Splash City Roadmap

Trends in Aquatic Design & Programming

By Kate Bongiovanni

The family excursion to the swimming pool isn't what it used to be. Forget the days of simple outdoor rectangles open in the warm months that might have an occasional waterslide or diving board and a separate wading pool for tykes. Or look beyond the one-track mind of the indoor pool built adjacent to the high school or middle school for use by the district's swim teams and perhaps the park district's learn-to-swim and open-swim programs. Competing for attention are water play areas, ramped-up indoor and outdoor swimming pool facilities with programs to match, and waterparks with attractions for all ages.

"Many cities are seeing a drop-off in attendance because their flat-water pools simply don't hold the same appeal they once did," said Aleatha Ezra, director of park member development at the World Waterpark Association (WWA). "Once people have experienced the fun of a waterpark, they are less interested in visiting a regular flat-water pool. Plus, many of the nation's pools are getting older, and the costs to repair and maintain them are expensive. So these facilities are replacing their old pools with mini-waterparks."

When it comes to aquatics for the entire family, facilities are taking a 21st-century design approach that's evolving the structures as well as the program offerings and learning environments.

Changing Face

Take a visit to the park district pool, the nearby recreation facility, or the indoor or outdoor waterpark, and no longer will the main attraction be the single pool with the springboards at the deep end. That's reserved for swim meets and high school or middle school facilities. The latest trend in aquatic structures is going bigger and better and creating a massive center to appeal to users of all ages and abilities, from those who want to play in the water and not just entertain themselves with games like Pom Pom or Marco Polo, to those who seek the water for exercise and therapy.

According to the WWA, the waterpark industry is seeing one of the greatest booms in growth and attendance figures, and this encompasses waterparks that are independently owned, corporate-owned, indoor waterpark resorts, and municipal or city-owned pools with waterpark features. Over the past five years, attendance rates in North America have grown 3 percent to 5 percent each year, and roughly 78 million people are visiting these parks. Indoor waterpark resorts and municipal or city-owned parks are responsible for the bulk of this growth—the WWA says they are the fastest-growing segments of the waterpark industry.

Waterparks and aquatic facilities with waterpark-like features help feed the family's need to spend time together in a world that's pushing them further apart, with growing commitments to work, travel, school, extracurricular activities and more. As families look for activities to do together, they might turn to an aquatic center that offers a little activity for everyone.

"If a park wants to have a broad appeal, it needs to incorporate features and attractions that excite and entertain all the different members of a family," Ezra said. "Whether it is a speed slide for the teenager or a zero-depth play area for the toddler, the right mix will bring families into the park time and again."

Design for the Dollar

Growth in municipal aquatic centers can be attributed to the types of attractions available at the parks and their draw to all ages.

"Basically you want to make sure you appeal to all age demographics," said Randy Mendioroz, founding principal of Aquatic Design Group. "You want something for the toddler, the pre-teen, the teens, the moms and dads, and the grandmas and grandpas." The highest return rate is among the 12- to 18-year-old crowd, so facilities want to have waterslides, wet play structures and other features that teens will come back for over and over.

Mendioroz recommends that facilities have at least one waterslide—"the more the better," he said—a wet play structure and an area set aside for little kids, either a splash pad or a wading pool. "It's always preferred to have a separate pool for the little children," he said. While it's beneficial from an operational standpoint—facilities only have to shut down a portion of the park if there's an infant bathroom accident—the ability to create separate pools and additional structures at facilities ultimately comes down to budget. But when budgets and department approvals allow, Mendioroz said that facilities can also include therapy pools that seniors can use for water aerobics, or that offer a lap swimming or fitness component.

"Generally, the family-friendly aquatic center has literally something for everyone if the public agency or developer can afford it," he said.

And these days, designs are becoming more sophisticated and going beyond the simple six- or eight-lane pool as aquatic demands grow. "With the advent of the private-sector waterparks and the pressure that's on public-sector agencies to improve their cost recovery, what we found is that you need to balance those rectilinear pool spaces with some of the recreational elements, like the waterslides, the play structures, the zero-depth entries," Mendioroz said. "We have found that as you approach a 50-50 split between the rectilinear pool space and the recreation or curvilinear pool space, you have a much better chance of improving your cost recovery. You're going to be in the 70 to 80 percent cost recovery range."

