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Zip line could soar over Lake Michigan as floating water park expands

Guests try out the Whoa Zone waterpark near Whiting's Whihala Beach.

Thrill-seekers could soon slide down a 2,000-foot-long zip line over the rippling blue expanse of Lake Michigan.

Whiting is having engineers look into the cost of installing zip lines that would let people slide directly over the water in a first-of-its-kind attraction for the area, Mayor Joe Stahura said. It's one of a number of improvements the lakefront city is planning for its Whiting Lakefront Park, which drew an estimated 500,000 visitors last year.

The city plans to add a large destination playground this year, a children's train and 130 more parking spaces. Whiting will also open Whihala Beach to local pop-up vendors who could sell snow cones, coffee, pretzels, T-shirts, fidget spinners and more.

The Whoa Zone floating water park also is planning an expansion that will boost its capacity by about 25 percent after a successful first year, Stahura said.

Empire Recreation Management, which operates the Whoa Zone, estimates it brought in about 21,000 visitors from 15 states and even foreign countries like Japan. That included 14,638 from Illinois. About 13 percent of those who splashed around on the inflatable obstacles and slides traveled more than 90 miles to Northwest Indiana's lakefront.

The $300,000 attraction in 12-foot-deep water about 100 feet from the shore features floating monkey bars, jumping platforms, wiggle bridges, traversing walls and jumping platforms, as well as paddleboard, kayak and corcl rentals.

It proved so popular in its first year that new inflatable features will be added to accommodate 150 people at a time, instead of 120, Stahura said. The investment is expected to be around $20,000 to $25,000 since it's simply a matter of anchoring in more inflatable features.

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"The Whoa Zone was a great attraction that got good media coverage and drew people from all over the Midwest," Stahura said. "Now we're focusing on how we can bring additional people to the park."

A goal is to draw more visitors as early as April and May and as late as September and October, since the lake water is notoriously chilly except for a small window in the summer, Stahura said. The city will build a large destination playground this year, plans to bring in a restaurant for lakefront dining and is studying the cost of zip lines that would carry people from a tower over the water to a jetty in the harbor.

"It would be a unique feature on Lake Michigan," Stahura said. "We're looking at the location and foundation. We're taking soil samples to get a better engineering estimate."

The zip lines could become part of the Whoa Zone floating water park or be run by the city's parks department, depending on who puts up the initial funding. Stahura said it wasn't yet clear how soon the project could move forward, and if it would be feasible to start construction this year.

Starting this summer, Whiting plans to let local businesses such the Junkyard T-shirt shop and Mind Benders Puzzles and Games on 119th Street set up along the beach as pop-up vendors. They would pay a $15 to $20 fee for the day and be able to sell food, T-shirts and other goods to the hundreds who flock to the beach at any given day. If it's successful, Whiting could expand the program in the future.

"We're trying to keep it fresh and interesting," Stahura said.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.