Tuesday, April 9, 2019

$100 million expansion at Alabama's OWA park could affect nearby Florida beach resort towns

Posted By on Tue, Apr 9, 2019 at 12:47 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO VIA OWA
  • Photo via OWA
When the Park at OWA amusement park opened in Alabama in 2017, it left many wondering what its owners, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, were doing, but now two years on, it's clear that the tribe is set on becoming a major player in the hospitality industry.

Before opening OWA in Foley, the Poarch Creek tribe made much of its money via a few small casinos found in Alabama. In 2015, when a previous investor pulled out from the OWA resort project, the tribe stepped in. Working with the city of Foley, who had built a multi-sports complex designed to attract tournaments and youth sporting events, the Poarch Creek tribe developed the 520-acre resort to celebrate local Southern culture while giving tourists visiting nearby beaches something else to do.

The $240 million resort was viewed as an oddity, and many questioned how sustainable it would be. No new park had opened in the U.S. since the short-lived Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach opened nearly a decade earlier. OWA opened with a "downtown" entertainment village mostly filled with empty storefronts while the park featured rides exclusively from Italian manufacturer Zamperla, who is best known for their large roller coasters and carnival-style flat rides.

Now two years on, OWA is starting to find its footing, and the Poarch Creek tribe are taking their lessons learned to invest in new hospitality ventures. A $100 million planned expansion at OWA is designed to address many of the early criticisms of the park, and that might mean bad things for nearby beach resort towns like Pensacola and Panama City.



The old downtown-themed shopping village at OWA already has a Wahlburgers, but a new Paula Deen restaurant will bring another nationally recognized name to the line-up. Las Vegas' famous Legends in Concert will open this summer. The popular tribute show (which at one time had a venue in Daytona Beach) will add some entertainment to the resort beyond the amusement park and a small arcade. The celebrity look-alikes from the tribute show will also do appearances at the nearby Tanger Outlets mall. A future Warehouse District entertainment complex is also planned for the resort. 

A massive new flagship hotel is planned for OWA, which currently only has a TownePlace Suites. The new hotel will have an indoor water park attached to it. Details on the new water park are still being worked out, such as if it will be open to guests not staying at the hotel. A resort-style RV park is also in the works.

Inside the amusement park, a haunted house shooter ride, similar to Legoland Florida's Lost Kingdom Adventure, will open soon. Both the indoor haunted house dark ride and the indoor water park address one of the other big criticisms of OWA. Currently, every single ride in the park closes during rainstorms, a time when guests from the nearby beach might be the most interested in visiting.

"Being a substantial economic driver for the state of Alabama, we have continually invested into OWA's diverse entertainment offerings in an effort to provide visitors and residents with a one-of-a-kind resort experience," says Cody Williamson, president and CEO of Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority (CIEDA), the economic development arm of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

With the addition of new indoor and evening entertainment along with celebrity-driven dining venues, OWA is becoming not just an anomaly along the Gulf shore but a destination as Florida resort towns continue their endless pursuit of trying to rebrand themselves away from their Spring Break cash cows. Even MTV has noticed with new reality shows, like Floribama Shore, focused less on Panama City itself and more on the region, including Alabama.

The Poarch Creek tribe isn't just focused on Foley though. In the past six months, the tribe also bought two hotels near one of their casinos in nearby Atmore, Alabama. They also partnered with five other tribes to form a hotel development fund, the Doradus Fund. Out of the funds eight current holdings, more than two thirds of its $80 million investments are centered around four hotels slated for Walt Disney World's Flamingo Crossings.

They are also owner partners in other hotels including the Holiday Inn Resort and Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Walton Beach; the Hyatt Place Hotel in Pensacola; and the Westin Hotel in Lake Mary.

In 2017, they purchased their first international resort through their Wind Creek gaming brand, a 431-room casino resort in Aruba. Wind Creek recently purchased another casino in Willemstad, Curaçao.

The Poarch Creek tribe look to follow the investment path first laid out by Florida's own Seminole Tribe, who now own some of the largest casinos in the world and have a portfolio of globally recognized businesses, including Hard Rock.

Already, between the Doradus Fund and their own private investments, the Poarch Creek tribe now own or co-own more than a dozen hotels. With OWA growing more every year, things are only looking up for the tribe.

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