’t bring in food, just bottled drinking water, but there is a cafeteria. Tempe is 13 miles (21 kilometers) east from Phoenix.

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