It’s hard to believe that summer is already beginning to wind down, and with the season goes one of Westerly’s oldest and most beloved attractions – Water Wizz of Westerly, owned by Mike Kells, which will close its gates after Labor Day this year.
Water Wizz of Westerly was originally opened by local dentist Arthur Philips in 1979, but was bought by Mike’s father, Raymond Kells of Kells Sailboats, two years later.
“He was a boat builder, so he was used to working with fiberglass,” Mike explained. “He saw that there was a water slide for sale, and said ‘well, it’s fiberglass and water, I should take a look.’ Next thing I knew, our summers were all being spent there as a family.”
Mike, his father, and his mother, a school teacher in Massachusetts, and his three sisters, spent the next three decades of summers devoted to making the water park a destination for Westerly’s locals and tourists, forgoing many a family reunion or barbecue.
“We were always working together, which I think helped give the business a family vibe. Anybody who came to the water slides or worked with us, we considered family.”
Dedicating his summers to his family business required Mike to get creative when it came to off-season employment. He attended Mass Maritime Academy and captained a yacht in his 20s, taking boats from Maine to the Bahamas, but he always needed the freedom to come back to Westerly, so odd jobs became a regular part of his repertoire.
“I worked at a muffler repair shop, I apprenticed as a plumber, I had friends with electrical businesses who needed help, so I became the classic Jack of all trades, master of none, and picked up lots of practical skills,” Mike said.
By watching his father and others run their businesses and find success, Mike learned firsthand about how to run his own when the time came.
When Raymond got cancer, Mike was on a surf trip in Puerto Rico but rushed home to Westerly to help take care of him in his remaining months, and eventually bought the water slide from him.
“He had started his legacy there, and the park had put three girls through college and provided a life for all of us,” he explained. “And it had allowed him to pursue other passions and business ventures at the same time. I figured, if he can do it with four kids, I can do it by myself. I wanted to preserve his legacy and carry on what he had envisioned for his family.”
“I couldn’t have done it with Kenny being in my corner,” Mike said about his transition to owner. Kenny Rider had been with Mike on that surf trip, sitting next to him when he got the call from his dad explaining that he only had a few months left to live. Water Wizz had been Ken’s first job, at age 14, and he still spends every summer there as the park’s manager, working as a teacher in Connecticut during the school year.
“Kenny is my Unified Front,” Mike laughs. “He told me that five years ago. He said ‘Buddy, we’re a unified front, we’ve gotta do this together.’ We work perfectly together because we’re opposites. He’s precise, while I go with the flow.”
Having such a complimentary two-person team in place to head up any company is advisable, but especially one which is so seasonal and so weather-dependent. Maintaining a park which is so susceptible to hurricane damage and fluctuating crowds requires someone who can ensure that all of the paperwork is properly filled out and filed, but also someone to keep spirits afloat and believe that tomorrow will bring better days.
Mike was working at the park during Hurricane Bob, which did major damage to the slides, such as ripping the top 50 feet off of the Starfish slide and blowing it into the back pond. “She was built right, and she was built solid, but we had to do a lot of repairs over the years. I rebuilt the deck up top, and the Starfish slide was reinforced with concrete underneath.”
Of course, these repairs are not cheap. Mike has taken a 70 percent decrease in pay over the years to help keep the business going and had to drain his rainy day fund after Super Storm Sandy in 2012, dropping $60,000 on electrical work alone. “I’ve talked about this with Lisa from the Chamber of Commerce a lot, the fact that the minute you own a business, people think that you’re a multimillionaire and an ATM, but they don’t see the department of health breathing down your neck, or the bills we have to pay, or the insurance going up. We have two months to make it each year, and that’s it.”
The last three years have not been good. Last summer, it rained virtually every single Saturday, so the park operated at a loss. Mike realized he couldn’t continue going with the flow because the flow was barely more than a trickle now.
Mike kept the park open as long as he could, knowing that so many of his young employees rely on it and on him for the support that goes well beyond financial.
“I want to be there for them,” he shared. “I’ve got 19 kids that need jobs, but over the years, I’ve become a surrogate parent and a counselor to so many of them. I get calls at 2 a.m. from some of my kids that need a ride home because they drank too much at a party, or they’re struggling with depression, or they come to me for advice about how to talk to their parents about difficult topics. I think they see me as someone safe and non-judgmental, and these connections, above all, are what I’m going to miss the most.”
“I could build a water slide in my sleep if I wanted to – we’ve all gotta be good at something,” Mike laughed, but it’s clear from the way he speaks about his employees and his guests that he’s good at much more than that. He’s able to provide the people around him with an experience that goes beyond just fun, helping build up confidence as people conquer their fears and giving kids a space to simply exist and be kids, in a world that’s filled with bad news and technology around every corner.
“I just want to emphasize the gratitude I feel,” Mike said as we wrapped up. “I’m so thankful to everyone for their support over the years.” Whether you were a visitor to the park or one of his kids, it’s pretty safe to say that that gratitude is mutual.
So if you’ve never visited the park, or if you’ve been a regular slider all along, now’s the time to get in your last slides at Water Wizz and be sure to say “thanks!” for all the fun!