Making a Splash!
The Latest Trends in Splash Play Design
It gets hot in Lubbock, Texas, in the summer, so finding a place to cool off is of great importance to residents. One such place was the local YWCA, but over the years the facility's outdoor swimming pool had become outdated and underutilized. So, during some recent renovations, the facility decided to put a new splash pad adjacent to the pool, hoping to bring some increased play value, according to Kelsey Johnson, director of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington YWCA at Sun 'n Fun Aquatics in Lubbock.
"We've had a pool at this location for about 50 years," Johnson said. "It was closed for a summer while we built a new 25,000-square-foot building around it. We knew when we were opening back up that we would need a 'wow' factor to get people coming back and attract new customers. It worked!"
Many facilities are finding that their older pools are becoming maintenance-heavy and expensive to operate. Some are closing altogether, but many others are finding that splash pads or other spray park amenities are just the ticket for getting people back to their pools.
This was certainly the case in Lubbock, where the addition of the splash pad to the pool area in 2016 has proven to be a great success. "We have more revenue and people coming daily since adding the splash pad," said Johnson. "The pool previously was popular to daycare and childcare groups for swimming, but the addition of the splash pad really helped get the general public to start coming."
The splash pad features bright blue and orange garden-themed elements. For the tots there are gently spraying fish and refreshing water spouts. A multi-level structure offers various textures of water effects, as well as a large dumping bucket and assorted waterslides. There is lounge seating around the pad and the pool, and a picnic area with concessions. "The slides and the bucket that dumps all the water is the highlight of the main splash pad. We also have a separate splash pad specifically designed for toddlers. It has gone over very well with the families that have younger children. Our pool also has a zero-depth entry, which is great for both elderly people and the younger children," said Johnson.
Oftentimes if there's already a pool, much of the necessary plumbing and mechanical infrastructure is already in place to add splash play. "Some of the plumbing is tied into existing plumbing and everything was tied into the well that we have here on site for our main water source," said Johnson, adding that the splash pad utilizes an eco-friendly water recirculation system.
Splash pads are accessible to young and old, and users of all abilities. "The demand for spray parks is constantly increasing in municipal parks and recreation centers, hotels and resorts, campgrounds, zoos, family entertainment centers, waterparks, theme parks and even less obvious places such as shopping malls," said Wyeth Tracy, president of a Canadian manufacturer and designer of splash pads and spray park equipment. "They realize that these safe facilities are not that big a capital expenditure, have tremendous draw for young families and produce more bang for the buck and lower operating costs than the big pools of yesterday."
The variety of venues incorporating them is expanding. "In places where land is a premium, and lightweight is required, we're adding splash pads on top of terraces in high-rise condominiums and on rooftops at shopping malls," said Tracy. "Where maximum corrosion resistance to salt air is required, cruise ships are also adding lightweight fiberglass features to their decks for added attractions for young families."
So, is there a difference between splash pads and splash parks? "A splash pad is generally a small water play area with no standing water, typically installed in municipal parks or smaller venues," explained Tracy. A zero-depth splash pad doesn't require lifeguards, cutting costs further. "A splash park or spray park is a larger facility, which may contain beach-entry water play in shallow standing water up to 12 inches, no standing water or a combination of both."
Beach-entry installations typically start out as sloped splash play areas and become constant-depth pools, which filter and chlorinate water the same way as a swimming pool. These pools can accommodate toys and elements containing their own pumps that draw from the pool water, while other splash-pad amenities require their own water feeds.
Designers can create visually exciting splash play areas and take many liberties, since these installations can integrate with any landscape and be any shape. A myriad of colors and designs are available, and some facilities incorporate a theme. Gentler water experiences like misting or bubbling water can entertain the youngest users, and tot structures might have scaled-down steps, handrails and slides and feature softer water sprays. Ground sprays spout arcs of water and other water features can be low, medium or high for running through or standing under.
