Water 101

Tips for squeezing every last drop of success out of your waterpark and splash play area

By Stacy St. Clair

The City of Englewood, Colo., knew it could build something magnificent. It had enough money. Voters saw to that in November 2001 when they passed a $12.8 bond issue to construct three recreation projects. Of that money, $7 million would be used to build the Pirates Cove Aquatic Center.

A buccaneer theme would be carried throughout. The 5.14-acre site would be transformed into an exhilarating pirate adventure, complete with a 750-gallon dump bucket at the attraction's center.

"We wanted to create a unique and fun place where families could spend time together, while also building an attraction that was flexible enough to grow with our city's future needs," says Jerrell Black, Englewood's director of parks and recreation.

When the facility opened in May, it had more than met Black's goal. Fake cannons fired puffs of smoke into the air. A voice-activated pirate statute greeted guests at the entrance. Exotic birds were strategically placed to produce sound effects that completed the theme.

Park officials were pleased. And, more importantly, so were the patrons.

The park was filled on opening day. Such a turnout was expected, given the excitement surrounding the park and the tax dollars used to build it.

But when the throngs kept coming the next day and the day after that and the day after that, Englewood knew it had something special.

They also knew whom they could thank for it. The company hired to design Pirates Cove also promised to help with the marketing plan.

In doing so, Englewood became one of an increasing number of facilities that reply upon aquatic companies for more than just building their parks. Englewood depended upon its designer—an international company with a strong public-relations network—to both attract media and patrons in the metropolitan area.

They wanted the Denver area to know about their multimillion dollar waterpark that features three 35-foot slides, a competition pool, an action river with a 38.3-foot vortex and a spray garden.

"With all the distinctive elements at Pirates Cove, we expect to draw families from all over the south metro Denver area for a fun, entertaining and imaginative experience," Black says.

The park's designers came through, with stories in all the local media. It created such a buzz about the park, all the area television stations aired stories about it. Radio stations from Colorado Springs even called to talk about it.

"We had tremendous marketing support from (the company) and their agency partner in promoting the opening of Pirates Cove," says Denise White, Englewood's parks and recreation marketing and public information administrator. "With their help, we were able to generate media coverage, create an exciting event to preview the park, and raise awareness within the community of our commitment to provide a safe and entertaining waterpark for families to enjoy."

  The Waterpark Bandwagon

Just how popular are waterparks? So popular that everyone wants to get involved with them. While

waterparks began as an off-shoot of the amusement-park industry, they have since evolved into a recreation phenomena. Today the waterpark world includes municipally owned pools with waterpark features, as well as corporately owned, independent and indoor/resort-style waterparks.

But don't take our word for it. The numbers, compiled by the World Waterpark Association, speak for themselves.

  • Number of waterparks in North America: more than 1,000
  • Estimated North American attendance during the 2003 summer season: more than 70 million
  • Estimated number of non-North American waterparks: 600
  • Annual attendance growth: 3 percent
  • First waterpark: Wet 'N Wild in Orlando, Fla. (1977)
  • Largest indoor park in North America: Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wis.
  • Fastest-growing segments of waterpark industry: indoor waterpark resorts and municipally owned waterparks
  • Fastest-growing region: Eastern Europe and East Asia/Pacific Rim

Making a splash

Can't afford a multimillion dollar waterpark? No need to drown your sorrows.

A growing number of communities have turned to splash play areas to give their patrons wet-and-wild fun without breaking the bank.

Several years ago, officials in Omaha, Neb., grappled with their outdated community pools. The facilities were poorly attended, expensive to maintain and required a lot of supervision.

They wanted something that would attract patrons and have longer operational hours. At the same time, they wanted a facility that would require minimal staffing and not cost millions of dollars.

Officials opted to build a splash play area in Upland Park. The results were immediate, with a 412 percent increase in park attendance. The attraction draws 7,500 additional users to the park each year.

The city was so thrilled with the results, they began planning another splash area in Orchard Park. The attraction is now part of a park that includes a dry playground and basketball courts.

If Omaha officials ever question their decision, they just need to look at the numbers. The Orchard Park's previous pool attracted 3,500 patrons each year. Its attendance has doubled since the splash play area was installed.

