Aquatics for All
Outdoor Aquatic Parks Grow More Diverse
Outdoor aquatic park design continues to evolve, with more thrills and clever new water features, and even more facilities being built for people of all ages—from young children to seniors. Attracting a wide demographic of people to your aquatic facility involves having a combination of attractions that everyone can take part in.
"I think the common trend we're seeing, probably most specific to the public-sector side, is that facilities that are built have to be multigenerational," said Scott Hester, president, Counsilman-Hunsaker.
"If you go back to the '70s and early '80s, most pools and facilities were still built [where] the pools were rectilinear … and really were not recreation-friendly," he said. "I think today we're seeing more importance on being multigenerational."
For example, there are often multiple pools at a facility—such as a small wading pool for young toddlers, as well as an activity pool for children and teens.
"And then, a lot [are] building pools where the focus is dedicated toward adults and seniors. The facility becomes multigenerational.
"Technology continues to evolve—anything from pool systems technology, filtration, ability to talk to each other and for the operator to have access to those systems from a smartphone. Technology in risk management, day-to-day operations and advancing toward web-based operations to help you operate your facility; those are technological advances."
On the operations side, facilities are increasingly designed to be operationally sustainable, not only the equipment itself, the bones of the facility, but the expectations that facilities need to recover all of their operating expenses.
In the case of the O'Fallon Alligator Creek Aquatic Center expansion in O'Fallon, Mo., a community advocacy team, which was comprised of eight O'Fallon residents, had raised awareness on the positive impact that aquatics and recreation opportunities can have on their community. "This group came to be known as the O'Fallon Parks and Action Team (OPAT) and met bi-weekly for nearly six months, planning and strategizing how to initially educate the community on the proposed expansion," according to information from Counsilman-Hunsaker.
The O'Fallon Alligator Aquatic Center originally was built in 1969 and included only a competition pool. The aquatic center has undergone numerous renovations, including an expansion in 2001 adding a second leisure pool, but this is considered the biggest renovation and expansion to date.
The aquatic center includes: a 13,000-square-foot competition pool with one-meter diving, featuring six 25-yard lap lanes, a separate waterslide plunge area, and three waterslides, including open and enclosed body slides and a dropslide; a 1,200-square-foot leisure pool with zero-depth entry, vortex, expanded open water swimming area, stair entry, multi-play structure, water basketball and volleyball, and waterwalk; a new 600-foot lazy river with zero-depth entry and a large underwater bench area; and a new sprayground.
In another example, Hester noted that the city of St. Charles, Mo., had moved forward with the replacement of the aquatic facility in Blanchette Park, and undertook a major renovation of the Wapelhorst Aquatic Center.
Amenities at the Wapelhorst Aquatic Center include: a 5,625-square-foot lazy river with three stair entries; a 4,900-square-foot leisure pool with large shaded wet deck lounge; a 3,500-square-foot children's pool with multi-level play structure; a 1,100-square-foot plunge pool with two stair entries and two body flume waterslides; and a flagship "Boomerango" raft-ride waterslide.
At Blanchette Aquatic Center, features include: a 4,700-square-foot lap pool with eight 25-yard lap lanes and two 1-meter diving boards; a 4,000-square-foot leisure pool with two waterslides, two stair entries, underwater shelf and various spray features; a 5,000-square-foot children's pool, zero-depth beach entry, various spray features, multi-level play structure, underwater shelf; and a 1,000-square-foot deep-water pool with stair entry, dropslide and climbing wall.
Other trends in outdoor aquatic facilities were noted by Robbie Hazelbaker, regional director of project development, Water Technology Inc. (WTI):
- Competitive opportunities, such as slide boarding and racing, climbing towers, aqua challenge courses, etc.
- An emphasis on leisure and relaxation opportunities—wet decks/sun shelves, lazy rivers and zero-depth entry.
- Social aspects. Many communities and neighborhoods have their own individual pools, but these aquatic parks are a great opportunity for community socializing—it is a destination. Designers have to ensure that the aquatic amenities are balanced alongside plenty of deck space, and design teams need to ensure that there is plenty of picnic space, shade and inviting bathhouses.
A case example from WTI includes Adventure Cove at Rose Park in Abilene, Texas.
The aquatic facility had been aging, and there was a decline in pool attendance. Together with the prime architect, WTI had worked diligently to come up with a unique, timely and on-budget aquatic facility that would meet the needs of Abilene residents. The grand opening of the newly designed and themed aquatic facility took place in June 2017. The amenities include a leisure pool, zero-depth entry, raining buckets, cascade, lazy river and waterslides.
Justin Caron, MBA, principal, Aquatic Design Group, said that municipalities and park districts continue to push for increased revenue potential for aquatics.
"This has led to more demand for shallow, warmer water (as opposed to competition pools), as well as more amenities such as cabanas where additional fees can be collected," he said. "Shade is also in high demand and is much more likely to be included on projects today than in previous years. Multipurpose classroom spaces are also in high demand. Having multiple pools that are more specialized is becoming more commonplace than in years past when larger multipurpose pools were the norm."
Some examples of the more specific pools include lap pools, recreational pools, warm-water pools and hydrotherapy spas.
"In cases where space or funding is more limited, larger, more varied multipurpose pools with different zones are very commonplace," Caron said. "Examples would include pools with deep-water lap lanes with starting blocks and diving boards, river current channels, vortexes, beach entry areas, stairs, benches, lounges, slide receiving areas, interactive play equipment and structures, to name a few."
The Emerald Glen Aquatic Center in Dublin, Calif., involved new construction of a three-pool complex with a six-flume waterslide complex. "Outdoor pools include a children's play pool with zero-depth entry and a large interactive structure and other wet play equipment, and an 11-lane, 25-yard competition pool. There is also a large indoor pool that focuses on teaching, lessons and therapy," Caron said.
