Thrills & Spills
Improving the Fun Factor in Aquatics
It was bound to happen. From natural playgrounds to community gardens and expanding nature trails, getting back to nature is a powerful recreation trend leaving its mark on just about everything in the industry—including aquatic programming, attractions and facility design.
Back to Nature
Fresh water recreation is making a comeback. But lakes, large ponds and waterfronts aren't the only thing attracting patrons these days with the promise of more thrills and spills. Creative event planning, responding to demands for patron-pleasing, demographic-centered and interactive aquatic features are just some of the must-do essentials in today's successful aquatic facility.
"You are going to start to see a return to brackish water—a return to lakes," observed Judith Leblein Josephs, CPRA, RA, director of community programs and the Summit Family Aquatic Center in Summit, N.J., and president of consulting firm, JLJ Enterprises LLC. "As a trend spotter, I'm seeing a move back to natural things—using sphagnum moss to keep pools clean, using salt water in pools. And we are seeing things like manmade lakes coming back with inflatables, kayaks and obstacle courses."
One facility that took the plunge into fresh water recreation was Camp Crosley in North Webster, Ind. The Muncie YMCA celebrated its centennial last summer with the addition of its newest attraction: a manmade lake.
"Camp Crosley was considering building a traditional aquatic center to enhance their campers' experience," explained Rich Wills, vice president and co-owner of a Verona, Wis.-based supplier of recreational equipment and consulting on projects like Camp Crosley's. Wills' firm proposed an alternative idea, the "H2Whoa Zone," "… which was to build a lake and outfit it with many activities that a traditional aquatic center could not support."
According to Wills, the throwback to natural bodies of water is a major shift in the aquatic recreation industry. "The most valuable piece of real estate has always been considered waterfront locations," he explained. "There has been a movement in simplistic terms of returning to the 'old swimming hole' by taking existing waterfronts and developing them as destinations for the entire community by providing active activities in, on and around the water."
And for those recreation sites that don't have such a waterfront? The answer is simple. Create one.
Freshwater waterparks have several advantages over traditional pools, including a broader range of activities and something for everyone regardless of age or ability. But the most critical advantage is that larger bodies of water can offer activities and attractions not as easily replicated in a traditional pool.
A new flotilla of attractions are catering to this trend like enormous 30-to-50-foot sealed air inflatables that can transform a lake or waterfront into a waterpark for far less than a landed structure. Then, there are the many attractions we often associate with natural water: paddle and pedal boats, standup paddle boards, canoes, rowboats, kayaks, water skiing and other deep- and shallow-water attractions.
Nature isn't just influencing designs to attract patrons either; nature is also determining which splash pad attractions will fail and which will succeed. It is no secret that water shortage has become a central issue for many states. "The big trend right now, especially last summer because of so many water conservation measures that closed down splash pads, is municipal recirculation underground tank reservoirs," said Edward Benck, director of engineering and administration for the Verona, Wis.-based supplier of recreational equipment. "It's a much more environmentally friendly system. We saw a lot of splash pads with drain-to-waste systems in Texas and California close down with water shortages, but the good news is recirculated systems didn't shut down. Curbing water use is a big emphasis right now."
While splash pads are still a great economic alternative to more expensive water attractions, like any recreation site, they need regular upgrades to keep patrons interested and coming back for more. Thankfully, the latest wave of water features are doing just that, adding thrills and spills in whole new ways that focus more on play value rather than just good looks.
Taking a cue from Mother Nature, some new splash pad features mimic natural water play with winding, shallow streams and tide pools, right down to the sandy texture of the play surface or a competitive game of "Pooh sticks" (racing floating objects from a starting point to the finish line). More than just dump buckets and dancing water sprays, newer splash pad features incorporate much more interactivity, engaging children's curiosity with watery cause-and-effect manipulatives to delight and challenge.
One of the best examples of the latest interactive design is a dazzling water curtain feature that mimics the shapes and words drawn on a patron's iPad or iPhone. "Happy Birthday, Bobby" takes on a whole new level of cool when it appears on a water curtain as a novelty for a child's birthday event. Similarly, the latest water play features are adding more interactive color, music, lights and sound. Both evolutionary and revolutionary, such aquatic designs are taking the next generation of water play where no one has gone before.
Traditional pools, too, are benefitting from some of the same attractions. Like the "old is new again" attraction to natural water, log rolling (once the domain of burly lumberjacks and adventurous outdoorsmen) is currently all the rage. Log rolling workouts (fantastic for developing core strength), log rolling competitions or just plain fun is now possible in a traditional pool thanks to artificial logs that can be filled with water for use in the pool, and then after use, emptied to easily remove them when the activity is done.
Inflatables, climbing walls and obstacle courses are also a great way to increase the entertainment value in today's traditional pools looking for fresh, new water attractions but for much less cost than building a permanent structure.
Even better, these various additions along with creative programming ideas can fiscally bolster other essential programs (safety, swimming, competition). "La Mirada Regional Aquatic Center is self-supporting, thanks to the addition of the obstacle courses and other features so they can offer swim lessons and competitive swimming," said Lori Thompson, community services director for the City of La Mirada.
