With most regions of the United States already hosting at least one full size amusement park, it’s become increasingly rare for an entire new development to occur. Several attempts have been made over the past couple decades, but often these fizzle out in the planning stages, and on the rare occasion one gets built, success is difficult to achieve. However, one that has managed to open its gates recently is Lost Island Theme Park. Located in the city of Waterloo, Iowa, this park is fairly remote as it’s about an hour drive from the nearest large city (Cedar Rapids), two hours from Iowa’s population center (Des Moines), and four hours from the nearest major airport (Minneapolis). However, with this year’s theme park road trip planned to take me from Kansas City to Chicago (before returning via St. Louis), I decided to make a detour to check this place out. What I expected was a small park with some fun rides and creative theming. What I found, however, was quite possibly the best park in the Central US not named Silver Dollar City.
While Lost Island is a new park, it is not a wholly new development. Back in 2001, the Bertch Family opened Lost Island Waterpark, which has grown into one of the best mid-size waterparks in the country.
In the mid-2010s, they made the decision that it was time to expand, and this would be accomplished by building a 90-acre theme park on property across the street from their existing operation. Originally, this park was themed to a lost continent (such as Atlantis), but that was discarded in favor of something new. Without rights to any popular IP, Lost Island created their own, coming up with the enchanted island of Auk Modu, a place composed of five different elemental realms that are kept in balance by the mysterious Tamariki. Construction began in August of 2019 by digging out a third of the property to create an artificial lake, and over the next three years a park sprung up from the former cornfield.
Lost Island opened to the world on June 18, 2022, but unfortunately that first season didn’t go as planned. Due to delays caused by the Covid pandemic, roughly a third of the park’s attractions were not ready to go at opening, and some of those missed the first year entirely. Additionally, a lack of advertising resulted in extremely low visitation, with the park only turning a profit on a single operating day. The incomplete look of the park, as well as operational issues caused by low staffing, led to subpar reviews, and the park closed early for the season. In May of this year, they reopened their gates with a full attraction line-up, full staffing across the board, and a new strategy to make the park a success. So, join me now as we take a tour of Auk Modu and see what this place has to offer.
Upon arrival, guests step onto Ara Matua, a boulevard which functions as the main street of this park. Colorful pathways lead guests toward the grand entrance, a Polynesian inspired structure with the park’s name and logo front and center. Beyond is a courtyard giving views of each of the realms that make up this park, arranged in a circular manner for convenient navigation.
Aoka, the Tamariki of Friendship, serves as the park’s mascot and is on hand to greet visitors. Helpful island guides (this park’s name for staff members) are also available to answer any questions guests may have. Otherwise, it’s time to head deeper into Auk Modu. Although I went clockwise on my expedition, we’re going to go the other way here to line up with the numbers on my map.
Our first realm is the spirit realm, home to the Tamariki. While the magical guardians of Auk Modu and the ones charged with maintaining balance, these mischievous little spirits enjoy play like children, and as such this functions as the park’s kiddie area.
A Wacky Worm coaster named Lokolo and a half dozen Zamperla flat rides are available, all given an island name and decorated to fit within the colorful realm. At the center of everything is the Tamikoa Grotto, a play structure providing young ones the perfect spot to burn off energy. A snack stand (Ummi Ummis) and gift shop (Tamariki Trinkets) round off the area’s offerings. It’s not an area too unlike kids areas at most theme parks, but it is well done and just an appetizer for the level of detail that is to come.
Next up on our tour of Auk Modu, we reach the realm of Udara. Home to the Air Kingdom populated primarily by quirky inventors, this area is given a steampunk vibe and has various thematic pieces powered by the simple flow of air.
In the lore of the island, a floating city once resided over this region, and the people here now seek the knowledge required to rebuild and repopulate that wonderful civilization. Here, we find Nopuko Air Coaster, the largest of the park’s three roller coasters, which is a refurbished Vekoma SLC that formerly operated in South Africa. An intense and somewhat rough ride, this one was not a favorite of mine, but is a wonderful thematic fit for this area of the park. A couple other flat rides adorn this realm, including a Gerstlauer Sky Fly and a Zamperla Family Swinger, and the Aviarium play structure at the center hosts ADA-friendly activities for the young and young at heart, but the signature attraction in Udara is the Skyborne Drop Tower.
Lost Island was built for a budget of just $100 million, and as such the park features primarily stock model attractions and used rides from other parks. However, this park goes all out in making everything fit the lore, and Skyborne is a perfect example of such. While the ride itself is a standard S&S Turbo Drop, it features an elaborate indoor queue filled with props and murals that tell the story of the Udara people and their attempts to reestablish their floating city.
