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.

Aquatic Innovators

Some waterparks, such as KeyLime Cove in Gurnee, Ill., are completely cashless facilities. Guests can pre-pay to load radio-frequency ID (RFID) wristbands with credit so kids and other park goers can spend at arcades and snack bars without carrying around cash. The wristbands also replace room keys, freeing guests from keeping track of them.

Although surfing simulators are all the rage, waterparks soon will be clamoring to add the attraction that the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) honored as the best new waterpark ride in 2008. The family raft ride includes a combination of thrills, but the high point is when the raft gets vertical, shooting up a wall and then pausing before dropping back down so that riders experience the sensation of weightlessness.

Royal Caribbean International cruise line has added surfing simulators to two of its ships, allowing guests to ride waves high above the ocean. Two decks down is an interactive "spray ground" for kids. It features a wading area, water cannons and other spray toys, and sculptures that reward enterprising children by spurting water when nearly concealed buttons and sensors are discovered and triggered. At night, the spray ground turns into an illuminated sculpture garden, with the water taking on an architectural quality. These amenities join an ice-skating rink, rock-climbing wall and miniature golf course to create a floating theme park of sorts.

The first phase of Schlitterbahn Vacation Village Waterpark in Kansas City, Kan., opened summer 2009 with attractions interconnected by a "Transportainment River System." Instead of walking from one attraction to the next and waiting in line, guests can stay in the water and tube to most rides and pools. The river changes tempo throughout its course and has elevation changes and rapids. When all phases are complete, the 40-acre waterpark will be one of the world's largest tubing parks with miles of interconnected waterways.

Drawing in teens, Camelbeach Mountain Waterpark in Tannersville, Pa., hosts free "Camel-oke" (karaoke) competitions for free as well as a series of summertime teen nights featuring entertainment, music and tons of swag.

White Water World in South East Queensland, Australia, features a new-generation water coaster that uses linear induction motors instead of conveyor belts to propel riders up hills.

So-called "thrill fatigue" and the competitive nature of teens, as well as good-natured competition among family members, might have been what Sahara Sam's Oasis, which opened March 2009 in West Berlin, N.J., had in mind when it installed Sam's Slam Dunker water basketball court. Waterpark operators would be wise to recognize the allure of this type of attraction. For example, though the Student Aquatic Center at Southwest Missouri State University has a zip line for entering the water and a climbing wall rising out of the leisure pool, water basketball and water volleyball have proved to be even more popular.

Surf's Up

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.

Riding Out a Rough Economy

2007 was a strong year for the waterpark industry. 2008 was a different story. Last year's bank crisis resulted in fewer loans and, in turn, fewer waterpark openings. According to JLC Hospitality Consulting's Spring 2009 Construction Report, 50 hotel waterpark resorts were under construction in 2008, down from 67 in 2007. At least 30 planned projects never broke ground, and their construction dates shifted to 2009 or 2010 due to the mortgage breakdown, the Cave Creek, Ariz.-based firm reports.

Hotel & Leisure Advisors, Cleveland, Ohio, said 18 parks are on track to open in 2009. "This year is definitely going to be a tough year," said David Sangree, president of the consulting firm. "I think we'll see a small improvement in the fourth quarter of this year, but it will be 2011 before things really start improving."

Whereas in past years topics at the Hotel Waterpark Resort Workshop, held in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., focused on developing and financing new resorts, in 2009, the agenda covered strategies waterparks should implement to survive. The workshops are co-sponsored by JLC Consulting.

Nevertheless, Steve Shattuck, director of marketing, Great Wolf Resorts Inc. in Madison, Wis., is optimistic for the Great Wolf Lodge chain of indoor waterparks if not for tourism in general. "We're pleased with performance of our operating resorts right now, especially compared with the hospitality industry as a whole," he said. "People are not willing to give up vacations, but they are taking shorter vacations closer to home."

In fact, hotels with indoor waterparks are outperforming hotels without them, according to JLC Hospitality Consulting.

Following are some solutions waterparks have come up with to survive or, in some cases, even succeed during the recession:

  • Close midweek, when traffic is slow.
  • Don't consider building without an attached hotel and conference center, which draws business during the week and generates additional revenues.
  • Offer a range of "dry" attractions, activities and amenities. Adventure sports are a big draw.
  • New construction should take place in established tourist locations to draw people who want to cram as much fun as possible into their weekend getaways.
  • Phase the park's opening over a couple of hours. Stagger the opening of rides. Get the ones near the entrance up and running first and the farthest ones rides running later to cut utility and labor costs.

Endless Adventures

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."

The Virginia Graeme Baker Law

In effect since Dec. 19, 2008, this federal law is designed to prevent drain entrapments and eviscerations. It requires all public pools and spas to have ASME/ANSI A112.19.8-2007 compliant drain covers installed along with a second anti-entrapment system when there is a single main drain other than an un-blockable drain. See for a list of companies that manufacture approved drain covers.

In the broadest sense, how will the Virginia Graeme Baker Law affect commercial waterparks?

