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Feature Article - September 2005

Waterparks, Waterparks, Everywhere

Boosting business through a firm focus on recreational aquatics

By Kyle Ryan


Because of the city's size, it seems surprising that Chicago—the third largest metropolis in the country—lacked a major waterpark until this year. Though Six Flags has had a presence in the Windy City for years with its Six Flags Great America, the mega amusement park only provided fun of the dry variety. Granted, Chicago's summers are relatively short; warm weather only becomes consistent around June, generally with a limited number of days above 90 degrees.

But the demand for waterpark facilities remains. In the city itself, several municipal aquatic facilities are stuck with a dated rectangular-pool-and-nothing-else model, though many suburban park districts offer plenty of newer types of splashes. For example, Tinley Park, Ill., opened a recreationally focused aquatic center called White Water Canyon in 2002. The 600,000-gallon park features two water slides, a lazy river with rapids and tumble buckets, a zero-depth activity pool, children's play structure, and 25-yard lap pool. The park routinely has drawn more than 60,000 visitors each year.

This past summer, Six Flags opened Hurricane Harbor waterpark next door to Great America in the northern suburbs. It features 25 water slides (including water coasters), a lazy river, zero-depth entry pools, a water playground, wave pool and raft rides. Facing a dry and scorching summer, Hurricane Harbor seemed poised for success in its first year of operation.

All in all, waterparks seem to prove the old Field of Dreams maxim of "If you build it, they will come," especially because the parks tend to be visually stunning. They just look fun. But even places like White Water Canyon or Hurricane Harbor aren't ends in themselves.

"I believe recreation is a perishable commodity," says Scot Hunsaker of aquatics firm Counsilman/Hunsaker in St. Louis. "If you're going to be a positive cash-flow facility, you have to continually reinvest. You can't just build it and expect it to last 30 years."

To keep attendance up, parks have to keep people interested. For the various segments of the aquatics world, that means different things. But one common denominator remains, whether thfalsecility is operated by a university, municipality, hotel or waterpark: Recreation is king.

A BRIEF HISTORY

The waterpark as it is today didn't exist prior to the late 1970s. According to the World Waterpark Association, the first one, Wet 'N Wild, opened in 1977 in Orlando, Fla.

"When that happened, we saw two things change in our experience in aquatics," Hunsaker says. "We saw attendance go through the roof, and we also saw people's willingness to pay also increase. They equated recreation value with customer satisfaction. My belief is the way to measure customer satisfaction is 'What can you get for it?' So that began to change aquatics in this country."

Soon, stand-alone water slides, usually made from concrete and built into manmade hills, began appearing off highways around the country. By the early to mid-1980s, municipalities picked up on the trend as well.

"So you saw a rain drop, you saw a beach entry, you saw a water slide," Hunsaker says. "You saw shade structures. You saw a pool that wasn't rectangular."

That focus on recreation for municipalities really took off between 1985 and 1990. Today, an aquatics facility built around a single rectangular pool generally faces financial problems. It falls into the category that Hunsaker would call "not fiscally sustainable." The number of those types of facilities has shrunk for the past 20 years, however.

According to the World Waterpark Association, today there are more than 1,000 waterparks in North America, with an estimated attendance of more than 70 million each year.

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