Oceana Park, Newbury, Ohio: the first wave pool in America was not designed for surfing

History is a complex puzzle of dates and facts, and sometimes, a small clue or hint can change our solidified perspective of the past.

On October 4, 2023, I penned an article titled "Big Surf: the story of America's first modern wave pool."

It's about the magical waterpark with artificially generated waves that opened on October 24, 1969, in Tempe, Arizona.

Big Surf was a multifaceted surf center developed by Phil Dexter.

It was open for business for 51 years and even welcomed Pope John Paul II. Not for a surf, but surely for a blessing.

Anyway, two months after my article saw the light of day, I received an intriguing email from a US Air Force logistics operations manager.

In his kind message, he told me that the claim that Big Surf was North America's first modern wave pool could not be 100 percent correct.

Apparently, Oceana Park was a facility that opened on Memorial Day, May 29, 1961, in Newbury, Ohio - eight years before the Arizona surf lagoon.

After a quick inspection, I found no evidence that the Ohio was open for surfing, surfboards, or surfers.

In my reply to the gentleman who kindly sent his email, I wrote:

"Wave pools are not new. The first facilities actually opened in the 19th century in Germany."

"In 1939, London's Wembley, England, was equipped with hydraulic technology that created ripples similar to the ocean's flowing motion."

"The thing is that on SurferToday, we're talking about wave pools for surfing, and while we know about previous concepts and patterns, Big Surf is probably the first unit specifically channeled at creating rideable waves."

"There are many types of wave pools and dozens of old and new patents granted."

"Was Oceana Park creating surfing waves or just waves for swimmers mimicking the ocean?"

"Have you got any pictures of it? Where can we know more about it? I cannot find any information about its operating period."

The US Air Force logistics operations manager got back to me.

"Unfortunately, there isn't much readily accessible information about Oceana."

"I had childhood friends that lived in the house right in front of Oceana, in the mid to late 1980s, and we used the [abandoned[ park as a Call Of Duty-style BB gun area."

"I know quite a few people that went to Oceana when it was open."

"Oceana was generating 3.5-4-foot waves. Whether they were suitable for surfing and whether it allowed surfing, I couldn't say."

"Not many people think of Northeast Ohio in regard to surfing."

"So I would believe that the intent of the wave pool was, as stated in Matrai's patent, to simulate the motion of the waves in the ocean without swimming in Lake Erie, which was highly polluted at that period in time."

"I'm biased towards Oceana's claim as the first wave pool in the US."

Fair enough, sir, even though, as a surf-related website, we at SurferToday were obviously referring to a pool with artificial waves that surfers can ride.

US Patent 3005207: the wave pool technology submitted by Miklos Matrai and protected on October 24, 1961

A One-of-a-Kind Water Park

But the story about Ohio's own surf machine stayed in the back of my mind for a while. The tale was too good to fade into oblivion.

And so I got to work. Here's everything I could gather about Ocean Park.

Oceana Park was a water world that opened on May 29, 1961, on Music Road/Street in Newbury, Ohio, just 25 miles southeast of Lake Eerie, one of the five surfable Great Lakes.

It was developed and built by three Hungarian refugee immigrants in record time.

Miklos Matrai, the inventor of the patent used at Oceana Park, and Edward Tibor Bory were two of the three partners involved in the project.

The complex had four water basins: an Olympic-sized pool, a kids' pool, a circular diving pool, and a wave pool, which generated 4.5-foot waves.

The facilities included multi-sports fields, food stands, 200 picnic tables, a snack bar, and grills.

The entertainment park charged $1 for adults and $0.75 for children on weekends and $0.75 and $0.50, respectively, during the week.

All visitors were greeted at the main entrance by a giant arch featuring the word "Oceana."

Oceana Park was a success among families, companies, and church groups.

For many locals, it was a source of some of the best childhood memories.

People who grew up close to the water park still remember the exciting times at the venue and the legendary dock in the middle of one of the pools.

The Olympic pool had two docks, one at each end. With a depth of only 6.5 feet, it was always the warmest of the pools.

The staff allowed boats and inflatable rafts, and those who experienced the amusement space say that, at the time, it was like a dream with no possible comparison.

Surprisingly, there are not many photo or film records of this historical site, even though some mention the existence of a brochure promoting Oceana Park.

Oceana Park, Newbury, Ohio: America's first wave pool opened on May 29, 1961, on Music Road/Street | Photo: Vintage Aerial

A Bittersweet End

Eventually, Oceana Park shut down in the late 1970s.

According to some local reports, the Geauga County Health District stressed that Olympic and diving pool filters did not follow the standards and would have to be completely redone.

Also, the diving pool wasn't deep enough for a three-meter board and would have to be dug deeper to remain open.

Last but not least, the 80-acre-plus property had to be fenced in for safety reasons.

Some people believe that America's first wave pool was forced to close after a kid drowned and his body was found at the bottom of one of the pools, resulting in a lawsuit.

But that is not true. The reasons stated above did, in fact, determine the fate of this "swimming paradise."

Nevertheless, it is rumored that influential individuals in the county with political connections aimed to buy the property, demolish the park, and build a housing development.

Their initial step was to close the park, and they succeeded in doing so, but the owner refused to sell the property for development.

The property was eventually sold in 1995, the iconic pools were filled in, and a house was built on the former Oceana Park site.

Gellért Baths, Budapest: one of the world's first surf pools opened in 1927 in Hungary | Photo: Creative Commons

From Hungarian Air Force to Wave Pool America

Hungary is not the first country you think of when the topic is wave pools and their history.

However, as unusual as it may seem, one of the world's first surf pools opened in 1927 at the Gellért Baths in Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

The large Art Nouveau complex featured indoor and outdoor pools, thermal baths, and spas.

The wave pool was obviously not designed for surfboards but to provide visitors with a taste of ocean waves without the need to travel to the coast.

Coincidence or maybe not, Oceana Park has a Central European fingerprint, specifically Hungary, the "land of waters."

Edward Tibor Bory was one of the three Hungarian entrepreneurs involved in the development of the Ohio water compound.

Born on April 22, 1929, in Marianostra, Hungary, Bory's early life was marked by the trials of World War II and the Nazi occupation.

Despite these adversities, he pursued technical training in Budapest and became an airplane mechanic and test pilot for the Hungarian Air Force.

Tibor's life took a dramatic turn in 1956 when he joined the ranks of the Hungarian Revolution as a freedom fighter.

The following year, he led his family on a daring escape to the United States, seeking freedom and new opportunities.

Settling in Cleveland, Ohio, Tibor began working at the Ford Motor Company and later in the construction industry before leading the construction of Oceana Park in Newbury, Ohio.

Edward Bory passed away on July 9, 2016, at the age of 87, at his home in Delaware, Ohio, following a battle with cancer.

Words by Luís MP | Founder of SurferToday.com

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