With a pop of fireworks into the steamy summer air and a blast of confetti over a cheering crowd, The Park at OWA officially opened Thursday evening.
It was the first test of the park’s capabilities, and the media was invited to watch as about 3,000 friends and family of employees explored the 44,000-square-foot park and its 21 rides. I was there to soak it all in (and, let’s be honest, ride the roller coaster).
As a fan of amusement parks, I graciously offered (demanded) to cover this taxing assignment. I’m not quite to the level of a Disney fanatic like some people I know — you know who you are — but I love rides, and don’t mind waiting in line. And I’m generally impressed with the level of engineering and logistics it takes to make mini wonderlands.
I claim to be somewhat of a park connoisseur — but I also frequently claim to be a connoisseur of random things (including french fries; OWA’s are terrific). I’ve been to: Disney World, Disneyland, Universal Studios and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Busch Gardens, Six Flags over Georgia, Dollywood and the long-gone Jazzland in New Orleans. I’ve even ridden The Beast at Kings Island in Ohio, the longest wooden roller coaster in the world. I’m #blessed.
I’ll admit, my expectations weren’t very high for the park. I went to Jazzland soon after it first opened, before it was Six Flags New Orleans, and my reaction was, “Is this it?”
My goal for the night was to experience the park as you, the reader, would. Who cares about officials thanking each other when there’s a roller coaster to ride! I got there at 5 p.m., as requested, and left at 10:30 as the last guests were leaving the park. I talked to lots of different people of all ages to get a sense of what their experience was like.
Not all the reactions were positive, but once the park works out the kinks and makes some adjustments, I’m sure it will be delightful. Overall, I was impressed. I’d say it’s comparable to Jazzland, but nicer.
And I wouldn’t recommend it for a date night, but if you’ve got kids, they’re going to love it.
OWA is the first amusement park to open within easy driving distance of the Mississippi Coast since Six Flags New Orleans drowned in Hurricane Katrina. It’s in Foley, Alabama, about two-thirds of the way south between Interstate 10 and the beach, near the Tanger Outlet stores.
From Biloxi, it’s about an hour and a half drive east on I-10 (depending on the dreaded Mobile tunnel traffic) and a little less than an hour south. You can take the more traditional route and exit at Alabama 59, which runs past the outlets and ends in Gulf Shores, or take the straight shot down the Baldwin and Foley Beach Express roads which end at the Orange Beach toll bridge. You can also cut over from 59 to the Foley Beach Express, which is what I did, out of habit.
I grew up in Mobile, and went to the Gulf Shores area a lot growing up. Pro-tip: Check on Google Maps or the Waze app before you leave to see what the tunnel/Bayway traffic is like. If you see a lot of red lines and delays, just take the Causeway (Alabama 98). Depending on where the traffic starts backing up, get off at an exit that’ll take you to Government Street and use the old Bankhead Tunnel, then get back on the interstate at the Daphne exit on the other side of Mobile Bay.
If that sounds like too much hassle, you probably haven’t been stuck in Bayway traffic before. Let’s just say, last weekend I had friends coming back from Orange Beach get stuck on the interstate for a couple hours because a wreck closed the westbound lanes of the bridge. That’s a worst-case scenario, but standard summer beach traffic on the weekends can escalate quickly.
The park is very easy to find — it’s visible from the Foley Beach Express road. There are two entrances/exits, and there is plenty of free parking with a free tram to the park entrance.
As you enter from the highway, it’s pretty apparent OWA is still a work in progress and there are still signs of construction. It was originally slated to open on Memorial Day weekend, but a lot of rainy weather pushed that back.
A large, chiming clock tower marks the park entrance, surrounded by brick buildings. It’s set up like Disney parks, where guests walk through a sort of town center with shops and restaurants and a ticket booth before reaching the main ride area. None of the shops or restaurants are open yet, except one gift shop. The highlight will be a Wahlburgers (a chain owned by Mark and Donny Wahlburg featured in its own A&E reality show) in a delightful ’50s diner-style building with a lighted marquee.
At the end of the shops is a circular area with lockers, strollers and wheelchairs for rent. A fountain marks the entrance to the main ride area and sits at the end of a long pool under the coaster. The park is set up like a hot dog, with the roller coaster down the middle and everything else symmetrically on either side.
Walking around the park, everything is attractive, polished and well-designed. At night all the lights add a carnival feel.
There are seven fairway-style games where you can win stuffed animals. There are two main concession areas on each side, which are shaded but not indoors, and there are scattered food carts with snacks and drinks.
On Thursday night there were also performers wandering around and interacting with guests: musicians, costumed stilt-walkers and jugglers. I’m not sure if they’re permanent, though. Pop music floats through the entire park, and is not too loud but drowned out most of the musicians.
One thing to watch out for: There’s not many areas to hide from heat or rain. The only air-conditioned areas open so far are the gift shop and the restrooms. Most of the park is in full sun and the only shady areas are next to the main food areas and in the waiting area for the roller coaster. There are a lot of trees, but they are newly planted and don’t offer much shade.
As always, the rides are the best part, especially if you’re a kid. Probably the best part of the entire park is the number of rides available to young children. There are 10 rides where you only have to be 36 inches tall to ride, and two where they can ride unaccompanied. So there are a lot of options for kids as young as two and three.
There are plenty of other rides with 42-inch and 48-inch requirements, too. The “thrill” rides require 48 inches, and the coaster requires 51 inches.
All the “kiddie” rides are on one side of the park, and needless to say, the most fun was being had over there. Faces of sheer glee were shining out of multi-colored frogs and prop planes and butterflies. Some of the rides even had an active feature, where if the rider pedaled or pushed or steered, the car reacted and rose or lowered as it went in a circle.
