Catching the Wave

What's making a splash in the world of wet

By Kelli Anderson

Aloha from Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park in Kapolei, Hawaii

One size seldom fits all, no matter what the tags try to tell you—but for the millions who visit our nation's waterparks and splash play facilities, that claim actually might hold water. From the inner-tube set enjoying the lazy river rides to the shrill-screaming thrill-seekers taking a wet, 80-foot plunge, waterparks in particular have managed to appeal to the young, the senior and everything in between. But make no mistake, splash play areas, although generally geared for the younger crowd, still appeal to a wide audience and are benefiting from some of the same current ideas in wet entertainment.

Recent trends in the industry show that these waterparks and splash play areas are continuing to round out their family appeal and bring in bigger revenues with longer seasons and larger, faster and more creative attractions.

Over the waterpark industry's 20-something-year existence, it has evolved from being primarily teen-oriented to an entertainment that includes something for everyone.

"The U.S. waterpark market has gone through a lot of changes in that time," says Dave Bruschi, executive vice president of the World Waterpark Association. "Waterslides were targeted at teenagers early on. Later the successful parks realized that they needed entertainment for the whole family. There were periods when children's play areas were added to every park with small waterslides and zero-depth pools with interactive play features. "

Now, coming again full circle, the thrill-seeking set (read: teenagers) are getting their turn as waterparks are racing to catch up to the teen market in an effort to keep all generations happy.

"There's a return back to drawing in the risk takers—teens," Bruschi says. "Parks had gotten away from a teen-focused market when a few years ago it was on families with kids. It was the lazy river sort of thing. Now it's coming back to more thrill rides."


Holding its "tallest in the world" title until just earlier this year (dethroned by a mere 12 inches), the Night Slider body slide of Paramount's Carowinds waterpark in Charlotte, N.C., is an 80-foot-tall tower that sends its riders plunging through its enclosed chute, back-side-down and feet-first, climaxing with a splash pool finale. For those who'd prefer company, there is the Turbo Twister, a two-person enclosed tube slide, currently the world's longest tube ride at 495 feet. Paramount's Carowinds is among the 125 major waterparks in the country vying to stay on the cutting edge of what's hot, wet and wild.

The Titan family slide at Camelbeach Waterpark in Tannersville, Pa.

If testing the ups and downs of gravity isn't adventurous enough, then maybe something centrifugal is more your style. Welcome to some of the latest attractions at Camelbeach Waterpark in the Poconos in Tannersville, Pa.: the tube ride Spin Cycle and its body-slide counterpart, Vortex. Both rides—two of only three in the world—operate on the same principle as the familiar coin drops, where the riders spin around and around the bowl-shaped interior and eventually reach the drop into a 6.5-foot pool below.

Making rides taller, longer, wilder, wetter—it's all about the thrill factor.

Ready, set, go!

But adrenaline rush isn't the only draw. Kids are also drawn to competition.

"We're learning that it's more thrilling to incorporate family with competition," says Jerry Pupillo, general manager of Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park in Kapolei, Hawaii. "Most rides are for enjoyment—a cliff hanger tube-slide sort of thing. But it doesn't last that long. But if you incorporate that with somebody in competition, it makes you want to ride more. You know—'You beat me this time but wait until next time.'"

Racing slides, such as the one enjoying such great success at Hawaiian Waters, have begun to pop up all over the national landscape.

"[In June] we opened The Volcano Express," Pupillo says. "It's a family-oriented competition ride with four lanes where you race head-to-head—literally head-first on mats. People are loving it."

In Joliet, Ill., a park-district waterpark, Splash Station, which opened in August, planners anticipate the draw of the Midwest's only six-person racing slide.

"It's a unique racing slide," says Mike Landers, aquatics coordinator for the Joliet park district. "It's a head-first matted ride."


Like its competitive cousin, which requires multiple players, interactive rides are also making a big splash.

