A Growing Wave
Waterparks of All Kinds Adapt to the New Normal
It's been a bumpy ride in the recreation business these past couple years, and those in the aquatics industry have been holding on tight. And as everyone has been cautiously climbing back out of the pandemic ditch and getting back to business, the big question remains: Is it business as usual? Here we'll focus on waterparks and how they're faring, looking at things like staffing concerns and new construction but also the fun stuff—current trends and attractions, and ways that facilities are working to get guests back and staying longer, whether indoor or outdoor, private or municipal.
As far as "returning to normal," Jen Gerber, business development leader at Water Technology Inc., an aquatics planning, design and programming firm, thinks those in the industry are all redefining the meaning of "normal." But she said they're absolutely seeing increased interest in developing new projects or reinvesting in existing amenities with modifications. "It seems the collective 'knee jerk' reaction to COVID has started to relax, and everyone is more comfortable thinking about long-term expenditures on quality-of-life initiatives (for public facilities) and opportunities for quality ROI (for private facilities)."
While goals for public and private facilities can be different, she believes there's a collectively hopeful outlook for the future of recreation.
One trend Gerber sees happening is a desire for great data. "Owners are doubling down on the need for quality feasibility study information that can inform their decision-making efforts and help to plan for fundraising, bond measures or even private investments." She explained that these studies are informing those seeking to understand the delta between investing limited funds in aging facilities or directing funds toward new projects.
Una de Boer, chief marketing officer for a designer and manufacturer of waterpark products with North American Offices in Denver, San Diego and Vancouver, Canada, reports that there's definitely pent-up demand for location-based entertainment such as waterparks and theme parks. "We continue to see investments follow the demand, and we have good reason to believe that in most parts of the world, investment will reach pre-pandemic levels in the coming year."
She explained that even if a park is still recovering financially from the downturn, there are ways to upgrade or refurbish existing attractions to "offer guests a refreshing experience."
And indeed, it's not just private destinations making these investments. "Though municipalities generally have smaller projects, some cities do make the investment to build large waterparks comparable to privately owned ones," said de Boer.
She mentioned Epic Waters in Grand Prairie, Texas, as a taxpayer-funded indoor park that set the stage for bigger municipal projects. "Now, we're seeing places like Hattiesburg Zoo in Mississippi announce an expansion through a waterpark, beginning with a mega multilevel aquatic play structure … complete with nine waterslides."
And while it's agreed that both the public and private sectors are moving forward, Gerber explained that on the municipal side there are many variables: community size, existing amenities, available funding, and public support. And she said they're seeing an increase in development in the resort market and the commercial entertainment waterparks. "During COVID, projects that were focused on paid entry and with significant bather loads were more likely to be put on hold. Projects that continued development during COVID were the ones that were publicly funded. Communities will always need to invest in their citizens, and tax dollars have to be used."
According to David Keim, director of business development for a Cohoes, N.Y.-based aquatic design, manufacturing and construction firm, they're busy with projects on both the private and municipal side as well. "People are back in the parks, and operators are looking to deliver on new and exciting experiences for their guests."
What are some of those experiences? Keim said active participation and skill-based activities are hot, especially surfing, with buzz from both the Olympics and the development of new surf parks worldwide. "From large surf pools to deep-water stationary surf waves, to purpose-built learn-to-surf and boogie-boarding pools being developed, the sport is definitely on trend."
Smaller options like a stationary surf wave or learn-to-surf pool are great ways for municipalities to join the market at a lower cost, according to Keim, in terms of purchasing the technology and also in land development costs. He said a stationary surf wave can be built in the space of a tennis court, and mentioned a learn-to-surf pool featured in two municipal parks in Colorado (Water World) and Australia (Funfields Park).
Two "skyline-defining" rides that de Boer mentioned as debuting this year include the a giant rotating attraction described as a cross between a Ferris wheel and a waterslide at Mt. Olympus in Wisconsin Dells, and a side-by-side dueling ride featuring drops and uphill blasts, debuting at Soaky Mountain in Seiverville, Tenn.
