Supplement Feature - May 2021
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Water Worlds

The Latest & Greatest in Aquatic Park Design

By Chris Gelbach


Next-Level Rides and Theming

This growth in waterpark attractions, in turn, is pushing large-scale commercial entertainment parks to take things to an even higher level in their offerings, assisted by the continual innovations of product developers.

"They're focused on where they can offshoot their dollars toward thrills and theming and to get people to come back to create immersive environments every time they visit," said Gerber. "Parks like Volcano Bay in Universal Orlando are a great example. It's got theming galore, and you don't realize you're in a waterpark—it feels like you're in a tropical oasis," Gerber said. And these environments are aimed at not only spurring visits, but lengthening family stays at these larger resorts.

This approach is being applied to both outdoor and indoor waterparks. Gerber's firm recently worked on the Kalahari Resort in Round Rock, Texas, which bills itself as America's largest indoor waterpark at 223,000 square feet and features safari theming throughout, including the Barreling Baboon slide, the Cheetah Race mat slide, the Rippling Rhino flume and the Screaming Hyena drop slide that starts through the roof 60 feet above the waterpark floor.

Another new WTI park, the DreamWorks Water Park in East Rutherford, N.J., claims on its website to be the largest indoor waterpark in North America. It features a 1.6 million-gallon indoor wave pool that purports to be the world's biggest. Its over-the-top theming is based on popular DreamWorks characters, from an area called Shrek's Soggy Swamp to the Kung Fu Panda Zone to the Thrillagascar and Jungle Jammer capsule drop slides.

But these theming ideas can also be applied to enhance the experience of a municipal waterpark. "It's one thing to say, 'Mommy, when I get there I want to ride the red slide,'" Martin said. "It's another to say, 'I want to ride the green mamba.' There's something associated with it. 'I conquered the Slingshot,' or 'I conquered Daredevil's Peak.' Simple names, but giving people an opportunity to go, 'Yeah, I want to do that.'"

Things like photo capture and social media sharing of these signature activities can help with this branding and also create a more fulfilling experience for guests. "It's building the anticipation. And I think that that can come to a community center and come to a local municipality. Because it's not that expensive to do," Martin said. "It's just, have a good website, have good photos, and set the experience and the tone."

Super Slides

A variety of new slide innovations give waterpark operators a sometimes-overwhelming array of new and interesting options. Gerber's firm is working on a new installation called Garden Rapids at the Big Pool in Garden City, Kansas, which will feature launch rider slides that shoot you up into the air instead of down into the water, and another newer slide option that's a standup waterslide.

The "Big Pool" bills itself as the world's largest hand-dug pool, originally built in 1922, and once was used to bathe elephants from the local zoo. "We've been working to balance and respect the history of the pool while bringing it up to date and finding fun new amenities that will engage users for the next 100 years," Gerber said.

Slide stair towers can also serve as more than merely functional—they are in some cases becoming the iconic focal point of the waterpark. That was Martin's firm's intent in the design of Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at Coco Cay waterpark in the Bahamas, which features a 150-foot tower with multicolored metal cladding. "It became a symbol or a way to say, I can make my tower that I'm already spending a lot of money on the icon of my park," Martin said. "I can make it my Cinderella castle."

Other slide options that are increasingly being implemented are timers to make it a competitive event and increased gamification with LED lights and elements riders can touch and activate.

Multigenerational Appeal

Bigger and better aren't the only trends in waterpark design, however. The overall designs of parks are also focused more than ever on offering multigenerational appeal, both through attractions that provide communal experiences that different ages can do together and through attractions aimed at specific age groups.

"We're making sure if we have a kid's play structure that caters to 5 to 11, that maybe we have a toddler pool or a small kids' play structure that caters to 2 to 5 and we put them near each other," Martin said. "Because the high likelihood is that you [the parents] have kids in both of those demographics."

Keim's firm designed a mini wave pool with tiny wave action for kids, accompanied by benches integrated into the walls with shade structures over them. "The tots can be out and about in the waves and under the spray features doing their thing while mom and/or dad are sitting with their feet in the water in the shade but still within arm's reach of their kids," Keim said. "Those are starting to pick up in popularity for sure."

Cabanas are another feature that continue to grow and to provide multigenerational appeal. "It gives a family a home base at the park as opposed to rushing in when the gates open and claiming your lounge chairs," Keim said.

They're also a great source of revenue, and something that designers like Martin see operators clamoring for more of after they've installed them. "They're not cheap to rent by any stretch, but a lot of families find them to be a fantastic value," Keim said. "And it does elevate the experience in the park."

While some feature upgraded furniture, a fridge, ceiling fan and servers that bring you food, some of the new larger parks go even more extravagant. The DreamWorks Water Park, for instance, features options that range from poolside cabanas to skybox suites that range in size up to 650 square feet, feature 65-inch flatscreens and offer décor and unique skybox themes designed by famed designer Jonathan Adler.

While most waterparks aren't going quite that far, many are upping their game in amenities, including elevating food beyond the usual park fare. "They really have elevated the experience offering a variety of different types of food and different outlets and really just increasing the guest experience," Keim said.

And in cases where they don't want to take that task on, they're trying other creative approaches. "We've seen a lot of owners talk about things like circle drives where food trucks can pull in rather than by investing in brick-and-mortar concession space," Gerber said.