Fun For The Whole Family

Waterpark Options for All Ages

By Dawn Klingensmith

Waterparks just got personal. Or nearly so.

After covering the industry for several years—always from a safe distance, without getting wet—I was presented this past summer with the, er, opportunity to help supervise six kids, ages 6 through 13, for two days at Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort in New Braunfels, Texas.

I had researched for this magazine what waterparks are doing to attract and engage entire families. Yet I could not picture how a person my age could stay happily occupied. I am uncomfortable in a bathing suit to begin with, so any activity that causes the suit's contents to publicly jiggle is out of the question. That rules out most waterpark attractions.

Were there options for me besides poolside reading? I decided to look into it. Not up close and personal, mind you. With my blessing, my boyfriend, Jeff, and his three kids, each with a buddy, went to Schlitterbahn without me—but as the primary subject of this article.

What are waterparks doing to appeal to adults in particular?

To be clear, the target demographic for waterparks is 12- to 18-year-olds, who account for the greatest number of repeat visits, according to exit surveys and other industry data. But it's parents who ultimately decide whether to allocate vacation dollars for an overnight stay at a waterpark resort. So what's in it for them?

The Family That Plays Together

As "destination" waterpark resorts have gained in popularity, much has been said about the importance and allure of "dry land" amenities. Some such amenities—such as shopping, day spas and golf courses—are added with adult guests in mind, presuming Mom or Dad will welcome an opportunity to split off from the group.

However, unscientific surveys of friends and colleagues show that parents at waterparks don't necessarily seek or expect "alone time."

"There's a spa at the hotel, but I didn't have a chance to take advantage of that—we only stayed one night so we were trying to pack in as much for the girls as possible," said Tracy Gerwen, who went with her husband, Paul, and two daughters to the Great Wolf Lodge waterpark resort in Grand Mound, Wash.

Because Jeff describes his first (and last) spa experience as torture—loofah sponges still frighten him—I did not bother to ask whether he'd taken time out for a hot rock massage, or whether Schlitterbahn even offers such treatments. Like Tracy, he was there as a parent more than a pleasure seeker.

The experiences of Tracy and Jeff, and the expectations the two of them brought, are reflective of the industry as a whole. "As far as trends go, this is not new but we're still seeing a heavy increase in pushing the family aspect of waterparks," said Nicholas Neuman, head of project development for the aquatic design and engineering firm Water Technology Inc., headquartered in Beaver Dam, Wis. "There's a big drive and a push to make sure rides and attractions are family-oriented" and that every family member has a good time for the duration of the stay.

In keeping with those goals, waterparks are creating rides that are "all-inclusive, group experiences where more than one person can ride or actively participate at once," Neuman added.

In this category are inner-tube and uphill roller coaster rides that accommodate multiple users, as well as slides with competitive, side-by-side configurations, such as the parallel speed slides, called the Challengers, at Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island, Bahamas. The slides emerge from a Mayan-inspired pyramid from which contestants take off simultaneously and are timed.

The dueling-waterslides concept is successful in part because it encourages friendly rivalry among friends and family, as well as between generations. Just ask Jeff's 8-year-old daughter, Ali. One of her favorite rides consisted of slides that looked like those silly soda straws, spiraling downward at an angle. Pairs can race while twirling around each other's chute. At Ali's behest, she and Jeff did so repeatedly.

"I held back at first," Jeff said, "but when I realized she was beating me fair and square, I raced her legitimately. She loves beating Daddy."

Another popular iteration on the market is an eight-lane mat racer than can accommodate entire families at once (albeit not the Gosselins or Duggars).

The competitive aspect of these family-oriented rides appeals to the industry's target demographic; teens tend to want to distance themselves from Mom and Dad but the opportunity to outperform their parents draws teens in.

Attractions that Neuman refers to as "thrill and skill" rides also appeal to teens, who enjoy the process of gaining mastery and then having an audience to whom they can show off. That's why surf machines are so popular and have proved to have so much crowd-pleasing potential. In order to realize that potential, though, planning and placement are paramount.

"Parks aren't just plopping these surf rides in, but are putting an entire zone around it," Neuman said. "It's a low-capacity ride, but it's an incredibly dynamic experience that attracts onlookers. So there's plenty of room and seating for spectators, plus high-energy music and concessions" to make for a party-like atmosphere.

