Theme Schemes

Creative motifs and clever theming give waterparks and splash play areas new depth

By Stacy St. Clair

Think that zero-depth entry and giant water slide put your pool on the cusp of cool? Think again.

The Joliet, Ill., Park District's Splash Station waterpark features four 30-foot-tall body flume water slides.

The best and most entertaining parks today are more than just a collection of fun water features. In a move stolen from the private sector, many public facilities have been transformed into well-planned fantasylands with a central theme carried throughout. Whether it is a fantastical motif such as cartoon characters or a historical homage to the community, themed waterparks and splash play areas give facilities an extra zing in an often competitive market.

"We're seeing more of an interest," says Michael Williams, CEO of Wheaton, Ill.-based Williams Architects. "It adds stimulation. It adds something a little different than the neighboring towns have."

In the Chicago area, Williams' core market, the competition is fierce. The vast majority of cities and villages have full-fledged waterparks complete with huge slides, splash play areas and the always popular zero-depth entry.

Adding to the tight market are several private facilities that attract patrons from across the metropolitan area. And roughly two hours to the northwest is the Wisconsin Dells, which boasts more themed waterparks per capita than any other Midwest town.

The Dream Theme

Coming up with a theme to fit your waterpark doesn't have to be a nightmare. Truth be told, almost any motif can be a success with a little imagination and some creative incorporation. Here are some themes that have worked well in other facilities:

The Pirate: Yo-ho-ho, if it isn't the most popular waterpark theme. Facilities often include a lazy river meandering around a "shipwrecked" island. Some sell souvenir eye patches and other pirate paraphernalia at the concession stand.

The Zoo: Perhaps the simplest of themes, given the abundance of animal water features available. There are elephants that shoot water from their trunks and giraffes with necks that function as slides.

The Safari: Facilities often come up with clever names for their safari-themed features. Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus, Ind., for example, calls its lazy river The Congo and its enclosed slide The Zoombabwe.

The Nautical: Presumably, your facility has plenty of water, so you've already got the major component for a high-seas theme. Or consider branching out to a sailing or beach theme. Disney's Typhoon Lagoon in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., sports a combination of both.

The Cowboy: The theme isn't just for western states anymore. The Fort Whalely Western Theme Park in Ocean City, Md., has done an impressive job incorporating a Wild West theme complete with a covered wagon with slides jetting out from the back and both sides.

Cypress Cove Family Aquatic Park in Woodridge, Ill.

The Woodridge Park District understood the intense market before opening its waterpark six years ago, but it did not shy away from the challenge. Woodridge is one of Illinois' medium-sized districts, meaning it doesn't have the resources, deep pockets or built-in patron population of the larger parks and recreation departments.

Still, when decisions about a new waterpark were being made six years ago, officials decided they wanted to swim with the big boys. They gambled on an elaborately themed facility that could compete with both the private sector and the sizeable districts nearby.

The district staff wanted to incorporate a bayou theme because the park was going to be built near prominent wetlands in the village. The idea struck a chord with Williams, who had just returned from a golfing trip to the Carolinas and was struck by the rustic simplicity of the Appalachian cabins he saw there.

He had taken dozen of pictures of the homes, most of them wooden houses with tin or split-form roofs. He was drawn to the dilapidated wooden porches.

"You could just picture someone sitting out there on a rocker," he says.

Talcy Park in Montreal

The rural architecture served as an inspiration to Williams as he designed the park, which later was named Cypress Cove Family Aquatic Park. In some ways, creating a themed waterpark is easier than other recreation facilities because the parks generally include only four small buildings: an entrance, bathhouse, concession stand and filter room.

Williams planned all four to look like the cabins he photographed on his vacation. He put wood exteriors on the buildings and installed split-form roofs.

The mechanical room was built on an island—called Crocodile Island—and a huge porch was connected to the structure. The porch now doubles as entertainment stage, and patrons are invited to "swim, float or sit" on the isle during performances, which have become part of the district's "Jive and Dive" concert series.


