Supplement Feature - September 2020
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Waterpark Safety & Risk Management

Waterparks Aim to Stay Safely Afloat

By Chris Gelbach

Operational Modifications for a COVID-19 World

One way some waterparks are helping encourage social distancing is by reducing lines wherever and however possible. Deines is seeing some waterparks limit entry lines by opting for opening for two sessions per day at limited capacity, and others staggering entries using reserved entry times. He is seeing others shift their food service by taking food out to tables to keep crowds of people waiting for food from gathering.

At Island H2O Live!, Kunau's team has placed four-inch blue dots throughout the facility on the stairs leading up to rides and in other areas to promote social distancing. "Start from the top of the ride platforms and work your way backwards," Kunau said. "It sounds simple until you have to go and place $4,000 worth of dots. Because you're spending thousands of dollars doing it, you want to do it right."

The waterpark has also kept admission at 50% of capacity even after Florida's phased reopening plan would've allowed for additional customers. "As a park, we want to maintain as much social distancing as we can get," Kunau said. "If we run much past our 50% capacity, we have bigger challenges with social distancing."

He also made the choice to shut down capsule slides. "That just to me is one of those places where I can't tell you that there's enough airflow between guests on a capsule to be able to go, 'this is safe' … until we get a lot further down the road, those rides are going to remain closed," Kunau said.

At Hurricane Bay, a similar choice was made to temporarily close its water coaster, The Deluge. Because it fits multiple people on the raft and has a minimum and maximum weight limit, the ride makes the process of maintaining social distancing and grouping people from different households together difficult.

At Island H2O Live!, other changes have included closing off the second set of stairs going up to rides to make social distancing easier and not allowing customers to use tubes in the lazy river or wave pool for the time being. "It sounds strange for a lazy river, but when the current carries you, how do you social distance?" Kunau said.

Reducing the use of rafts and tubes also helps minimize the need for constant sanitizing of items before they can be used again. And the world of sanitizers itself can become a complicated and costly undertaking, with the fastest sanitizers typically being the most expensive.

"For tubes and rides and mats we currently use one-minute sanitizer," Kunau said. "For lawn chairs, we use a 10-minute sanitizer because it tends to be at least that long between guests given the reduced capacity. In the bathrooms, it's a more potent sanitizer."

Gillim also recommends that operators look to guidance from product manufacturers to ensure that the sanitation products they use are both effective and suitable to use on slides and other products without degrading them.

Helpful Resources

Industry organizations such as the World Waterpark Association (WWA) and IAAPA offer webinars and other resources that help waterparks navigate a post-COVID world. Going to other waterparks to learn about and observe their best practices is another great way to continually improve your operations.

Gillim additionally noted that having a safety committee is something that can be particularly helpful, and a way to address real operational issues that are currently occurring in the park. As general counsel for Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay, she chairs that committee, which meets weekly during the season and less frequently during the offseason.

"That is our forum to brainstorm with every safety concern and issue from any department," Gillim said. "I guide the committee through the legal aspects but everybody on the committee who comes from operations brings his or her own issues that I might not be aware of and we talk about them. So if there's a park out there that doesn't have a safety committee, I would definitely recommend that you have one because you need to understand what's going on and what near misses might be out there or what best practices you're not aware of."

Long-Term Considerations

Over the short term, operators are dealing with ongoing uncertainty and customer trepidation through reduced capacities and offering customers season passes that go through next season.

But while experts like Matzke and Kunau expect that COVID-19 will likely bring a greater focus on ensuring the best possible air and water quality moving forward, many operators don't necessarily expect to see a broader shift in how waterparks are designed in the future.

"I hope, just like the Spanish Flu, that this is a once-a-century event, and you and I are not going to be around to re-implement our COVID procedures," Gillim said.

What operators are seeing, and what might be a lasting trend, is a preference for cabanas where guests can have their own space, their own shade and the food delivered to them. "If anything, this could put a premium on reservable shaded cabanas, reservable chairs and tables that are not in the heart of the waterpark — they're kind of on the outskirts so people are not on a major thoroughfare," Deines said. "When they're eating or taking in some sun or shade, they're on the back side of the park in their private cabana."

Beyond that, the only thing certain for the waterpark industry in the coming months and years is uncertainty. At the same time, experts like Deines remain bullish on the industry's long-term outlook. "The demand, I think, for both indoor and outdoor aquatics will remain strong just because it's such a universal multigenerational activity," Deines said. RM