Cool Tips for Waterparks and Splash Play Areas
By Stacy St. Clair
There are a million nagging questions that come with running a waterpark or an aquatic center.
Is the filtration system working properly? Are the lifeguards ensuring patrons' safety? Are state and local regulations being met?
We hate to be bearers of bad news, but there's even more to be concerned about. Namely, is your facility hip enough? Does it have a fresh, modern feel? Or are you just treading water, doing the bare minimum in order to survive?
The answer can be scary. But if the questions aren't asked, you're doing a huge disservice to your facility.
Thankfully, there are several ways to give your aquatic facility a revived look. Some require a little more time—and money—than others. With a concerted effort, however, these suggestions can help any swimming spot make a big splash. Before launching the endeavor, it's important to understand the power of a first-class renovation.
"You've got to keep up with the times or you're going to be left out in the cold," Missouri-based architect William Yarger says.
Yarger should know. He helped resuscitate the Bridgeton Family Swim Center in Missouri. When he assumed the project several years ago, the facility seemed to be on its last legs. The aging, Z-shaped pool was functionally obsolete and expensive to run.
"Basically, it was getting old and it wasn't functioning any more," says Walter Siemsglusz, director of parks and recreation for Bridgeton, Mo. "We noticed a drop in usage."
The attendance drop had a lot to do with the pool's appearance. It was a concrete slab, wholly absent of color and engaging features. It might have worked in the 1980s, but it no longer met today's expectations. Many patrons were fleeing to a nearby waterpark in Maryland Heights, leaving the facility nearly empty on sunny afternoons.
"It got to the point where they were paying lifeguards to do nothing," Yarger says. "They weren't doing anything because there was nothing to do. No one was at the pool."
Yarger's design aimed to change all that. He replaced the obsolete swimming hole with an 11,900-square-foot leisure pool and competitive pool. The facility features a zero-depth entry, five water geysers, two slides and water cannons.
The aquatic center also has a competitive pool, a somewhat rarity among newer designs. The Bridgeton parks department, however, was insistent upon the component because the local swim team has been a community fixture for decades.
"It was really important to them, even though it didn't make sense from an economic or operational point of view," Yarger says. "But it was important to the community, and that's what mattered."
Still, Yarger did not want the competitive pool to become wasted space. He placed a drop slide in the deep end to increase its programming value and make the area engaging when not being used for swim meets.
While re-inventing the swim center, he purposefully avoided the mammoth rides found in many waterparks. Bridgeton already had a reciprocity agreement for its residents with Maryland Heights, a sister city with a massive facility.
To ensure the swim center would meet the community's needs, parks officials and the design team met with residents to discuss their programming wishes. They heard from all segments of the St. Louis suburb, including many seniors who urged them not to drop lane swimming in favor of child-oriented features. Their comments made keeping the competitive pool even more important.
"We had a lot of community input," Siemsglusz says. "We really listened to what they were asking for. We have quite an active seniors group and we wanted to make sure their interests were being met, too."
While the facility meets the needs of seniors, it also has become a magnet for families with small children. Its size and amenities make it perfect for parents who don't want to be swallowed by the massive waterparks. In addition to the slides and geysers, the $4.5 million project also has a current channel and a multi-jet splash play area.
"Our goal was to increase the recreation value, and we did that," Yarger says. "It truly has become a community pool. It is used by young and old alike."
Also important to the district's bean counters is the financial benefits that came with the renovation. The swim center's bottom line has improved since its May 2005 opening. Though park officials had to increase the number of on-duty guards, the new pool's modern systems have cut down on operational costs.
"It's a classic win-win," Yarger says.
Looking for a theme for your facility? You've come to the right place. Here are a couple tried-and-true waterpark motifs, along with a few original ones that really standout.
ALOHA: With a luau grove for private picnics and waterfront bungalows for rent, Hawaiian Falls in suburban Dallas makes patrons feel as if they're visiting the Aloha state. The facility carries out the theme by giving its features fun names like Keiki Kove and the Waikiki Wipeout.
WILD WEST: Frontier City in Ocean City, Md., offers patrons a big howdy with its cowboy motif. Visitors can race down Red Bird's Mountain and slide out the sides of a covered wagon.