Waterparks, like all other aquatic venues, will be required to install new grates that are either off-the-shelf compliant grates or have custom-made grates certified by a professional engineer. Because waterparks tend to have larger pools, the drains are larger and often custom-built. Compliant grating material has just recently become available to construct into these large, custom-built drains. There is a great demand for engineering time to evaluate and certify these systems.

More specifically, what actions must waterparks take to be in full compliance?

First, waterpark operators need to evaluate whether they have drains that require custom-built grates. If they do, they need to contact a professional engineer who is licensed and experienced to do this type of work. Having schematics, pump and sump information will help to expedite the process. The engineer will evaluate the system and make recommendations to replace grates and make sump modifications, if needed. Once grates are replaced, the waterpark operator will need a letter of compliance from the professional engineer.

Source: Franceen Gonzales, vice president of risk management, Great Wolf Resorts Inc., Madison, Wis.

Welcome to the Jungle

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.

Creative Concessions

Don't eat for an hour before swimming? Good thing most people dismiss that time-worn advice as an old wives' tale, because food and beverage sales are a vital part of a waterpark's success.

"It keeps your guests at your facility for a longer period of time, and they, in turn, will perceive your admission price to be more of a value," said Franceen Gonzales, vice president of risk management, Great Wolf Resorts Inc., Madison, Wis.

"Trends are leaning toward value-priced products, mostly due to the downturn in the economy," she said. "Family meals are popular, as well as bundled meal programs where food is included in the admission price."

At Great Wolf Lodge, guests are encouraged to play with their food. A confectionary and ice cream shop has self-serve stations where customers can heap on their own toppings. Great Wolf and other resorts partner with brand-name restaurants such as Pizza Hut and Starbucks.

"Utilizing a branded concept is a great way to offer a quality product that is recognizable to guests," Gonzales said. "And most brands will do the design, setup, training and monitoring of the concession operation."

Some chains demand heavy startup and licensing costs, though, so another option to consider is hiring a consultant that will offer the same design, setup and management services for non-branded concessions, she added.

Fresh fruit and other healthy fare is gaining favor among families. However, "The array of food choices is also important. You may have one person that wants a healthy salad or chicken wrap and fruit, whereas another person wants roasted corn on the cob or even the novelty of a deep-fried Twinkie on a stick," Gonzales said. "Knowing your clientele's preferences is important for success."

If alcoholic beverages are sold, training, pricing and monitoring can keep consumption in check. Gonzales recommends that servers be TIPS-certified. (TIPS stands for Training and Intervention Procedures. See Alcoholic beverages should be priced so guests can enjoy themselves but will be less likely to drink excessively. Obviously, intoxicated people should not be allowed in pools and hot tubs or on rides.

"In some cases, the law requires alcohol consumption to be limited to a contained space like a patio and only allows people over 21 in those spaces," Gonzales said.

Efforts to make concession stands prominent, enticing and convenient means that food products are getting nearer to the water, so food debris is somewhat of a concern.

However, "Selecting the right products and the right packaging can keep debris out of the pool," Gonzales said. "Generally, it has not been a problem as long as guests know that outside food cannot be brought into the park. Operators need to have plenty of garbage and recycling cans so it is easy for guests to dispose of it."

Committed to Conservation

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."

Change It Up

One proven strategy private and public waterparks alike rely on to keep their attendance up and excitement high is adding new rides and attractions. Some add something new every couple of years. If you're looking to change up your rides, consider the following:

Surf machines: The new "must-have" attraction for waterparks and well-funded municipal aquatic facilities, surf machines are also the latest craze in the cruise ship industry.

Funnel ride (or tornado ride): Riders on tubes go down a waterslide that deposits them into a funnel. Once inside, riders slide up one side and then back down and up the other side, spinning around and around, until they are spat out into the water.

Speed slide: Speed slides are geared to the thrill-seeking teen demographic and deliver top speeds of up to 60 mph. Racing lanes with timers are an option and appeal to teens' competitive nature. Speed slides require little water but ample run-out room (100 to 200 feet on average).

Uphill coaster: Typically uses high-speed conveyors, water jets or linear induction motors to propel riders skyward in roller-coaster fashion to a crest preceding a downhill plummet. For example, the quarter-mile-long Black Anaconda at Noah's Ark Waterpark, Wisconsin Dells, Wis., delivers whiplash turns, and six portions of the ride go straight uphill. Other portions are enclosed, adding to the suspense.

Tipping bucket (or dump or tumble bucket): Encouraging group interaction, the suspended bucket slowly fills with upwards of 500 gallons of water, tips over and soaks people below. Optional sirens or alarms signal when the bucket is about to unload.

Themed water raft rides: Building on the concept of a lazy river, themed "rivers" carry riders through a storybook-type of atmosphere complete with tunnels, miniature "rapids," riverside spectacles, sound effects, animatronics and interactive elements.

And don't forget the value of adding elements that are attractive to all ages, families and more. Wave pools, water play elements and even spraygrounds are all ways to expand your offerings to bring more fun to your park.

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