Jets, waterfalls and waterslides appeal to older kids. Waterslides can have runouts, or drop slides can be used if there's a pool. There are enclosed or open flume slides, racers with multiple lanes, extra wide family slides and body, inner tube or raft models. Water battles are always a hit, and water shooters can be aimed up and down or side to side. Elevated structures can be multi-level and feature dumping buckets, spray cannons, slides, canopies and an array of activators that can be manipulated. Some are modular and can be upgraded, and many structures can be branded.
Bill Hachmeister is channel development manager for a Minnesota-based manufacturer of playground and spray park equipment, and he explained that sensory play has become very popular, offering many benefits for kids. "Sensory play that involves movement, visual, audible, capsular with feel for senses. Water flow has many benefits for sensory issues and sensory needs. There are many new features in the market today to fulfill sensory needs."
Beyond simply splashing around and cooling off, play elements that encourage motor skill development, social development, cognitive development and collaboration are popular. "A current trend we are noticing is more interactive structures for inclusive play, team building and enhancing communication skills," explained Hachmeister. There are many products available that allow kids to create and change water events by turning a crank, pushing a button, pedaling, rocking a toy or pumping a handle.
Terry Dubuc is business development manager for a Canadian company that designs and manufactures spray parks and spray park products, and he agrees that interactive and sensory experiences are critical to a child's learning. "It's important to
provide kids with the opportunity to discover, experiment, play and engage with water. We're always looking to develop with this criteria in mind."
Dubuc's company recently unveiled seven new play events for children in the 2-to-5 age group. Inspired by rivers, tides and cascading mountaintops, these highly tactile experiences encourage children to manipulate their surroundings as they would "in the great outdoors." These designs utilize kids' cognitive, social and motor skills through a series of open-ended play events, featuring currents, splashing, misting, spraying and cascading. "Inspired by the power of nature and water's malleability, we created these unique designs to allow kids to manipulate the different water currents. And while they play they are also learning about redirection and cause-and-effect by means of interaction and social interaction," said Dubuc.
At the Del Mar Aquatic Center in Aurora, Colo., the outdoor pool that had been built in 1956 was suffering from operational issues, and attendance and revenues were in sharp decline. "The residents of the surrounding neighborhoods of Del Mar were voicing their need for a new and improved pool," said Erin O'Neill, superintendent of marketing & special events in Aurora. "Those that had been kids when the pool initially opened were bringing their children and grandchildren to this landmark facility for years. The pool was a classic that needed major infrastructure improvements."
The public's input initiated efforts for the city to put together a master plan, according to O'Neill, and a major pool renovation was under way. The renovated pool opened in 2015, along with an attached 12-foot dive well, waterslides, bathhouse, concession area, updated reserve-able shelters and new filtration/pumping systems. But the icing was the new 6,350-square-foot water playground, towering 20-feet above the aquatic center. "Since opening, we do typically reach maximum admission capacity almost daily," said O'Neill.
Del Mar's water playground boasts a large multi-deck elevation structure with a massive 1,200-liter red tipping bucket that can be seen throughout the park. There are six waterslides in all, which includes a 180-foot slide and two kiddie slides, and slide tubes are available. O'Neill said there are 90 water features including spinning water wheels, spray jets and water cannons. "The dump bucket at the top of the water playground is self-powered. When the bucket fills with water, it dumps the gallons below onto the anxiously awaiting patrons for some splashing fun." There are separate areas for tots and teens.
O'Neill said they have eight reserve-able shelters that are good revenue generators and often have a waiting list. Smaller shelters hold eight to 10 people and a large one holds 100. "For large parties or events, Del Mar Aquatic Center is available for rent." Additionally, two other parks in Aurora have splash pads as well as other park amenities, so families will spend entire days enjoying the spray features and parks. "Both are very well-attended throughout the season."
Johnson said they have private parties every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening from May through September at the Lubbock YWCA. "People start calling in January trying to book them and they fill up quickly. It really is one of the best party spots in town! We also have special events like Dive-In Movies, Parents Night Out and Family Float Night."