ICH BIN EIN SWIMMER: The Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas—often voted the best waterpark in the world—takes on an unusual theme and succeeds fantastically. The Old World German theme includes a Bavarian castle as the park's centerpiece and rides such as the Boogie Bahn and Der Bahn. There's even a splash play area called Hansel & Gretel's Great Adventure.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE: The Amazoo in Montreal takes on an Amazonian theme with great aplomb. Its lazy river, for example, was inspired by the Cunucunoma River, a tributary that runs through the Brazilian jungle. The component even features a downed plane along the route.
KEEPING TRACK OF TOWN HISTORY: Put an individual stamp on your facility with rides and attractions that reflect your town's past. In Minneapolis, the Depot pays tribute to the city's railroad heritage with a top-notch facility. A locomotive-shaped fountain is located in the center to express the theme. Every 20 minutes, it spews thousands of gallons of water.
Not all facilities, however, need new gigantic rides or major renovations to freshen up. Sometimes, it can be as simple as adding a splash play area, which can attract more patrons, offer a colorful way to enhance a park and can be just plain fun.
Splash play areas have been a boon for some budget-conscious pools and communities struggling to provide aquatic recreation to their residents. And now, this more affordable option has become even more affordable with components that allow you to change and add features as your budget permits.
Before you design your splash play area, however, find out what works in other communities. As always, industry experts recommend contacting other facilities and asking about their experiences. If possible, travel to that town and spend the afternoon observing the splash play area.
Make note of several key observations, including which features are most popular and which attract the fewest patrons. It also may be beneficial to bring children of various ages from your community to conduct an informal focus group at the neighboring site.
To create a splash play area that attracts children year after year, it must energize and engage them. Kids often prefer active entertainment such as water cannons and buckets. An area only made up of arches, spray posts and ground sprays may catch an adult's eye but fail to entertain children at length.
It's also important to remember that one size does not fit all. When designing your splash play area, be mindful of the various age groups who will be using it. Industry experts recommend creating at least three sections, with each one featuring elements tailored to a specific age group.
Toddlers, for example, respond best to color, shapes and textures. In their zone, use non-intimidating features such as soft-mist sprays and gentle streams.
The second sector should promote social interaction and family play. Here, parks can include features such as water tunnels and dumping buckets that promote imaginative play. The final zone should provide high-energy activities with elements that advance teamwork and competitive play.
If you're working on a tight budget, don't give up hope. The industry has responded by creating removable anchor systems that allow you to add, replace and interchange play products without destroying the existing framework. Facilities gradually can add components over time to maximize play value.
Even if you have money to blow on an entire play area at one time, removable anchor systems remain a logical way to go. They protect your investments by preventing the play elements from becoming permanent and eventually stale environments.
Splash play areas also can provide a great source of revenue for an aquatic center or local park. Many communities have made money by charging admission or renting them out for parties.
Shade to order
In addition to making patrons happy in the water, aquatic facilities also must keep them content on dry land, too. One of the best ways to do this is by including ample shade.
After all, we live in the 21st century, where baking in the sun all day just isn't as cool as it used to be. People care about protecting their skin from sun exposure and keeping cool.
The depletion of the earth's ozone is increasing our exposure to the sun's dangerous ultraviolet rays. With more than 1 million cases diagnosed each year, skin cancer ranks among the fastest growing cancers in the United States. A baby born today is twice as likely to develop skin cancer than 10 years ago. Research also shows that as few as two severe sunburns during childhood double the chance of developing potentially deadly melanoma later in life.
In short, this once "optional" waterpark amenity has become a required element where children's (and adult's) health and welfare is concerned.
Fortunately, the shade industry is ready to help in the fight against ultraviolet rays with long-lasting, durable and attractive products. The best elements offer extensive warranties and come in an array of colors and shapes to complement site designs. When purchasing the product, look for a deterioration warranty on fabric canopies, including stitching thread. It's also important to ensure the canopy can screen up to 99 percent of UV rays.
And though it's not as important preventing sunburns and skin cancer, shade protection offers a creative revenue source. An increasing number of aquatic centers have begun renting their cabanas and shelters, finding some extra money in a much-needed service.
