Play & Swim
Outfit Your Aquatic Venue, Expand Your Possibilities
Aquatic facilities have adapted and evolved in recent years, in hopes of attracting wider and new audiences of all ages. Aquatic fitness, training and therapy programs have infiltrated community pools. More organizations and communities are making it easier for underserved populations—both kids and adults—to access learn-to-swim programs. Pools have become more inclusive and accessible for mobility-challenged users. Attracting families with the addition of splash pads has proven to be a boon for many venues. And competitive swimming, diving and water polo is reaching more mainstream users.
One major consideration for pool operators is outfitting their venue: What types of amenities can be added to make their facility more appealing to more users?
"In all types of settings, people are looking for more amenities, and swimming pools are no exception," said Karen Andrus-Hughes, marketing manager of an Oregon-based manufacturer of swimming pool and deck equipment. "Whether it's pool play equipment, shallow water loungers or on-deck splash pads, aquatic facilities are including more features to keep their patrons coming back to the pool."
Sports & Recreation
Sports and recreational features are one of the things keeping those patrons coming back, such as pool volleyball and basketball, which Andrus-Hughes says is a huge draw. "At a local high school pool here in the Portland area, competitive swimmers who have just finished a grueling swim workout will still hang out and shoot hoops for a bit before heading home for dinner."
"Sports and recreation equipment such as basketball, water volleyball and balance challenges are great ways to bring more—and different—experiences to an aquatic facility," said Ryan Nachreiner and Steve Crocker, who work at Water Technology Inc., a Wisconsin-based aquatic planning, design and engineering firm. They explained how competitive aspects and skill requirements make it interesting and fun to compete in these sports. "Many facilities have competitive or flat water available for their users, and as designers we love to find opportunities for engagement for the part of the population that doesn't own Speedos but would still like to get in the water and compete."
Nachreiner is regional director of project development and Crocker is a principal as well as director of sport swimming. They assist clients in navigating the various design options, including equipment choices and feature selections, and they said that these and other games are becoming staples of a modern recreation pool. "New sports and games are also growing in popularity; everything from underwater hockey to competitive log rolling is becoming popular and in demand at aquatic facilities. Inner-tube water polo has been a popular league activity on campuses for years, and unlike many other pool-based sports, swimming prowess is less of a prerequisite for participation here. It is also an extremely low-cost solution for fun and different programming ideas."
Basketball games are available with anchoring systems that can eliminate movement and be easily removed from anchors when decks need to be cleared, with anchor caps put in place. Different setback designs can accommodate facilities with wide overflow or parapet gutters. Volleyball games come with various net sizes and can also be easily removed from anchors. Conversion kits turn swimming pool basketball sets into volleyball sets. Water polo goals and nets come in anchored or floating varieties. A pool golf game allows users to chip from the deck onto a floating green.
Michelle Gable, an associate for Aquatic Design Group, a California-based firm providing design and consulting services in the aquatics industry, agrees that sports and recreational features are very popular. "For us, the design process always includes an understanding for programmatic needs and desires. We have the goal of meeting current needs and incorporating future needs. These amenities add substantial recreational value for minimal cost and are incorporated into designs in a way that still allows those specific water spaces to be used for many other purposes. The flexibility, popularity and minimal cost make them a win for aquatic centers."
Retractable and ceiling-mounted recreational equipment is growing in popularity, and according to Nachreiner and Crocker, these products have the advantage of being easily removed or retracted to quickly enable a pool to accommodate open-water programs and lap swimming. "These are the sort of features that can excite users and create new experiences at aquatic centers that might not be able to afford a complete renovation or addition. Retractable features are attractive in competitive/training pools because it is incredibly important for these pools to have recreation opportunities available without negatively impacting any training or competition that should take place at the facility as well."
They do point out that from an operational perspective, maintenance can be a challenge when amenities are suspended over the water.
Adventure & Fitness
Pool inflatables are another feature that facilities are utilizing in a variety of ways. The modular play products—sometimes used as obstacle courses—offer infinite configuration possibilities, featuring towers, slides, bridges, cliffs, swings, hurdles, monkey bars and jumping platforms. Blowers for inflation are a must, as are repair kits. Vertical anchoring systems are available, as are pool booms, which allow for horizontal anchoring of taller inflatables to the pool's edge.
Gable said inflatables and obstacle courses are excellent amenities, particularly for venues without slides or splash pads. "It's an alternative to swimming where you can still get wet to cool off and oftentimes you're challenged, which really appeals to all ages and swimming abilities."
She pointed out that operators appreciate these amenities for the variety they bring and the financial gain, since many venues offer them at an additional charge or as birthday party enhancements. "Many facilities have used these amenities to make competitive pools into recreational pools when not being used by swim, water polo or diving teams."