This culminates in a preshow informing passengers they are about to take a ride on a new experimental air transport that will be used to allow travel between the island and the floating city. While the ride itself is nothing to write home about, the level of detail in the whole experience is something that sets this park apart from some parks that are theme parks in name only. To keep within budget, each area of Lost Island contains one such signature attraction that offers guests a look into the backstory created for Auk Modu.
Continuing past Skyborne, pines fade to palms as we enter Awa. Home to the Water Nomads who formerly sailed across the globe to satisfy their longing for aquatic adventure, they have largely become an easygoing group who now enjoy the simple pleasures of island life. This beachy area is the largest section of the park and contains quite a variety of family-friendly attractions spread out over two connected areas.
The first is home to Awaati Water Battle, a splash battle attraction for those who wish to get soaked, as well as Akua Maze, a play area with copious opportunities to get wet. A couple flat rides, namely a pirate ship and water-themed flying carousel, are available for those who would rather remain a bit drier. This is also where guests will find Whalebone Grill, one of the park’s two counter-service restaurants. While I didn’t eat at the park, I did peek at the menu and found it to contain mostly bowls and sandwiches, with common chicken options as well as more thematic seafood selections. Prices were also very reasonable: $6-10 for entrees and $3-4 for sides.
Crossing a bridge, we arrive at the second part of Awa, an island in the middle of Lost Island’s central lagoon. While most of the park is complete, this was sadly the one area that still felt like it needed some work. We saw crews still installing lanterns along the pathway in parts of this island, and the Nika’s Gift Carousel that has been delayed due to manufacturing issues is still far from completion. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to do here. The Alzanu’s Eye Ferris Wheel is at the dead center of the park and provides a great view of the entire property, and there are also a couple smaller flat rides as well as an arcade and multiple play areas to keep visitors entertained. This section of the park also houses the Thirsty Voyager, the only location in the park to purchase alcoholic beverages and join the islanders in their relaxation.
Once we’re ready to leave the beach behind, another bridge leads over to Yuta. Inhabited by the Earth Tribe, this region is intended to be a dense jungle but has yet to grow in. As such, the Totara Market, which is built inside of a large tree named Namua, does look a bit out of place, but in time I feel it will be complimented well by its surroundings. This is the park’s second counter-service restaurant, serving up burgers, wraps, pizza, chicken, and pork dishes.
All the buildings in the area are designed as if made out of stone, including this realm’s play structure, which is designed to look like ancient ruins. Besides that, this area actually has a relatively low ride count, but all three attractions here are worth experiencing.
First up is Yuta Falls, a modern version of a log flume that serves as this area’s signature attraction. Long ago, the Yuta Tribe took what the Earth provided them with as their exclusive right, which led to excessive mining and logging of the land. On the verge of ecological collapse, a great serpent appeared to them and taught them how to live in balance with nature, taking only what they needed and protecting the rest of the forest so that others may have their needs met as well.
This story is told through several murals in the lengthy queue line, with the flume ride that follows representing a journey to a mystic water source with healing qualities, with which the tribe was able to right the wrongs of the past.
The giant serpent, known as Matugani, is the theme for this realm’s other large attraction. An Intamin accelerator coaster that formerly operated in Sweden as Kanonen, Matugani blasts riders out of a stone station at 0-46 MPH in 2 seconds before passing over a 78 ft. tall top hat, completing a 65 ft. vertical loop, and spiraling through several quick turns and an in-line twist. It’s a very short ride, but packs a punch and is sure to leave thrill seekers satisfied.
The third ride in this section is Kukui Station, a bumper cars attraction with a bit of a twist. Instead of more common cars, these have riders sitting on top of rings and controlling each wheel individually, allowing for higher speed collisions and leading to lots of spinning. Lights and music enhance the experience, and there are even points where the computer will take control of cars, forcing them to dance in unison.
As we ascend a slight grade, the landscape turns dark and the structures turn red. This is Mura, home of the Fire Clan. A large volcano dominates this area, with everything else forming a village at its base. Inhabiting this realm are the spiritual warriors of Auk Modu, who are tasked with protecting the entire island from the terrifying monsters and demons that threaten it from time to time.
When not at war, they are athletes and acrobats, lending to this area containing a few of the park’s more thrilling flat rides. Named for the monsters that have terrorized the island in the past and centered around the Makatu Shrine play area, these will spin you around and turn you upside down. The signature ride of this area, however, as well as the best attraction in the entire park, lies within the volcano itself.
Of all the artifacts on Auk Modu, the most important of them is the Ora Tika idol. Protecting this is the responsibility of the Mura clan, as it is the power holding Volkanu, the demon of fire, at bay deep within the Mura volcano. When this idol goes missing, the Tamariki need your help to recover it and save Auk Modu from destruction. Such is the setup for Volkanu: Quest for the Golden Idol.
Your adventure on this attraction begins with a pre-show setting the stage, followed by a winding indoor queue that contains other visual effects as well as an animatronic of the Shaman, your guide for this adventure.
