Sink or Swim
How Waterparks Are Surfing the Economic Waves
By Dawn Klingensmith
Last year when the economy plunged, it seemed at first that waterparks would surf through the downturn—and perhaps even benefit from it. Budget-minded families bought into the "staycation" concept, so instead of trips to Disneyworld and other far-off destinations, they stuck closer to home. Regional "destination waterparks" within driving distance offered a cheaper getaway.
It wasn't long, though, before waterparks felt the effects of the economy. Delayed construction starts, bankruptcies, park closings and other indicators show that the industry is not, in fact, surfing through the downturn.
Yet waterparks are still "hanging ten," in a manner of speaking. Quenching the teen demographic's thirst for "extreme" attractions, the latest waterpark craze is the surfing simulator, also called a stationary or artificial wave generator, or a "surf machine." Other industry trends include investing heavily in "dry" attractions, amenities and activities to lengthen guests' stay times; creating park-specific brands through theming; and implementing and publicizing conservation efforts.
In addition, while the standalone outdoor waterpark concept is still going, indoor waterparks attached to hotels and sometimes convention centers have been rising to prominence. However, waterparks have begun popping up everywhere, including timeshare properties, ski resorts, casinos and even on shopping mall rooftops and cruise ships. One manufacturer of water play features has created a line specifically for rooftop use in the shopping mall sector. And the Royal Caribbean International cruise line, aside from having waterparks on some of its ships, also features the wildly popular surf simulators.
One leading manufacturer's surf simulators generate a thin sheet of water that flows over a wave-shaped surface. Though riders on finless surfboards or body boards actually remain stationary, water moving beneath them at 30 to 35 mph creates the feel of riding a wave at a fast clip. Single-rider models are available, as well as side-by-side double models that allow riders to pit their skills against each other.
Opening in the past year or so and featuring this type of surf simulator are: Silver Rapids Indoor Waterpark at Silver Mountain Ski Resort in Kellogg, Idaho; H2OOOhh! Indoor Waterpark at Split Rock Resort in Lake Harmony, Pa.; and Sahara Sam's Oasis in West Berlin, N.J. All three waterparks give their surf machines top billing in their marketing campaigns.
Currently under construction, Waves of Fun Indoor Waterpark in Sandwich, Ill., will be home to the first "standing wave surf machine" in the United States. A newer twist on simulated surfing, the machine pumps water at natural gravity-fed speeds down a fiberglass channel with bottom contours that cause real, or "standing," waves to form. "This results in a deep cushion of water upon which surfers and body boarders alike can practice skills that are transferrable to the ocean," said Jenna Munguia, business operations coordinator for the Solana Beach, Calif.-based company that manufactures the ride.
The water is deep enough to allow riders to use real surfboards with fins. And several riders can participate at once, which "improves throughput, capacity and fun—important considerations for theme park operators," Munguia said. The hydraulics are adjustable so that different shapes and heights of waves can be produced.
Surf machines are skill-based attractions that challenge riders to develop new tricks and perfect their technique. In contrast, most waterpark rides are thrill-based, requiring no skills and providing no sense of accomplishment. The more a thrill ride is ridden, the less thrilling it becomes—a phenomenon described on one surf machine manufacturer's Web site as "thrill fatigue." By constantly challenging and rewarding riders, surfing simulators retain their interest and encourage repeat visitations, according to the manufacturer.
Providing a mix of "dry" elements and activities in the waterpark environment is another way to gain interest and earn repeat business. According to Hotel & Leisure Advisors (H&LA), a hospitality consulting firm based in Cleveland, Ohio, two to six hours is the span of time waterpark goers actually spend in the water, so waterparks increasingly rely on "dry" attractions to engage families for an entire day. Larger resorts seeking to capture families for overnight stays are merging indoor waterparks with adventure sports opportunities such as go-karts, paintball, laser tag and even indoor skiing. Adjacent golf courses and sophisticated, on-site spas keep dads and moms happily occupied.
In addition to its full-service spas for adults, the Great Wolf Lodge chain of waterparks recently debuted Scooops, a spa catering to girls. Designed to look like an ice cream parlor, each spa offers fun, youthful takes on traditional services like manicures and pedicures, and sells products with ice-cream themes, such as sherbet shower scrub.
Great Wolf Lodge also offers MagiQuest, an interactive role-playing game carried out in the hotel part of each property. Guests purchase computerized wands that interact with objects stationed throughout the hotel to enable users to complete adventures, such as slaying a dragon or freeing a princess. Each adventure takes four to eight hours to complete. Like a non-stationary, imagination-driven video game that requires a lot of walking and stair-climbing (the wand rewards taking the stairs as opposed to the elevators), MagiQuest is "so popular that some kids spend more time playing it than they spend in the waterpark," said Steve Shattuck, director of communications, Great Wolf Resorts Inc., Madison, Wis.
Last year, Creative Kingdoms, the parent company of MagiQuest, announced plans for a spin-off company called AquaKingdoms that will bring these types of interactive quests right into the waterpark. Instead of wands, guests will use "aqua gloves" designed for use in wet environments.
Great Wolf Lodge indoor waterpark resorts also offer teen "tech stations" with Internet access, video games, karaoke, iPod docking stations and music videos.
