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.
|PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIAMS ARCHITECTS|
|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.
|PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WOODRIDGE PARK DISTRICT/PAT SANHAMEL|
|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.
|PHOTO COURTESY OF VORTEX AQUATIC STRUCTURES|
|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.
|PHOTOS COURTESY OF EMPEX WATERTOYS|
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.
|PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WOODRIDGE PARK DISTRICT/PAT SANHAMEL|
|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.
|PHOTOS COURTESY OF EMPEX WATERTOYS|
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.
|PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WATER ODYSSEY DIVISION OF FOUNTAIN PEOPLE||PHOTO COURTESY OF KOALAPLAY GROUP|
|Cameron Park in Waco, Texas||Saturation Station at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, Conn.|
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.
|PHOTO COURTESY OF RAIN DROP PRODUCTS||PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIAMS ARCHITECTS|
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.
|PHOTO COURTESY OF VORTEX AQUATIC STRUCTURES||PHOTO COURTESY OF AQUATIC RECREATION COMPANY|
|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.
|PHOTO COURTESY OF WATERPLAY MANUFACTURING|
|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."
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