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Supplement Feature - October 2018
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Spray & Play

Splash Play Areas & Water Playgrounds Continue to Evolve

By Joseph Bush


In a 2016 study of park use by the Rand Corp., playgrounds with splash pads generated highest usage by nearly 20 percentage points. The same study found that only 11 percent of the 367 parks that were observed featured splash pads.

Splash pads are growing fast enough that the Trust for Public Land (TPL) added them as criteria for its annual ParkScore Index three years ago.

ParkScore uses a points system to rank cities on the quality of their parks by rating acreage, access, investment and six amenities: basketball hoops per 10,000 residents; dog parks per 100,000 residents; playgrounds per 10,000 residents; recreation and senior centers per 20,000 residents; restrooms per 10,000 residents; and splash pads and spraygrounds per 100,000 residents.

Several of the 100 cities in the index scored 40 out of 40 points possible for the splash pad category, but the median score was 13. Charlie McCabe, director of the TPL's Center for City Park Excellence, said the survey in 2017 found 1,333 splash pads in the 100 largest cities, and in 2018 found 1,790.

"The only other things that mirror that (growth) are dog parks and community garden plots, and to a lesser extent, pickleball courts," McCabe said.

McCabe said splash pads are attractive to facility and park operators for many reasons, including:

  • Low labor cost compared to swimming pools and waterparks.
  • Low operating costs mean lower entry fees—in most cases, there is no fee at all to use a splash pad.
  • Small footprint opens up location possibilities.
  • Does not affect pool usage in the area.

Also, said McCabe, "It's a longer season, so even in the northern United States you're not impacted by the same kinds of things you are with pools. They're good for all ages. Entire families enjoy them."

In the spirit of multigenerational fun, splash pads allow for mostly worry-free fun: Parents aren't as worried about children drowning, and grandparents have a low-intensity atmosphere in which to relax and still interact with grandkids.

Transform the Kiddie Pool

Tiffany Quilici is the sales and marketing director at Roaring Springs Waterpark in Meridian, Idaho, where management transformed a 20-year-old kiddie area into Bearfoot Bay. With the help of various manufacturers and designers, Roaring Springs updated the area for safety and to make smaller children's early water play experiences rewarding for both them and for Roaring Springs. Bearfoot Bay opened this past season.

"Bearfoot Bay helps them to feel comfortable in the water, and to gain confidence on smaller slides in preparation for larger ones as they get older," Quilici said. "It also rounds out our fun-for-all-ages offerings, and helps extend a family's stay and in-park spending."

The area includes a shallow wading pool, six slides, woodland-animal-themed figures that spray water, cabanas with waitstaff and large umbrellas. Kids must be less than 54 inches in bare feet to participate.

"Our original kiddie play area had a large tipping bucket that dumped too much water on young kids, an aging play structure, and a large dolphin-themed feature that obstructed the view for lifeguards," Quilici said. "We wanted to offer a much more fun and safe experience for our youngest guests and their parents. Even though children 3 and under get in free at Roaring Springs, we believe it's an important age group to introduce to waterpark fun."

The transformation involved tearing out and repouring all the concrete of the original kiddie pool to reshape Bearfoot Bay, said Quilici.

"That was a huge job," she said. "Laying out and engineering all of the logistics for new slides and a dozen play features was a challenge, as well as getting all the depths and elevations correct. Choosing the theme of Bearfoot Bay not only gave us a catchy name and logo, but also guided all of our decisions about what play elements to choose. We even stamped different animal footprints into the concrete for a fun learning experience for the kids."

Quilici reported a modest attendance increase in the park's 3-and-under category. To help boost revenue and pay for the $1.5 million expansion, management will change its pricing structure in 2019 to free admission for children 2 and under for both general admission and season passes.

"We know we have achieved (success) each time we go down to Bearfoot Bay in our managers' shirts and receive so many compliments from parents about the new play area," Quilici said.

Splash Pad Evolution

Splash pads have evolved from simple non-recirculating systems that used ground jets and tubular structures to circulating systems that decreased the concern for usage of water and led to a boom in the design of ways to spray, shoot and dump water, said Greg Stoks, managing director of an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based manufacturer of splash play equipment.

Stoks said today's latest high-end splash pads include multi-level features, leaping jets and LED displays.

Of course, the latest and greatest comes at a price. Stoks laid out three budget levels and what could be expected from each:

  • High budget: A large splash pad of 7,000 square feet or more may range between $600,000 and $800,000, and uses a recirculation system with flows of 500 gallons per minute (gpm) or more. The design may have central climbable structures, LED light jumping jets or themed products like a rocket ship spray structure. Additionally, a splash pad of this size may also incorporate 30 or more water events—character spray structures, inclusive water tables, misters, ground sprays and more.
  • Middle: A splash pad design that meets a medium-sized budget may range from $300,000 to $500,000, and uses a recirculation system with water flows of around 250 gpm. The splash pad may be around 4,000 square feet and feature a large dumping bucket structure and may be lightly themed. A splash pad of this size will typically incorporate 20 to 25 interactive splash play components.
  • Low: When both space and money are tight, a budget range of $100,000 to $200,000 will deliver a splash pad of up to 2,000 square feet that uses a domestic system with flows up to 100 gpm. The splash pad design may incorporate 10 above-ground interactive water play products as well as 10 ground spray effects.