According to Nachreiner and Crocker, inflatables are a natural fit for training and competitive pools since they have the deeper water these features require. They say that obstacle courses—both inflatable and retractable—are one of the fastest-growing trends in aquatics. "The most popular features today are those that challenge your personal skills and abilities in new and exciting ways. Along with the popularity of mud runs, gladiator sports and ninja challenges, obstacle courses are bringing some of the most popular sport/fitness challenges to the community pool." They describe how retractable ninja-style amenities offer facilities a more permanent fixture, with exciting timing and competitive elements. In fact, some venues use these amenities to host leagues or tournaments, or offer aquatic HIIT training or water-based calisthenics classes.
Swimming pool climbing walls are another feature combining fun, adventure and fitness. Many are modular, with panels attaching to a frame, allowing for many configuration possibilities. "Certainly water surface area and water depth limit the size and height of a climbing wall, but many pools are able to incorporate some type of climbing structure", said Nachreiner and Crocker, adding that these are also great spectator features. "Climbing walls and rock cliffs are great features to attract a wide age range of users seeking to challenge themselves."
"Climbing walls attract children that have outgrown the splash pad," said Gable, pointing out that children have to be able to pass a swim test to climb the wall at most pools due to the water depth. She added that while they've not yet become mainstream, climbing walls are good attendance boosters. "It's that challenging aspect that's quite appealing. These definitely get used as enhancements to birthday parties."
Inclusion & Accessibility
To make aquatic facilities more inclusive and accessible, pool lifts or a sloped entry are now a standard requirement on any public or commercial pool deck, according to Andrus-Hughes, who explained the ADA requirements that took effect in 2013. "For existing pools, a lift is much more feasible than renovating a pool to include a sloped entry," she said. Pool lifts can be mounted or portable, battery-powered or water-powered. Options are available when it comes to controllers, seatbelts, foot rests and arm rests. "A facility might lean toward a portable lift if they need to move it away from the pool edge quite often for certain events, like water polo competitions, that require officials to move freely up and down the pool deck edge," said Andrus-Hughes.
Gable said that facilities should be inclusive to meet the goal of serving entire communities, and careful consideration is given to accessibility in the design process. "The goal is to provide universal access in which all users can safely and comfortably gain unassisted access to all the pools in a project without drawing unnecessary attention to them doing so." Aquatic wheelchairs are also utilized by facilities with ramps or zero-depth entry.
Underwater treadmills and exercise bikes are popular at specialized therapy and athletic venues, and these will continue to become more mainstream as more community pools ramp up their fitness programs, which are gaining in popularity among various user groups. Other simple fitness and therapy products include swim belts, aquatic barbells and dumbbells, exercise balls and ankle and wrist weights.
Underwater teaching platforms enhance student confidence by reducing water depth and providing a railing. Free-standing platforms sit on the pool bottom on risers that fill with sand. Underwater speakers can be used as teaching aids or for providing background music for synchronized and recreational swimming. These install flush in an underwater niche covered by a protective grille.
Tina Montalbano is the director of marketing for a Colorado-based company supplying the aquatics industry with competitive products including pace clocks, judging terminals, start systems, timing systems, and video displays and scoreboards for swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo. She explained that more community venues are interested in adding competitive products to their pool. "There is a considerable uptick in the number of aquatic facilities located within municipalities and private/public partnerships that utilize competitive equipment for both training and competition for all aquatic sports."
Competitive swimming has become a more mainstream sport in the United States in the past few decades, according to Andrus-Hughes, perhaps due to the success and popularity of athletes like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and others. "So yes, we're seeing more community pools adding swim team programs, and with that comes the need for starting blocks."
Montalbano said that while many facilities will never host a competitive event, they do provide a quality training environment for individuals who just want to exercise. "Facilities that have competitive equipment are in a position to attract different user groups and boost attendance by their offerings, which could include competitions, clinics, training groups and lessons, both group and private."
With continued growth in the aquatic sports realm—especially leading up to an Olympic year—facilities will start to see interest peak next summer, according to Montalbano, and they'll need to identify ways to capture the youth and keep them in the sport. "This can be done by offering introductory courses to swimming, diving, water polo or synchronized swimming that teaches them the sport and the equipment used."
Scoreboards are being added in all types of venues, and as technology increases, the cost of LEDs decrease, giving facilities more options for less expense, according to Montalbano. "Video display boards can provide much more than aquatic timing and scoring. These boards allow facilities to generate revenue by selling ads on the board to be displayed throughout the day or a specific event; market programming for their facilities both inside the pool and out; display facility hours and closures; provide a large Time of Day display along with a pace clock; and show live video or a slide show of athlete introductions or award presentations." Facilities can also be creative with programming, hosting dive-in movies and watch parties for live sporting events or TV shows.
Technology is also transforming the coaching and training side of things at aquatic facilities. For instance, camera coaching systems can display timing data during training or provide video display during competition to enhance the fan experience. Systems are available with one, two, four or six wired or wireless cameras, either permanently installed or portable. With an iPad app, you can stream and record from any camera directly to the iPad.
Other swim training products include underwater mirrors, dive bricks, agility paddles, hand paddles and pull boards. Other competitive products include backstroke flags, deck stanchions and lap swim counters. Swimming race lane lines come in many sizes and colors, and lane line storage reels make storage convenient.