There’s also a kiddie roller coaster called Southern Express (42-inch requirement) where kids and adults can get the feel of a coaster without the terror of the real thing. It’s a short track that goes around three times per ride, and both kids and adults I watched seemed to be enjoying the heck out of it.
Two of the thrill rides were not operational Thursday: Crazy Mouse, a low-key coaster with a spinning car, and Alabama Wham’a, described as a fast-paced ferris wheel that goes horizontal and vertical.
Besides the coaster, the Twister and Freedom Flyer seemed to be the most popular for older kids and adults. The Freedom Flyer has swings that go very high and fast enough to swing out at an angle. It looked to be the tallest ride in the park with great views from the top. I did not get to try the Flyer, but a grown man waiting in the roller coaster line admitted (off the record) that he got a little nervous once it really got going.
But if you haven’t been too many amusement parks, know that in one sense they’re all the same: about 80 percent of your time will be spent standing in line.
Called Rollin’ Thunder, the coaster at OWA was designed by an Italian company called Zamperla, which designed Coney Island in New York and has rides all over the world. In fact, it is nearly identical to Coney Island’s Thunderbolt coaster.
If you’re used to roller coasters, Rollin’ Thunder doesn’t look terribly impressive from the ground, except for the amount of tight twists and turns. But let me say, once you’re strapped in and the car ratchets you back to a 90-degree angle, it gets a lot more intimidating. Another fear factor is the near-constant screams that emanated for the center of the park all night — not the “wheee” kind of screams but the “oh sh--” kind.
What it lacks in height and length it makes up for in speed and sharp turns. You start out going straight up on your back only to flip 180 degrees and fly face-first toward the earth. Then it flips and twists and turns so fast my head was literally bouncing off the back of the seat. (Those with back, neck, heart or blood pressure conditions are advised to avoid it, per the park’s website.)
The seating is a little unusual, and reminded me of the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. You’re kind of folded in so that your knees are up at an angle. It’s also not forgiving at all for people of size. A woman in my row had to leave the ride after her harness wouldn’t secure properly, and I talked with another couple later in the night who waited two hours in line only to find he was too big and tall for the ride.
There are no restrictions posted at the ride, other than height. But on the OWA website, it says this: “Due to rider restraint system requirements, guests of certain body proportions may not be able to be accommodated on some of our rides. This may apply, but is not limited to, guests who exceed 6’2” or those who exceed 225 pounds, have a 40” waist line or 52” chest, or females who exceed 200 pounds or wear a size 18 or larger.”
I will say, though, that literally every person I saw get off the coaster had a smile on their face and gave it a thumbs up. A lot of them said it was worth the wait, which was substantial. As the only real thrill ride of the park, the line flowed out into the middle park even late into the night. I waited about an hour, and skipped ahead once I realized the operator was calling for (not very loudly) single riders. This is definitely an area for improvement. A lot of cars were leaving the station with empty seats while single riders were standing in line.
The menus looked fantastic — traditional park fare like hot dogs, chicken tenders and burgers along with barbecue pork and brisket, gator bites, sweet treats, mixed-green salads and beer and even wine.
But biggest technical difficulty of the night was the food lines. There were food carts around the park with everything from tacos to cotton candy, but most people were interested in a full meal and/or alcoholic beverages.
When I attempted to brave the lines just after 8 p.m., I got behind a woman who said she had waited for 45 minutes on the other side of the park without getting food. So I gave up and got in the coaster line. After getting off the coaster, I got in what looked to be a much shorter food line, but ended up waiting a good 45 minutes and didn’t actually eat until about 10:30 p.m. The park was supposed to close at 10.
I also heard from a couple of people trying to buy beer that they finally got to the front of a line only to find it was manned by a minor who couldn’t legally serve alcohol. Apparently only some lines were selling alcohol, marked by a red sign on the window.
Everything I tasted and saw coming out of the concessions looked very high-quality, a step above normal concession stand fare. Perhaps that’s what took so long. I’ve never wished for lower-quality food, but at one point I would have been content if someone had thrown me some nachos and called it a day.
The prices are pretty average for amusement parks. Most everything is at least $3-4, including bottled water. Most of the combo meals with fries are between $8-12. Most snack items like pretzels or nachos are between $6-8. Beer and wine is $6.
The Poarch Creek Indians are responsible for building OWA (pronounced OH-wah) which means “big water” in Muscogree Creek language, according to the website.
They have big plans for the park, as well as a casino site in D’Iberville. This is just Phase One and Two. The shops are scheduled to start opening in September and they are also planning:
▪ 400-seat amphitheater
▪ 14-acre lake with boat rentals
▪ outdoor waterpark
▪ luxury Rv resort
▪ more hotels and a resort condominium.
OWA has been billed as a cross between Disney and Six Flags, but overall it was definitely not to that level — at least, not yet.
Know before you go
Hours: 10 a.m. to midnight. Will be opened limited hours in winter months.
Tickets: General admission is $34.99. It’s $27.99 for kids 42 inches or shorter, active military and seniors 60 and older. Kids ages 3 and younger are free. An anuual pass is $89.99.
Rides: 9 kiddie, 6 family-friendly and 6 thrill rides.
Parking: Free with free shuttle
Food: No outside food or beverages allowed.
Smoking: Only in the designated smoking area
Getting around: There is a “limited supply” of wheelchairs, strollers and lockers available for rent, as well as lockers.
Group discounts: For 15 or more
Size requirements: No guarantee if you exceed 6’2” or 225 pounds, have a 40” waist line or 52” chest, or for women who exceed 200 pounds or wear a size 18 or larger.