Riding the New Waves
Advances in Waterpark Design & Technology
As popular and widespread as waterparks are now in the United States and around the world, owners and operators know they have to keep up with the latest industry trends and technologies in order to keep regular guests returning while finding new ones.
But the competition for guests wasn't always so tough. The first park didn't open its doors until the 1960s, though individual slides and wet rides date back to the 1940s. The latest figures, according to the trade group World Waterpark Association, paint a different picture. The WWA estimates that about 1,300 waterparks operated in North America in 2016, up about 30 percent from a decade ago. Those parks attracted around 85 million people in 2015, compared to approximately 73 million in 2004. A growing segment of the industry has been municipal-run waterparks, as cities and counties look to boost revenue over and above what their flat-water pools can deliver.
What's driving all that growth? One answer, said Aleatha Ezra, WWA director of park member development, could be that today's designers can create whatever type of attraction they can imagine.
"Compare these new rides with what the industry first offered," she said. In the past, waterparks built slides on a tower or a hill. Guests climbed to the top and slid down to the bottom. Some of the rides might have included a serpentine path or a speed path, but guests basically were still restricted to simply sliding from the top to the bottom of the slide. Today, technology allows slides to follow any path imaginable. Ride designers have created technology that allows them to move riders up and down the slide path so they're not limited to simply using the momentum derived in the past from starting out at the highest point on the ride.
Ride designers are using similar technology to create oscillating rides and bowl rides. In oscillating rides, guests are propelled from one side of the ride to the other on a flat surface that's been bent into a U shape. In bowl rides, guests slide around inside a funnel-shaped bowl before dropping down into a splash pool or run-out chute.
Trends Driving Growth
Four trends continue to dominate interest in waterparks around the world, said Sohret Pakis, marketing manager of Polin Waterparks in Kocaeli, Turkey. "They are theming, ride design, engineering and capacity."
Theming, she said, is not going away, as the industry continues to focus on creating stories and including their attractions as part of those stories.
"Similarly, ride designs and the engineering of large, thrilling attractions will never go out of favor because people will never tire of discovering a new ride that gives them the huge adrenaline rush that makes their hearts pound," she added. "And, of course, capacity is always critical; parks need rides that offer high capacity to keep queues moving and keep guests from getting bored."
But none of these trends is as important as the growing interest that Pakis has seen in technology integration. Waterpark designers need to include technology as critical aspects of their ride designs—technology that adds visual and sound effects to the experience.
"But we're not talking about basic technology add-ons," she said. "What we're seeing is a rising tide in gaming, virtual reality and augmented reality, along with social-media integration."
The goal is to integrate interactivity into the waterpark experience to deliver unique experiences for waterpark guests, Pakis said. These offerings are helping to create completely new aquatic attractions while simultaneously attracting a wider audience of guests to aquatic-attraction facilities.
Anything new is going to get guests' attention and keep them interested in visiting parks, Pakis added. "That's why we believe so strongly in new integrated technologies."
Pakis said her company is being strategic in the development of new concepts and technologies, and suggests it's best to combine the experience of skilled research and development engineers with those of other critical sectors, so as to be on the cusp of the industry's most unique gaming, interactive and technology-integrated products.
"There's no better way than that to keep guests coming back to your park again and again than to offer attractions that combine their favorite recreational interests." Pakis said.
At waterparks they design and build, Pakis explained, "We've already begun to introduce and install some of these new offerings," such as a new gaming concept that involves an interactive water battle with animated competitors in a beach-bungalow-style cabin. "We've got two versions—one uses 3-D technology, and the other incorporates virtual-reality technology to let guests get fully involved in the game play." The first version of the 3-D experience debuted recently at Aquafantasy Waterpark in Selçuk, İzmir, Turkey. "We're excited to see installations of the VR version being introduced soon," Pakis said.
There are several other ways waterparks can incorporate technology into their facilities, added Jessica Mahoney, marketing manager of Aquatic Development Group in Cohoes, N.Y. This can be seen from queueing of the rides to the wristbands people can wear instead of having to carry around keys for lockers or a fast pass, she said. "It's a Disney approach, where you don't have to carry around your wallet."
Trending technologies are also making the ordinary experiences of old rides exciting and fresh at many parks. "It's all how you incorporate the technology," Mahoney said. "The idea, of course, is to reinvent some activity or ride you take normally and make it new without having to get a completely new ride."
You might float down a raft with a little laser gun in your hand and you're shooting at targets. Or, you can take an existing slide-boarding ride and install lights as the board goes down, with different colors as you go through the ride.
Another trend, Mahoney said, is to have skill-based rides, where people go on a ride over and over and increase their skill level, getting better at a particular challenge or task. She cites wave-simulating rides as an example, where visitors can try out their surfing skills. "People will buy season passes just to ride that and work on it and get better at it. Some parks have a boogie-boarding wave pool, which is a similar ride. You can get on it a first time, and the more you go on it, the better you get, the more tricks you can do. The same thing with waves. You can program variable wave patterns: One time might be a gentle family wave, another time it might be a tsunami-type wave. All of these offer the park-goer an experience."
