Making Waves

Big Waterpark Trends Hit Smaller Facilities

By Emily Tipping

nce upon a time, municipal pools were just pools. Rectangular, with a shallow end and a deep end, and if you were lucky, a diving board and perhaps a small slide. In the mornings, kids would show up for swim lessons, and adults would swim laps. In the afternoons, bathers of all ages would take a dip, while sunbathers lounged at poolside.

But that's not enough anymore.

These days, patrons at facilities of all stripes want entertainment. It's not enough to provide a puddle for them to jump in. They want a fun-filled experience. They want to be thrilled on slides, chilled with water play elements and spilled on—with dumping buckets that drop gallons of water over their heads.

"In the 1980s, we saw the birth of the family aquatic center, which added slides and other elements to the rectangular pools of the past, and it went on from there," said Melinda Kempfer, business development coordinator for Water Technology Inc., which has designed waterparks around the world, as well as municipal family aquatic centers, and just about every type of aquatic facility in between. "Now we're asking, 'Is there anything new we can still do?' and we're seeing more of the elements of commercial waterparks coming into municipal pools."

Why would a local pool adopt the trends seen at big waterparks?

"The expectations have been raised, and a lot of kids want more," Kempfer explained. "When I was growing up, the most exciting thing they had at the pool was clams you threw to the bottom and dived for. Kids nowadays need to be entertained."

And across the country, trends are trickling from the biggest, most successful waterparks down to their municipal counterparts, whether those are municipally owned waterparks with all the rides and thrills of their privately owned competitors or simple family aquatic centers that have added slides, cabanas, themes and other amenities to their previously simple facilities.

So what can you learn from these successes? Read on to learn how big waterpark trends can make waves for your smaller facility.

Make it unique

To give your community what it wants—and to keep people from going elsewhere to find it—you need to offer a unique experience, something that will draw people in and keep them coming back for more. One simple way to do this is to make sure your facility stands out and offers an experience to remember. Branding, or theming, is one relatively simple way to do this.

According to Kempfer, themes are an important trend in aquatic facilities. "They have become popular in commercial waterparks and have been handed down to municipal parks," she said. "You can package the experience and create an atmosphere that takes the guest into another world as they navigate through the park. It really helps parks get return customers."

In the Hawaiian Islands, Jerry Pupillo knows his park is unique. While many of the hotels and resorts on the islands provide elaborate pools and slides, Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park is the only stand-alone waterpark of its kind in Hawaii. This privately owned, 25-acre water-theme amusement park, designed by Aquatic Design Group of Carlsbad, Calif., and Kauahikaua & Chun of Honolulu, attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually with its nine thrill rides, five family rides, 10 specialty areas and other amenities.

"I think one of the biggest things that makes it a success is it's lush and tropical," said Pupillo, president and general manager of Hawaiian Waters. "We tried to minimize the concrete, and we built slides into the hills rather than having a bunch of towers. You can imitate Hawaii elsewhere, but you can't duplicate it. We can, which gives us an appeal to the tourist customers—that they can come to Hawaii in November or December and go to an outdoor waterpark and enjoy it and be warm."

The Hawaiian theme carries through the parks rides to its events. The Friday night happy hour at the park is called Pau Hana for the Ohana. 'Pau hana' is a Hawaiian phrase that means 'after work,' while 'ohana' means 'family.'

"It's kind of a happy hour on Friday night with an island flavor," Pupillo said. "Families will come out, we bring in lights and light it up, bring in a local band and just create some niche markets. We don't do huge numbers, but it's certainly a good feel."

In Wisconsin Dells at the Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort's seven indoor and outdoor waterparks, a rustic feel and an Old West theme can be found throughout the resort's attractions and restaurants. Klondike Cavern, one of the facility's indoor waterparks, features Bonanza Brook, a 500-foot lazy river; Sulfur Springs pool and hot tub spa; and Gold Mine Mountain, a 45-foot kids' activity area with 60 hands-on spray features. The outdoor New Frontier Waterpark features more than 110,000 square feet of western-themed water fun, including the Gold Rush Tube Slide, a 400-foot tunnel that launches from a 40-foot tower; Prospector's Creek, a 600-foot lazy river; and Bear Foot Island, a kids area with water play devices and a 300-gallon dumping bucket.