Another example involves a multiple pool renovation at the Marguerite Aquatic Complex in Mission Viejo, Calif. The renovation is of three existing pools and decks, including the replacement of a 10-meter diving tower.
A third example is of a single pool replacement at Miami Springs Aquatic Center in Miami Springs, Fla. This involves the replacement of an older pool with a new multipurpose pool with beach entry, interactive wet-play equipment, waterslide and a six-lane, 25-yard competitive section.
Jessica Mahoney, director of marketing, Aquatic Development Group, said, "Creative pool designs with more space for lounge areas help increase the overall capacity of the park by providing more space for guests to spread out, relax and enjoy the day."
Popular Amenities & Strategies
There are a number of popular amenities and strategies to increase attendance.
"Shade and party spaces are the most requested amenities," Caron said. "Many facilities have added amenities to existing pools that don't require significant infrastructure. Inflatables are becoming commonplace and can create exciting and fun spaces in otherwise 'boring' rectilinear pools. Some facilities are starting to look at on-demand pricing, which has had some success at larger, mostly private waterparks, and can stimulate attendance on slow days or times."
Meanwhile, other facilities are trying to use social media to drive attendance through the advertising of special events, classes or even specific programs, and are encouraging patrons to upload images and tag the facility in their posts.
"One of the keys in any new project or a project in which an existing pool is being significantly renovated is providing a mix of pool space and amenities that differentiate the facility from other offerings in its marketplace," Caron said.
Hester said that typically when his firm is designing a facility or doing a renovation, clients are asked if their goal is to increase attendance (maybe because they have had a dip over time), or if their facility has the capacity to house current attendance.
Certain attractions might have low capacity, and "you're only going to have users on the waterslides a certain amount of time per hour," he said, adding that you have to find things that can "create a thrill experience."
What's more, look at trends from 20 years ago, when you first began to incorporate interactive water features (play structures, water spray features) that were used by young children.
"As they get older, these kids are still looking at things that are still active," Hester said. "Waterslides are still popular, climbing walls and zip lines, obstacle courses, those are things that are not terribly [difficult] to incorporate … have a low dollar cost and significant ROI impact on [the] facility."
In most cases, if you have the water area and appropriate depth, it's relatively easy to incorporate climbing walls and zip lines, right over lap lanes. Obstacle courses can be incorporated over the water surface.
Hazelbaker added more strategies for increased attendance:
- "Shade/cabanas for escaping the sun and generating revenue. Families understand that there is a lot more value in bringing children to a birthday party at the aquatic facility with all of the leisure activities that are available, rather than something more limiting. There are almost never enough rentable cabanas because the birthday parties are numerous and they pay the bills. If done right and staff can be dedicated to this, it really enhances the play value and experience of the facility. Also, shade over water is something that we are regularly designing into outdoor aquatic facilities--water doesn't have to be in direct sun. Shade over zero-depth play pools and spray pads provides shade for the youngest swimmers and the parents supervising them.
- "Pools can be memory makers that provide different experiences every time. Even things like floatables can be swapped out to keep it fresh for children coming back to the facility regularly (or for season pass holders). They are low cost, but provide tremendous value. Fresh unique experiences."
Mahoney noted that finding the right balance and mix of attractions to meet the needs of all of the guests is key to attracting a wider demographic and keeping them on the property longer.
"From play structures and kiddie pools for the under 7 age group, to skill-based attractions like surf simulators that create strong appeal for the 10-to-18 age group," she said, "adding new and exciting attractions is always important, but when you look into all the options available on the market today, there are attractions that are not only unique and exciting, but also create the ideal opportunity to bring a new activity to a community."
Sometimes challenges can arise when planning for outdoor aquatic park design, such as "gaining consensus," which "can be challenging on any project," Caron said.
"Finding the right mix of components in an outdoor pool is often a tug of war between those wanting lap lanes and those wanting recreation amenities," he said.
Other design challenges, Hazelbaker noted, include "cost and managing expectations."
"Aquatics have a great revenue potential, but it is an up-front capital cost," he said. "Owners frequently have good experiences and great taste, and their waterpark experience can be costly to apply at a scalable level. We have to work to utilize the waterpark approach at an attainable level by employing elements or strategies of some larger-scale aquatic facilities without blowing the budget on massive expenses like waterslide complexes. Waterslides come in all shapes, sizes and costs—it is critical to 'right-size' the amenity to the budget and users."
Another challenge is in being able to develop the right pools to accommodate bather loads.
"If you aren't careful, you can make really nice-looking pools that don't hold enough people. We succeed as designers when we are designing the right pools to serve the attendees without being too crowded," Hazelbaker said. "If we are expecting massive attendance, it is critical to provide good 'people holders,' like lazy rivers. Waterslides are even a good 'people holder' because you will have families waiting in line. Beach entries are great for our youngest swimmers, but they tend to not hold as many people in that area."
What's more, Mahoney said that "Creating a pleasing atmosphere that both adults and kids want to visit and stay at is a key challenge and goal when designing recreational aquatic settings."
She said with the attractions, it "requires thinking beyond the edge of the pool, incorporating things like seating around the kiddie pools, adequate shade areas on the 'beach' and the right mix of rides that appeal to a range of age groups that, at the same time, fit into the space you have to work with.
"Beyond that is the guest flow in the park. Is there adequate spacing for lounge chairs, tables, F&B [food and beverage] stations and restrooms? All of these elements work together to create the atmosphere and define the overall experience," she added.
Hester said challenges can include just being creative in your design while respecting the day-to-day operations.
"As designers, [it's] fun to be creative and, really, your only limitations are budget and imagination. You have to be respectful to how the design will impact day-to-day operations."