Feature Article - September 2011
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Riding the Wave

Keeping Waterparks Afloat in a Choppy Economy

By Jessica Royer Ocken

On a recent Pirate Day they buried an array of inexpensive "treasures" in the sand volleyball court for kids to dig up. The staff and visitors both look forward to Christmas in July each year as well. "We really play it up," Steinberg said. The whole park gets decorated, Santa comes, and the staff has a snowman-building competition that's judged by the guests. "This creates something special for customers—a way to enjoy their day with family and create memories." And while Steinberg said a little investment of money up front can pay off big with an event like this, you may need to spend less than you think. "No one is using the Christmas decorations on July 25 except the waterpark," she said with a laugh. Perhaps your city or park district has some you can borrow, or the staff might even chip in theirs from home.

The Falls aquatic center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, has benefitted from offering water exercise classes in the park's lazy river. People can walk either with or against the current, depending on how much resistance they want. Their park includes a regular rectangular swimming pool, so they also have a swim team and hosted the largest outdoor swim meet in the Midwest—with 670 swimmers—this past July. "While the meet was going on [in one pool], in the other two pools we had over 5,000 open-recreation swimmers," said Bruce Verink, Recreation Division manager for the City of Cedar Falls, Iowa.

"We do everything we can to reach out to different facets of the community," he added. "We get them there the first time and hope they'll come back on their own." These "outreach" events include a "doggie dip" at the end of the season. After the pool is closed to the public and the chlorine levels are being reduced, dogs are invited for a day of water fun. Last year 340 dogs and 700 people attended.

"Imagination is your only limitation as a facility operator," Verink said. "You can always find reasons not to do something, but good PR is worth it." Case in point, during a heat wave this past season, the water temperature in The Falls' zero-depth pool climbed to 92 degrees. Not so refreshing. After hours the staff emptied all the ice in the park's ice machine into the pool, but the next day the water was warm and bathtub-like all over again. This time, rather than raiding the ice machine, Verink put on his PR wizard's cap. After 6 p.m., anyone who brought a bag of ice with them could come into the park for free. The staff loaded up the ice in a wheelbarrow, then dumped it in the pool full of swimmers. "Think of the photo ops and how neat the kids will think that is," he said. "Yes, you give up $5 per youth in revenue, but by the time we try to cool the pool, we might have to dump 150,000 gallons of water. That goes unnoticed and has a cost as well."