The ride itself is a trackless, 4D interactive dark ride aboard vehicles with motion bases that move through an environment populated by sets, screens, animatronics, and all sorts of visual effects. Riders must find the Ora Tika idol and use its power to defeat both the lava monster Rokava as well as Volkanu himself to prevent the island from becoming lost forever. It is a high-tech attraction pulled off masterfully, and is quite possibly the best dark ride I’ve experienced in North America outside of the big destination parks.
Throughout all the realms of Lost Island, the main thing that remains constant is the commitment of this park to doing as much as it possibly can with the resources that they have. As awesome as it would be to see something completely immersive, the park doesn’t have the budget for that, so on a visual level it does seem a bit barren in spots.
However, the level of detail in what the park has built is absolutely top notch, from the signature attractions all the way down to simple fencing around the walkways. Paint schemes and station structures are consistent with what one would expect from a realm themed to that element, and queue lines are wood posts and ropes rather than unpainted steel switchbacks. Even the pathway and landscaping changes from realm to realm, making it clear that you’re transitioning as you make your way around the park. The park tries really hard to make each area distinct and make everything feel like a part of this world that they’ve created, leaving tell-tale theme park elements for use only where there really isn’t any other choice.
Beyond that, the employees really sell the experience. The park has it’s own language called Aukipi, and guides sprinkle words from that into their spiels. Additionally, each realm has a couple natives as streetmosphere characters, and Dr. Marion Galavant can be spotted throughout the park studying the cultures of Auk Modu. The park’s official app goes much deeper into the lore and backstory of the entire place, and numerous interactive elements scattered throughout the park form a sort of treasure hunt for those who enjoy the modern game aspects of themed entertainment. This park really gives everything 150%, and it’s impressive that they’ve managed to create such a high-quality themed experience for a fraction of the budget Disney or Universal spend on a single E-ticket attraction.
Longtime readers of this site may remember a game we used to play here called Theme Park Apprentice. In that game, the final challenge was always to design a theme park from the ground up, either as a new park within an existing chain or using an original concept not tied to any property. To me, Lost Island feels a bit like a Theme Park Apprentice proposal brought to life, as it’s full of imagination and creativity that modern attractions based on pre-existing IP and designed solely to maximize profit tend to lack. This is a park unlike anything else in the country, one where the designers poured heart and soul into every facet of its being, and one that truly puts the guest experience first. Despite the limitations of the real world and despite how it looks on paper, this park is truly a gem hidden in a place few are likely to stumble upon, and if it can gain a foothold and grow, has serious potential of rivaling any regional theme park in the country a decade from now. I’ve heard some whispers about expansion plans this place has, and if they are able to enact them, it could very well turn into a place like Germany’s Phantasialand, with lots of original high-quality storytelling and thematic experiences of a level not typically found outside of Disney or Universal.
But Lost Island needs your help, and not just to defeat Volkanu. The park was designed with the goal of averaging 3,000-4,000 guests per day during the summer season, and as you can probably see from my pictures, they aren’t getting anywhere close to that. Just last weekend, the park celebrated their first day with four-digit attendance this year, and everyone was excited to see actual lines in the park instead of there being just enough people to fill the rides. To put it into perspective, I was there on a weekday in mid-June, and I’ve been to Knott’s Berry Farm on school days in January with more people in the park. As such, if you have the ability to do so, I highly encourage you to venture to the park this year and show your support. It is a park hampered by location, and if they can’t get attendance there is a serious chance they may not reopen in 2024. However, if word gets out and more discover this place, there’s no reason for it not to succeed just as the waterpark next door has done.
It’s rare that a new park springs up in this industry, and it’s even more rare that one with such thought put into it arises. Lost Island Theme Park is truly an outlier in all the best ways, and what they’ve done thus far is only a scratch on the surface of a well filled with untapped potential. What I saw reminded me very much of the regional parks I found dotted around Germany on my trip last year, but when it comes to domestic parks, Lost Island is truly one of a kind.
Lost Island is located just south of US 20 in Waterloo, Iowa. Due to road construction in the area, GPS navigation may not be accurate, so make sure to review a map prior to arrival. At the time of my visit, the only access to the park was via US 218 as the intersection of Hess Rd. and Shaulis Rd. was completely closed for construction. The theme park and waterpark are open 10:30am – 6:30pm daily through August 20, then open Saturday and Sunday the following two weekends before closing for the season. On select Friday and Saturday nights, the theme park is open until 9:30pm. Allow yourself approximately three to four hours for the theme park and about six hours total if you also want to visit the waterpark. Admission is $52 at the gate, with savings of up to $10 if purchased online in advance. The park also sells one day Island Passes at the gate for $62, which grant admission to both the theme park and waterpark. Parking is $10 per vehicle. For more information, visit www.thelostisland.com.
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