Feature Article - October 2016
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Wet & Wild Destinations

Strategies for Waterpark Success

By Dave Ramont


Be Unique

When it comes to unique designs, Dollywood's Splash Country in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., fits the bill. The 35-acre waterpark is part of the Dollywood complex, which includes the Dollywood Theme Park and Dollywood's DreamMore Resort. The Smoky Mountain-themed waterpark boasts more than 23 thrill rides, adventure slides, a 25,000-square-foot wave pool, a 1,500-foot lazy river, an 8,000-square-foot landing pool, a children's interactive area, a family raft ride and numerous support facilities. Throughout the park visitors can view towering hardwoods and area-indigenous landscaping. A 28-foot waterfall cascades over a 300-foot-long precipice. The park highlights the beautiful mountain setting and utilizes the uniquely shaped land.

Pete Owens, director of public relations at Splash Country, related how the park is nestled in the hills, and because of the terrain the park design is pretty unique. "It sits in kind of a bowl, so designing the park was really a discovery experience. You really needed to come around the bend and discover what was in the waterpark, it wasn't anything you could see from the street."

The park won the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) Industry Leadership Award for Best New Waterpark when it opened in 2001.

Owens went on to explain how every couple of years they continue to invest in the park, based on demand and new innovations. And, depending on the addition, they may increase the footprint of the park itself, allowing them to handle more guests.

General Manager Mike Brown said that next year they'll be adding a version of the popular mat racer, to be called the Tailspin Racer, which will be stationed almost above their lazy river on a hillside.

As far as marketing, Owens described how they work in tandem with Dollywood Theme Park, offering "Super Passes" to be used at both parks. They also do radio promotions and ticket contesting. The waterpark enjoys a robust food and retail program, and overall revenue of food and merchandise is up more than 10 percent this year. "The thing that we continue to see is the implications of social media, and how it's starting to play into our food business with our new product, Beaver Tails, which really lends itself to social media well," Owens said. Beaver Tails are a Canadian product that's relatively new to the amusement industry, consisting of fried dough with a variety of toppings, and they've proven wildly popular at the waterpark.

Another attendance booster at Splash Country is the occasional philanthropies they do, such as a recent one for Ronald McDonald House, where there's discounted admission with proceeds going to the charity. Owens said that drives attendance, raises awareness, and lets people know that the park is a caring organization. In the past 10 years or so, more than $350,000 has been raised for The Ronald McDonald House alone.

Generate Revenue

Another big revenue generator at many waterparks is the rental of private cabanas. At Splash Country they have a smaller version called canopies and a larger version called retreats. Every year they add more, but Brown said, "We still haven't been able to reach the saturation point. We're at around 28 and we'll be putting in more next year. We have about a 97 percent rent rate."

Everyone connected to waterparks agrees that skill-based, competitive attractions are really hot right now, and will only gain traction. As Schindler said, "Anything that invites competition automatically ups the entertainment value. Everyone wants to beat their friend or family member."

These attractions tap into the extremely popular culture that includes surfing, bodyboarding, skateboarding, wakeboarding, snowboarding and skimboarding. And, it's fun to watch—spectators are entertained by the impressive tricks, skills, and of course the wipeouts. And those spectators increase revenue through food, beverage and retail sales.

And, as Brinkel pointed out, "Competitive features within a waterpark are a great driver for repeat business." Enthusiasts want to come back again and again to hone their skills, as no two visits are the same.

"Surfing is one of the fastest-growing sports—in not only the United States, but worldwide," according to Jessica Mahoney, manager of marketing and communications at the Cohoes, N.Y.-based waterpark company. Surf simulators and wave-generating machines are all the rage, creating waves every several seconds that can drastically change size, shape and difficulty level depending on the riders' skill and comfort level. There are an infinite number of real-wave simulations, all at the tap of a screen. Waves can reach higher than 11 feet. There are competitions and expositions and even tournaments and tours that travel the country.

Another hot new innovation is Slideboarding, a videogame-integrated waterslide where participants use a boogie board and attempt to hit
targets while sliding.

The machines, which use little space but can accommodate more than 150 riders per hour, can be a stand-alone attraction, where users can drop in on their own unbroken wave and do maneuvers or carve a turn. Or, they can adjoin a lazy river to add rapids, boils, whirlpools and hydraulic jumps for high-capacity family fun. Mahoney mentioned a recently opened ride at Water World in Colorado, which is a one-of-a-kind boogie boarding surf ride "giving guests the experience of real ocean surfing but with a perfect wave every time."

Another hot new innovation is Slideboarding, a videogame-integrated waterslide where participants use a boogie board and attempt to hit targets while sliding. A progressive system tracks their scores—syncing every hit, miss and bulls-eye—as they compete head-to-head with unlimited levels to beat and badges to collect. "It allows people to compete against themselves to improve their standing within the game, as well as letting them measure up against other Slideboarders," Schindler said.