Dec. 16, 2019, Downtown Owa: The line is out the door and down the street for the grand opening of Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen.
Interviewed an hour before the event, Deen was asked her impressions of Foley, where her namesake restaurant was about to debut. “My first time seeing it took my breath away,” the TV celebrity, author and restaurateur said about the 520-acre complex. “I believe Owa will be a special form of entertainment for people across the United States.” Her prediction was correct.
Owned and operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Owa Parks and Resort, opened July 21, 2017. In 2023, the $500 million family-friendly adventure is still expanding.
“We are not just a theme park nor just a water park,” explains Owa’s director of strategy and media communications, Kristin Hellmich. “We are a year-round entertainment destination.”
Seeing is believing, and it starts with an overview, a primer of all things Owa. Eleven miles from Gulf Shores, the park has two main components: Tropic Falls and Downtown Owa. Each has its own personality and appeal.
In Downtown Owa, big brands line the streets. But there are also coastal Alabama hometown favorites such as Fairhope Soap Company, Alvin’s Island Tropical Department Store, Native Treasures, The Spice and Tea Exchange, Body Tune Plus and Paint Party Studios. There is Sweet Tooth at Owa, an old-fashioned candy shop, and Murder Creek Distillery — where moonshine is a delicacy.
Restaurants range from Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen for fried chicken kissed by angels to the Groovy Goat’s wood-grilled oysters, and C’est Le Vin Wine Bar awaits for classic vino experiences. Five other sit-down restaurants also are here. Bon appetit, Owa style.
Tropic Falls features 23 attractions — including rides appealing to children and roller coasters not for the faint of heart. An example of such thrills is Rollin’ Thunder, with tracks rising 114 feet for a roller coaster reaching 56 mph. It is the largest steel coaster in Alabama.
Other rides include the AeroZoom, Alabama Wham’a, Crazy Mouse and a crowd favorite, the Flying Carousel. Basically, it’s an airborne merry-go-ground.
Inclusive rides for smaller children are Tea Time – Spinning Cups, Leap Frog and Wacky Waters, a splash pad. Complete descriptions are available at Owa’s website — visitowa.com.
Also in Tropic Falls is the park’s latest crown jewel, that puts the ‘oh, wow’ in Owa. “I’m still amazed every time I walk in here,” Owa Marketing Manager Catherine Hasty says of the water park. “It is unlike anything the Gulf Coast has ever seen.”
The $75 million water park is climate-controlled and covered by an 1,800-glass-panel retractable roof. Inside, guests choose from 11 water slides, some rising 75 feet.
Embedded among 300 palm trees are dozens of other water features, including Castaway Creek’s lazy river for a relaxing float. In addition, private party rooms, cabanas, restaurants and a cocktail bar tempt visitors.
Water park attractions feature Piranha Plunge, a water tube one slides through a 360-degree loop, satisfying a need for speed. Other favorites are Citrus Cyclone, Serpentine Swirl and the body slide, Tangerine Scream. It is so named for its nearly vertical drop and narrow flume, often provoking screams and laughter. Kid-friendly venues include Tuki’s Tower, a tropical play structure with five slides and a dump bucket tower.
“Like the theme park, the water park is open all year,” adds Hasty. “In the summer heat or dead of winter, you walk in, under this roof, and it’s like a sunny spring day.”
Adjacent to the roofed facility is the wave pool and surf simulator, set to open in 2023. It’s perfect for those wanting to experience the Gulf without taking a saltwater plunge.
By design, one park blends into the other. A short walk transforms Tropic Falls into Downtown Owa, where free admission and pedestrian-only streets are a favorite of locals and tourists. Downtown Owa, like Tropic Falls, is never passive.
“There is always something going on here,” says Cathy Pavloski, director of marketing. “Venues, attractions, shows and decorations change throughout the year.” New Year’s Eve and July 4th fireworks are phenomenal. Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are celebrated. Street festivals, stage shows, pet parades have huge followings.
Owa’s employees rank their May Hot Air Balloon Festival as a favorite event.
“I can say since Owa has opened in 2017 our (Foley) sales tax has doubled,” says Foley Mayor Ralph Hellmich. “Now not all of the increase is attributed to them (Owa), but, as our other endeavors, they have brought new people and attention to Foley. They are a significant strategic partner with our city so are important.”
As for Owa Downtown’s retail, each shop and entertainment venue has its own personality and character.
Stephanie Rolin, president of Rolin Construction, based in Atmore, recalls Owa’s construction days. “The unique thing about working with Owa, is most of the projects were design assist,” she says. “We did more than build, we worked with owners, architects and contractors to bring their vision to fruition.
“Each buildout was unique and tailored to meet the tenant’s specific design and functionality needs,” she adds. “We led the construction on a majority of the entertainment, restaurant and retail outlets, often simultaneously.”
Rolin Construction recently completed Tropic Falls’ $2 million rebranding project. Other principal contractors in building Owa include White-Spunner Construction, Rabren General Contractors and Triptek Construction. Triptek is building Owa’s RV resort, a luxury version set to open this spring. Owa’s other lodging is the TownePlace Suites by Marriott, adjacent to Tropic Falls, Downtown Owa and the Foley Sports Tourism Complex.
Such projects have been ongoing in Owa since the first spade turned Foley earth. In 2012, the City of Foley approached the Poarch Band of Creek Indians about a partnership in a Baldwin County entertainment destination. “After the BP oil spill (April 2010), Foley realized we need alternatives to the beaches,” recalls Hellmich.
Owa became a joint venture between the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Foley and Foley’s Sports Tourism Complex.
Today Owa is managed through its economic development division — Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority, (CIEDA) Non-Gaming Division. The city owns the Foley Sports Tourism Complex.
“The mayor is correct that the city has seen substantial growth in revenues over the course of the ongoing development of their first class entertainment facility,” says Foley City Administrator Michael Thompson. “In addition to the jobs and revenue that have been additive to the city, I think it would be appropriate to highlight how the city and the Poarch Creek tribe worked together to leverage one another’s investments.
“The city was interested in creating a thriving sports tourism industry in the city and to that end, invested in 16 state-of-the-art multi-user fields, a 90,000-square-foot event center, and related roadway and parking infrastructure.
“Having Owa adjacent to our investment provides Foley with a great advantage when marketing our facilities to tournament rights holders. Likewise, young families coming to Foley provide an additional customer base in support of Owa and the Tribe’s investment,” says Thompson. “The city hosts 80 to 100 large tournaments annually that brings tens of thousands of people to our community annually who support businesses at Owa, across the city, as well as throughout the county.”
Like most businesses, Owa had some snags along the way. “Owa is a major project with many components, including shopping, dining, attractions and accommodations,” says Hellmich. “With COVID, we had our ups and downs like everyone else. But overall, we are pleased with where we are today.”
In a written statement to Business Alabama, Poarch Band of Creek Indians President and CEO Stephanie Bryan adds, “From the very beginning, we’ve always believed that we had the vision to create a one-of-a-kind destination in Foley. Owa is a true example of how a successful government-to-government relationship can grow from an idea to reality.
“We are proud to continue expansion of this multi-million-dollar investment into tourism and hospitality within the state. Not only are we able to create new jobs and economic growth, but we are also able to create wonderful memories for the many families who visit us each year,” Bryan says.
Owa’s name derived from the Muscogee Creek language and means “Big Water.” In 2012 the park of Big Water was a big dream. Today, Big Water is a big reality.
Emmett Burnett is a Satsuma-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the February 2023 issue of Business Alabama.