The large porch also is home to all parties at the park. The platform, which has become a birthday hot spot, is large enough to hold two groups at the same time.

The designers carried out the theme even further by giving all the features bayou-sounding names. In addition to Crocodile Island, there is a tube slide called Tabasco Falls, a body slide named Pelican's Plunge and a lazy river dubbed Cajun Creek. The zero-depth pool is referred to as Cattail Bay, while the sand area is called Mud Bug Beach. Patrons seeking some refreshment, cool off at the Swamp Shack Café.

Cool Concept

By now, you've realized just how trendy themed waterparks are.

So, here's a tip on what's not in vogue: large chunks of ice floating in the water.

As shocking—and as lawsuit-inviting—as it may seem, some aquatic managers in southern states have taken to dumping huge blocks of ice in the pool to reduce temperatures. They contend it cools the water quickly, making it more inviting to swimmers and less likely for bacteria to grow.

While it may seem like a cheap solution, it's also a risky one. If Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet have taught us anything, it's that floating ice can be a very dangerous thing.

Imagine patrons jumping off the high dive and smacking their heads against the block. The subsequent lawsuits and settlements could leave a facility sinking faster than the Titanic.

A fashionable alternative, however, does exist. Several southern pools have turned aeration systems to cool their waters.

The apparatus sits on the pool's edge, with a suction hose dropped into the water. The water is gently sucked through the system, then sprayed back into the pool after much needed oxygen is added. It takes about three to five hours to cool a pool, though some facilities leave the machine on during the night.

The aeration system proved a godsend for Marilynn Lynn, manager of the Ft. Polk swimming pools. The aquatic center, located on an Army base in Louisiana, purchased two machines after military youth services stopped bringing children to the pools because the water was too hot.

Once Lynn began using the aeration system, the pool's temperature dropped from 94 to 84 ºF within 24 hours. The Army's Preventive Medicine inspectors also are elated with the drop in temperature because no abnormal bacterial colonies have been found since the apparatus was purchased.

As an added bonus, the system has become a favorite water feature at the pool. Its situated near the diving board so patrons can jump into the spray. It has become so popular, Lynn says, that divers become upset if it's pointed anywhere other than the board.

Lifeguard and sunbathers also enjoy the cool mist created by the aerator, Lynn says. It gives them a little extra relief from the relentless Louisiana sun.

The system has proven so invaluable, Lynn has plans to buy a third machine.

"I couldn't live without it," Lynn says. "I absolutely love it."

Cypress Cove's Cajun Creek

"It's really nice to have a consistent theme throughout," says Pam Sanhamel, the district's public relations and marketing coordinator. "You're trying to put it all together as one experience."

The facility also is heavily landscaped with southern flora such as daylilies and wild grasses to enhance the Cajun atmosphere. When combined with the structures and water features, the facility has an energy that isn't found at ordinary waterparks.

"It is just beautiful," Sanhamel says. "It's like a park inside of a pool or pool inside of a park."

Such an atmosphere, however, does not come free. Waterpark structures are typically small buildings made of cinder block or brick and are inexpensive to construct.

Adding fancy exterior designs will inevitably impact the final price tag. Installing wood facades and split roofs like at Cypress Cove, for example, added roughly another $50 per square foot to the construction costs.

"Is there an extra cost to doing a theme?" Williams asks. "Probably a little."

While the overall construction bill was higher, the district has more than recouped the difference. The large porch alone has earned thousands of dollars for the park between concert events and birthday parties.


The bayou gamble taken several years ago, by all accounts, has been worth the risk. The facility was just declared the Chicago-area's favorite waterpark by a local television program. It also has won several awards, including the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association Outstanding Aquatic Facility Award and the 1998 Daniel Flaherty Park Excellence Recognition Award.

Since Cypress Cove opened in 1997, more and more waterparks have embraced themes. Many did it, in part, to survive in a competitive market. They also have warmed to motifs because water feature manufacturers have made it increasingly easy to do so.