The emphasis on creative programming, however, cannot be overstated. "Attractions, as far as physical changes, are important. People look at that," conceded Nicole Van Winkle, project manager with Counsilman-Hunsaker. "More than that, rather than changing structures, putting in creative programming like day camps—that's new and trending. Some are doing special events like winter cold water obstacle courses to generate extra revenue and the thrill of cold water or adding triathlons to use pools."
The experience of La Mirada Regional Aquatic Center of La Mirada, Calif., certainly bears that out. Attracting almost 400,000 people per year is due in great part to creative use of the center's traditional pool. Seasonal city events draw in potential patrons who have never stepped foot inside the facility, while at the same time they create friendships with local organizations and businesses that appreciate such partnership and access to the site. The city's annual tree lighting celebration, for example, outgrew the city center and available parking. The event is now hosted by the aquatic center, a gathering place with ample parking and space for community events.
"We have all the traditions of kids singing carols, Santa, and of course, the tree lighting, but we also feature synchronized swimming," Thompson said of the unique event. "At Halloween, too, we hosted an event with floating pumpkins in the pool. People came and didn't use the water, but they used our deck spa. For New Year's Day we do a polar bear plunge down a slide into unheated water. We take a picture of it and serve hot chocolate."
Others, like the Summit Family Aquatic Center in Summit, N.J., have also paired non-aquatic events and services with their facilities to attract a whole new demographic. One of Summit's most unique and successful pairings has been its sculpture garden, which grows year by year. "We do a lot with special events and do things like art contests and exhibits," Leblein said. "We have incorporated a sculpture garden so it's really about adding things that enhance the experience."
Day camps, too, triathlons, and daycare so moms can "shop and drop" off their kids for swim lessons, are just some of the ways the aquatic center in Conejo, Calif., is attracting more patrons. But even day camps need to go the extra mile to keep kids engaged week after week. "Day camps are not just glorified swim classes," Van Winkle said. "They need to have a changing theme each week to keep kids coming back, and have risk management."
"We definitely think more out of the box from normal swimming lessons," explained Dee Pearson, aquatic supervisor of the Conejo Aquatic Center. "We started incorporating special programs like kids and adult triathlons."
Like La Mirada, Conejo's aquatic center will be adding a polar bear plunge, a free event where participants will hike 1.5 miles, return and jump into the pool for one lap. "So, just fun things to bring people to the site itself," Pearson explained.
All in the Family
What also sets apart the successful programming in these and other aquatic facilities is their attention to the different needs of many groups. These facilities have developed programming and amenities to provide something for every age group. Something for everyone means siblings, from toddler to teen, can enjoy water attractions and activities right alongside parents, caregivers and grandparents. It's critically important, however, to distinguish the needs, wants and interests of each group, especially mothers.
"We found mothers (especially of young children) want separate splash play areas more suited to babies in swim diapers," Leblein explained. "As long as they can sit up, moms want to put their kids in water. As much as they may want their children to play together, we have to create spaces for babies and toddlers, too. We need to cater to the mommy market. She makes all the decisions, so when mom is happy, everyone is happy."
Catering to the differing needs of each age and stage of patrons means that splash pads, once a one-size-fits-all attraction, are now being designed and zoned for specific ages. Infants and toddlers, for example, can be frightened by dump buckets, and typically dislike jets that spray into their faces. But areas with gentle water effects gurgling up from the play surface or low-to-the-ground features create a lower-intensity play space more suited to younger children.
Mothers also benefit from easy-to-access changing stations for infants and toddlers. Such thoughtful amenities work two ways: They are more likely to be used, and thereby, more likely to keep the water play areas clean.
Another mom-friendly feature is linear shade. While every water attraction needs to offer plenty of protection from the sun, moms in particular tend to want more privacy for their family. According to Leblein, more linear shade areas where seating faces forward (like cabanas) are preferable to umbrellas. When only two or three people take up an umbrella space meant for many more, mothers are often uncomfortable with sharing an intimate space with strangers where they feel forced to interact.
From the very young to the very "seasoned," aquatic facilities can provide features like toddler slides to slides designed for the elderly. Those with special needs benefit from consideration, too. With autism now reported by the CDC to affect one in every 68 children, aquatic facilities can go a long way toward making those families able to participate comfortably with everyone else. Sensory overload, for example, from all the sights and sounds of a waterpark, can overwhelm a child with autism. As a result, many of these families feel they are unable to participate in an experience most families take for granted. However, providing a "quiet" zone away from all the excitement, for example, can enable a child to regain their emotional footing so they can eventually rejoin their family and friends.
In a recent waterpark project in Wisconsin, planners asked a manufacturer to design some features they hoped would address some specific needs of special needs families. "Fun in the water isn't always for all kids. In northern Illinois a donor involved with children with autism helped us develop a product with certain sights and sounds elements that engaged them because water tended to scare them," Benck recalls. "It really opened up for me a whole new window to expand. We have to be good listeners."