In a strictly rectilinear, lap pool space, there are only so many times one can jump off a diving board or swim laps before boredom sets in and people move on to a different activity. Mendioroz explained that while other factors like location, climate and weather can alter cost recovery, generally those facilities with only rectilinear space recover 50 percent to 60 percent of their cost at best. If they balance recreation with rectilinear space, cost recovery improves to 70 percent to 80 percent. And if facilities go recreation-only, cost recovery could soar to 120 percent to 140 percent. "You're going to find that the more recreation, the better, only if cost recovery is an important part of the equation," Mendioroz added.

That doesn't mean eliminating the rectilinear pool altogether, but trying to find a way to balance the needs of the lap swimmers with the rec swimmers and keep the pool from turning into a money pit.

Learn the Lingo

Before you can determine what you're going to add to your aquatic facility, it helps to know what the options are. The recently released Aquatic Play Feature Handbook from the National Swimming Pool Foundation defines several types of fun features:

WAVE POOLS: Designed to simulate the movement of the ocean, wave pools have a zero-depth entry and become gradually deeper, allowing patrons to play or surf.

ACTIVITY POOLS: These shallow pools, for children or adults, can range from an inch to several feet deep and may feature a small slide, floats, decorative falls and fountains, play structures and more.

CATCH POOLS: This is the pool at the end of the waterslide, where people slide out. NSPF points out that it's important to place a lifeguard at this location to communicate to the dispatcher at the top of the slide when it's safe to send the next slider.

WATERSLIDES: A common attraction, waterslides vary widely, from twisting tornadoes and sidewinders to family raft rides and tube rides, body flumes, speed slides and even water roller coasters. They can be straight or twisty, enclosed or open, designed for one rider or multiple users and so on.

INTERACTIVE PLAY SYSTEMS: Like a playground, but just add water. These systems may be zero-depth structures with a variety of water interactions, from mists and sprays to dumping buckets and more. They often feature smaller slides and climbing structures as well.

LEISURE RIVERS: Ah the lazy river—generally a meandering track where patrons ride along in an inner tube, leisure rivers offer a relaxing way to enjoy the water.

ACTION RIVERS: Take the lazy river and turn it into a rapids, and you've got your action river. These attractions mimic a mountain stream, with whitewater rapids, whirlpools, banked turns and intermediate quiet-water pools.

VORTEX POOLS: Circular pools that send users spinning, vortex pools are smaller versions of lazy rivers with faster-moving water.

CONTINUOUS SURFING POOLS: Who says you have to go to the coast to surf? The surfing pool sends a thin sheet of water over a wave form to allow patrons to surf or body board.

NSPF offers guidance on staffing all of these features, as well as advice on typical user loads and water trouble you might experience. For more information, visit www.nspf.org.

Recreation Redesign

When designing the modern-day aquatic center with waterpark features, the options are endless. They can include what was seemingly impossible before: making a waterslide longer or following a winding path, adding oscillating rides and bowl rides that slide guests around the feature, and other thrills that technology has allowed and manufacturers have built.

At waterparks, Ezra of the WWA said that rides are becoming more elaborate, while keeping a focus on the family. Family rides or raft rides have continued to expand since their introduction in the 1990s. "This emphasis is primarily due to the fact that families are the backbone of the waterpark industry," Ezra said. "Thus, waterpark designers are keeping families in mind as they design the rides of tomorrow."

Mendioroz agreed and added that Aquatic Design Group takes into consideration adding features that have been designed in one of their approximately 2,500 previous projects, or looking to other parks, or from their clients who might have seen a feature somewhere and want to incorporate it into their own facility. "It's just seeing something and then tweaking it in a way that is specific to your project site," he said. "That's how we generate ideas, looking at other things that have been done in the past and then tweak it in a way that makes sense for that particular site that we're working on."

Splashing Spirit

All ages can find an aquatic activity to suit both their fitness needs and interests. Here's a sampling of some of the popular aquatic classes, beyond basic laps and lessons:

WATER AEROBICS: Facilities may coin a different term for this activity, such as aqua aerobics, AquaFit or Hydro Evolution, but the end result is the same: resistance and cardio training in the water, which places less impact on the joints. Some of these classes incorporate the aid of flotation devices.