Stoks said operators should understand the difference in maintenance between domestic and recirculation systems before making any decisions. Domestic systems typically require one hour of morning maintenance to air blow the splash pad, remove any debris and check the system. Seasonal maintenance consists of blowing out or draining the plumbing, and disconnecting the electrical system.

"Recirculation systems typically require two hours or more of morning and afternoon maintenance to keep the splash pad clean and clear of debris," Stoks said. "The maintenance team needs to log chemical readings, make sure water chemistry is in balance, and make sure chemical supplies are full.

"There is also a need to check filter pressures and, if required, clean and backwash filters, and check inline debris chambers and pump strainers and clean as required."

Also, with recirculation systems, Stoks said state health departments can require that they have a certain water volume based on feature flow rates. They require that this water volume be filtered, sanitized and sometimes UV-treated every 30 minutes, he said.

Jim Bassi, strategic sales director of the western United States for a Pointe-Claire, Quebec-based splash pad manufacturer, said splash pads have evolved in another way: how they are laid out.

"In the early years, splash pads were smaller and designed with little consideration to play paths," he said. "Features like the mushroom and dumping buckets were randomly placed. Now, after significant research, splash pads are designed thoughtfully and include certain zones for age-appropriate play features. This way toddlers aren't competing with older children for space and features.

"Design has also evolved over the years as park planners and landscape architects continue to have a more focused approach to water."

Aquatic Alternatives

Wyeth Tracy, president of a Stouffville, Ontario-based splash play manufacturer, said municipalities started building splash pads as a cheaper alternative, with lower operating cost, to the conventional swimming pool, many of which needed refurbishing.

"This fueled the industry in a big way with every city adding small splash pads," he said. "Lower insurance costs for splash pads were also a major attraction to owners."

Tracy said hotels and resorts also realized that by adding splash play areas, they were able to attract more young family business and return visitation. Real estate developments also started adding splash pads to attract young family buyers.

Theme parks also added this attraction, he said, as it required a minimal investment but resulted in increased length of stay for their patrons. Waterparks, which typically were full of waterslides and attractions for adolescents, realized they needed to address the age group of young children up to age 12, and the splash park satisfied this need. "(Waterparks) also realized that it is the young children with the 'Pester Power' who decide where the parents go for an outing," Tracy said. "(Splash pads) bring the whole family, not just the teens. Today we see splash parks at camping resorts, RV parks, zoos and aquariums as well.

"Splash pads and splash parks are here to stay," he added. "They will continue to evolve the same way as the dry playgrounds. More manufacturers will enter the race, always creating the need for competitive innovation."

Just Getting Started

Phil Kern, city administrator for Delano, Minn., said the town's longtime quest for a splash pad was well rewarded. Research into adding a splash pad began in 2005, he said, and it officially opened at Delano Central Park in 2018. Kern uses the words "our first splash pad" when referring to it, an indication of the town's positive reaction to it thus far.

"We underestimated the number of users, and the feedback has been outstanding," Kern said. "We've received many compliments on the facility, even from those who weren't initially supportive."

Kern said the success of the splash pad can only grow, given that management hasn't completely understood how to make best use of it.

"I don't think we've maximized the use of our splash pad," he said. "I think we have more opportunity to expand general public use and find opportunities for hosting parties and events. We've done a good job with marketing in the first year, but there are still people we haven't reached in terms of knowing about the amenity."

Kern said there have been no downsides to the splash pad. It's been an inexpensive water amenity to add to the parks system, it's user-friendly, and no swimming skills are needed to enjoy it.

The lack of standing water eliminates a lot of liability, maintenance and supervision responsibility, Kern said.

"Really, I don't know that we'd change much," he said. "It would be nice if there were splash elements that catered to older users—our primary user group appears to be kids ages 1 to 11—but that's pretty challenging to do without a full-fledged waterpark.

"Shade structures for the parents and guardians is something we need to better address. We're currently adding a water heater in response to feedback from users—it's not a problem on hot days or middays, but cooler days and evenings."

Kern has advice for anyone considering a splash pad for their community:

  • If you go with a recirculation system, be aware that there is time and labor involved in that process. "Some facilities 'pump and dump' water, but we chose what we felt to be a more environmentally sustainable path of recirculating and reusing water," Kern said. "Along with that comes time and labor involved in the screening and filtration process."
  • Another aspect to consider is the potential revenue opportunities with concessions, said Kern. "At this point we've just scratched the surface," he said.
  • Lastly, it was recommended to the town's management that it provide pool chairs and lounge chairs on the deck and not allow people to bring their own chairs into the facility. "Although it added cost for purchasing chairs, I think that was good advice we received," he said. "It keeps the deck looking clean and orderly and avoids potential mess and the liability issue of people bringing metal or chairs that potentially have sharp edges."

Kern said splash pad maintenance has been managed internally by the municipal parks department staff. Several of the staff members were trained to perform the daily maintenance on the equipment, and the city hired seasonal workers to staff the splash pad and concessions stand. Those costs are covered by a daily admission fee of $3 per person, said Kern.

The facility is managed by a member of the city's administration/finance departments, and that person has handled all of the administrative duties of the construction project and of programming the space. The splash pad responsibility is not a full-time job, so it was added to an existing position.

Kern has one last bit of advice for prospective splash pad operators:

"The community is going to love it even more than you think."

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