Feature Article - September 2011
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Riding the Wave

Keeping Waterparks Afloat in a Choppy Economy

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Another attention-grabbing trend is what Kempfer referred to as "skill-based attractions." In other words, something you really stink at on the first few attempts, so you have to come back again and again to get better. This could be something like a climbing wall in the pool or a wave machine where visitors can learn to surf. "This breeds competition between siblings and friends, and then it becomes a spectator attraction," she added. "Place that wave machine next to the concession stand where you've got everyone walking past."

At the upper end of the waterpark spectrum, Mendioroz reported that waterslides are becoming more and more like water-based roller coasters. Not only do they fling riders at faster speeds and through loops and drops and turns (to the tune of $1 million or more), but they use LED lights and special effects to enhance the experience. "They've got lightning, fog and video projection," he reported. "Crazy stuff." But who's to say you can't get crazy, too? Remake an existing slide or interactive play area by adding lights and sound. "Add special effects to get impact on the cheap with what you've already got," Mendioroz said. "Put the lipstick on the pig."

This can be especially effective if you tie your new elements in to a larger theme. Transforming your municipal waterpark into Pirate's Cove or Shipwreck Island or Monkey Jungle can provide lots of ways to add color and excitement and get your guests involved. Magic Waters Waterpark in Rockford has been building on their tiki theme for years now. This year's renovations included a new look for the Tiki Island interactive play area: They re-created their existing dump bucket as a giant pineapple.

Programming Power

It's true that having super-fun slides and the splashiest play areas is a big part of making your waterpark a desired destination. But don't stop there. You can increase repeat business, attract new customers, and get guests to actually plan ahead for a visit to your park by offering creative programming and special events.

And, before you call in the event planners, maybe just have a look around. "Capitalize on a benefit you already have that the public may not know about," Kempfer suggested. "Maybe you have water aerobics in the morning. Advertise that to doctor's offices or healthcare professionals."

If there's a point in the day when the guards are looking at an empty waterpark, that's when you need an activity, she explained. "Sometimes we forget what we have and how good it is," she said. "Toot your own horn!"

When the budget is stretched thin, think about "operational features," suggested Magic Waters' Steinberg. This waterpark introduced their "Tiki Tribe" of mascots in 2008, and they've been adding costumed staffers to interact with the kids since then. "Something as small as that can be new and exciting," she said. Magic Waters has also had great success in hosting special events, which create and promote a family-friendly environment, she explained.