Municipalities across the country are taking the idea of themes and running with it, and according to Kempfer, it's not as pricey a proposition as it used to be.

"You used to pay so much money for themes because it was a customization, but now a lot of the equipment comes like that," she said. "There are theme packages you can buy, and they're getting more creative. It's not all tropical. We've done snow and ice. Some municipalities are choosing to reflect the local flavor. In Colorado, we did one where it's a mining town and they went with that theme."

The 23,000-square-foot indoor waterpark at the Apex Center in Arvada, Colo., is operated by the North Jeffco Park and Recreation District. The aquatic experience features Colorado mountain and mining themes with two 150-foot slides, an indoor water playground with fountains and dump buckets, as well as a more traditional four-lane lap pool.

At NRH2O Family Waterpark, a municipally owned waterpark in North Richland Hills, Texas, the theme was taken to the extreme, with an entire back story describing how Professor Frogstein—magically transformed into a frog by Dr. Unfun—discovers the formula for family fun. Ultimately, Dr. Unfun tries to run Professor Frogstein down, and the test tube of formula spills into the swamp. The legend goes on to explain how the spilled formula mixed with the swamp water, transforming the land into a waterslide-dotted, fun-filled family park. The theme is carried out in the waterpark in "Frogstein's Splashatory," five levels of fun for all ages that includes six waterslides, interactive activities and a giant tipping beaker.

On a smaller scale, at Splash Cove at the Jim Allen Aquatic Center in Shawnee, Kan., a water theme dominates, but with a twist.

"Most aquatic designers use the same set of catalogs and pieces, so the facilities begin to look more and more alike," explained William Yarger, president and CEO of Manchester, Mo.-based Yarger Design Group. "We wanted to make sure the facility was branded, so we added features nobody else has, like special theming, major zero-depth entry and a kiddy wave pool."

Splash Cove features a leisure pool with a water-play structure with tipping conch shell, a waterslide, a play/instructional pool and plenty of deck area for sitting. With larger-than-life fish and sea turtles, the facility's theme was meant to tie in with WonderScope, a children's museum located on the same block.

"WonderScope took the real world and shrunk it down to kid size. Everything there is 'Honey I Shrunk the World,'" Yarger explained. "What we did was take the opposite approach of 'Honey I Shrunk the Kids' and turned the kids into the size of minnows and made the fish and theming really big. We put waves under the building, and you'll see big fish and turtles, while the kids are relatively small in comparison."

Make it fresh

Another way to keep people coming back for more is to keep offering them more to come back for. Take a cue from larger waterparks and make a change—even a small one—every year or two. Add a new slide, a new ride, or change up your splash play elements. On a smaller scale, you can offer a new event or feature a new festival that follows the theme of your park. Even simpler, you can add a new themed item to your concessions menu.

"We keep trying to keep it fresh," Pupillo said. "We are constantly brainstorming with our clientele, our customers, to try to find what to do next. Every other year or so, we make a large capital investment to put in new slides and rides."

In 2005, for example, Hawaiian Waters added Da' FlowRider, which provides 40 feet of continuous wave action for those who want to try out their surfing skills. In 2002, the Volcano Express was added, 300 feet of "sheer adrenaline rush," where patrons can race each other down the fiery summit of a volcano to the cool waters below at speeds of more than 40 miles per hour.

"I think that keeping things fresh is always a challenge, because the ride manufacturers are always coming up with something new," Pupillo added.

The Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort went well beyond adding a new ride when it added a new indoor waterpark in 2006. Designed by Architectural Design Consultants Inc., the Wild Waterdome includes the usual attractions, a wave pool, family raft racing ride and cabanas, but it also features something unique—year-round sunlight, thanks to the use of a transparent roof system. Guests can tan through the winter months because the roof provides full UV transference—not a bad way to relax before or after hitting the ski slopes.

At Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa., the original athletic field, grandstand, picnic area and children's playground built in 1907 were transformed in the 1970s into a full-fledged theme park. But the changes didn't stop there. To celebrate its 100th year, Hersheypark opened the Boardwalk in 2007.

A tribute to the famous beaches of the Northeast—Atlantic City, Coney Island, Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach—the Boardwalk features five water attractions, including the East Coast Waterworks, reportedly the largest water play structure in the world. It includes seven slides, two crawl tunnels, nearly 600 interactive water toys and more than 54,000 gallons of water fun for all ages.

Though they tend to operate on tighter budgets than privately owned facilities, municipal waterparks and family aquatic centers can keep things fresh, too.

In North Richland Hills at NRH2O Family Waterpark, for example, the park added The Accelerator in July 2007, a four-lane mat racer that sends guests speeding down a three story slide. Hyland Hills Water World in Colorado also added a speed slide in 2007. The park's new TurboRacer is an eight-track slide where racers hit speeds of up to 22 miles per hour over the 400-foot track.

Make it universal

One central rule of success for any recreational facility is to know your users, and make sure you cater to them.

Many waterparks are features of destination resorts and hotels, and according to Kempfer, they're going to need to heed this advice.

"Somewhere in the future, in order to compete, hotels are going to have to have some sort of waterpark element backed up with an arcade and other things that are serving entire families—mom, dad, the little kids, and the teens and preteens," she explained. "What can we do to keep their attention? Things like speed slides, water coasters and some of the thrill-type rides will appeal to the preteens, the teens and even some young adults, but you still need a good balance of spray play and tot pools for the little kids."

In addition to thrilling rides that attract teens and young adults, Hawaiian Waters also provides family fun with a river ride, an interactive children's pool with waterfalls, mini-slides and water cannons; Hurricane Bay, a mega-wave pool; and Waterworld, a 20,000-square-foot multi-level activity pool with seven family slides, two shotgun slides that free-fall six feet into 10 feet of water, lily pad walks and other mini-attractions.

At the Wilderness Resort, the complex's newest outdoor waterpark—the Lost World Adventure Waterpark—features activities for all ages. The Lost World Adventure River is an interactive ride that goes from rapids to lazy river to uphill currents and beach runoffs. This park also features a play area for younger kids with a fun dinosaur theme.

But planning for all ages can go beyond the water-themed fun to include things like arcades for the older kids and teens, and dry playgrounds for the younger kids and tots. For kids and teens who get tired of the water, Wilderness Resort offers plenty of activities: an arcade, a 30,000-square-foot interactive play land, a toddler crawl zone, laser tag, a rock climbing wall and more.

Different types of events can also draw in different age groups, as Pupillo has discovered.

"We create individual packages for specific target markets, so we have things like birthday packages," he explained. "Also, we create evening packages in and around our Flowrider. It has a bar and our food-service area, so at nighttime, we'll open that up for parties and concerts. That gets us into the teenage and 20-somethings. We have non-alcohol events for the teenagers to promote a drug-free, alcohol-free environment for kids to hang out."

"People are recognizing that we have to find an area for everyone," Kempfer said. "Our population is aging, and grandparents are taking care of the kids, so in some of the waterparks and in the municipal pools that we're designing for, it becomes a multigenerational design. The vortex pool or lazy river can be used for resistance walking in the morning for seniors, and in the afternoon it can be turned into a lazy river or even a rapids."

She added, "We call it multiprogramming—providing conversation areas and social areas. For instance, three to five feet of water with bubble benches is a new trend. Teens and seniors both love it."

Yarger said that Splash Cove was designed with the nearby waterparks—and their strong attraction for area teens—in mind. The community hosts Oceans of Fun and a Great Wolf Lodge waterpark, and there was no need for the smaller municipal facility to compete outright.

