Feature Article - May 2016
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Aquatic Evolution

Design Trends in Outdoor Aquatic Facilities

By Dave Ramont


The waterpark is one of the fastest growing categories of entertainment venue, with an annual growth rate of more than 7 percent. There are more than 1,200 in the United States with more opening every year, and they're quite popular in international markets as well. The first large-scale commercial water park, Wet "N" Wild, opened in 1977 in Orlando, Fla. It was created by George Millay, who became known as the "father of the waterpark," and featured numerous water-oriented rides, a lazy river and a wave pool. Through the years it's been the birthplace of many innovations now considered a common part of the waterpark experience. But, though it attracted 1.3 million visitors last year, it's closing the doors at the end of 2016.

So what are some of the "fun elements"—the must-have amenities that are attracting visitors to waterparks and other aquatic facilities these days? There are numerous types of waterslides for all age levels to enjoy, from tot slides to larger waterslides. There are tube slides, body slides, drop slides, bowl slides and water spraygrounds. Interactive, multilevel play structures with dumping buckets, geysers, pulleys and rope ladders are highly sought after. Zip lines, slack lines and climbing walls are also very popular. Diving boards have been making a comeback. There are also mat racers, flow riders and action islands, as well as boxed surfing mechanisms and inflatable aquatic obstacle courses.

One of today's most popular attractions is the leisure (lazy) river, which offers a continuously flowing stream, forming a loop within the park where guests can relax and float on inner tubes. Inside the loop, the area can be accessed by bridges over the river to create family picnic areas or action islands for teens. LaLonde and Klarck agree that lazy rivers continue to be a huge attraction, even though they're expensive to build and operate. But "by creating different amenities within the lazy river island, unique activities can be created to extend the length of a patron's visit and create fun zones for older children and teens," they pointed out.

Providing partial shade over shallow water and tot pools is appreciated by parents. Teens and young adults are drawn to more intense waterslides and thrill rides. Providing a mix of body slides and tube slides, and both open and closed flumes, offers patrons more diversity. Big tube slides can accommodate multiple riders, while head-first mat racers allow guests to race with their friends. Another thrill ride is artificial surfing, which uses high-output pumps to produce a flow of water just a couple inches thick over a fixed padded surface. This can provide a level of competition, and spectators enjoy it, too.

Whiteaker believes that paramount to the "watertainment" side of the aquatic experience is the element of a unique, memorable experience every time a user enjoys a facility. "One way this is happening is to install components that provide a level of friendly competition between users, such as basketball hoops, slack lines, zip lines and waterslides with timing or sports challenge elements that display to riders and their friends their times or speeds going down the slide or how many targets they touched on the way down or both," he said. "Another aspect changing the waterslide experience is new slides with a changing theme through the use of LED panels. Each time a user enjoys the ride they can experience a different ride, interactive gaming, internal theme or varied graphics," he explained.

LaLonde and Klarck also look to find creative ways of integrating technology, such as turning spraygrounds into something different in the evening with LED lighting, or creating interactive learning experiences, such as using activators whereby a child can step on a button and it starts a water activity, or use progressive features which cause a chain reaction.

Another hot trend right now within the industry is the inflatable obstacle course, according to Berkshire. He explained how some cities might have, for example, a 50-meter Olympic-size pool, and they're finding they can assemble the course during certain periods and charge an extra $5 for kids to get a wristband to be able to use it. "Now you have the ability to build a competitive deep-water pool, but how do we bring in recreation uses to it? So that's a perfect opportunity," he said.