"There are always kids playing in them when I drive by, and the numbers pretty much tell me the whole successful story," says Omaha park planner Pat Slaven.

The Buffalo Grove, Ill., Park District is primed to enjoy similar success. After voters repeatedly refused to fund an aquatic center, officials decide to build a splash play area for kids.

One of the largest facilities of its kind, it features more than 20 water toys, sprays and fountains. It opened in June to sell-out crowds.

It accomplished an important goal of giving district residents another aquatic option. Without it, they would have to turn to other communities to have their recreation needs met.

"It has been very well-received," says Lori Magee, district spokeswoman. "We're meeting a need and keeping residents in Buffalo Grove."

The water playground has been so successful, officials have been able to rent it out for birthday parties and other special occasions. The money will be an additional way to bring revenue to a facility that already was expected to pay for itself.

"We feel like we made a very good decision," Magee says.


It may be one of the country's best waterparks, but it's also one of the most environmentally friendly and cost-conscious. The Hyland Hills Parks and Recreation District in Colorado has saved thousands of dollars with an aggressive water-conversation program. Here's a look at how they've saved money and water.

  • Using reclaimed water for landscaping, saving millions of gallons of water per year
  • Planting low-water use perennials and xeroscaping in park and award-winning floral displays
  • Appointing a district-wide water conservation task force to recommend and monitor water conservation at all district facilities, including Water World
  • Using artificial turf instead of grass where feasible
  • Serving bottled soft drinks has saved more than 30,000 gallons of water per year because the beverages are not being poured over ice.
  • Installing splashguards to keep water in attractions
  • Installing a computerized, wireless controlled irrigation system that automatically shuts down when rainfall occurs or when there is a damaged irrigation head that could waste water
  • Always looking for new ways to save water

Lessons from the deep

Some parks make a bigger splash than others. The Travel Channel combed the country looking for the greatest thrills, the highest waves and the best rides. And while not every facility can be a world-class park, there are ways to learn from and emulate their success.

Schlitterbahn Waterpark
(New Braunfels, Texas)

The park boasts more than 3 miles of tubing adventures, seven children's water playgrounds, 17 slides, three uphill water coasters and the world's first surfing machine. Schlitterbahn opened in 1979 with just four slides and has grown into one of the world's largest parks. It offers 200 family resorts accommodations, ranging from vacation homes to motel rooms.

COOL TIP: Connect to your customers and offer handy info to enhance their visits, before they even arrive. The Schlitterbahn Web site provides convenient traffic and construction alerts to patrons.

Disney's Blizzard Beach (Orlando)

Mickey Mouse really got it right with this theme park. According to Disney legend, a freak winter storm blanketed the area with snow and prompted Florida's first ski resort. When the snow eventually melted, the area was covered with water and slush. Disney had no choice but to convert the toboggan runs and slalom courses into water slides. This, of course, led to the creation of the aptly named attractions Slushgusher and Teamboat Springs, among others.

COOL TIP: A unique theme and creative back story can add value and help attract patrons. Blizzard Beach even carries its snow theme throughout its concession stand, Avalunch.

Raging Waters (San Jose, Calif.)

Do you know the way to San Jose? If you do, you'll be able to get yourself to one of the country's coolest parks. With more than 23 acres of slides and attractions, the park has everything a waterpark aficionado could want. One of its most popular attractions is the Dragon's Den, where patrons catapult through darkness, plunge into the dragon's mist and disappear again.

COOL TIP: Maximize your selling efficiency. Raging Waters sells season passes online, offering discounts and convenience to Web surfers.

  Beyond the rides

Without question, patrons come to waterparks and aquatic centers looking for big thrills. They want fast rides, giant drops and big splashes. The most successful parks, however, look beyond the attractions. They realize there is money to be made beyond the admission price. Here are some ways to glean more dollars from your park.

Birthday parties: Show us a waterpark without a birthday package, and we'll show you a park that's losing money. The idea is simple: For a set price, partygoers receive admission to the park, lunch and drinks. Some packages offer a cake and party favors for an additional charge. The most successful parks have special venues for the party, preferably a highly visible one that serves as an advertisement for the service.