Slides, cannons and sprayers come in a variety of characters, with everything from zoo animals to Disney favorites to swashbuckling pirates. Splash play areas are now being marketed with medieval, western, nautical and fire station themes, to name just a few.

"The industry is pretty darn creative," Williams says.

Proponents contend that the thematic features better engage patrons because they excite imaginations and help patrons form a strong connection to the park. The fire station play area, for example, has a truck that shoots out water when various pedals and brakes are pushed. The nautical theme boasts a flag that can be raised and lowered on the ship's mast depending upon how many holes are covered on an interactive water pod.

Cameron Park in Waco, Texas  Saturation Station at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, Conn.

Component Checklist

No matter how clever the theme, it just won't float without a properly designed facility. A competitive waterpark usually encompasses a combination of the following features to conquer today's market.

Zero-depth entry: The beach-type sloped entry is loved by mothers who worry about their small children falling into the water.

Fountains and sprays: A fun feature, especially on hot summer days when the water slide lines are too long. Often the easiest way to incorporate a theme.

Lazy river: A slow river ride that allows patrons to float along in an inner tube.

Splash play areas: Home to sprayers and water cannons, the hippest splash play areas now have themes, of course.

Slides: Your slide—or slides—is often the crown jewel of your facility. You better have a good one. Consider features that will make your facility unique such as racing slides, vertical drops and double slides.

Entertainment stages: Water isn't always enough to keep patrons amused today. Several facilities now have entertainment stages where bands and other acts perform. At Noah's Ark Waterpark in the Wisconsin Dells, costumed water animals put on a choreographed show.

Party venue: Birthday parties are a vital source of revenue for waterparks. Make sure your park has an adequate facility.

History in the making

Not all themes have to be as whimsical as zoo animals and pirate ships. Some of the most successful waterpark themes are borrowed from pages of local history books.

In Glenview, Ill., Williams was tapped to design a recreation facility and natatorium on a property that once had been home to the Glenview Naval Air Station, which trained generations of military pilots and ground crews from 1942 until its closure in 1995.

The airfield served a critical function in World War II, having served as the Primary Training Command. Its alumni lists read likes a who's who of military men. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, Presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford, among others, all trained at the station during the war.

The field was also home to Illinois' most famous naval hero, Edward O'Hare, a fighter pilot who saved the USS Lexington from sure annihilation in 1942 and was posthumously honored with an international airport bearing his name. When budget cuts forced the U.S. Navy to close the airfield in 1995, Glenview purchased the property and spent months contemplating how the 1,102-acre property could best be used. Williams Architects designed the Glenview Park Center, a $23-million facility that opened in December 2000.

Situated at the end of a former runway, the architects designed the building's interior as a homage to the property's past. The state-of-the art natatorium celebrates the area's history with an incredible aviation motif. World War II biplane replicas—purchased through a generous donation from a local foundation—hang from the ceiling. The water play area has several aeronautical features, including a small slide designed to make users appear as if they're bailing out of the cockpit.


The natatorium's most beloved feature, however, is the Splash Landings water slide. Williams' firm designed the stairs leading up to the slide as a replica of the Glenview Naval Air Station control tower.

When planning the facility, Williams says he could not ignore the historical significance of the site.

"Here's something that was a huge part of life during World War II and a huge part of life in Glenview," he says. "It was a perfect opportunity to incorporate the air station's history."

City and park officials in Joliet, Ill., also insisted on building a waterpark that reflected their city's proud heritage. They began planning the facility about 10 years ago on a site that was once home to a massive quarry operation from the 1930s through 1950s.

The park itself sits on a railroad line that transported gravel from the quarry to the processing area. Once processed, the gravel was shipped all over the world.

Bluebonnet Academy in Houston  Mark Park Splash Pad in Princeton, Minn.