At Bedford Splash in Bedford, Texas, residents can rent a cabana for two hours for $95. The cabanas can be rented seven days a week and come with 10 all-day admission passes. Each cabana has six tables and can hold about 40 people. The park advertises them as the perfect place for family gatherings or business events.
"It's great for parties—it's enclosed and has a big canopy with a circle gate around it," says Ashley Henson, a Bedford Splash customer-service associate. "This way other people can't walk in or out or through your rental."
For a little less—$65 for two hours—patrons can rent a pavilion. The smaller shade areas hold 20 people and also can be booked seven days a week.
Some people reserve the shade areas with as little as 30-minutes' notice. To guarantee a spot, however, the facility recommends patrons make their reservation at least a week in advance.
"People love to rent them," Henson says. "We are booked every weekend."
The park also has ample lounge chairs under shaded areas to help keep patrons cool. The cabanas and pavilions, however, have proven extremely popular with both patrons and facility operators.
"We opened three years ago, and these have been a great source of revenue," Henson says. "It provides shade and sun protection, which is especially important in Texas, where it's really hot."
Education Made Easy
It's not always easy finding the cash to send your entire staff to a conference. There are transportation costs, hotel rooms and per diems to work into the budget. And there's the manpower shortage that occurs when everyone heads off to a seminar.
At the same time, there's no denying the benefit of a conference. What price do you put on employees who come back better informed and more energized about their jobs?
Fortunately for recreation managers, the National Swimming Pool Foundation offers a way to glean the advantages of its annual World Aquatic Health Conference without blowing your budget or disrupting the work schedule.
The foundation has expanded its reach by offering Web attendance. Industry workers who cannot attend the annual conference in Texas this month can watch the seminars over the Internet.
"We are excited to be able to bring the conference to a much wider world audience," says Alex Antoniou, director of NSPF's educational programs. "With today's Web technology, registrants can have all the benefits of hearing these scientific presentations without travel, lodging expense or time commitment."
The Web conference costs $455 to register. The fee includes 20 access codes for employees to watch at convenient times.
The foundation expects health departments and aquatic facilities to use the lectures to help train employees. They also anticipate industry suppliers to buy access codes and give them to key customers to use for development training purposes.
The seminar will remain on the Internet until March 31, 2007.
"This is an incredible opportunity for organizations to sign up multiple people who can benefit from hearing the cutting-edge research that is revealed," Antoniou says. "They can watch them when their schedules allow."
The two-day conference is being held Sept. 19 to 21 in Austin, Texas. Key issues include water wellness and injury prevention, drowning prevention, aquatic health benefits, new technology, and facility programming.
Bruce Becker and Michael Beach will deliver the keynote speeches. Becker is scheduled to address the advantages of water exercise, while Beach will discuss recreational water illnesses.
In 2005, there were 5,000 reported cases of recreation water illness. The majority of those were the result of cryptosporidium, microscopic parasites that cause a diarrheal disease. Other microbiological risks, however, continue to threaten the field.
Several seminars will tackle ways to combat theses problems through both science and common sense. Another lecture will offer tips on how to better work with local health boards to ensure clean swimming water for patrons.
There also will be six seminars on the health advantages of swimming, including the cardiovascular, special populations and performance benefits. While most people in the aquatic industry know this, few understand the science behind it.
At last year's conference, more than 230 industry members from eight countries and 33 states participated in the conference.
"The conference reveals the science behind the fun of aquatics," says Thomas M. Lachocki, the foundation's chief executive officer. "We provide a forum where [industry leaders] can learn from each other through the mutual exchange of ideas and information."
For more information, visit www.nspf.org.
Theme it up
A waterpark, however, cannot live on zero-depth entries and zooming drop slides alone. The best and most entertaining facilities are more than just a collection of fun water features. In a move taken from the private sector, many public facilities have been transformed into well-planned fantasy lands with central themes carried out.
Slides, cannons and sprayers come in a variety of characters, with everything from sea life to pop-culture icons to swashbuckling pirates. Splash play areas are now being marketed with safari, western, nautical and fire-station themes, to name just a few.
The theme, however, should extend beyond the water features. It should be used to decide names of the concession stands, cabana areas, locker rooms and souvenir shops.
