Hike up your bell bottoms. The waterbed is relaunching in Florida.
But don't confuse this new waterbed with the Free-Love symbol of the '70s. Gone (at least mostly) are the oceanic waves, now tamed by new materials less likely to puncture. Gone are the infamously heavy wooden frames; they've been replaced by foam. No need for special sheets either — normal linens and bedding are fine.
Its new place of business: the former Waterbed City. You know it today as City Furniture. The South Florida furniture chain will carry AFLOAT — a new iteration of the old water-filled mattress — in three of its 17 locations: Tamarac, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach.
The original waterbed's inventor, Charlie Hall, is teaming up with Keith Koenig, City Furniture's CEO and Michael Geraghty, a former waterbed manufacturer, to introduce a redesigned version of the waterbed. Together, they formed Hall Floatation, based in Tamarac, and rolled out the new waterbed under the AFLOAT name with the motto “Not your parents' waterbed.”
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In 1976, Koenig met Hall at a waterbed show in California. The two became business partners and have been friends ever since. (City Furniture adopted its current name in 1994.)
"Charlie knows more about waterbeds than anybody, any other person alive," said Koenig.
Two years ago, Koenig called up Hall with the proposition to get back into the waterbed market. Koenig believes a new-found cultural awareness about the importance of sleep and a consumer appetite for premium, high-end beds make conditions right for a revival. He points to the success of Tempur-Pedic beds and similar deluxe sleep platforms as proof.
"People recognize that if you’re going to be sleeping seven to eight hours a night on a mattress, and that sleep affects your health, there’s value in investing in a premium mattress," he said.
First contact with the AFLOAT mattress feels like lying on a foam-covered balloon. You sink a few inches; but when the bed settles, the water evens out and seems to firm up under you. The experience is nothing like a pillow-top or memory-foam bed. That Koenig says, is a good thing.
"The difference between most beds simply comes down to how much firmer or softer it is," he said. "This waterbed is like nothing else in this store."
The AFLOAT trio hopes to play to the nostalgia of an older generation while also drawing in a younger customer base of first-timers.
"There are two kinds of customers,” Geraghty said. “Baby boomers that say ‘I remember having one of those,’ and millennials that say, ‘What?’”
Prices will start at around $2,000 for a queen-sized bed, which, Geraghty said, is equal to $450 in 1975 — the price of a new waterbed back in the day. The highest end model, the dual king, costs about $3,300 and allows for occupants to control the temperature of their respective sides.
Waterbeds had their heyday in the '70s and '80s, with sales eventually accounting for 12 to 15 percent of the bedding market, according to a 1986 New York Times story. That would be about $4.3 billion in today’s dollars.
“The [original] waterbed began as a gurgling mass of velvet-topped vinyl, procured in bead-draped record stores along with incense and albums from the rock group Cream,” wrote Times reporter Patricia Leigh Brown at the time
To its inventor, then a 24-year-old design student in San Francisco, that was all well and good. It sure sold beds.
“The waterbed got perceived in a way I didn’t expect,” Hall said. “When it started out in 1968 it was the Summer of Love. It was a time for experimentation and a lot of counterculture and waterbeds fit perfect in that.”
But there were also negative perceptions. The heavy beds earned a reputation for crashing through upper floors under the weight of the 235 gallons in a king-size; many landlords required waterbed insurance. Countless cartoons depicted sea-sickness and geysers shooting from the bed. Mention a waterbed in a group of people over 50 and watch everyone snicker.
In the '90s., waterbed sales tanked. Hall moved on to invent other water-related gadgets such as the inflatable kayak and the sun-shower — a popular portable shower used for outdoor recreation.
But now, with the relaunch of the waterbed, Hall wants people to know that this new design isn’t just a novelty, but a “very serious sleep product.”
Thanks to materials developed since the old days, the new waterbed offers benefits that pillow-top and memory foam beds can’t provide, said Koening. For one, he said, waterbeds don't retain nearly as much heat. The form-fitting contours created by a waterbed also cut down on tossing and turning, which translates to a better overall quality of sleep.
“The idea of a waterbed is very primal,” Hall said. “Floating is a relaxing sensation. The temperature is right, like in a whirlpool bath or hot tub, and your muscles expand.”
And when it comes to selling the new waterbeds, City Furniture and its 1,100 employees have the muscle. In 2017, revenues exceeded $364 million, and the company is planning on expanding to Orlando with three stores. Each will measure more than 100,000 square feet.