PARENT-TOT LEARNING: When parents want their infants and toddlers to learn to swim, mom or dad can accompany their child in the water to assist with strokes and breathing while working in a little bonding with their child and getting them ready for individual lessons.

DEEP-WATER RUNNING: Injured athletes turn to the pool, especially the deepest area, for aquatic therapy to aid recovery and practice running without pavement pounding, but still increasing the heart rate. At select YMCAs across the country, a similar class is called Deep Water Aerobics or Deep Water Jog and is not only for recovering runners, but also those seeking to increase endurance while improving overall strength and muscle tone.

HYDRO DANCE PARTY: Developed by Jeff Howard at Equinox Fitness in Chicago, this class pairs a cardio workout with the water and dance music from salsa to hip-hop.

Weekend Escapes

For some facilities, boosting attendance by offering family fun allows those families to make a weekend out of their waterpark excursion. At indoor and outdoor waterparks aligned with hotels and resorts, families can check in Friday night after school lets out, be onsite when the attractions open in the morning and beat the crowds, retreat as needed to their rooms to change suits or take a breather, and be home in time for Sunday dinner.

Some parks are taking this idea one step further and appealing to those who want a little crowd control, hate to stand in line or simply want a weekend getaway that won't leave them fighting for a lounge chair or inner tube on the lazy river. The parks are hotel-and-waterpark conglomerates with a catch: Only hotel guests can use the waterpark, limiting crowds and adding to the experience. Call it the Holi-Dome revamped, and with more to play on than a waterslide.

Key Lime Cove in Gurnee, Ill., which opened in February steps away from the popular Six Flags Great America, features an indoor waterpark, hotel, spa, arcade, restaurants and shops. Its main attraction, the waterpark, is only available to hotel guests, and passes are available based on the number of guests each room can accommodate. According to the Web site, "The waterpark is part of the overall vacation experience and is open exclusively for guests that stay with us on property."

While some resorts offer a waterpark pass option when booking a hotel room, these rates include the park's admission and don't limit the amount of times you want to play on your favorite feature. It's perfect for a vacation without traveling too far from home, and offers pool activities—as well as non-aquatic fun—for everyone, with a kids' pool, wave pool and activity pool that even allows for lap swimming, whirlpool spa, and plenty of unique features covering 65,000 square feet.

"Indoor waterpark resorts offer families a place to get away and enjoy a mini-vacation without having to travel really far," Ezra said.

Not all facilities are moving in the direction of waterpark admission available only to hotel guests. Avalanche Bay at Boyne Resorts in Michigan went against this model and says that while it might cater to packaged guests staying onsite at the adjoining hotel, it also offers daily admission.

"It would be foolish for us not to allow them, too," said John Gerstenschlager, marketing director of Mountain Grand Lodge and Avalanche Bay. The area surrounding the property is filled with vacation homes and cottages, rental properties and additional lodging that people frequent year-round for ski trips, golf outings or urban retreats.

Gerstenschlager explained that Avalanche Bay wants to take advantage of the "up north" migration that occurs in Michigan on weekends and over vacations. "Based on where it's located and the interest in vacationing up north, Avalanche Bay is different from other resorts in that we certainly want and cater to packaged guests that stay on property as a lodging guest, but we also offer daily guest admission for those staying at neighboring hotels or have their own places," he said. "And that's not the norm of the indoor waterpark industry."

Avalanche Bay provides plenty of family excitement when Mother Nature ruins outdoor pursuits like skiing and golf by providing a splash area of multiple levels with water sprays and bridges, the Rip Zone surf simulator, hot tubs, an activity pool, an interactive shallow pool, a wet climbing wall, a water crossing with pool below, a Vertigo bowl ride, the Super G slide, Downhill Mat Racer slides and a lazy river.

Learn to Program from the Masters

Well-known for its family-friendly water activity, YMCAs across the country have a myriad of activities to please every member beyond the learn-to-swim and swim team crowds. Each location may offer a different assortment of classes for beginner, intermediate and advanced fitness levels. Here's a sampling of some of the creative programming available at the Y:

SHALLOW WATER AEROBICS AND WATER WORKOUT: Part of the seniors aquatic programming at Seattle-area YMCAs, these classes help maintain cardio and muscle strength using the water's resistance and buoyancy and flotation devices.