This technique—a.k.a. branding—helps meet the expectations of today's savvy consumers. The current generation of waterpark-goers has grown up amid corporate branding and clever marketing.
At Hawaiian Falls, located in suburban Dallas, the owners bring their fondness for the 50th state to an entirely new level. They have decorated the park with thatched umbrellas and shading areas, complete with Hawaiian totem poles and a tiki bar.
"When you think of Hawaii, you think of bright colors," says Clint Hill, general manager. "We have five cabanas along our wave pool that are all painted in a variety of bright colors. Each of our cabanas also comes with your private waiter or cabana boy."
The facility has given its features fun names such as Waikiki Wipeout and Keiki Kove. It also requires children to be taller than a tiki measuring stick to be eligible to go on certain rides. But it's the little things that really help make the theme work. For example, employees greet visitors with a cheery "aloha" and bid them farewell with a hearty "mahalo."
"The company as a whole definitely goes with the name," Hill says.
When rethinking your facility, complacency, of course, is always an option. There's no law that requires facilities to add splash play areas, racing slides or a catchy theme. You don't have to install shade structures to give your facility pizzazz or an additional revenue stream, either.
Yarger, whose work in Bridgeton revitalized a community pool, acknowledges the park board could have left the pool as it is. He knows officials could have opted for the status quo and kept treading water. It's a choice all aquatic centers have.
"You don't have to change," Yarger says. "Survival is not mandatory."
But it sure beats the alternative.
Preventing recreational water illnesses (RWIs) may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of engaging patrons. But, really, is there anything less-inviting than an aquatic facility that causes gastrointestinal problems? Fortunately, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer a 12-step program to help your facility chart a course toward cleaner water.
1. LEAD YOUR STAFF.
Yes, every facility has its own pressing priorities. And, yes, it's hard to juggle those everyday demands.
However, all aquatic centers must make health a priority. The single greatest action you can take against water illness is to create a RWI protection plan. Be sure to back up your plan with resource investment and commitment. This will set the tone for the rest of the staff. Though an aggressive response after an outbreak is good, it's much more responsible (and cost-effective) to be proactive.
2. DEVELOP PARTNERSHIPS.
Build a communication bridge between your facility and the local health department. This is an excellent way to get information on other outbreaks occurring in your area. If, for example, you begin to hear about outbreaks at other pools, day-care centers and schools where your patrons attend, then take proactive measures and increase your vigilance to protect your facility. In the case of another local pool closing after an outbreak, work with health officials to educate the public—especially the swimmers who will be descending on your pool from the closed facility. Be sure to use the media, too, to help spread the message. Ask them to remind the public that no one should swim if they have diarrhea.
3. EDUCATION POOL STAFF.
In the war against RWIs, there's no greater weapon than education. Make sure your pool operator, at a minimum, has attended a training course on waterborne illness. It's also wise to integrate the "P-L-E-As" for Healthy Swimming into your staff training (see #4 below). Your employees should be as well versed on good hygiene methods as they are on CPR techniques and lifesaving skills. Empower your staff to inform parents of proper poolside hygiene. They should be able to explain in an informative, yet inoffensive manner, why behavior such as using picnic tables to change diapers is unacceptable. This may dictate putting an older, more confident lifeguard in charge of the kiddie area.
4. EDUCATION THE SWIMMERS AND PARENTS.
A proactive staff must educate the public on ways to prevent waterborne illness. The CDC recommends six public "P-L-E-As" for Protection to combat RWIs. First, the campaign asks bathers to please not swim if they have diarrhea. It also asks them to refrain from swallowing pool water. Other key elements include practicing good hygiene (showering before swimming), frequent diaper checks, taking children on regular trips to the restroom, changing diapers in the restroom not poolside, and washing children's rear ends thoroughly with soap and water before swimming.
5. MAINTAIN WATER QUALITY AND EQUIPMENT.
Keep your chemicals and chemical-feed equipment at optimal levels within state and local government regulations. It may sound painfully obvious, but poor pH control can compromise chlorine's effectiveness. The proper chlorine levels are your best chance at fighting an e-coli outbreak. In addition to frequent chlorine checks—at poolside—provide regular maintenance to your recirculation and fitness equipment.