"We knew we wouldn't deal with the teens, because the older teens would definitely go to a waterpark," Yarger explained. With the teens out of the picture, Yarger's team turned their design eye to families and tots. The park features faster slides for the older kids and a special wave pool designed just for the little ones.

"It's fun to watch parents sitting and kids playing in the wave pool," Yarger said. "Kids in the pool are like they are at the beach. They run in and sit, and the parents can sit there and enjoy the waves. The kids are ecstatic and they have no fear, which is what we were shooting for. Some communities provide wave pools, but they're not always geared for the smaller kids."

The design of the facility also makes plenty of room for adults, with plenty of deck area to provide places for sitting.

At NRH2O, in addition to thrill rides that attract teens, there are slower rides and playgrounds for children and family fun. The Double Dipper is a double-rider inner-tube slide perfect for parents who want to coast along with their kids. And the Tadpole Swimming Hole offers chutes to slide down, a balancing net and lily pad. You can't be taller than 4 feet to play in this area, a nice break from the signs at most rides that require a minimum—not a maximum—height requirement.

Besides offering experiences for all ages, you also should consider the need to change the pace for your patrons.

"You need different levels of activity going on in the same park," Kempfer said. "You need downtime, like patrons might find in a lazy river. If it's all let's run, run, run, it's not going to be a good experience."

At Hersheypark, patrons can get their thrills on the Coastline Plunge's four waterslides—the Riptide, the Surge, the Vortex and the Whirlwind—or try their surfing skills on the wave rider. But when they need a break, Bayside Pier offers a cool-down. Gentle waves ripple as guests relax in this zero-depth-entry pool with an average depth of just 18 inches.

At Hyland Hills Water World, guests can visit Thrill Hill, with its four body slides, or they can chill out on Tortuga Run, a lazy river where inner-tubes float gently from pool to pool.

Smaller municipal aquatic centers can apply the same logic to their parks, by combining slides and interactive water play with wave pools and lazy rivers.

Make it Sustainable

Green buildings and sustainability are major trends in parks and recreation facilities across the country, and aquatic facilities are no exception.

"The specific goals are to reduce consumption of natural resources," said Melinda Kempfer, business development coordinator for Water Technology Inc., which has designed Silver and Gold LEED-certified aquatic facilities across the country. "One way we do this is to improve the efficiency of the HVAC system, for example with solar-heat water-heating systems. We did a recent recreation center where the water is pumped through a solar unit prior to being heated by the boilers, which reduced natural gas consumption by more than 50 percent. They're operating much more efficiently now."

Another goal, Kempfer said, is to reduce water usage. Water can be lost in a lot of ways—evaporation, bather carry-out, splash-out, backwash. "Controlling that is important," Kempfer explained. "We're doing a lot of regenerative media filtration, which helps reduce backwash by 90 percent. It's a more expensive investment at first, but it helps over time."

Water conservation is also important, Kempfer said, because in many communities water use is restricted, and citizens may begin to question why the city can spray thousands of gallons of water down slides, from tipping buckets and in waterfalls over its patrons, while they can't even water their lawns.

At NRH2O Family Waterpark in North Richland Hills, Texas, the park makes efforts to conserve as much water as possible. At the end of the season, the park removes all of the chemicals used to treat the water, which is then sent back to the area's water supply to be recirculated.

Environmental awareness also extends to the impact you'll have on the local community.

"You need to be environmentally conscious when you go into these projects," Kempfer said. "As the municipalities become more waterpark-like, you also need to remember that these are in residential neighborhoods. This is where people live, so you need courtesy as far as how tall the lights are, when they're on, what the noise level is. You can take trends from commercial waterparks, but you still need to be sensitive to the fact that municipal facilities are often built in residential neighborhoods."

While sensitivity to green issues and the local environment can lead to a heftier up-front investment, your facility is likely to save in the long term, especially as prices for fossil fuels and chemicals continue to rise.

