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.
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.
As municipalities have created mini-waterparks that charge a fraction of what major waterparks charge (and usually require a fraction of the hassle to get there), it would be logical to think that municipalities are slowly chipping away at major waterparks' business. However, customers often pay a fraction of the cost for a fraction of the experience. While White Water Canyon in Tinley Park, Ill., sits on five acres and has a lazy river, large pool and water slides, in contrast, the interactive Hurricane Harbor's splash play area, Skull Island, is 100,000 square feet on its own. It has nearly 30 water slides, compared to White Water Canyon's two. There are some things municipal facilities just won't be able to provide. If anything, the new Hurricane Harbor competes with the Wisconsin Dells, located 170 miles north.
"We're seeing more destination-oriented recreation within driving distance," Hunsaker says. "I think after September 11th, we aren't seeing a proliferation of people getting on airplanes to go do things. I mean, that's still there, but if you look at the regional stuff, people are wanting quality recreation experiences closer to home, and they're willing to pay for them."
One of the dominating trends in waterpark construction these days has little to do with what the park actually offers—just how it looks. Park planners put more thought into aesthetic design than they previously have. It's not just a matter of cramming as much stuff into an area as possible; a more inviting environment means people will stay longer—and subsequently spend more money.
"Before the '90s, we saw people putting all their money in the water stuff, you know, the structures and the play features, the slides and things like that," Hunsaker says. "You have visual separation, very good design, layout, things like that. I think one of the trends that we're seeing is a great deal more attention being given to the detail of how the owner or patron is going to feel using the aquatic center as opposed to, 'We get a bigger spray feature; we've got a bigger this.' We've maxed out on the bigger—well, within reason."
Skull Island at Hurricane Harbor represents a recent development in waterpark attractions that also has also spread to municipalities. The interactive splash play areas use a variety of attractions concentrated into one space.
"Spray parks [help] extend the recreation stay, extend the experience, add more recreational value without adding a whole lot more [cost] because you don't have to lifeguard it," Hunsaker says.
Skull Island—which Six Flag calls "the world's largest interactive playground"—features 17 play towers, eight water slides, hundreds of water gadgets, and a massive overhead tipping bucket that drenches people with hundreds of gallons of water every 10 minutes. It also has climbing nets and swinging bridges—that is, enough stuff to keep kids busy for a long time.
"It does a couple of things," Hunsaker says. "One thing, it dramatically increases your capacity; it's a great place to park kids in a small place. Two, you don't have to be a great swimmer to use it, so it has a larger cross-section. And three, it has a little bit of a hook."
According to the World Waterpark Association, municipalities are one of the two fastest growing segments of the waterpark industry (indoor waterparks being the other). The days of the dominance by old, rectangular pools have passed, and no one apparently misses them. As cities around the country face tighter and tighter budgets, they need their parks to pay for themselves, and when their aquatics facilities build in recreational components, that's just what they can do.
Generally speaking, Hunsaker says, there are three waterpark models that municipalities follow: subsidy, break-even and positive cash-flow. In the subsidy model, the city essentially pays for a facility to operate, usually at a huge loss.
"There are still a ton of places I go in this country where they're charging less than a buck for a kid to go swimming," Hunsaker says. "That's great, but it's not fiscally sustainable."
The most common type he sees falls in the second category, break-even. Tax dollars build the facility, but user fees pay for its operating costs. Admission in this scenario usually costs from $3.50 to $6.
"Now we're able to pay for the direct operating costs so it doesn't become a white elephant or a load on the municipal tax base," he says. "So they may vote on a referendum of $3 million to $7 million to build this new amenity for the community, but there's not an ongoing hit to support it."
The final category, positive cash-flow, is, not surprisingly, the rarest. User fees not only cover the direct operating costs but create a surplus to pay a portion of the capital costs and fund further expansion. A governmental facility that actually operates in the black—does such a thing exist?
Yes. Tinley Park's White Water Canyon made the $200,000 it needs to add a splash play area in only two years of operation. Even more impressive is the case of the new Pirates Cove Aquatic Center in Englewood, Colo. In 2004, the park's first year of operation, it not only covered its operating costs but made a massive profit. Initially, Facilities Program Supervisor Brad Anderson hoped to draw 60,000 people and walk away with $40,000 in profits. He ended up with 113,000 visitors and $250,000 in profits.