Hotel deals: Many parks offer discount tickets when their patrons stay overnight at a local hotel. The deal, while not hard to arrange with a nearby establishment, encourages patrons to spend the day at the park, stay at the hotel and return for a second day. It also may make your facility eligible for tourism grants.

Gift shop: For a lot of kids, a waterpark visit will be the highlight of their summer. Give them a way to remember it. Even municipally owned waterparks have found financial success in the gift-shop business, selling everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs. Others act as mini-convenience stores selling items such as sunscreen, disposable cameras, swim diapers and anti-chlorine shampoos.

Concession stands: The latest trend in food-service operations is to offer high-quality food to patrons and ask them to pay a bit more in return. Old-school philosophy, for example, suggested patrons would never pay more than $1 for coffee. Starbucks has changed all that. These days, people don't blink when asked to pay $4 for specialty coffee. Consider offering healthier fare like fresh salads and grilled fish. Be sure to have some low-carb options, too, for all your patrons on the Atkins and South Beach diets.

Entertainment stages: Water isn't always enough to keep patrons amused today. Several facilities now have entertainment stages where bands and other acts perform. At Noah's Ark Waterpark in the Wisconsin Dells, Wis., costumed water animals put on a choreographed show. It also has all-day karaoke to keep the masses entertained.

Water Country USA (Williamsburg, Va.)

Water Country is the largest family waterpark in mid-Atlantic America. Set to a colorful 1950s surfing theme, all pools are heated to an inviting 82 degrees to encourage patronage on cool days. There are more than 1,500 lounge chairs for parents to sit on while their children ride attractions like Hubba Hubba Highway, the Lemon Drop and Peppermint Twist.

COOL TIP: Branch out to special populations. Water Country USA offers free admission to Iraq War veterans on designated Military Appreciation Days throughout the summer.

Splish Splash (Long Island, N.Y.)

A 96-acre park kept things fresh this summer by adding a new ride, the Dragon's Den. Like the Raging Waters ride, it's 50 feet tall and descends 45 feet into a misty bowl. A two-person raft spirals into the eerie den before finally escaping through a dark crevice to safety. The park, however, does not succeed with major thrill rides alone. It was voted No. 1 in hospitality by Business LI Magazine.

COOL TIP: Helping your patrons get to your park is just as important as getting them through the gate. Splish Splash offers ticket packages that include public transportation.

Soak City USA (Buena Park, Calif.)

A part of Knott's Berry Farm amusement park, Soak City packs 22 attractions onto a 32-acre facility. It pays tribute to the area's history with a 1950s California Surfing theme, where the rides are designed to be surfed by the woodies and long boards of the San Diego coast a half-century ago.

COOL TIP: Sometimes it pays to re-evaluate your pricing. Soak City USA recently lowered its child admission price for children between ages 3 and 11.

Hyland Hills Water Park (Denver)

As one of America's largest waterparks, Hyland Hills sets the bar high. It boasts more features—42—than any other park in America. Though giant thrill rides are the top attraction, the park does not neglect small children and easily frightened adults. Hyland Hills has the most family tube rides of any American park. It also has Wally World, a tot-sized park filled with slides, waterfalls and tire swings in very shallow water.

COOL TIP: Give any expansion plans plenty of thought—and make sure to include your employees' input. Hyland Hills park officials spend a lot of time brainstorming with staff before picking a theme for new attractions.

  Got Attractions?

No matter how great the parking or how wild the rides, a facility just won't float without all the right components. A competitive waterpark—regardless of size or operator—rely on the following "essential" components to succeed:

Zero-depth entry: The beach-type sloped entry is loved by parents who worry about their small children falling into the water.

Fountains and sprays: A fun feature, especially on hot summer days when the water slide lines are long. Also a favorite of patrons who aren't thrilled with thrill rides.

Lazy river: A slow river ride that allows patrons to float along in an inner tube

Splash play areas: Home to sprayers and water cannons, the hippest splash play areas now have themes, of course. Besides, what's more fun than squirting a friend?

