Review & Renew the Waterpark Experience
Waterparks on the Road to Recovery
Waterparks have come a long way since I first paid one a visit as a teenager in 1986. A wave pool, a humid concession stand and a speed slide are the sum total of my memories from that trip. Since then, the waterpark market has grown by leaps and bounds, and the options for thrills, spills and relaxation have grown right along with it.
There are now more than 1,000 waterparks in the United States, with more than 20 in the self-proclaimed "Waterpark Capital of the World," Wisconsin Dells. And in most years, the market sees a handful of brand-new indoor and outdoor parks open, along with renovations, additions and expansions at existing parks.
Of course, the industry is closely connected with the tourism and hospitality industries, and all of these saw a dramatic impact from closures and reduced capacity associated with the coronavirus pandemic—and while recovery is in sight, it might take some time.
"The waterpark industry had a major setback in 2020 with a loss of over 83 million attendees at indoor and outdoor waterparks in the United States between 2019 and 2020 according to research by Hotel & Leisure Advisors," said David J. Sangree, MAI, CPA, ISHC, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors, a hospitality consulting firm specializing in appraisals, feasibility studies, impact analyses, economic impact studies and litigation support for hotels, resorts, waterparks, casinos, conference and convention centers, golf courses, ski resorts, amusement parks and other leisure real estate.
"The loss of attendance caused a substantial loss in revenue, which we estimate at $3.7 billion," he added. "The lost attendance and revenue has caused waterparks to delay capital improvements, lay off staff, negatively affect career paths and reduce maintenance at properties."
In spite of these challenges, Hotel & Leisure Advisors reported that half of the existing waterparks were able to open in some capacity in 2020, while many existing facilities took advantage of closures to complete needed renovations. In addition, several new parks opened in 2020, including two indoor resorts (the Kalahari Resort in Round Rock, Texas, and the DreamWorks Water Park at American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, N.J.) and three standalone outdoor waterparks (The Water Main Aquatic Park at Diggerland USA in West Berlin, N.J.; Soaky Mountain Waterpark in Sevierville, Tenn.; and Wisconsin Rapids Recreation Complex in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.). The most significant new park was Soaky Mountain, a $90 million, 50-acre park featuring multiple slides, a wave river, a children's area, a double surf rider, raft rides and a water coaster.
As vaccines have allowed the gradual reopening and return to more normal operations, these new parks are poised, along with the rest of the industry, to welcome guests back and watch their business grow.
In fact, Sangree said, "The summer of 2021 is turning out to be much busier for many waterparks than originally expected as customers have been very interested to again visit a waterpark and reconnect with their friends and family."
He added that many parks have increased their prices this year to help make up for the financial losses of 2020, and are hoping that the higher prices will be sustained for future years.
Asked when business might return to normal, Sangree said, "We expect business to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023."
Keys to Recovery
Part of that return to normal will involve waterpark owners taking a good look at their current operation and adapting with new business and employment practices, while adopting new rides and attractions.
"There are a number of things waterparks can do to recover more effectively," Sangree said. "We recommend they improve their pay scales and treatment of their staff to provide a better future for employees in the waterpark industry. Funding to allow for this should come from a higher pricing model at waterparks that would allow the increase in prices charged in 2021 to continue into the future."
In addition, Sangree said, waterparks will need to do what they have always done to ensure ongoing success: keep finding ways to keep customer interest high, through new rides and attractions, as well as an improved guest experience.
The guest experience is really what a great waterpark is all about, according to Jessica Mahoney, director of marketing for Aquatic Development Group, which provides design/build services as well as products to the waterpark industry. The overall guest experience is not just about the attractions, she explained. It's about the time spent in the water as well as out of the water.
"You want to make sure you have the right mix of what we like to refer to as 'chills & thrills'—you definitely want to deliver on the thrills from the attractions and include the right mix of slides, places to get in the water without lines like wave pools and rivers, fun rides for kids as well as teens; but you also want enough places for guests to comfortably put down their bags and towels, escape into the shade, grab a bite to eat, even to sit and watch their young kids playing in the water. That means looking beyond the edge of the water and addressing the amount of deck space, deck chairs, cabanas, food-and-beverage and retail outlets, technology integration and of course, ride mix. It all ties together to build the experience you really want to deliver. These are the fundamentals of designing a great park that will never disappear—just continue to evolve over time as new trends and technologies emerge."
