DescriptionSince 1969, the Big Surf waterpark in Tempe has welcomed people seeking refuge from the Valley's summer heat. The first of it's kind, this ocean in the desert was developed by a local engineer and the Clairol company, and became well-known for its surfing, sand, and Polynesian-themed complex.
TranscriptNarrator: The 1970s for Arizona was a time of monumental change. New neighborhoods, freeways, and even music signaled the state was growing and transforming. Change may have been in the air, but in Arizona's deserts, one thing remained relentlessly constant: the summer heat. In 1970, a refuge appeared on the banks of the Salt River between Scottsdale and Tempe when Clairol, a company promoting its surfing look, teamed with a local engineer to build Big Surf.
Hans Olson: You know, I came from southern California and the ocean, and being out here, it's the one thing we missed was the beach. So one day somebody said, "Why don't we go to Big Surf?" And I thought, "What is that?" And we walk in there, and I said, "Okay, I'm at the beach."
Music lyrics: It's a Big Surf feeling…it's a Big Surf feeling…it's a Big Surf feeling…it's a Big Surf feeling.
George Weisz: Big Surf was pretty cool. That was like, you know, the ocean in the desert. Some people had bikinis then. And if the waves were right, it might wash some of them off, and so that was always a big thing. You'd have to be careful where all the children were because the water was not always blue in those areas.
Kay Butler: I took my kids to Big Surf, and then there were times when they were old enough that I could just dump them. You know, this is a thing that a lot of mothers in the '70s did, we dropped our kids off and left them. Probably not until they were, you know, 10 and 12, but still.
Narrator: As a kid, Dave Manning spent entire summers at Big Surf, and he wasn't alone.
David Manning: You had all ages. I remember grandparents sitting on the beach and watching the action in the water even though they never got in the water. Every weekend you had late-night dance nights. Then during the days, it was sun and sand and surf. It was pandemonium: rafts running over heads, everywhere rafts running over rafts, people washing up onto the beach. I think one of the funniest things in summer was how hot the sand got. People would race across it as quickly as possible.
Narrator: But Dave wasn't interested in swimming or rafting. He was there to surf.
David Manning: You had all these diverse characters together from all over the Valley who had this brotherhood and camaraderie and really, truly developed a culture that revolved around our beach and our waves. The culture was genuine; the waves were artificial.
Narrator: Artificial or not, creating waves is a well-choreographed engineering feat that's remained relatively unchanged since Big Surf opened.
Aaron Dome: So it's pretty cool. I mean, this was built back in '69 and we still have all the original equipment back in here running it. If you imagine the tank on the back of your toilet, fills up with water, when you pull the lever, opens it up, flushes all the water out. That's basically what the wave pool is.
Narrator: In 2002, Big Surf briefly reintroduced surfing at the park, and for some, it was just like old times.
Dave Manning: The feeling of paddling back into the lagoon for the first time in almost 30 years felt exactly the same as it did before. I had a grin from ear to ear, and priceless to me was to be in the water with my daughter, who had heard the stories and seen the place, but surfing had been over for years and years, and all of a sudden, it was possible again. So she had a great time, and it was just a priceless memory for me.
Narrator: Over time, new water parks featuring tubes, slides, and falls opened across the Valley. But for Arizonans in the '70s, Big Surf was the cool way to keep cool.