While bigger attractions aren't necessarily the most important thing to draw guests, de Boer said they don't hurt. "Iconic attractions might be industry firsts or regional firsts, the biggest or the tallest, or are simply eye-catching and tell a good story. These enhance the experience because guests can appreciate the attractions more and engage with the narrative, which also provides marketing value in an Insta-world."
Gerber's firm has a huge 62-acre development in Saudi Arabia, Qiddiya Water Theme Park—part of an entire entertainment city being developed—which also will feature the new rotating water slide as well as many other attractions, including a surf lagoon and Olympic training whitewater rafting course. Gerber also described a standing waterslide featured at a couple of their U.S. projects, which she said is really proving popular, where riders coast down the slide on their heels in a gliding motion. "There's a tremendous amount of skill required for this ride, and each trip down the slide offers users a new experience."
She also mentioned ninja adventure courses, which can descend from a mount in 60 seconds and be featured indoors or outdoors. These are ideal for obstacle course racing or fitness classes. Interchangeable features and the ability to increase or decrease the height of the rigged features mean that the attraction can be easily modified to target different skill levels.
Aside from the iconic attractions, it's crucial to appeal to all ages, which means you'll need a good ride mix, according to de Boer, who suggested that aqua play structures and mini-slides are popular with the youngest visitors, while raft rides are great for families and high-speed body slides are for daredevils. "A popular attraction that encourages repeat ridership is a racing slide, as guests want to compete over and over again for different results." These come in two, four, six or eight lane versions. "Competition rides come in the form of body slides, mat racers or even inner-tube slides."
But the real key to encouraging repeat visits is the overall park experience. "It's the ride mix together with elements such as passive capacity, food and beverage and customer service. Just read Google or Tripadvisor reviews, and you'll get a sense of what's important to the guests. Simply put, they need to have a good time with no friction," said deBoer.
And while it's common sense to engage parents or caregivers while the kids are off splashing, it's also wise to give the older crowd some reasons to visit on their own. "You'll see a lot of large-screen TVs being built into the back end of the wave pools, as well as dedicated adult areas in parks to deliver on these types of opportunities," said Keim, who mentioned Island H2Olive in Orlando, Fla., as having a large-screen TV at the wave pool and also at an adult pool. "Both of these attractions are utilized after hours for events and parties. Columbus Zoo Zoombezi Bay (Ohio) has a 21-and-over river with swim-up bar that was recently renovated, and they offer adult night after-hours events."
Additionally, he suggested pop-up/portable F&B carts and food trucks as a great way to respond to demand in a particular area of your park on an as-needed basis. "Building space into the park plans for this type of F&B delivery makes this a lot easier of an option to execute against."
Keim said that cabanas continue to be huge revenue generators for parks, "not only in terms of rental fees but the corresponding F&B purchases as well. Many parks use dynamic pricing on these for times of peak demand, and they consistently seem to sell out."
Gerber agreed that when families are comfortable, they'll stay longer and are more likely spend on concessions. "Birthday party spaces, pavilions, cabanas and rentable shade are key to creating quality revenue-generation opportunities, whether in public or private facilities."
As a rule of thumb, Gerber said it's safe to assume that 50% of space in a park—indoor or outdoor—should be deck space.
De Boer said that while they generally see more outdoor projects coming in, indoor waterparks continue to gain traction, "driven in part by hotels wanting to attract families through standout amenities and encourage them to stay longer or even create a destination in itself."
And her firm also had openings on the high seas this year, as a couple cruise lines debuted new waterpark attractions, which she said more guests are coming to expect. "Waterpark features keep the kids entertained while the parents relax on the pool deck."
Additionally, "retailtainment venues are mixed-use locations for which stationary surf is ideal to draw guests in and keep them coming back, as this is a skill-based activity and a spectator sport."
Branding and theming have not gone away, and Gerber sees new facilities as well as projects with renovations and additions zeroing in on creating an identity. "Theming is a bit of a spectrum; it can range from the naming of the park areas, rides and amenities to light theming of feature amenities to all-out immersive intellectual property. I think most facilities are trying to differentiate themselves, and theming and branding are a great way to do this."
She explained how immersive themed environments can spark interest for guests, create photo-op moments and create a sense of notoriety for the park.