Pipeline Peak at Paramountís Carowinds in Charlotte, N.C., is the tallest spiraling body ride on the East Coast.

Bridging the grounds of Paramount's Carowinds' amusement park to its waterpark is an interactive attraction that literally gets kids running into action.

"The Nickelodeon Flying Super Saturator was the first to combine roller coasters with water," says Scott Anderson, public relations assistant manager. "The ride goes through geysers and water curtains but people on the ground can shoot at them from water features while the riders can dump tanks on people below. The interactive component and play coupled with the roller coaster really adds to the ride."

It is only one of two in the world and has been an enormous hit.

Going with the flow

Another trend in the making has been the concept of interconnected rides. Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark in South Padre Island, Texas, with its innovative design unveiled last summer lets patrons tube from one attraction to another without ever having to set foot on solid ground. Rides and even concessions are linked via an extensive, lazy and not-so-lazy river. Schlitterbahn Beach has made the industry stand up and take note with imitation of its successful design being the surest form of flattery.

More is better

In all of these newer trends, one factor has been a fairly common one—high "throughput" (how many people can go through a ride in a certain amount of time). Rides that can include four or more people at once, instead of one or two, make for shorter lines. Shorter lines make for happier patrons. Happier patrons make for a more successful park.

Camelbeach's Spin Cycle tube slide

Whether racing slides or tube rides, getting more people through an attraction at a faster pace to reduce lines is now a central ride-designing factor.

"Making the ride last longer and groups ride together has been the focus recently," says Bruschi about the waterpark industry.

One such example of throughput success is at Camelbeach with a capacity of 8,000 people per day.

"The Titan can handle 1,800 people per hour—that's just on one slide, and we have several others," says Dave Johnson, assistant director of sales and marketing. "It moves people through pretty quickly."

A Park For All Seasons

Despite the latest and greatest attractions in major waterparks, the waterpark industry has actually reached a plateau—a saturating of the market since most major cities have waterparks and most amusement parks have added waterparks to their facilities.

However, one area enjoying an enormous growth spurt in water entertainment has been the hotel and resort industry.

"Hotels and resorts are the biggest growth area right now and the foreseeable future," Bruschi says. "They are adding indoor or outdoor or combo indoor/outdoor waterparks to compete with each other. They are finding that having a small waterpark as part of their facility helps them with increased occupancy rates, and they can also bolster their room rates. If it is an indoor facility they will also get more groups during the normal winter season when other waterparks are closed."

The average outdoor operating season is 100 to 120 days, depending on the climate, so finding creative ways to extend that season to meet financial expectations has been challenging. Camelbeach, for example, found a unique solution: The season isn't so much extended—its facilities are.

"It was developed as part of our existing winter resort," Johnson says. "A lot of infrastructure was shared: ticket areas, ticket software, parking, food services, toilets and equipment gets used year-round. It's duel purpose to the degree that it can be."

The Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City, Kan. features eight indoor waterslides.

But to truly extend the season, one need look no further than the creative solution of The Great Lakes Company (GLC) of Madison, Wis.

"Typically 10 years ago we were a 90 to 100 days market," says Eric Lund, shareholder and senior vice president of sales and marketing. "Now it's a year-round destination with upwards of half a million visitors a year."

Five years ago the company took the notion of a hotel resort and waterpark and married them into an indoor year-round water-wonderland for Midwestern families. The prototype of their idea, The Great Wolf Lodge in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., with its wildly creative north woods decor, has been a paradigm-shifting success.

Their second facility, The Great Bear Lodge in Sandusky, Ohio, opened just over a year ago, and its 33,000-square-foot indoor waterpark has not disappointed. The center attraction is Fort Mackenzie, a four-story tree fort filled with 60 interactive features that squirt, spray, dump and surprise throughout its 12 levels. Without question, the most popular feature of the fort occurs with every several-minute warning bell to signal the cascading of a 1,000-gallon bucket of water from the top of the fort onto the gleefully waiting children gathered below. The park's two-story tube slides, covering 626 feet, wind in and out of the building, five body slides offer thrills for the braver-of-heart and a slow-moving lazy river winds throughout for those looking for a more peaceful experience.