"When you're anticipating 35 to 40—the city council was very pleased with me," says Anderson, laughing.
Aside from that, Anderson's story is pretty typical. Prior to Pirates Cove, the city only had an old pool built in 1965. The only waterpark in the area was Hyland Hills Water World in nearby Denver, but no municipalities offered a waterpark-type experience. Anderson and his team planned to demolish the old pool, but they wanted to make sure that the new facility offered everything the old one did, including programming; fitness and competitive swimmers are a vocal minority, who rightly feel threatened with this new focus on recreation.
So they thought big, knowing they'd have to scale back their ideas eventually. They definitely wanted a competitive pool, a lazy river, slides, a leisure pool, play structures, maybe even a wave pool. Residents approved the $8 million project, not without some cajoling, in a bond election.
"Part of the thing with our bond election, too, was we told our citizens that we would keep the cost down as low as possible for it," Anderson says. He implemented resident and non-resident fees: $5/$6.25 for kids and $6/$7.50 for adults. Anderson supplements revenue through learn-to-swim programs and facility rentals.
Once they moved forward with the park, the first casualty was the wave pool. The size of it was too unwieldy for the park to handle, and planners didn't consider the wave pool a necessity. One item Anderson insisted on including, though, seems relatively minor: theming. Pirates Cove features all the iconography of pirates in popular culture, with skull-and-crossbones flags, a pirate mascot and other design touches to give the park a unified look. It came with a price: 25 percent extra, according to Anderson's estimations.
"What I wanted to do is create the 'wow factor,'" Anderson says. "You now, when someone comes in, they just go, 'Wow.' And when I saw the pirate theming…I said, 'We've gotta have this,' and I'm very glad we did. The expense on that one is well worth it. It's paid off."
The theming, along with creative landscaping, has made the park particularly attractive. The different attractions are spread out terraces, so the park never really looks crowded.
"This is a park that has an in-park capacity of around 1,000, but when you look at this park, you'll never see 1,000 people," he says. "They're tiered against the 30-foot drop [in topography], heavy landscaping, so it's a waterpark that doesn't look like a waterpark. It looks like a neighborhood pool because you can't see all the spaces."
The interactive play structure features modular construction that allows Anderson to change its setup.
"You can take that panel out and put another piece in there," Anderson says. "So if something's not getting used, or something's not getting interacted with, you can put another piece in right there. So you're not locked in; you're not tied into something."
Perhaps the slowest segment of the aquatics industry to catch on to the recreation trend in aquatics has been universities. There, pools have been traditionally dominated by swim teams, usually leaving 99.9 percent of the student body out in the cold. That means, in terms of attendance, practically no one uses pools besides the team and a small number of lap swimmers.
That certainly was the case at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. Until this past summer, students only had access to a pool in a 40-year-old natatorium and a tiny swimming pool located adjacent to one of the school's many dormitories.
"When we go in and talk on campus, all these kids that are coming in our workshop today grew up in family aquatic centers," Hunsaker says. "So we don't have to tell them what zero-beach entry or current channel or water slide or vortex or wave pools are. I mean, they know—and not only do they know, it's what they expect."
Mizzou's setup changed drastically this year, when the school completely rehabilitated its massive recreation center. The project, funded by a student-approved $75 increase in fees, added 115,000 square feet to facility. When the final phase opened in July, the university's rec center looked more like a resort.
For competition, the school built an indoor 50-meter pool with two moveable bulkheads and a hydraulic floor, so that roughly one-third of the pool can go from zero depth to nine feet deep, perfect for swimming classes and water-exercise classes. Also in the area is a diving well with 17 feet of water, with springboards and platforms up to 10 meters. The auditorium also seats more than 1,000 spectators.
Inside the Rothwell Gymnasium, built in 1905, the school installed many of its recreational features.
"We challenged our design team," says Diane Dahlmann, director of recreation services and facilities. "We had a lot of ideas ourselves, but we said, 'We want to integrate dry-side with wet-side folks.' Because we don't want this to be 'You can't come in here unless you're in your suit.'"
They call it Tiger Grotto, after the school's mascot. There's a waterfall, lazy river, whirlpool hot tub (with a capacity of more than 20 people), a 35-foot vortex, bubble fountain and zero-depth entry into the leisure pool. On the deck is a large fireplace, a co-ed steam room and dry sauna, with a sun room overlooking all of it. There's also a 17-foot display board where visitors can watch Zou TV, the school's entertainment network, and where Dahlmann plans to host watch parties for big games.