Decades later, the owners of the local riverboat casino purchased the land and donated 20 acres to the community for recreation purposes. Officials decided to build a waterpark and named it Splash Station in homage to the land's former function. The railroad theme runs through the entire facility, including a park logo that features an old-fashioned locomotive with waves cresting on either side of the cowcatcher.

The entrance—where patrons purchase "boarding passes" instead of paying simple admission—is designed to look like an old depot. The light fixtures are replicated rail yard lamps. Imitation roundhouses serve as concession stands, and all the rides have train-themed names such as body slide called The Rattler and a sand play area dubbed Tumbleweed Pass.

The facility's main attraction is Miner's Mountain, the only six-person racing slide in the Midwest. The slide, which allows patrons to compete against friends to see who can get to the bottom the fastest, mimics the old mining trains once used to carry coal from the mountains.

The features helped the fledgling Splash Station, which opened in August 2002, establish an identity in a crowded market, says Dominic Egizio, director of revenue facilities for the Joliet Park District. It wasn't just another a waterpark. It was the place with the trains and funky concession stand, the place where you race down the mountain.

Querbes/Airport Park in Shreveport, La.

"The theme definitely has given us a little advantage," he says. "It helps people relate to the park. We're hoping kids identify with it and say 'We want to go the park with the train.'"

The response has been extremely positive so far. In the park's first 20 days of operation, it attracted 22,000 people. Its patrons draw from a 50-mile radius, an impressive base given the recreation opportunities in the area.

Splash Station has even spawned several unofficial fan Web sites and has become popular enough for there to be a souvenir stand inside the park. Park officials currently are looking to purchase an old steam engine that would be placed on a bluff outside the facility to create a dramatic entrance. There are also plans to buy an old dining car that could be used for birthday parties.

In the city's past, it seems, the waterpark has found its future.

"We're very happy and excited about the park," Egizio says. "We have a lot of plans for the future."

A Waterpark by Any Other Name

What's in a name? A lot, really. A catchy facility name can capture attention, create an instant image and complement your park's motif. No doubt, a name says a lot about a place. So make sure yours is a memorable one.

Like ice cream shops (KaleidoScoops!) and hair salons (The Mane Event), waterparks naturally lend themselves to some snappy monikers.

Here's a sampling of some poetic and playful waterpark destinations, from the clever or conventional to the witty or just plain wet.

Aquaboggan Waterpark
Saco, Maine

Blizzard Beach
Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Blue Bayou
Baton Rouge, La.

Coconut Cove Waterpark
Boca Raton, Fla.

Crawdaddy Cove
Madison, Wis.

Firewater Water Park
Amarillo, Texas

H2Oasis Indoor Waterpark
Anchorage, Alaska

Hurricane Harbor
Valencia, Calif.

Hydropolis Water Park
Corfu, Greece

Oceans of Fun
Kansas City, Mo.

Racing Rapids Action Park
Dundee, Ill.

Raging Rivers Waterpark
Grafton, Ill.

Roaring Rivers Water Park
Cobden, Ontario

Roaring Springs Waterpark
Meridian, Idaho

Runaway Rapids Waterpark
Keansburg, N.J.

Sandcastle Waterpark

Shipwreck Island Waterpark
Panama City Beach, Fla.

Splash Mountain Waterpark
Ocean City, Md.

Splash Planet
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Splish Splash Waterpark
Riverhead, N.Y.

Super Splash USA
Raytown, Mo.

Nays Head, N.C.

Thundering Surf
Toms River, N.J.

Tropicanoe Cove Family Aquatic Center
Lafayette, Ind.

Wacky Waters
Muscatine, Iowa

Water Mine Family Swimmin' Hole
1400 Lake Fairfax Drive
Reston, VA USA

Water Town USA
Shreveport, La.

Waterville USA
Gulf Shores, Ala.

Water Wizz of Cape Cod
Hope Valley, R.I.

The Whale's Tale Waterpark
North Lincoln, N.H.

Zoom Flume Water Park
Durham, N.Y.

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