Feature Article - September 2008
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Schooled in Aquatics

Waterpark Trends from the College Campus to the Municipal Center

By Dawn Klingensmith

Aquatics Evolution

The concept of aquatics already has evolved significantly in the past four decades from our early understanding of the neighborhood pool, consisting of rectangles within rectangles. "In the '60s, we had the rectangular pool with the rectangular deck and the rectangular fence based on a competitive pool model," Hunsaker said.

Over time, the "neighborhood pool" evolved into the "family aquatic center" encompassing multiple bodies of water, each designed with particular programming needs in mind, such as leisure and competitive swimming. The opportunity to take a dip commonly is bundled with other amenities, like places to pump iron or order a smoothie. "So instead of just 'the pool,' it has become one component that complements a lot of other offerings for a more well-rounded experience," Hunsaker explained.

Since "the pool" no longer adequately describes most aquatic centers, lay people tend to refer to all facilities of the non-rectangular variety as "waterparks," but industry leaders use that term more specifically to refer to a resort-like destination that draws families from a 200-mile radius for an extended stay. Furthermore, aquatic facilities can be categorized into segments, with waterparks leading the pack in terms of amenities and the municipal segment typically being the most modest.

Aquatics industry trends tend to be specific to each segment, Hunsaker said. For example, true "waterparks," feeling the impact of high gas prices and the rising popularity of the "staycation" (a home-based vacation), are experimenting with ways to lure families and expand into new markets. Municipalities are trying to meet community expectations that user fees be low enough for budget-minded residents yet cover all operational costs, and all are incorporating thrill rides and seeking other means of appealing to the tricky teen demographic.

But as Hunsaker suggested, universities—incubating trends that sooner or later will trickle down to municipal aquatic facilities—might be the segment to watch with an eye toward divining the future of aquatics.

In the Show-Me State, the University of Missouri's flagship campus in Columbia set the standard in 2005 with the addition of Tiger Grotto, a sprawling indoor space featuring a lazy river, a 20-person-capacity whirlpool hot tub, a 35-foot vortex using currents to push people around in a circle, and a leisure pool with zero-depth entry. Outside, guests can lounge in 4 to 6 inches of constantly moving water in one of two "waterfall flats."

Meanwhile, as multimillion-dollar aquatic facilities proliferate at the university level, municipalities and resort waterparks are giving rise to trends and dealing with challenges, some of which overlap and some that are unique to each segment.

Across the board, "What we're struggling with in the industry right now is how to serve the 14- to 18-year-old demographic," Hunsaker said. "This is an at-risk age group. You don't want them hanging out in parking lots, so you have to provide healthy alternatives. But it's a tough demographic. They like their own unique spaces, away from mom and dad and younger kids."