6. EVALUATE AQUATIC FACILITY DESIGN.
When building a new facility, consult industry colleagues and health workers about how to best design the facility to prevent outbreaks. The kiddie pool, for example, should not share the same filtration system as other parts of the aquatic center. Increasing the water turnover rates in kiddie pools also may reduce the chances of a waterborne illness. This decision, of course, must be made in conjunction with regulators to prevent suction problems.
7. INSTITUTE DISINFECTION GUIDELINES.
It may not be required, but it's smart to have a written policy on how to respond to fecal accidents. Keep a written log of all fetal accidents, chlorine and pH level measurements and any major equipment repairs so you can respond better to any outbreaks or contamination. For detailed disinfection guidelines, go to: www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming/fecal_response.htm
8. EVALUATE HYGIENE FACILITIES.
In a recent CDC survey, a majority of parents claimed to change their children's diapers at poolside because the restrooms were unclean, poorly maintained and did not have an adequate diaper-changing area.
So stop and ask yourself a few questions. Does your aquatic center have adequate facilities? Are they close to the pool? Are they clean and well-stocked? Would you enter them barefoot? If you answered "no" to any of those questions, it's time to rethink your strategy. Better yet, ask your patrons the same questions. If they respond negatively to just one of the four, you've got some work to do. If your facility is large enough, consider hiring someone whose sole responsibility is maintaining the restrooms. You also may want to consider spending the money to renovate your diaper-changing stations. You also may contemplate building diaper-changing cabanas with running water and soap near the kiddie pool. It's a terrific way to cut down on the number of diaper changes performed on lounge chairs and tables. These moves admittedly require some extra capital. However, they may prove to be good investments if they prevent an even more costly temporary closure after an outbreak.
9. DEVELOP A RESTROOM BREAK POLICY.
Many aquatic facilities take a break every hour or so for chemical testing. This reassures patrons that the staff has the best intentions for their patrons' health and safety. You can take an even more proactive step toward reducing fecal accidents by referring to this period as the hourly "restroom break."
Have your staff inform parents that this is an optimal time to take their children to the restroom. If you implement this strategy, however, be sure that the facilities are clean and well-stocked with toilet paper and antibacterial soap to prevent the transmission of germs. Should parents inquire, tell them the restroom break not only cuts down on fecal accidents, it also reduces the amount of urine in the pool, which saves the disinfectant that should be killing germs.
10. CREATE A SPECIAL POLICY FOR LARGE GROUPS OF YOUNG CHILDREN.
If you allow large groups of small children—from a local day-care center—to use your facility, have a special policy in place to reduce that chances of waterborne illness. First, require the caretakers to undergo RWI training. They should be briefed fully on many of the components listed above. Make sure they know that, just like many day-care centers, your facility does not admit children with diarrhea.
11. POST AND DISTRIBUTE HEALTH INFORMATION.
Don't be afraid to post signage in a conspicuous area before pool entry. The CDC recommends signs that state:
- Don't swim when you have diarrhea.
- Don't swallow the water.
- Take your kids to the restroom frequently.
You also should encourage swimmers to shower with soap and water before entering the pool. This helps reduce the outbreaks by removing the invisible fecal matter from the swimmers' bottoms. A quick rinse over a swimsuit with cold water, however, is not going to do much good. Consider having hot showers available to encourage swimmers to give themselves—and their children—a more thorough cleaning before entering the pool.
12. DEVELOP AN OUTBREAK/EMERGENCY RESPONSE PLAN.
No one wants a diarrheal outbreak to occur, but everyone should plan for one. Develop a policy to follow in case you begin getting calls from patrons or the health department launches an investigation. This plan should include a component for keeping the local media and government personnel in the loop.
You also should appoint a spokesperson to ensure there is one voice and one message coming from your facility. It also provides a clear contact person for government agencies, media members and the public to reach. Talk to colleagues who already have gone through a public health crisis. They may have tips on surviving the storm and suggestions on how to handle the media. Whatever you do, do not try to impede the health-department investigation. If your pool was the source of contamination, the investigation can provide insight as to how or why the illness was transmitted. This information leads to better illness prevention strategies that can help everyone. What's more, sometimes the investigation finds a source unrelated to your pool and exonerates your facility.
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