Many rides now have a theme, telling a story that has a beginning and an end that takes you on a journey. "Incorporating more branding into the experience, instead of it being an afterthought, is becoming more of a main part of developing a ride," Mahoney said.
Overall, the guest experience is coming to the forefront and it's a major trend. "When we design a park," Mahoney explained, "we do consider the experience holistically," and it's something all waterparks should analyze: Is there a right mix of attractions with the right amount of deck space, and the right number of changing facilities. Where is the food and beverage placed in relation to the rides? Also consider the guest flow, the patterns of where guests walk to reach other rides. And do you have the right amount of deck to cater to the number of people you want coming to your park? All that should be taken into consideration to enhance the overall experience.
Attract New Guests & Keep Them Coming Back
Suppose your park is already attracting an audience of younger kids, but you are missing the teen demographic, Mahoney said. "You need to think, 'what can I get to appeal to them?' Do you need more thrill rides? For the little ones, do you need something for them? You want to have enough variety for a family to sit and spend the day. It's about creating an experience and being able to market something unique, something different that is going to make you stand out from your competition. And something that will get people to come back."
Why not develop new rides that allow guests to physically compete with each other in the real world, on actual slides, not just in virtual reality? That is something attracting new guests to waterparks, Pakis said.
"The thrill of being on the actual waterslides themselves will always be a huge incentive for guests," Pakis noted. "So there are new rides that offer these types of interactions." One new ride they've developed, for example, is a Class-A waterslide "...that is unique both in terms of its design configuration, its engineering and its ride path. It allows riders to race one another via twin-symmetrical slides. The ride allows guests to race as teams against other riders using four-person, round, family-style rafts. They launch from a tower, where they can scope out other riders to get ideas about how to manipulate their speed before they even get in their rafts. The ride includes a bowl section that is exciting for riders because it's the place where they have the greatest opportunity to really get an edge on their competition.
This slide, Pakis explained, "also incorporates other features that make it extra exciting, such as special effects that combine the interplay of adrenaline, speed, light and sound.
There is an art and science to engaging kids at waterparks. Sure, there is the fun aspect—rides have to be fun—but these days there is almost a gamification aspect to rides, especially when you are looking at a teen audience. That's what Pakis and Mahoney are talking about. Kids are into video games, and part of the appeal is how you get better with repeated play.
"The difference is, here you also are outside, getting fresh air and exercising," Mahoney said. "We're bringing technology into all this, and for a teen or younger generation, it's something they are comfortable with and excited about. You can figure virtual reality is becoming a part of this, tied into the actual ride as well. You ride on a float, shoot at targets and with repeated rides, get better. I think that is where a lot of rides are going. We are seeing that in roller coaster rides and now we're bringing it to waterparks."
What's old can be new again. Often it's a variation on what you have. If you have a wave pool, how do you make that new and exciting? Mahoney suggested creating roller waves, or a tsunami to mimic a real ocean wave experience. At Camelbeach Mountain Waterpark in Tannersville, Pa., there are regular times of days when there are tsunami waves.
Another trending ride is a surf simulator experience for beginners, where any person at any age level can get on the board at first without any skill level and ride. You can surf without actually learning how to surf. The point is to make it accessible to all of your guests. Some people want the experience, but don't want to work at it. Or take a lazy river that you see in many parks, and make it a tidal wave river. "In that way," Mahoney said, "It becomes an action adventure and not the standard slow river you see at every waterpark. You can make it a thrilling ride."
Keep things fresh and different so that you can target all of your audience. Once they are at your waterpark, if your staff is friendly, your park is clean and there is a good layout, if there are enough places to sit and relax, the lines aren't too long and there is enough to do when you aren't waiting on a line, if all that comes together, you'll have created an experience that will get people to come back.
Lake Wilderness at the Smokies, in Sevierville, Tenn., fully opened its waterpark in 2009, said Josh Bahe, director of sales and marketing, and part of their operating plan is to bring in new rides every few years. Recently, he said, they installed a children's area that hadn't been there before.
Similarly, Dru Brooks, director of sales and marketing, Camelbeach Mountain Waterpark, said keeping things fresh is very important in returning guests. Camelbeach is a part of the Camelback Mountain Resort, a well-known ski resort in the northeast, so establishing its own identity as a warm-weather destination has been important.
Latest Development in Slides
You can work competitions into any ride and slide, Pakis said. "We have a ride … that looks like a typical bowl-type slide at first glance. But it's different because it pits two four-rider family rafts against each other from opposite directions. The riders reach extremely high speeds while being separated by a patent-pending divider, so they can see each other throughout the competition, which really makes the excitement build throughout the ride."
Try adding a coaster that goes up and down. There is always something you can do to make the experience different, Mahoney said. Sometimes your location provides all you need to enhance the ride.
At Camelbeach, "the advantage we have over other waterparks is that we are not a flat parking lot, we are carved into the side of a ski mountain," Brooks said. "So we have that natural terrain, which means we can go up without having a ton of stairs. We use that to our advantage. A game like Titan, is four football fields long and you surf down the mountain. People can slide down trails that we ski on. We can really use our elevation without having to bring in a scaffold."