One of the world’s leading thrill ride creators is about to bring a touch of adrenalin, magic and ecology to Rainbow Springs in Rotorua.
The $10 million-plus “Project Splash” is the single largest investment in Rainbow Springs since it opened in 1932. The new ride is designed by Intamin, a Switzerland-based design and manufacturing company that has created amusement rides for Movie World, Sea World and Disney World.
Ngāi Tahu Tourism project manager Stewart Brown says the ride will take visitors on a nine-minute journey through New Zealand’s ecological evolution, and is due for completion early next year.
In May, Ngāi Tahu Tourism management, local iwi Ngāti Whakaue, and local dignitaries gathered at Rainbow Springs to pick up shovels for the “sod-turning” opening of the expansion.
The new ecological thrill ride will begin its journey in the realm of Tāne Mahuta (God of the forest and birds) among kauri and tōtara trees with a chorus of birdsong including tūī and kea.
As the ride sweeps around a corner, a screeching squawk silences the choir, as life-sized models loom into view – a pouākai (the enormous extinct Haast Eagle) attacking a moa.
The ride will continue to journey through time, passing by an ancient Ngāti Whakaue pā site, and then a 19th century English settlement. It gradually climbs up to a tree canopy, where visitors are told how they can look after Papatūānuku, by doing activities such as replanting and recycling. The ride climaxes with a steep 12-metre adrenaline drop into a splash pool.
Project Splash also includes the development of a 400-seat auditorium to host shows featuring live birds; an interactive playground with fun educational activities for families, such as a fossil digs; and an upgrade of the reptile enclosure to house 10 newly hatched tuatara.
Ngāi Tahu Tourism chief executive John Thorburn says Rainbow Springs has developed a great story based on the country’s natural history, and it was time for a 21st Century twist. “We needed to take a more interactive approach to bring the park to life.”
The wildlife park attracts around 120,000 visitors a year and is one of New Zealand’s iconic tourism destinations, especially because of its breeding and viewing facilities for endangered native species.
Thorburn says while Rainbow Springs is a commercially successful operation, he would like to see it do even better.
“We have a really positive view that once we complete the development we will see even greater returns.”
The project is expected to start turning a profit by June 2013.
Destination Rotorua General Manager Don Gunn is thrilled about the development at Rainbow Springs, and says it will attract more visitors to the town.
“A water ride is a unique addition. It is great because it’s the only one of its kind in New Zealand.”
Rainbow Springs was previously owned by the Shotover Jet Group and when Ngāi Tahu Tourism took over that group in 1995 they acquired the wildlife park. Rotorua is seen as one of three tourist hubs in New Zealand, alongside Auckland and Queenstown.
With an already well-established base in Queenstown, Thorburn believes it’s important to spread the wealth of investment to mitigate the risk and to tap into different flows of tourist activity.
Thorburn says a strength of this investment is that it is expected to capture the attention of markets that haven’t always been targeted in the past, such as the domestic and Asian tourist markets.
Locally Rainbow Springs has established a partnership with the mana whenua of the region, Ngāti Whakaue, who own neighbouring tourism operator Mitai Māori Village.
Ngāti Whakaue kaumātua Bishop Kingi says they have always encouraged other iwi organisations to be a part of Rotorua.
“With Ngāi Tahu making a big investment in Rainbow Springs, it means that they are going to be here for the long term, and this will only continue to grow and foster the relationship between the iwi.”
Following the official May opening, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu also held a meeting with Ngāi Tahu living in Rotorua.
As part of this hui Ngāi Tahu Tourism project manager, Eruera Tarena talked to local whānau about potential job opportunities at Rainbow Springs once the development is completed. Currently Rainbow Springs employs 27 staff.
One of Ngāi Tahu Tourism’s strategic goals is to encourage and support more Ngāi Tahu into tourism-focused careers within Ngāi Tahu operations and the wider industry.
Thorburn plans to hold a pre-employment programme for Ngāi Tahu in Rotorua just before it advertises its new roles.
In the meantime, a swarm of hard hats and hi-viz vests have moved onto the construction site at Rainbow Springs, stepping to the beat of the clanking hammers and rumbling dozers.