And ultimately, you need to think about what you want to save, Kempfer said.

"Green is not inexpensive, but it can save money in the long run," she explained. "But you shouldn't just think about what you're saving money-wise—you should consider what it's saving in the environment."

Make it safe

"Safety is paramount," Pupillo said. "People should feel good about bringing their families here."

Hawaiian Waters received national recognition for its safety performance when it was honored with the 2002 Platinum National Aquatic Safety Award by Jeff Ellis & Associates, international aquatic safety and risk management consultants.

Every aquatic area in the park is staffed with highly trained water-safety employees who pass stringent and continuous training programs. All aquatic employees at Hawaiian Waters are CPR trained and certified. In addition, park security personnel enforce park policies, and trained medical personnel are on staff as well.

"It's just due diligence," Pupillo said. "We're in that business, so that's what we do. It's a given. We've got a great aquatics staff, and we do constant training. We're really fortunate in that we have a lot of water people who live in Hawaii who enjoy surfing, swimming and kayaking. They've already been in the water three-quarters of their lives when we get them. So we have a good training ground of people that we can bring in and then train them for specifics and show them the due diligence of keeping their skills up."

In addition to properly staffing your facility, you'll need to ensure that rides are restricted to the right people. At NRH20, a safety rating system applies to all of the park's attractions, with each ride rated based on the skill required for its use. Low-speed and shallow-water attractions are for supervised children, seniors, disabled and other guests who just want to get wet and relax. Moderate-thrill rides and water depths up to 48 inches are for inexperienced riders, beginning swimmers and partially supervised disabled patrons. Aggressive ride action requires rider control or strong swimming skills. In these rides, deep water and high speeds might be encountered, and the physical activity can be strenuous. Finally, high-thrill and deep water attractions are not for those who fear heights, high speeds or enclosed spaces.

In a final safety note, you also need to consider what's behind the scenes. When you add attractions, various water depths and increased agitation of water, you also need to consider how you're keeping that water pure and clean. And for indoor facilities, air quality is also a key consideration. Traditional water treatment might not be enough.

"Everybody claims to be the biggest waterpark west of the Mississippi, north of this or south of that. With all this increase in water and increase in different kinds of activity—squirting and spraying—the filtration and sanitation systems of a typical pool aren't going to cut it," Kempfer explained. "From a technical standpoint, UV is a huge trend. It's becoming a standard for indoor facilities, where it addresses problems with chloramines, and in indoor and outdoor facilities, UV helps address the problem of chlorine-resistant pathogens as well."

Safety should be one of your top considerations before your facility is ever opened. In fact, it should begin with your selection of a designer. Experience counts, and a well-versed aquatic designer will know how to design your facility to ensure your patrons' safety.

"Somebody who's experienced in aquatic design can ensure minimal staffing, so you don't have a lot of blind spots where you need to add guards," Kempfer said. "We keep operations in mind during the design, and that's a challenge."

But it pays off in a safer facility and—important for budget-crunched cities—budget requirements.

Make your budget

"Wave generators, surf machines, speed slides where kids can race each other—all of these things are appearing in municipal pools, and that's a challenge," Kempfer said. "Municipalities do not have the budgets that private developers do. Every municipal project is limited by budget, period. A challenge is to try to incorporate all of this, hit all of the different demographics, stay within budget and come to that same excitement level that waterparks are providing."

Challenged with ever-tightening purse strings, how can municipal facilities upgrade the entertainment value of their aquatics venues without breaking the bank? Think of your waterpark or family aquatic center in terms of revenue generation.

"Municipalities are trying to find other areas of revenue to help subsidize their operations like slides and other attractions, because these amenities are not only costly to build, but also to operate," Kempfer said.