Tracy feels that water quality management is one of the most important aspects of splash pad design. "It is paramount that the system be designed to maintain the correct level of sanitation and contain the proper checks and balances to halt the system if the quality is not met. On consumption, chemical usage must be optimized through accurate dosing systems that are properly calibrated. With water usage, consumption is minimal if recirculating systems are used and water is not simply thrown away. On flow-through systems without recirculation water can be stored in tanks for use in irrigation if this is applicable."
Hachmeister said they're seeing more people dumping water that's gone through the play area into retention ponds for repurposing. "They then use this water for irrigating lawns and fields. This is not a new innovation, but it's becoming more popular." Sometimes the water is returned to the municipal wastewater system or percolated back to the water table.
Hachmeister explained how they've been working with some municipalities on maximum daily water usage for their interactive water venue, where the city is willing to commit to a certain gallons-per-day limit for a particular park amenity. "On days that don't reach their limit, it will pass on to the next day's usage allotment. Once the daily water-use allotment has been reached, the water venue will be turned off."
Recirculation systems in spray parks are the most popular, according to Hachmeister, where the water is recycled and disinfected and used again. "Recirculation systems are also better for sensory play because the nozzles that are used are larger then what is used on domestic systems."
Other eco-friendly features include high-efficiency nozzles that optimize water usage and on-demand activators that ensure that water is only flowing when the products are in use. There are also systems that allow control of water play and display solutions from remote locations, reducing onsite visits for some maintenance and operations issues.
Low-flow water features use light mists and small directional streams. "Many urban settings or areas that have limited water availability benefit from our low-flow products," said Dubuc. These elements are also desirable to people who might want to cool off without going to a pool, and can even do so in street clothes. In fact, you might even see people in your neighborhood splashing around in a fountain.
"Another trend has been for more interactive fountains used as spray parks," said Hachmeister. "These are being installed in residential and retail settings."
Over at Del Mar, O'Neill said their water is recirculated but also refreshed with an auto-fill feature, recirculating more than 90 percent of the existing water. "We included a supersized UV system capable of sanitizing over 670,000 gallons. This reduced the need of some chemicals and eliminated others. We also installed an efficient backwash system that allows us to backwash while the system continues to run and without affecting the patrons in the pool."
Some facilities may wish to interchange water features between sites or simply add something new each season without excessive construction. They may also wish to move or increase a splash pad size and reuse the existing equipment. Therefore, many features are designed with universal bases for easy removal. "We always try to design our products for ease of installation, retrofit or exchange," said Tracy. "As our flanges are two standard sizes and surface-mounted without complicated foundations, our products are easily interchanged."
In an effort to increase membership to the Memphis Children's Museum in Tennessee, a splash pad was installed as a second gate area, with non-members paying for use while museum members received free access. The garden-themed park boasts more than 40 spraying water features with jet streams, mists, geysers and water tunnels. The museum opted for the possibility of expansion using technology allowing for easy installation of new products. The park was very successful—increasing memberships and bringing guests back—so new features were added including fish, a snake, a sea serpent and bamboo cannon.
When it comes to boosting attendance at your facility, Hachmeister said "build it and they will come!" He said that splash pads and playgrounds will attract patrons who will spend tax dollars in the community. "Also, build your splash pad larger to anticipate a larger crowd. We've found that the popularity of splash pads brings more people from outside your community than what is projected."
Hachmeister said it's also important to build for inclusive play. "People who are looking for inclusive play seek out places intended for their kids' physical and mental needs."
"I always tell prospective buyers that the little ones are their greatest marketing asset as they are the ones with 'pester power,' and often the ones that decide the facility where the whole family ends up for the day, weekend or holiday," said Tracy. "For a minimal investment, an exciting water play facility will always be a favorite among the young ones."
He added that these facilities not only provide an exciting day for the kids, but also a relaxing day for parents who can either splash around or relax knowing that the kids aren't in any danger with deep water.
"The Lubbock community loves the splash pad," said Johnson. "It's just something that not many places have around here. We have family memberships so parents can work out in our fitness facility and splash with their kids, which has helped our revenue, but we also have plenty of people that still come and buy day passes just to swim."