H2O STRENGTH TRAINING: Available at the Mission Valley YMCA in San Diego, this class helps with body sculpting and toning while strengthening muscles and uses equipment like bells and fins.

ARTHRITIS EXERCISE: The Arthritis Foundation teamed up with the YMCA to offer this program specifically addressing the needs of those living with arthritis. Participants perform exercises in warm water, which helps relax muscles and joints, while stretching and strengthening the entire body.

STRETCH AND FLEX: Another class option for those living with arthritis as well as for people experiencing joint and muscle discomfort. It takes place in warm water and helps to increase flexibility and fitness.

MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS EXERCISE: Designed for those living with MS, this class helps to improve range of motion, and increase strength and endurance. Found at the St. Cloud Area Family YMCA in St. Cloud. Minn.

HYDRO HEALING: Another class found at the Mission Valley YMCA, this is designed for participants dealing with chronic health conditions such as fibromyalgia, Parkinson's disease or arthritis and helps to maximize joint movement and mobility.

AQUA POWER: Available for adults at the YMCA of Greater Seattle, this program combines workouts in deep and shallow water with aqua jogging, triathlon training and intervals.

PRE-NATAL WATER AEROBICS: Being pregnant doesn't mean sitting around waiting to give birth for students at this class offered at the YMCA of Greater Seattle. Geared toward mothers-to-be, the class incorporates low-impact cardio in a social and educational setting.

Heat Factor

We tend to think of swimming pools as places to cool off on warm days or remember bracing ourselves for the initial chill. And it always seemed out of character when you could just jump in, feel comfortable right away and be overheated after swimming a couple of laps. So why go warm?

Many swim schools boast that they feature warm-water pools for learn-to-swim programs, but how much of a difference does that really make? Apparently, a lot. Think about it: The body has a steady temperature of 98.6 degrees, so after a prolonged period in chillier water, it's going to get cold, especially if it's just hanging around as part of a lesson.

"Warm water takes away the issue of chattering teeth and lets the kids concentrate on the lesson and not get blue skin," said Michael Mann of SwimLabs in Colorado, where water temperatures are kept at 90 degrees in the teaching environment. "Almost all swim schools now have warm-water lessons and programs."

The warmer temperatures are common among swim school pools, said Sue Mackie, executive director of the U.S. Swim School Association, and make for a more comfortable learning environment, especially for the younger set.

"Typically all of our members keep their pools much warmer," Mackie said. "The warm-water pool, especially if you're teaching smaller children and babies, is a lot more conducive for them to learn when they're comfortable in warm water than if you're getting into a 78- or 83-degree swimming pool."

Swim schools aren't the only pools with warmer temperatures. At facilities with multiple pools to accommodate activities from water play to aquatic exercise and lessons, one pool may be set at a warmer temperature specifically for a more conducive teaching environment. The Mission Valley YMCA in San Diego operates three pools at two facilities and keeps the indoor pool at the Friars Road facility set at 90 degrees.

"Each pool is kept a different temperature for a variety of programming," said Siddhartha Vivek, director of marketing and public relations at the Mission Valley YMCA. "Together, the three pools allow us to provide our members the most complete aquatics center in San Diego."

Accessibility for All

Learning to swim doesn't end at the childhood years. While it might be beneficial to start children in their developmental years, there's never a cut-off for getting wet.

"There's a lot of research out there that shows that starting children at a younger age, they'll adapt better," said Sue Mackie, executive director of the U.S. Swim School Association. "If you get them started early, then it's just like teaching anything else at an early age. They are more of a sponge, and while they can't actually do all the skills at a young age, you're teaching them as they're developing."

But it's never too late to get in the water and master those strokes. And adult learn-to-swim participants won't end up in a class with a handful of youngsters and be forced to opt into private lessons—although those are always a viable option for a fish of any age.

