Feature Article - April 2009
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Splashing Around

The Backyard Sprinkler Goes High-Tech

By Dawn Klingensmith

To Theme or Not to Theme

Designing a spray park based on a theme need not be an expensive proposition now that so many manufacturers offer themed product lines. Zoo, nautical, rain forest, dinosaur and Old West themes are easy to come by.

But do themed spray parks actually augment children's enjoyment? That depends on whom you ask.

Although focus groups conducted by one major manufacturer found that kids aren't that cognizant or appreciative of themes, "We feel that themed areas are important to enhance a child's creativity by placing him or her in a setting," said Sean Barrett, director of municipal sales for a Denver-based aquatic structures manufacturer. "We feel it is also as important for the venue by making the area unique, which allows the area to have a marketable name and to leave a visual impression and memory for repeat business."

Thomas, who represents another manufacturer, agreed. "I think theming is the way of the future. People don't want their park to look like everyone else's," he said.

"Theming for us really started taking off about two years ago," he added. "Now, it's really taking over. Pretty much every request we get has a custom theme for it."

On the flip side, Mejia says themed splash pads still make up a small percentage of his company's installations. "The use of themes should be done with care. Themes can sometimes become outdated or visitors become bored with the theme," he said.

When his company does do customized theming, "We always look to provoke the kids' imagination with a more abstract representation of the object or the animal," he added. "That way, an elephant can become a spaceship—the sky is the limit."

Abstracted or subtle themes also broaden the visual appeal to include more age groups, Mejia said.

The popularity and value of theming often depend on the venue and market, Altman explained. "You may see more theming, especially custom theming, used in private entities such as amusement parks, hotels and campgrounds than you would in public parks," she said.

The spray parks installed in Cincinnati by the Hamilton County Park District are notable exceptions. Each of the three has a unique theme featuring Parky, the district's mascot. Parky's Ark features a variety of critters that squirt water onto the play area. Parky's Wetland Adventure features a tree anchoring two waterslides. And Parky's Pirate Cove features a shipwreck.

While all themes are intended to stimulate imaginative play, some are designed to impart lessons. The sprawling, one-acre spray park at Tempe Beach Park in Tempe, Ariz., teaches children how a drop of rain falls from the sky and ends up either in the ocean or becomes part of the city's water supply.

At the park's entrance is a metal circle of clouds that rains a light mist onto visitors while thunder claps and lightning flashes. Where the raindrop's journey terminates in the ocean, children can ride toy whales that rock back and forth and squirt water from their blowholes.

With so many innovative water toys on the market, and with customization available through most manufacturers, it's possible to design spray parks that are portals to different worlds. Spray parks have been designed to resemble everything from a railroad hub to a NASCAR racetrack. Keep in mind, though, that when it comes to spray parks, kids' expectations are still relatively simple—they want to get wet, and they want to get their friends wet. You can easily provide those experiences without drowning in debt.