Slides: Your slides are often the crown jewels of your facility. You better have a good one. Consider features that will make your facility unique such as vertical drops and racing slides.

Climbing walls: Walls offer a relatively inexpensive way to add another attraction to your facility. If patrons fall from the walls, the water cushions their landing, making it a safe feature.

Dry fun: Many patrons enjoy activities that are, well, a little less wet. While most parks offer miniature golf or go-carts as their dry alternative, Noah's Ark in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., opened a completely dry ride in celebration of its 25th anniversary.

Lounge chairs: If mom and dad don't intend on getting wet, make sure they have a place to sit. Be sure to have chairs placed throughout the park—both in the sun and shade—so parents can keep an eye on their children. Consider selling books and magazines at the gift shop to keep loungers busy. Content and comfortable patrons are likely to make return visits.

White Water (Atlanta)

Part of the Six Flags family, White Water serves as the crown jewel. The park, however, realizes it must offer a big bang for the entertainment buck. The Cliffhanger, its top attraction, offers one of the highest freefalls in the world. The rider is dropped 90 feet straight down at a high rate of speed. Patrons must hang onto to their hats—and their hearts.

COOL TIP: Consider expanding your programming and entertainment offerings. In addition to thrill rides, White Water offers musical shows and other acts to keep patrons entertained.

Wet 'N Wild (Las Vegas)

As if there weren't enough to do Vegas, the city also boasts one of the country's best waterparks. Located on the Vegas Strip, Wet 'N Wild kept up with competitors this summer by adding the popular Dragon's Den in the 2004 season. It offers five other extreme slides to keep the decadent Vegas visitors happy—and wet.

COOL TIP: Contribute to the community. The park created public goodwill when it offered the facility to local firefighters for training. Using the lazy river and wave pool, the firefighters practiced their swift water training.

Noah's Ark (Wisconsin Dells, Wis.)

The Wisconsin Dells, without question, is the waterpark capital of the world. And there's no better Dells destination than the 25-year-old Noah's Ark. With more than 60 water-based fun activities, it claims to be the country's largest waterpark. It boasts a number of non-ride activities such as water basketball and aquatic rope climbs.

COOL TIP: Not everything needs to be wet. Noah's Ark offers plenty of activities for visitors looking to stay dry for a while. In addition to rides, it has miniature golf and a kiddie coaster.

  Hooray for History

It has become increasingly popular for waterparks and aquatic centers to incorporate local history and lore into their design and marketing. From rides to souvenirs to concessions, the historic themes give facilities a personality. Here's a look at how some facilities have paid homage to their heritage.

Hawaiian Waters (Oahu, Hawaii): The park has 25 acres filled with Hawaiian-themed thrill rides such as Kapolei Koolers, Volcano Express and Shaka. The theme extends to the Kau Kau Cafe and the birthday hut, where keiki birthday parties were held. The gift store even sells Hawaiian crafts.

Splash Station (Joliet, Ill.): Built on an old railroad line, Joliet officials decided to honor the site's former purpose. The entrance—where patrons purchase boarding passes—is designed like an old depot. The light fixtures are all replicated railroad lamps and the concession stands are imitation roundhouses.

Glenview Park Center (Glenview, Ill.): Though dwarfed by its mammoth waterpark brethren, the suburban aquatic center shows how even small facilities can tastefully incorporate its history. The center is located on the former Glenview Naval Air Station, which served as the primary training command during World War II. The state-of-the-art natatorium celebrates the area's history with a jaw-dropping design. World War II biplane replicas hang from the ceiling. The splash play area has several aeronautical features, including a slide designed to make users appeal as if they're bailing out of a cockpit.

Soak City USA (Buena Park, Calif.): The park is located in Southern California, the birthplace of the 1950s surfer society. Soak City—a play on the Jan and Dean hit "Surf City"—pays tribute to SoCal's contribution to pop culture. Sections of the park are named after local beach towns such as La Jolla Falls, Palisades Plunge and Solana Storm Watch Tower. The gift shop—Wipeout! Surf Shop—sells seasonal clothing, merchandise and souvenirs.

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