Feature Article - February 2004
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In the Swim

The Best Strategies for Aquatic Center Peak Performance

By Kim Tobin

Design defined

In addition to fun in the sun, adding more aesthetic touches or architectural elements to a facility's design can help enhance its image in a community, potentially boosting usage and providing a pleasing view even when not open.

"We're also seeing more elegant and refined design in the facilities we're working with," says Scot Hunsaker of St. Louis-based Counsilman/Hunsaker and Associates, Inc. "People are not just looking for a basic water playland."

In Addison, Texas, an area of Dallas, the city-owned Athletic Club was looking to add an outdoor pool that would make a strong statement architecturally. Although not used year-round, the pool would continue to be viewed throughout the year by the adjacent club's patrons both day and night.

"They wanted an aquatic center with a strong visual presence…as in, a fountain they could swim in, as opposed to a pool that looked nice," adds Hunsaker, who designed and engineered the project.

Although Addison has a mix of age groups, including a strong young adult and growing senior population, the pool was also built to attract families with young children as well.

The leisure pool that resulted, which opened in June 2003, packs a punch with visual impact as well as the play features that so many communities are demanding.

The pool sits on three levels. An upper pool features a 12-foot-high waterfall connected to an aqueduct that can be turned on and off at will. Designed with adults in mind as a place to relax, it also includes therapy benches and bubble couches.

From the upper pool, water then cascades over another waterfall to a middle level, which accommodates both kids and adults and features a vortex.

The lowest level of the pool, designed for younger children, has a zero-depth entry and several spray features.

Although the pool closes at 8 p.m., its view keeps people happy even when its not in operation, according to Addison's recreation manager Randy Rogers.

"At night, if you're working out at the upper level of the club, the lighting is very impressive," Rogers says. "From the inside of the building, as you walk up the stairs and round a corner, you see this unbelievable view of the pool, so whether there's summer activity or not, there's always something to look at."

As city and institutional aquatic facilities add more interesting features and components to increase visitor draw, the differentiation between their offerings and those of local waterparks can begin to blur.

"While municipalities are not in the business to compete with waterparks, they're learning that they need to operate their facilities more like a business and create attractions that bring people back year after year," says Ken Ward, vice president and engineer with Water Technology Inc., aquatic designers, planners and engineers based in Beaver Dam, Wis. "People are not going to settle for flat water any more."

As municipalities and institutions expand their venues while still keeping their admission rates low, waterparks are undergoing their own changes to stay competitive. They're targeting different age groups with age-appropriate activities and moving indoors to bring a year-round tourism boost.

"Waterparks are starting to identify themselves with niche markets," says Judith Leblein, operations analyst for Water Technology Inc. "For example, to cater more to the extreme-sports/Gen-X crowd, a waterpark can get features like a wave-in-a-box—basically it's surfing on a hard board or Boogie Board. It provides a very low participation rate but a high spectator rate."

At Wet 'n Wild in Orlando, Fla., the waterpark is targeting both its youngest visitors with mini-versions of big-kid aquatic activities and older kids with thrill rides. Its Kids' Park area, which is restricted to kids 48 inches tall and under, offers mini-slides, a mini-lazy river that uses smaller inner tubes with enclosed bottoms and a mini-wave pool. For the older set, the park also introduced The Blast last spring, a 400-foot-long, teen-focused, one-to-two passenger tube slide as well as wake boarding, which was introduced in 2002, where riders are towed on the board via a cable on the park's lake.

Spurred by the great success stories of indoor waterpark mega-plexes like those in the Wisconsin Dells, more waterparks and resorts are picking up on the indoor aquatic center trend. In parts of the country that are not major metropolitan resort areas, second-tier-sized cities are using the indoor waterpark model, often linking it with resorts, as a draw to increase tourism to their area, year-round.

At Splash Lagoon in Erie, Pa., which opened last March, owner and developer Scott Enterprises expects around 300,000 attendees for its first year of operation. The 77,000-square-foot, $17 million indoor waterpark is a self-contained resort and sits nestled at the intersection of six hotels and three restaurants, also owned by Scott Enterprises.

"We have some unique synergies with our situation," says Nick Scott Jr., Scott Enterprises' vice president. "We're able to cross-market and offer good values with our hotel packages. We tried to make sure we provided something for the entire family within a unique environment."

The South Pacific-themed waterpark caters from toddlers to teens, including two thrill slide rides for the older set, the ProBowl and the Cannon Bowl. A highlight of the park includes a five-story interactive Tree House, which includes 12 levels of water amusement activities.

Other amenities include a tube slide that runs outside the park. When it re-enters the building, the riders experience a blackout as the ride turns completely dark for a final twisting turn. Riders are then emptied into a 300-foot lazy river. The park also includes an 80,000-gallon activity pool with eight water basketball hoops, two 25-person whirlpools and Monkey Shines Island—a toddler area with zero-depth entry, mini-water slides and other water activities.

Pool Design Components
to Help You Stay Competitive

BEACH ENTRY: Also called zero-depth, this type of sloping entry allows bathers to wade gradually into the water. This appeals to swimmers who don't like to jump in and to families with small children.

SPLASH PLAY AREAS: These water wonderlands are a design must-have to appeal to the younger set. The most popular contain a variety of sprays, fountains, dumping buckets and water cannons. Many are available in themed and architecturally interesting forms, as well as modular components, which can be expanded.

SLIDES: Most often a center's focal point of fun, slides that have an interesting activity incorporated with them can help a facility really stand out. Elements such as bowls, double occupancy, inner tubes, vertical drops, mini or kiddie designs, or flumes can help add variety and interest.

SPRAYS: From in-ground sprays that bubble or gush in low-velocity flowering or bending patterns, to higher force jet sprays and interactive water cannons, these play elements can cater to all different age sets. Consider installing a variety of types that are age-appropriate for the groups you want to target.

LAZY RIVERS AND CURRENT CHANNELS: A leisurely river provides bathers the opportunity to float down it with or without an inner tube. Current channels are most often connected to pools of water, while lazy rivers are usually continuous loops (which may also be connected to a pool). Both may have a slight current, though lazy rivers are usually wider, deeper and can accommodate inner tubes.

VORTEXES: A water element with a rotational flow that provides swimmers with the thrill of spinning in a circle, giving the appearance of a whirlpool. It can be stand-alone or adjacent to slides.

THERAPY COUCHES AND BUBBLE COUCHES: Underwater benches with bubble or therapy jets that either provide massage effects or just the cool sensation of hovering over a "mattress" of bubbles. Therapy couches provide similar effects to hot tub jets, with the therapy jets in distinct locations to provide therapeutic effects.

ENTERTAINMENT VENUE: Whether it's a pavilion, shaded area or stage, it's important to have space at a facility for dry-time fun, from birthday parties to concerts.