At Asphalt Green in New York City, the focus is on getting kids and adults into a healthy, active lifestyle through a variety of sports programming, but the facility's swim program offers something for everyone. A warm-water pool with a moveable bottom creates opportunities for the youngest tykes to acclimate to the water, splash around and learn skills that will help them gain confidence and eventually move into swim lessons. As they grow older, they can register for lessons, clinics, pre-competitive levels and eventually the swim team.

Adults at Asphalt Green can participate in water activities with their toddlers, or they can sign up to improve their own stroke, exercise in the water, use the water for disability therapy, join the masters swim team or just swim laps.

At Aitken's Peninsula Swim School in Redwood City, Calif., John (president of the U.S. Swim School Association) and Lynette Aitken have been working for more than 40 years to teach children as young as six weeks old through a combination of games, songs and toys to aid them in learning. (Lynette has experience as an elementary school teacher and school board trustee.) The facility boasts an indoor/outdoor facility with lessons in 92-degree water in a pool specially designed for teaching.

Take a converted warehouse space in Birmingham, Mich., and add two indoor pools with 90-degree water temperatures and a purification system that whisks away the pungent chlorine smell and itch, and you've got the Goldfish Swim School. Designed to teach swimming to kids six months and older, as well as adults, the space also doubles as a pool party environment for special events. It features tropical décor, cabanas, a collection of pool toys, a snack bar and activity area.

And for the more high-tech approach, Colorado's SwimLabs' pools are wired for video analysis, so budding or seasoned swimmers of all ages can benefit from watching themselves. "We designed the facility to support beginning lessons to competitive lessons," said owner Michael Mann. "Teaching in warm-water pools with the Endless pool stream and video feedback is light years ahead of the traditional cold pools and no visual feedback."

The pools have two mirrors placed for swimmers to view their strokes as they swim, three video cameras to capture different angles and 32-inch screens to view the footage during the workshop.

World Aquatic Health Conference

Want to learn about the latest and greatest in all things aquatic? The 2008 World Aquatic Health Conference, Oct. 15 to 17 in Colorado Springs, Colo., is the place to learn about the science of aquatics and how the latest developments can help reduce risk, improve programming, attract more participants and increase profits. It's also the perfect opportunity to network with others in the aquatic community, and it's not just for facility operators, but coaches and trainers of all kinds. A special symposium on Oct. 15 addresses how aquatic exercise can help improve non-aquatic athletes.

For more information, visit www.nspf.org.

Community Learning

Beyond learn-to-swim lessons, one of the latest trends in the pool aims to combat drowning, an unfortunate occurrence that we hear about all too often, especially in places where pools are a backyard necessity and waterfronts are a fact of life. Since it is a cause of death that can be avoided with proper guidance and education, the U.S. Swimming Foundation, the YMCA and the American Red Cross, among others, have created programming to help prevent drowning, but just as importantly, provide low-cost options to get people in the water.

Earlier this year, the USA Swimming Foundation and the YMCA of the USA teamed up to offer free or low-cost swim lessons in Raleigh, N.C., San Jose, Calif., Philadelphia, and Omaha, Neb. Between 10 and 20 schools in each area will have programming available. The partnership helps bring USA Swimming's Make A Splash anti-drowning program to at-risk kids who are part of their schools' free or discounted lunch program. They'll learn water safety skills and basic stroke technique with YMCA instructors.

In Summit County, Ohio, the American Red Cross takes its foundation as a leader of swimming and lifeguard instruction since 1914 to offer a community-wide learn-to-swim program in time for summer.

"The program relies on the dedication of community volunteers as well as partnerships with many local facilities," said Jessica Wright, a client services specialist at the Summit County Red Cross. "All of our instructors are certified American Red Cross Water Safety Instructors and volunteer their time. We are also lucky to have Water Safety Instructor Aides as well as helpers who are not certified instructors."

The program has been in operation for 62 years and has garnered the support of the community. Wright explained that several area pools run by parks and recreation departments or metro parks within the county are involved in the program.

"The local facilities that help us bring this program do not receive any compensation and donate the pool space to the program," she said. And the program needs the facilities it can get: Instructors welcome 500 to 600 participants each year, and they are always looking to expand. Two of the facilities offer adult lessons for the 40 to 60 adults who turn up every year, and one is adults-only, according to Wright.

© Copyright 2021 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.