Swim lane bulkheads—which are portable and suspend between two racing lane lines—can divide one lane into two, allowing two swimmers to swim laps at the same time in the same lane. Newer swim wall systems also offer flexibility—increasing revenue opportunities. The wall is positioned on the pool floor when not in use, and by filling it with air, it moves into a vertical position, forming a pool wall that is designed to fit around lane lines. The system can effectively double the number of lanes or offer flexibility to have some lanes 50 meters in length while others are 25.
The walls are quite popular in Australia, and are just being introduced in the United States, according to Andrus-Hughes. "Both unique and simple, the walls lift and lower using displacement of water and air, with all operation taking place high and dry on the pool deck. They're quite sturdy and provide a solid turning surface for swimmers, unlike more temporary turning surfaces that might hang from lane lines." She said it takes just a few minutes to transform an eight-lane, 50-meter pool to 16 lanes. "As aquatic directors work to maximize the use of their pool space throughout a given day, I think swim walls will find their way into U.S. aquatic facilities."
Diving Boards & Pool Slides
And how about the good old diving board—are these still a popular amenity? Well, yes and no, according to Nachreiner and Crocker, who said many swimmers will never forget their first jump off the high dive. "While many new aquatic centers are choosing to forego the classic diving board experience for newer and more unique features, others couldn't imagine not incorporating this age old rite of passage. From a competitive perspective, in addition to being a sport in and of itself, springboard diving can be a popular recreational activity with skill development being key to the popularity."
Andrus-Hughes agrees with the nostalgia aspect. "Diving boards will probably always be at the heart and soul of swimming pool fun."
Gable tends to see diving boards installed in competitive facilities and facilities that have historically had positive experiences with them. "The existing programs and insurance drive this feature rather than a future program desire," she said.
Diving boards feature different tread surfaces, and are typically made of fiberglass, aluminum, acrylic or steel. There are different color choices and sizes, as well as various handrail and ladder options. Varying water depths, overhangs and pool dimensions are required for different board lengths.
Pool slides are always a hit, and they don't have to be the monstrous waterpark-style variety. They come in many sizes, open or closed flume, straight or corkscrew style. "Large aquatic play features like pool slides are key in attracting families to swimming pools, which is why pool slides are becoming more and more common at park and rec pools," said Andrus-Hughes.
On the Deck & Beyond
Lifeguard chairs also come with a lot of choices. They can be permanent or portable, and many have seats that swivel 360 degrees for uninhibited scanning. Some prefer very tall chairs, while others prefer low-profile chairs for quick exits. Extras include umbrellas, cup holders or life ring hooks. They come in a variety of colors and materials, including recycled plastic. "A trend in the lifeguard chair arena are ones made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and designed to have an outdoor furniture style and appeal, plus they are very durable," said Andrus-Hughes.
Pool deck furniture does add to the pool experience. "Today's users expect more comfortable and resort-like accommodations," said Gable. "Having a variety of medium to high-end seating options is becoming more of the norm in today's aquatic centers. Examples include shaded seating areas, cabanas, lounge chairs, traditional chairs and seating around amenities such as decorative water features and fire pits."
Tables, ash and trash cans, umbrellas and grills are also options. Benches or bleachers might be considered if spectators are a factor. In-pool furniture is also popular, such as loungers, inner tubes, mattresses and in-pool tables and seats with anchors.
Storage units for pool products are another consideration, and some actually double as seating benches. Others are portable and can be moved around the pool deck as needed for exercise classes or swim lessons. In addition to aquatic programming accessories, "fun" items like pool noodles, dive toys, boogie boards, goggles and fins must be stored.
Gable explained that furniture, lifeguard chairs, ladders, etc., are all details that are explored during the design process. "Sometimes these items are part of the contractor's package, other times they become FFE items (Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment) furnished by the facility. Gutter profile, material selection, finishes, drainage systems and anchor style and locations are also explored in great detail during the design phase of each project. In many cases, codes, budgets or site constraints will narrow the choices down. In others, program will dictate these choices."
Safety is of utmost importance to every facility, and many are utilizing U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets for patrons who aren't strong swimmers. Other safety products include first aid kits, CPR and first responder kits, resuscitator systems, eyewash stations, spine boards, and head and neck restraints. There are ring buoys, throw ropes, rescue cans, rescue hooks, rescue tubes and lifeguard accessories such as whistles. Safety signs with clear graphics that are quickly recognizable and easily understood draw attention to core safety messages.
Gable pointed out that technology is also helping with safety initiatives. "Facilities are now more than ever incorporating artificial intelligence to identify drowning victims. These systems support lifeguards rather than replace." She described how technology is being introduced into aquatic centers in many ways. "From free Wi-Fi with safety messages that pop up when you sign on, to social media integration, to augmented reality experiences, we're starting to see much more tech we're used to using when we're dry being brought into areas where we're wet."
From pool covers to underwater lights, pool noodles to waterslides, aquatic facility operators have much to think about when it comes to outfitting their venue. As Nachreiner and Crocker point out, a community pool has to be strategic in selecting new amenities as initial cost and long-term cost recovery are crucial factors.