Image by Candace Ann Photography

Wild Water West is now open for the season. This Sioux Falls summertime mecca beckons from just outside the limits of town with its sprawling expanse of slides and water attractions, promising to quench the oppressive midyear heat. For the general populace, it is a destination for a day of aquatic respite or to take the edge off of the aching that lingers in our collective landlocked psyche.

For a few others, it is a home away from home. Around 160 people work out front and behind the scenes, to create a seamless recreational environment. For the 50 lifeguards and four lead lifeguards employed annually by the park, safety is serious business. Their job is to see that the good times of the 2,000 plus patrons who visit the park each day goes off without a hitch.             

To many of us, lifeguarding may appear to be the perfect lazy summer job. One imagines them spending long days sitting on their bum, rubbing suntan lotion into their sundrenched skin, while idly surveying throngs of cannon-balling, splashing ruffians.

According to Wild Water West employees Emily McNamara and Brock Hoyle, there is a lot more to their jobs than crisping into bronzed glory. In fact, Hoyle said he was shocked by the stark contrast between what he saw going to small city pools as a kid and the exhaustive training regimen that lifeguards go through at Wild Water West. In addition to their initial 24 hours of preparation, the park’s lifeguards undergo weekly tests they must pass with flying colors if they expect to remain on the schedule. 

In fact, they are all Jeff Ellis and Associates certified, which is a step above Red Cross and other aquatic safety distinctions, due to the relentless nature of its accountability. Aside from their weekly tests, each month the park is audited for safety. Someone from the firm will come in and secretly videotape the staff, taking note of their attentiveness and ability to enforce the rules.                 

McNamara, Aquatics Director, said leadership potential is the first thing she looks for when hiring new lifeguards, and even though many of their new hires are high school students, maturity is a must- they can teach the rest.

“We like to say that through our training we take you baby steps to becoming a full lifeguard. There is no need for prior knowledge of CPR or skills aside from the ability to read the manual. Come to class and we’ll teach you all the rest,” she said.             

And she would know. McNamara began her tenure with Wild Water West at 16 as a lifeguard. After being promoted to lead lifeguard and then to her current role after college, she has made it a personal mission to ensure safety is priority number one with her staff.

Helping to maintain Wild Water West’s glittering safety record is a source of pride for the Hartford native. “I’m proud to say that we’ve been in the top ten percent of the nation for lifeguarding for the past five years. We hold our lifeguards to very high standards as far as safety. That goes hand in hand with having no accidents. We’re always proactive. We have rescues, but those are before anything bad happens,” McNamara said. 

Whatever they are doing appears to be working, because Wild Water West has a perfect no-drown record in its 20 years of operation.

Hoyle, a lead lifeguard, says that 2009’s addition of a wave pool was a source of anxiety for him. The 500,000-gallon pool has been a huge draw for guests, but it is also twice as deep as any other water in the park, dipping to eight feet at its deepest. So far so good, though, and he has welcomed the added challenge. “You have to pay attention to the moving water—there is a glare, it’s deeper, and you have to be a little better swimmer.  There’s an emergency stop button to turn off the waves whenever they need to.  They use it any time the lifeguards need to jump in and rescue someone,” Hoyle said.

Although Hoyle and McNamara are serious as a heart attack about safety, they work at a water park, and each relish the fun that accompanies the job. They agree the best parts of the job are their daily interactions with coworkers and the throngs of season pass holders. McNamara said, “I’ve been here so long that there are kids that I met when they came in strollers and now they’re in high school.”

Hoyle and McNamara also agree the most amusing parts of their days are spent working the slides. Whichever lifeguard is stationed at the bottom of the drop slides inevitably gets an eyeful as people tend to land in all manners of disarray.

According to McNamara, “Some people call it the ‘wedgie slide.’” 

The vantage from top of the slides affords its own brand of comedy, which often arrives in the guise of childhood fearlessness juxtaposed with adult horror. They find themselves amused by the number of four-year-old girls who will whip down a drop slide with no hesitation, while so many adults have to allay panic and talk themselves up before taking the plunge. 

McNamara said, “Working at the top of the slides, you get these macho guys who are just built and older that stand there for like five minutes, saying ‘I can do this…I can do this,’ before they go down. Sometimes they scream the whole way, then they get up and all of their friends congratulate them. Sometimes there’s actually cheering sections at the bottom of the drop slides. They get the clap going, yelling and screaming ‘You can do it!’”  

A common misconception about the park, particularly held by those who have never been out, is that it has to be an expensive excursion. McNamara asserts this is false and that one of the park administration’s top goals is to keep admission affordable, since they are mindful of people’s tightened budgets in this tough economic climate.

The biggest thing they have done to make the park accessible to everyone, no matter their financial situation, is to run weekday admission specials from 4-8 p.m. Monday is Bring Your Friends Night. For $40, patrons can enter the park with a group as large as 10. The second Tuesday of each month is Terrific Tuesday and admission is $5 after 4 p.m. Wednesday is Family Night. Adult admission is $7.50 and child admission is $4. Thursday is Buy One Get One on the discounted evening admission. 

The price of a ticket covers all of the park’s attractions, which, according to McNamara, makes the park a unique experience in the tri-state area.

“We have the area’s only unlimited slides and rides package. One fee at the gate and you get unlimited go-karts, mini-golf, batting cages, water slides, wave pool, lazy river…”

The park’s season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Through July, Wild Water West’s hours of operation are 11-8 p.m. In mid-August, weekday hours will be evening only. Tickets can be purchased online, at Sioux Falls Get N Go locations and at the gate.  For more information about the park, “like” them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, or check them out at



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