Outside is Truman's Pond, which features an oval club pool and two "waterfall flats," where students can recline in four to six inches of constantly moving water. Also included are a spa tub at the top of the waterfall, a bubbling "tidal pool" and another 17-foot display board.
"Welcome to the recreation resort," Dahlmann says. "It's a recreation renaissance, and it's considerably a new day for campus recreation."
The new aquatics facility opened in July, so Dahlmann and university administrators won't be able to gauge student response accurately yet, so far, though, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
"'Wow' is an understatement," Dahlmann says.
The approach the university took was specifically designed to boost attendance in the recreation center, and early indications seem promising. Before the extensive renovations elsewhere in the rec center (like new fitness rooms, new locker rooms, etc.), 3,000 students would use the facility on a busy day. Now it tops 5,000. Even though Dahlmann had hoped to open the new aquatics facility with a bang, she realizes the "soft opening" during the summer has been beneficial.
"We've had the luxury—I think I can call it a luxury—of experiencing the soft opening during the summer and really start to hammer out some of those critical issues that we have with some of the electronics and the technology and some of the punch-list items," Dahlmann says. "We'll look really good when the students come back."
Of all the places in the United States that would become known for waterparks, the Wisconsin Dells seems like an unlikely candidate. Summers there tend to be relatively brief and typically Midwestern, with long, harsh winters. But when the Polynesian Resort Hotel & Suites opened the first indoor waterpark there in 1989, it marked the beginning of a trend that would make waterparks in the Dells year-round destinations. The Dells now houses the largest indoor waterpark in the country, the Kalahari Resort. Indoor parks tie with municipalities for the fastest growing segment of the waterpark industry, according to the World Waterpark Association.
The Dells model isn't a local phenomenon. According to Hunsaker, over the past five or six years, regional hotel chains have begun using waterparks to sell hotel rooms and increase occupancy. This summer, Grizzly Jack's Grand Bear Lodge opened in Utica, Ill., 90 miles southwest of Chicago (as opposed to the 200 miles to the Dells from Chicago). The waterpark features two water slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, an island play area with dumping bucket, toddler pool, whirlpool, grotto and, eventually, a large outdoor pool. One of the enclosed plumes, which is 54 inches in diameter and 330 feet long, features the country's first motion and sound water slide. As patrons slide, digital visuals and sound simulate a free-fall. The project cost nearly $100 million and spent two years in development.
Notably, the park does not sell day passes; only hotel guests can use it. That dramatically increases revenue for a hotel in a town with otherwise limited attractions.
"It's a major indoor waterpark—wave pools, current channels, play features, all kinds of stuff," Hunsaker says. "That's what we see coming."
Higher end resorts also are paying more attention to waterpark features as a way to generate extra revenue.
"Yes, they have the pool, but particularly if they're after families, they're having to reconsider how they approach aquatic programming," Hunsaker says. "I think this is an area that's still in flux because they don't want to have all the structures and play equipment and primary colors; they're looking for something more elegant."
Keeping a park busy depends on a lot of factors. Luckily for waterparks, recreational elements like slides and interactive playgrounds attract customers simply because of how they look. Not surprisingly, Hunsaker emphasizes making a good first impression.
"The importance of getting it right when you open is critical," he says. "It's so much harder to win back the loyalty of patrons than to just start out on the right foot. So one of the mistakes I see with new facilities coming online is they open when they're not ready—and that comes back to haunt them because they're continually trying to catch up on the customer-expectation curve."
Another tip: Know what those expectations are, and know what other aquatics facilities in the area offer. Copying them, though, can be a bad idea.
"Looking at facilities is a great way to get ideas and a very poor way to design," Hunsaker says. "They may see something in a neighboring community that works, but when you bring it to your community, it doesn't work because the age groups are different, the needs are different, the expectations are different, the financial capabilities are different."
By accurately playing to those expectations and needs, as well as offering a hook that other places lack, facility operators can sustain high attendance (so long as Mother Nature cooperates). Perhaps most important of all, though, is avoiding complacency. Hunsaker suggests that facility operators avoid thinking their of their parks as static; they have to be ready to adjust to market needs.
"The only thing I can guarantee you is things are going to change," Hunsaker says. "So how are we, as operators of this aquatic center, going to react to change?"
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