Supplement Feature - October 2021
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Review & Renew the Waterpark Experience

Waterparks on the Road to Recovery

By Emily Tipping


Waterparks have come a long way since I first paid one a visit as a teenager in 1986. A wave pool, a humid concession stand and a speed slide are the sum total of my memories from that trip. Since then, the waterpark market has grown by leaps and bounds, and the options for thrills, spills and relaxation have grown right along with it.

There are now more than 1,000 waterparks in the United States, with more than 20 in the self-proclaimed "Waterpark Capital of the World," Wisconsin Dells. And in most years, the market sees a handful of brand-new indoor and outdoor parks open, along with renovations, additions and expansions at existing parks.

Of course, the industry is closely connected with the tourism and hospitality industries, and all of these saw a dramatic impact from closures and reduced capacity associated with the coronavirus pandemic—and while recovery is in sight, it might take some time.

"The waterpark industry had a major setback in 2020 with a loss of over 83 million attendees at indoor and outdoor waterparks in the United States between 2019 and 2020 according to research by Hotel & Leisure Advisors," said David J. Sangree, MAI, CPA, ISHC, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors, a hospitality consulting firm specializing in appraisals, feasibility studies, impact analyses, economic impact studies and litigation support for hotels, resorts, waterparks, casinos, conference and convention centers, golf courses, ski resorts, amusement parks and other leisure real estate.

"The loss of attendance caused a substantial loss in revenue, which we estimate at $3.7 billion," he added. "The lost attendance and revenue has caused waterparks to delay capital improvements, lay off staff, negatively affect career paths and reduce maintenance at properties."

In spite of these challenges, Hotel & Leisure Advisors reported that half of the existing waterparks were able to open in some capacity in 2020, while many existing facilities took advantage of closures to complete needed renovations. In addition, several new parks opened in 2020, including two indoor resorts (the Kalahari Resort in Round Rock, Texas, and the DreamWorks Water Park at American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, N.J.) and three standalone outdoor waterparks (The Water Main Aquatic Park at Diggerland USA in West Berlin, N.J.; Soaky Mountain Waterpark in Sevierville, Tenn.; and Wisconsin Rapids Recreation Complex in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.). The most significant new park was Soaky Mountain, a $90 million, 50-acre park featuring multiple slides, a wave river, a children's area, a double surf rider, raft rides and a water coaster.

As vaccines have allowed the gradual reopening and return to more normal operations, these new parks are poised, along with the rest of the industry, to welcome guests back and watch their business grow.

In fact, Sangree said, "The summer of 2021 is turning out to be much busier for many waterparks than originally expected as customers have been very interested to again visit a waterpark and reconnect with their friends and family."

He added that many parks have increased their prices this year to help make up for the financial losses of 2020, and are hoping that the higher prices will be sustained for future years.

Asked when business might return to normal, Sangree said, "We expect business to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023."

Keys to Recovery

Part of that return to normal will involve waterpark owners taking a good look at their current operation and adapting with new business and employment practices, while adopting new rides and attractions.

"There are a number of things waterparks can do to recover more effectively," Sangree said. "We recommend they improve their pay scales and treatment of their staff to provide a better future for employees in the waterpark industry. Funding to allow for this should come from a higher pricing model at waterparks that would allow the increase in prices charged in 2021 to continue into the future."

In addition, Sangree said, waterparks will need to do what they have always done to ensure ongoing success: keep finding ways to keep customer interest high, through new rides and attractions, as well as an improved guest experience.

The guest experience is really what a great waterpark is all about, according to Jessica Mahoney, director of marketing for Aquatic Development Group, which provides design/build services as well as products to the waterpark industry. The overall guest experience is not just about the attractions, she explained. It's about the time spent in the water as well as out of the water.

"You want to make sure you have the right mix of what we like to refer to as 'chills & thrills'—you definitely want to deliver on the thrills from the attractions and include the right mix of slides, places to get in the water without lines like wave pools and rivers, fun rides for kids as well as teens; but you also want enough places for guests to comfortably put down their bags and towels, escape into the shade, grab a bite to eat, even to sit and watch their young kids playing in the water. That means looking beyond the edge of the water and addressing the amount of deck space, deck chairs, cabanas, food-and-beverage and retail outlets, technology integration and of course, ride mix. It all ties together to build the experience you really want to deliver. These are the fundamentals of designing a great park that will never disappear—just continue to evolve over time as new trends and technologies emerge."