So you know you need to keep evolving and changing up your offerings to keep the experience fresh and interest high, but where do you begin? A hot new attraction like a water obstacle course? More deck space so guests can spread out and relax?
At the Columbus Zoo's Zoombezi Bay in Columbus, Ohio, the answer is both. But it all began with understanding what people are drawn to, and asking guests what they want.
"While there will always be that continued desire for the latest and greatest, we always like to suggest that we visit with the owners and walk their park and look at what is really happening," Mahoney said. "Where are the guests, what attractions are they migrating to, what parts of the park are empty and why?
"Then, think about what your goals are—are you looking to attract guests of a certain demographic, or do you want to increase length of stay? The answer to these may result in a very different direction as to what you should do with a renovation. There are lots of choices out there, and having an experienced designer walk a park and address these factors with you helps owners consider all their options to come up with a renovation that is right for their park."
Development over the past decade-plus at Zoombezi Bay, a 22.8-acre waterpark that attracts more than 400,000 annual visitors, shows just how well this process can pay off.
In 2008 Columbus Zoo selected ADG to help it renovate, design and build a newly branded waterpark. That initial development featured $20 million worth of new attractions, including new slides, a wave pool and a 1.5-million-gallon action river called "Roaring Rapids."
Three successful seasons later, park operators decided to expand, with two more slides, a 45-foot uphill water coaster and a half-pipe tube slide. By 2014, the park was ready to replace an old water playground that had been kept from the old park, and as a result it developed the $4.5 million "Baboon Lagoon" children's area, featuring nine children's slides, more than 90 interactive water play features, and a giant 1,000-gallon dumping bucket.
In 2018, the park was looking to do more. "First, we evaluated what our guests wanted," said John Gannon, general manager of Zoombezi Bay, in an interview. As a result of guest surveys, he said, they found that people wanted more waterslides, but they also were looking for more space to relax, such as with lounge chairs and cabanas.
Gannon and his team visited other parks to see "what people were standing in line for," then brought back their ideas and combined it with their budget to come up with Otter Bay, a new way to provide more space and new attractions for the park.
"In-water active play is extremely popular," Mahoney said, citing Otter Banks at Zoombezi Bay as an example. "We added an Adventure Lagoon that included an in-water obstacle course, two drop slides, in-water basketball/play pool and plenty of deck space with shade and access to changing stations, restrooms, etc."
Finally, in 2020, Zoombezi Bay finally renovated the last remaining attraction from its preexisting property, creating Croctail Creek, a bar and adults-only river. ADG renovated the 700-foot-long river to double the size of the bar area and add a lounge pool with in-water bar-side seating.
When it comes to knowing "what people are standing in line for"—or what will get guests excited to return to your park—it's important to understand what's trending in the industry.
"The types of rides and amenities that will be trending include new slides, water coasters, lazy rivers, wave pools, surf pools and other typical waterpark amenities as manufacturers continue to upgrade and enhance these waterpark-type amenities," Sangree said.
"Some waterparks will push the technology trends and include new technologies within the waterparks as this is popular with a segment of the population (for example, the new VR headsets used in a slide at Kalahari Resort). There have been a number of new surf pool technologies that have come out in recent years that will start to open in the coming years."
Mahoney said that choosing new attractions ultimately comes down to the needs of your park. "If they are looking to expand their kid's options, we have our Mini Harbour pools that include mini-sized waves with kids' active play options. If they want to build excitement for teens, surfing is a big trend to look at right now."
ADG has a new surf ride that Mahoney said is ideal for municipal facilities because "… it allows you to bring the sport of surfing to your town no matter where you are located—real waves and real surfboards.
"Another option would be looking at renovating an old underused pool and renovating it to add waves for learn-to-surf and boogie boarding," such as the Breaker Beach pool at Water World in Federal Heights, Colo. RM