The Future of Community Aquatic Centers
By David Keim
With endless entertainment and recreation options available, communities and their recreation professionals have been coming to the realization that they must step up their game in order to stay relevant to today's teens and young families. This is especially true when it comes to recreational aquatics. Citizens are more savvy, connected and busy than ever. Faced with more choices of where to spend their time and money, the demand for bigger and better is at an all-time high. Meeting that demand comes with a price.
Simply providing a place for swim lessons, sun tanning, playing and getting wet isn't what today's aquatic facilities are all about. Simple town pools with swim lanes, diving boards and kiddie areas have morphed into truly engaging and exciting aquatic destinations, filled with active play areas, skill-based attractions and water rides for every age.
The Path to Success
Attend practically any city council or recreation board meeting where the subject turns to aquatics, and there is no doubt that you will hear about the importance of supporting learn-to-swim programs. You will also hear that the financial realities of operating such traditional aquatics programs, and the facilities that provide them, are becoming increasingly difficult to support. Parks and rec departments are discovering is that if they increase their focus on water play and entertainment options, what was once viewed as a simple "town pool" suddenly becomes a destination.
While making our aquatic centers affordable for patrons is a must, studies have shown that patrons will pay more, and attend more frequently, if they are provided with the right mix of entertainment, recreation and value for the dollar. The goal then becomes to create a place where all age groups and skill levels can have fun, get much needed exercise, burn some energy, enjoy some thrills and, of course, learn to swim.
With thoughtful and creative planning and programming, today's recreational aquatic centers can become self-supporting assets that accomplish all of the above. If we look back, we find this trend began back in the 1980s when some towns began adding wave pools and small deck-mounted waterslides. These initial successes paved the way to multipurpose aquatic centers that combine the best of competitive swimming and learn-to-swim programs with recreational fun and entertainment.
Creating the Destination
It is becoming easier to find municipal parks with cutting-edge features such as iconic slides, wave pools, themed play structures, surfing simulators, lazy rivers and kids' activity pools all creatively themed and branded to a level that rivals many commercial waterparks. Creatively designed wave pools with spray features, waterfalls and video walls, and activity pools with climbing walls, basketball hoops, crossing courses and even zip lines have all found a home in public-sector aquatic centers. Lazy rivers have become quite popular, as have fast-paced rivers with waves that provide guests with an all new adventure.
Themed, interactive play structures that combine smaller units for toddlers and larger iconic structures for older kids have become staples. The newest structures combine the thrill of slides and dumping buckets with the fun of freestyle interactive play. Crossing activity pools, some with large inflatable challenge courses, are becoming standard fare in many aquatic centers, and surfing simulators are becoming more popular in community aquatic centers nationwide. These types of attractions appeal to the elusive teen demographic, encouraging active participation in a skill-based sport that keeps them coming back for more.
Recent projects such as Perris Valley Aquatic Center and Splash Regional Aquatic Center in La Mirada, Calif., Pirates Bay Waterpark in Baytown, Texas, The Bay Waterpark in Kansas City, and Carmel, Ind.'s Monon Aquatic Center are all great examples of how agencies have pushed the envelope and elevated themselves into aquatic destinations.
Beyond the Water's Edge
In addition to slides, rides and pools, communities are also finding that a well-planned aquatic center needs to be responsive to the comfort of their clientele not just in the water, but out of it as well.
Providing conveniently located lockers and family changing areas, adequate deck chairs and lounges, large shaded areas and tables for eating—attention paid to these details pays off in guests wanting to stay and play for longer periods of time. Also, additional revenue opportunities may be available through properly positioned food and beverage outlets with creative menu options.
Municipal aquatic centers aren't just for warm-weather fun. Many towns, some in concert with local school districts, have created outstanding indoor aquatic centers that operate year-round and combine the elements of traditional aquatic programming with exciting recreation options. Indoor facilities with features such as lap pools, training pools and adjacent therapy pools are being designed to incorporate slides, play structures and more. Examples of such indoor venues that illustrate how the public sector is currently embracing aquatic recreation include Epic Waters in Grand Prairie, Texas, Snohomish Aquatic Center in Washington, and H2O Adventure at the Windsor Aquatic Center in Ontario, Canada.
The Bottom Line
Aquatic facilities that incorporate waterpark-style features are being developed nationwide at a furious rate. In order to be viable in today's recreation marketplace, it is imperative that agencies learn more about how to provide the public with an outstanding aquatic experience while designing and constructing facilities that can be financially self-sustaining and add to the departmental revenue stream.
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