GLC has plans to open four more parks, with two being almost double in size and wow-factor, in Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, and in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, with an estimated opening date set for winter 2003.

Splish Splash

Trends in waterparks also cross over into their smaller cousins, splash play areas. Park districts in particular are wooing their constituents back to their facilities with the addition of splash play areas that are replacing the languishing square cement pool of yesteryear.

Wild Water Kingdom in Toronto

"What's popular are the giant play ladders and slides and interactive features," says Sara Stotmeister, technical design executive of Burbach Aquatics: Architects and Engineers. "It's all about interactive—people have the power to control water. It's fun to direct it."

Some years back, pools first flirted with the idea of special areas for children by introducing a few water features in the shallow ends of their pools. When the popularity was so apparent, park districts began looking to create entire sites devoted to the splash play of young children.

"All manufactures of equipment are consistently working on going to more interactive features like cannons kids can shoot and palm trees that drip water down," Stotmeister stays. "What started out for a small area of the pool has turned into something much more."

Variety in splash play equipment is definitely expanding. And variety, according to Stotmeister, is one of the keys to splash play success with a splash play area having features that spray up from the floor, spray down from above and that can be directed and squirted.

Just opened this past Memorial Day weekend, the splash play area for the Dubuque Park District in Dubuque, Iowa, has exceeded expectations.

"We've had a very enthusiastic response—almost to the point of overcrowding," says Pat Prevenas, recreation division manager, department of leisure services.

In choosing a design for the splash play area, the park district knew safety was a primary concern and opted for a water-depth design in which the deepest portions of the play areas are no more than 24 inches. It was designed to look like a colorful playground submerged in water with usual playground features of slides, different platforms to walk on and a tube swing.

However, that's where the similarities stop and the splash play begins. Valves open up, water spouts from platforms, ropes open valves to squirt and spray, and two water cannons, operated by manual pumping action, invite kids of all ages to enjoy the fun. Following the recipe for water spraying success, the splash play area has features that spray up, spray down and can be sprayed all around.

The Volcano at Hawaiian Waters

"We have two lifeguards on busy days to observe their use," Prevenas says. "Since it's so attractive, kids of all ages are attracted to it, and sometimes it can be used in an improper manner with the potential of harming smaller children."

But the area's popularity seems to be worth the extra supervision and maintenance.

"The splash play area is more work—it has to be winterized, chlorinated, pH-controlled and so-forth, but it's more appreciated by patrons," Prevenas says. "We considered a cheaper wet-surface design, but people preferred the water-depth design. It's a safer surface to fall on and more user-friendly."

In the case of water features, you do get what you pay for—the more expensive, interactive features definitely seem to equal more satisfied customers. For those able to spend more, a creatively themed design incorporating lots to explore, surprise and douse is sure to please just about all ages.

Whether it's for the young, old or the totally bold, entertainment in the world of wet is, actually, doing it all.

Tried and True Blue

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," so claims French wisdom. Despite all the bells and whistles of new attractions in water entertainment, some elements of success remain the same:

Safety  Having a plentiful, excellently trained lifeguard staff (most facilities boast a J. Ellis & Associate education) is critical especially since there's so much of a human element to waterpark and splash play entertainment.

Service  A clean facility along with a smile or a friendly "hello" by staff inspires confidence, gets noticed and is appreciated by patrons.

Shade  People seek shaded areas and increase not only their length of stay but consequently their spending.

Something for everyone  It's all about family, so providing rides like lazy rivers for adults, attractive splash play areas for younger children and thrill rides for teens are some basic features that keep everyone happy.

Staying current  Adding new features from the latest rides to amenities like family changing rooms will keep patrons happy and coming back for more.

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.