With the right mix of "dry" options appealing to various ages, families "stay longer and enjoy themselves more because there are so many other things to do," Shattuck said. "You can only spend so much time in the water. By adding these other amenities, it becomes a true destination resort."
Longer stays and fuller engagement amount to increased revenues through concession and retail sales. For example, for a more immersive MagiQuest experience, guests can purchase costumes and wand ornaments.
"Especially with larger properties, the goal is, as people walk through, they're constantly going, 'Oh, look at that!'" said David Sangree, president, H&LA. "The goal is to be like Disney, to keep people on the property."
Theming is another way to provide guests with a more immersive experience and to "be like Disney." And though construction starts on the whole are down, "We've seen a surprisingly fair share of projects come online this year that require theming," which attests to the popularity of theme-based waterpark design and marketing, said Chris Foster, director of marketing, COST of Wisconsin, a Jackson, Wis.-based theme and specialty construction company. "Interest in theming over the last year is greater than it was a couple of years ago."
Theming allows waterparks to take familiar attractions and make them their own, for a uniquely branded experience that sets them apart from competitors. For example, like just about every other waterpark on the planet, KeyLime Cove in Gurnee, Ill., has a tipping bucket, but KeyLime Cove's is shaped like a pineapple to tie in with the resort's island theme.
More elaborately, Dollywood in Pigeon Ford, Tenn., spent $5 million to make its water raft ride different from any other waterpark's, and to tie it in with Dollywood's Smoky Mountains theme. The River Battle ride consists of eight-person rafts equipped with soaker guns. Passengers take aim at each other and targets along the way, including animatronic beavers, skunks, otters and bears, which either shoot back or display a variety of special effects, so that no two rides are ever the same.
At certain resorts, themes carry over into guestroom furnishings as well as concessions and restaurant menu items. Usually, a clever or cutesy name ties a menu item or concession stand to a waterpark's overall theme—for example, Sharky's Big Bites concession stand at KeyLime Cove. But Surfari Joe's Indoor Wilderness Waterpark at the Ramada Hotel in Watervliet, Mich., goes a step further in its hotel eatery, Water Hole Bar & Restaurant. In keeping with the safari theme, the restaurant serves wild game such as alligator and elk.
Owned by a big-game hunter, Surfari Joe's has exotic animal trophies on display in the hotel lobby, including the massive head of a bull elephant the owner bagged in Zimbabwe. In hotel guestrooms, hand towels and washcloths are cleverly folded to resemble elephants.
At Enchanted Forest/Water Safari in Old Forge, N.Y., apes are all the rage. A campaign celebrating the 2009 debut of its double-tube water ride, called Curse of the Silverback, features the tagline "Go Ape … If You Dare." Named for the dominant male silverback gorilla, the ride joins Pygmy Pond (a pool area for tikes), the speed slide Killermanjaro and other aptly named attractions in carrying out the jungle theme.
Beyond creating a unique guest experience, the "Go Ape" campaign aims to make a difference. Enchanted Forest/Water Safari has partnered with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to raise awareness and funds to protect gorillas in their natural habitat. In December 2008, the waterpark adopted a silverback gorilla through the organization and in summer 2009 brought a fundraising initiative to the park called Coins for Congo that will support programs in Africa dedicated to gorillas' survival.
The "Go Ape" campaign generates positive publicity for the waterpark and reflects a growing industry-wide commitment to eco-friendliness—though most initiatives emphasize water conservation. Much of the public perceives waterparks as gluttonous water consumers, and the idea that waterparks might be concerned about water conservation strikes many as oxymoronic.
"It's an understandable misconception," said Shattuck of Great Wolf Resorts. "But we use the latest and greatest water filtration systems to recirculate almost every drop of water in the park every day. The hotel portions of the resorts actually use twice as much water as the waterpark."
The water system at a waterpark operates like a giant swimming pool. The pool is filled once, and then the water is filtered and reused over and over. Water loss comes from splash-out, evaporation, washing down the decks and backwash, which occurs when filters are cleaned. Improved filters that require less water are in use at many resorts.
Generally, a waterpark reuses 97 percent to 98 percent of its water system. Only the 2 percent to 3 percent used for topping off and maintenance is consumed, reported Eric Hansen, director of development services, H&LA.
The challenge is getting the word out to the public. Great Wolf Resorts learned from guest surveys that sustainability ranks as a high priority. "People from all walks of life care," Shattuck said.
To educate guests about the chain's commitment to water conservation and other eco-friendly initiatives, a closed-circuit TV channel in hotel guestrooms shows what the resorts are doing and what families can do at home.
Valley of the Springs Resort in French Lick, Ind., home of Big Splash Adventure Indoor Water Park, is an exemplar of green design, and a significant portion of its Web site is devoted to touting this fact. The waterpark is housed in a transparent structure that allows for natural light and significantly reduced energy consumption. The latest technology in water filtration substantially reduces chemical use and water consumption by virtually eliminating backwash.
Guest education and positive publicity achieved through field trips and programming will round out the resort's green initiatives.
Going green is just one way waterparks hope to stay out of the red throughout the recession. Others include adding "dry" activities to the mix of attractions; maximizing the potential of park themes to create a unique experience for guests; and banking on attached hotels and conference centers to boost profits.
Commenting specifically on indoor waterpark resorts, Sangree of H&LA said, "Losses have been significant, but not as bad as losses suffered by the national hotel industry."
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