"Similarly, there are also multisensory storytelling experiences," said Gerber, "like what was employed at Hobbs, N.M., at the Center of Recreation Excellence (the CORE). Unique to the CORE are themed elements that come to life and represent a "desert thunderstorm." When the suspended clouds rumble with thunder and light up with lightning, it rains from the sky and fills the lazy river. As the rain falls and the river fills, the geysers come to life and dance with water and rain. The excitement of the facility is truly a vertical one, as many of the aquatic amenities—like the rain cloud—are suspended from the ceiling."
Soaky Mountain is a 50-acre outdoor waterpark in Sevierville, Tenn., that opened in June 2020. And while that might seem like very unfortunate timing, General Manager David Andrews said "it was great to get open and introduced to the market. In 2021 we found out that the demand was truly there and we were a hit."
In addition to season passes, Soaky Mountain offers many special promotions to draw guests and cater to specific groups like Scout Day and Essential Workers Day. "Season passes are even more popular than initially projected," said Andrews. "Our pass holders are really connected to the park. Bring a Friend days are also popular. Double Edge days are a great way to weatherproof a visit."
New attractions have opened this year, and Andrews said guests are loving their new watercoaster, the Edge, and comparing it to the one they already had, the Avalaunch. "It's great that we can provide two coasters and have the hopefully never-ending debate of which is better."
He described HangTennessee—their dual surf attraction—as also being a big hit. Additionally, "Live music is a great draw, and it's normally done near the HangTennessee so it makes for a great location to sit back, watch, listen and enjoy."
Soaky Mountain offers several sizes and styles of cabanas, according to Andrews. "There are over 70 options to rent. They're very popular and the Double Deckers that opened with the Edge this year are a huge hit." There are private party opportunities and many concession options, with Andrews telling us their Tacolicious taco truck is the most popular.
And as more destinations are working to be truly inclusive, the park features Taylor Time, designed to be a low-sensory experience, reducing sensory input in a controlled time. It focuses on attractions with low stress, in tandem with caregivers and siblings. Crowds and wait times are drastically reduced, music is left off and additional staffing is added to the designated areas. "Taylor Time worked well in 2021 when we rolled it out, and guests were anxious for its return," said Andrews. "We were glad to host again in 2022 and are working toward even more for 2023. It's everything we want the program to be, giving friends a chance to utilize Soaky."
Andrews said that staffing is always difficult, but he's optimistic and said they're doing a lot of "extra" for the staff, and already they've had a large percentage of returning workers.
In fact, all our contributors weighed in on staffing issues, as it seems to be a hot topic.
"We hear from our clients that staffing is a huge concern this year," said de Boer. "That's why in waterpark masterplanning, we make sure of good sightlines to reduce the number of lifeguards needed. Our slides and slide towers are designed to require as few attendants as possible. We meticulously design our equipment to use fewer parts and be easier to maintain because we know most staff are young and seasonal."
She also said technology can help make staffing more efficient, and described how their venue management platform can help operators use data and insights to optimally staff in each area, automate many processes and incentivize team members to improve performance.
"Parks are doing their best to navigate this issue," said Keim. "One way is by optimizing ride operations and staff to keep open their most popular rides at the times of day when guests most want to use them." He also suggested parks look at staffing needs when considering what attractions to add. "Two guards versus four or more needed for a ride is a very real topic of consideration when it comes to deciding what type of attraction to add, or the design of the river for example."
Gerber said that the issue should be at the top of every designer's mind. "As consultants, we work in the best interest of the owner and we provide feedback that will help to guide them through planning decisions that will drive park operations. By understanding design decisions that will reduce staffing, and by facilitating unique construction delivery methods and solutions that will keep the budget in check, we can all seek to be part of the solution for the future of aquatics."
Gerber also addressed how volatile the construction industry currently is; prices are skyrocketing yet development is not slowing down. She shared that she'd just spoken with a potential client, and when asked about the project schedule he said it's "as fast as we can" because they were ultimately in a "race against escalation."
"That is maybe the best summation that I can find of the current state of the industry," Gerber said. "Project schedules are compact so that design and construction teams can race against escalation. Such unprecedented times." RM