The Would-Be Walt Disney of Action Sports Needs $300 Million to Make Orlando Awesome

Larry Walshaw is the one-man dynamo building a ski mountain next to a surf break next to waterfall next to a bike trail.
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Larry Walshaw is the one-man dynamo building a ski mountain next to a surf break next to waterfall next to a bike trail.
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Larry Walshaw got the idea from his 15-year-old son, now twenty, who complained that the Gulf Stream wasn't tossing any waves toward Atlantic Beach in August. The ocean was flat and the land was flat and Walshaw wondered, god-like, if it had to be thus. So he looked at some man-made wave operations in California and considered starting one before realizing that such a business would have a limited market, a high-price point, and some steep competition from the ocean itself. Better, he decided, to big and build something truly Epcot-ian in scale, an adult playground where active entrants could spend long days surfing, skiing, skateboarding, biking, skydiving, watersliding, climbing, and throwing snowballs at each other (more on that later).

"It's natural," Walshaw says, describing building a slalom course in Florida. "We're just up the road from Disney and we can attract people - some of the same people, but other people too - with sports tourism and bring in professional athletes."

If this sounds slightly deluded, it's because Xero Gravity Action Sports' plan to turn a plot of Bermuda Grass into the epicenter of adrenaline sports is so just this side of a pleasure dome decreed. Still, the plan is hardly insane. Walshaw is right that a lot of professional athletes live in Florida, that a lot of them are looking for a place to train, that skiers are used to training on synthetic snow, that summer bikini skiing sounds great, and that scaling up could bring down ticket prices. What's impressive is that bringing snow to Florida in August is not just plausible - it might well be profitable.

Walshaw, who is a successful developer of business parks, is betting he can attract crowds - he speaks in millions - by offering a differentiated product, a more modern version of the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility already making buck on South Victory Way. Not only will there be a hill covered in Snowflex, a product made in England and common in rich, hot parts of the world, there will be a massive surfing pool, a skate park, a professional-standard BMX track, two pods for simulated skydiving, a ropes course, a competitive waterslide (matts outfitted with guns used to shoot targets on the 14-floor drop, and a competitive snowball fight arena. That last bit is an idea he got in Japan, where snowball fighting is apparently taken considerably more seriously than in America.

"The difference between us and some other parks is that you'll come to us multiple times," Walshaw explains. "It will be about improving at sports so the relationship will be different."

Part of his plan to change the relationship between the park visitor and the park requires new facial recognition software from Amsterdam. If the park is built to Walshaw's vision, guests will have immediate access to instant replay videos showing their performance in various activities. There's a social media and marketing side to this ploy, but it will also prove useful for the athlete ("Sean White's boys") that Walshaw wants to bring in. A half-pipe dream? Not exactly. Walshaw is already in talks with IMG, which reps many of the highest profile competitors on Earth.

Still, the grand vision remains just that. In order to actually construct the park, Walshaw and his partners will need what he describes as "high net worth individuals in the sport industry" to take an interest and pony up around $300 million. That's a lot of dough, but it's hardly without precedent in Florida, home to Miami's $1.2-billion Marlins Park and theme park tax advantages. "We're knocking on doors right now," says Walshaw.

What's more impressive than the scope of the project is that the aspiration doesn't end with a ribbon cutting. Walshaw says he wants the consistent wave in the five-acre surf pool to be used as the test case for an Olympic surfing competition.

"We want to go big."