Supplement Feature - February 2014
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Fresher Waters

Boost Attendance With Aquatic Play Features

By Wynn St. Clair

In Washtenaw County, Mich., officials opened North America's largest sprayground this summer to much fanfare. The Blue Heron Bay splash park, which cost $4 million and took two years to build, has separate play areas for toddlers, tweens and families. It also boasts a two-story waterslide with two flumes, one that is enclosed and one that is open.

Each area is designated by colored concrete and interactive water toys targeted at specific age groups. Toddlers, for example, have ground-level water features and frogs that spit water. In the family zone—the sprayground's central focal point—a tall spinning wheel slowly fills with water before dumping it on those below. The tween zone is located on the opposite side of the park, as far away from the toddlers as possible. The older kids' area includes much-loved water cannons and a 15-foot spider that creates a web of water when certain sensors are activated.

The universally accessible facility replaced the county's retired splash park, which had been in operation for 12 years and was mechanically failing. The sprayground, which can accommodate 420 people, uses less water than a traditional pool and boasts a "higher fun value," officials said.

The project involved building the spray park in a more centrally located area in the 414-acre park, significantly improving access to the amenity. The sprayground also benefits from some of the most advanced technology in sustainable water usage, including water distribution system, nozzles, spray sequences, flow controllers and intervals of usage.

Though the old pad was free to the public, county officials opted to charge an entrance fee for the new sprayground. The decision proved a wise one, as Blue Heron generated more than $100,000 in revenue this season. The facility drew nearly 18,000 visitors and 70 facility rentals in 2013, despite an unusually cold summer.

"We felt that was a pretty good start," said Jeff Dehring, principal park planner for Washtenaw County. "We feel this is going to be a great addition to the community. We offer something that's a little different from what you find in other parks around our area."

The park's success, in large part, reflects the homework that county officials did before deciding on a layout. They went to nearby spraygrounds, saw what they offered and knew they wanted to do something different. For example, most area splashpads had slides that required users to be at least 48 inches tall, so Washtenaw installed slides that had a 42-inch height requirement.

"It's important to know what other parks have and to offer something different," Dehring said. "We wanted something that catered to a different demographic—toddlers and young families—and it has worked for us."

The 20,000-square-foot facility is so impressive, the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials recently honored Washtenaw County with its prestigious NACPRO award, an annual recognition given to programs that contribute to the American park system. The Blue Heron project was specifically praised for its design, planning, construction and benefit to the community.

"Splashpads are colorful and exciting. They offer greater value than a traditional pool and have a much higher fun value," Dehring said.

Huntsville, Ala., residents also learned the perks of a fantastical sprayground this summer when the city opened a splashpad at the "Everybody Can Play Playground" in Brahan Spring Park. A joint project between the local parks and recreation department and the area Optimist and Kiwanis clubs, the pad boasts a space theme with 51 different water features including sprinklers, dumping buckets, bubbling geysers, roll arches and water cannons.

The $250,000 sprayground—the fourth and final phase of the Brahan Spring project—had long been part of a citywide dream to have a completely accessible park for all Huntsville children. All the features are wheelchair accessible and free to the public.

"We've worked for five years on this, to make the idea of a playground where everyone in the community could play become a reality," Russ Grimes of the Metro Kiwanis Club of Huntsville said at the dedication ceremony. "Having it a reality makes me both proud and humble."

The city's residents seem equally enamored with the sprayground. The splashpad proved so popular this summer, the city extended the operating schedule until mid-November.

"In my time here in recreation, this is by far my favorite project," said Greg Patterson, Huntsville's director of parks and recreation. "It was absolutely a team effort."