"There's a wealth of community pools that have been out there for 30 years and need some sprucing up and updates," said Pupillo, who is currently consulting on a project planned for the city of Fremont, Calif. While a waterpark is a nice amenity for any community, he said "they shouldn't all get into building 24-acre projects. But they can put together nice amenities for smaller communities. They can turn a pool from a cost center into something that can break even or even generate funds."

Some of these revenue-generation ideas also flow down the chain from waterparks, such as hosting events like birthday parties and family reunions, or providing cabanas for rental.

"A lot of waterparks have done this for years, and now municipalities are, too," Kempfer said. "It's becoming a revenue-generator. The cabanas provide a place for families to have a shaded, centralized meeting area, and they really don't cost very much."

At the Wilderness Resort, private cabanas provide a central meeting place with a personal host, 25-inch television, misting system, morning newspaper and more. Municipalities need not be so luxurious, though.

Hyland Hills Water World offers private cabana rentals that overlook the Captain Jack's Wave Pool. Guests share a private deck area next to the pool, and the park introduced new furniture and ice chests to its cabanas in 2007.

For large group events, NRH2O has three group pavilions, each seating more than 200 guests. Catering is available as well.

If you're starting from scratch and looking to build a new facility or add more complex elements to your existing facility, try taking a more creative approach to funding.

"Corporate sponsorships are always great," Kempfer said. "Get a big company in your city to help purchase a slide, and really recognize them for it. You can sell anything—a section of fence, a garbage can. Corporate sponsorships and individual donations are going to help some of these municipalities over those money challenges."

At the Irwin A. Goodman & Robert D. Goodman Community Swimming Pool in Madison, Wis., individual donations helped finance the city's first municipal pool, which features a 16,500-square-foot leisure pool with diving boards, body slides, raining buckets, various sprays, a water curtain, geysers and shade structures, as well as an eight-lane, 25-meter lap area.

"They started with a huge donation, but everybody's money-challenged, and they formed two committees right off. One worked on the site, and the other was devoted to raising money," Kempfer said. "It was staffed with people who knew people and could talk to them about donating. They did a good job and showed that if the community really wants it, they'll help out."

Ultimately, the city contributed $1.26 million to the $5.3 million project, and the rest of the money came from large and small public and private donations.

If you're looking to provide more amenities for your community, but the budget just can't handle a new aquatic center, try something on a smaller scale.

"We're seeing a lot more water playgrounds and spraygrounds," Kempfer said. "A lot of urban areas are making a list of all the pools they have. For example, here is ABC City, and they have 12 to 15 outdated pools. They want to renovate one to build a regional draw, but take away those other, outdated pools. Well, even though they're old, you're still going to be taking something away from the community, so a lot of these cities are putting water playgrounds in."

This was the approach taken in Wautoma, Wis., with the installation of a 3,541-square-foot flow-through splashpad in Bird Creek Park. Funded with $200,000 from the Wautoma Rotary Club, which also managed construction, the project was donated to the city upon completion.

"The club received an endowment from Anna Songe over 15 years ago, with instruction to develop a waterpark project that met the needs of Wautoma's children, but nothing had been built yet," said Tim Freudenthal, Wautoma Rotary Club member and project chairman. "After reviewing a variety of project ideas, we decided a splashpad would fulfill Anna's wish and best meet the community's needs."

The new water playground has a capacity of more than 100 and includes three Splash Bays that appeal to various age groups. Discovery Bay is for smaller children, Adventure Bay for older children, and Action Bay provides competitive play and an interactive soak station.

One word of warning: While splash play areas and spraygrounds require much less maintenance than a pool with slides and other features, they are not maintenance-free.

"You still need filtration and sanitized water," Kempfer said. "You still have a lot of controllers on there because the water's squirting and spraying at different levels. You still need a presence, because bad things can happen. That said, in some of these poorer, urban areas it helps give people a place to cool off. These people can't always afford the admission of the pool."

Finally, you can work within your budget through careful master-planning of a phased facility. Start smaller, but have a master plan in place for future expansion. That way, you can begin building excitement now, and keep it building for years to come as future additions are made.

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