Supplement Feature - May 2021
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Water Worlds

The Latest & Greatest in Aquatic Park Design

By Chris Gelbach


As the nation shows promising signs of a return toward vaccination-enabled normalcy, waterparks are also looking to continue their pre-pandemic advance. As construction of new indoor and outdoor aquatic parks again ramps up, park designers are seeing clients opt to go bigger and better using the latest product innovations to create more exciting, more active and more intergenerational parks. These choices are raising the bar for aquatic designs while also extending visitor stays with an eye on boosting revenues.

COVID Considerations

As waterparks begin to see the light at the end of the slide tunnel in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, designers expect the experience to influence park designs over the longer term. "I see a lot more focus on how we keep people apart together, if that makes sense," said David Keim, director of public market business development for Aquatic Development Group (ADG) based in Cohoes, N.Y., "with increased deck areas and thinking a lot harder about what queuing lines look like for refreshments and food and beverage as well as for rides and attractions."

Designers are also seeing park operators embrace smart-park apps that give them information on visitor demographics, locations, ride preferences, food purchases and other items. They also enable visitors to do things like view wait times, purchase food, open lockers, and locate family and friends in the park.

"I think people [post-COVID] have this expectation of, 'I don't just show up anymore,'" said Josh Martin, president and creative director of Martin Aquatic, an aquatic design firm based in Orlando, Fla. "'I am planning what I'm going to do.' So we're developing a socially distanced app-centric approach for things like foodservice or picking up food or getting tickets or access control from day one."

Likewise, designers expect to see an ongoing focus on deck and grass space. "I think people are going to be sticking with the habit of spreading out a little bit," said Jen Gerber, business development manager for Water Technology Inc. (WTI), an aquatic design firm headquartered in Beaver Dam, Wis.

She is likewise seeing some attractions like lazy rivers go a bit wider. "The basic function and form of a lazy river is already kind of COVID-friendly, and widening it a little bit is just another opportunity to create a little more space," Gerber said.

Keim is also seeing some wider rivers in parks like Soaky Mountain in Sevierville, Tenn.—but that's because it's an adventure river featuring large, aggressive waves.

In many respects, designers feel that waterparks are already doing a lot of things right, from the COVID-killing chlorinated waters to the high air-exchange rates of indoor parks. If anything, Martin expects indoor parks to go even further in that direction by increasing their adoption of openable and retractable roof technologies. "Having the ability to crack your roof and windows open and get fresh air—specifically in a COVID environment—is an incredible advantage," Martin said.

Bigger and Better

Martin is seeing both public and commercial waterparks get bigger and better. "What I'm seeing is that traditionally you may have done a body of water that had a connected basketball pool and a connected lazy river, and you're seeing all of those elements space out and be given a little bit more room," Martin said. "We're seeing larger footprints for project sites. It's not that we're seeing a massive increase in some budgets, but we're seeing people looking at a larger acreage of land." This gives them more space both for their day-one build and for future park expansions.

He's also seeing more counties and local municipalities build out waterparks, such as in Collier County, Fla., where the local government has built pocket aqua parks spaced throughout the county that feature a slide tower, lap pool, family pool and toddler/baby pool.

Designers are also seeing large-scale waterpark-like attractions being added to resorts, or those that already had them upping the ante. "If the resort had a lazy river, now they're adding a bigger slide tower. If they didn't have either, they're adding both," Martin said.

Keim is also seeing this growth in high-level water amenities at resorts and campgrounds. "Let's face it, the kids are the ones that generally end up making the choice of where the family goes on vacation," Keim said. If two similar competing resorts offer golf and other adult-friendly amenities, but one has a waterpark, it often wins. "The families are going to be more inclined to go there because that's where the kids want to go," Keim said. "And those properties are generally able to get higher room revenues than the run-of-the-mill resorts. It's exploded in the resort market."