Of course there's a whole host of noncompetitive rides that are fun for the whole family, such as uphill coasters with toboggan-style rafts and a new generation of inner-tube rides that combine the speed of a slide with the up-and-down, back-and-forth motion of a funnel, half pipe or bowl.

Daredevil Dads and Mindful Moms

I also did not bother to ask Jeff whether he rode the big rides at Schlitterbahn, since public jiggling does not concern him and not much scares him other than loofahs. "He rode all the rides there and raced us," Ali reported. "He had a really good time."

Gerwen said she and her spouse would have ridden the thrill rides at Wolf Creek Lodge had their two daughters been older, but at 4 and 5, the girls did not meet the height requirements. Perhaps Gerwen is an exception, though, because industry experts have observed gender differences in adult behavior at waterparks.

"Dads will usually get right in there with the kids and act like big kids themselves," said Randy Mendioroz, principal, Aquatic Design Group, Carlsbad, Calif. Generally, "Women aren't going down seven-story speed slides. They're a little more dignified than that. So it's the women you have to think about and take care of. If Mom's happy, then everyone's happy."

"I hate to generalize," Mendioroz added, "but women tend to be a bit more protective—if they're there with their families, they want to be close to the kids" but not necessarily right alongside them, getting wet.

Not surprisingly, women who are mothers are less self-centered than I, in that they don't demand much in the way of entertainment. "What do women want?" is a question for the ages but as it pertains to moms at waterparks, their desires and expectations are pretty basic. "You cannot have enough shade," Mendioroz said.

Particularly at the perimeter of splash pads, "You need amenity areas with lots of shade and chaise lounges," he added.

As a prospective adult chaperone who's not a parent, I am intrigued by such water activities as the aquatic petting zoo at Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark, South Padre Island, Texas. Plus, there's Snuba, a cross between scuba diving and snorkeling that involves breathing underwater through a long air hose attached to your mask. These are activities I and the kids would all enjoy.

During their brief stay last year at Great Wolf Lodge, the Gerwens took part in their share of "dry" activities, which perhaps goes to show how valuable these offerings are for both the park and guests looking to spend quality time with family.

"We participated in a 'Wolf Walk' that the girls enjoyed. The tour guide used the pictures on the walls in the grand lobby to talk about wildlife," Gerwen said. "We also played a live-action adventure game where participants use wands to complete quests throughout the hotel. We all enjoyed doing this together as a family."

(There's a water-based questing game on the market, as well, in which an "aqua glove" is used instead of a wand.)

There was a tech space geared for teens that the Gerwens had no use for, nor did Tracy or Paul bother with the fitness room. Due to time constraints, they did not participate in story times or craft activities or play in the arcade. "We didn't make time for that because the girls were having fun with other activities," Gerwen explained.

In fact, "There was something to do almost every minute we were awake."

The hotel had bunk beds recessed into cubbies with animals on the walls, "so the girls even had fun playing in the room," Gerwen continued. "There is so much to do in the water, as well as out, that a guest doesn't necessarily have to love waterparks to have a good time. I think this park does a very good job of providing a variety of opportunities for a wide range of ages, and for me it was fun just to see the girls having a good time."

Jeff said the same of Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels. From the rides to the concessions, "They gear things to adults on down," he said, adding that there's a centrally located swim-up bar that serves beer.

Schlitterbahn Offers the Whole Shebang

Bundled Integrated Synergy, or BIS, is what Schlitterbahn Waterparks calls the combination of wet and dry elements at its four facilities—three in Texas and one in Kansas City, Kan.

This business model consists of retail, entertainment and lodging, all owned by one group at the top. The benefit from a business perspective is that discounts can be offered in one area and made up for elsewhere, and marketing can be scaled back in one area and ramped up in another, all for the benefit of a shared bottom line. From a consumer perspective, it ensures guests of all ages can stay happily occupied.

Bottoms Up

Generally, when a waterpark obtains a liquor license, it's in response to adult patrons repeatedly asking for alcohol. The thinking seems to be that some people equate alcohol with fun and relaxation, which waterparks are in the business of providing. And though they can increase revenues, alcohol sales generally are not a big profit area but are seen instead as a guest convenience and therefore good for business.

But not everyone thinks water and alcohol mix. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that alcohol use is involved in a significant number of water-recreation deaths among teens and adults, though the same perhaps is not true of waterpark fatalities in particular. The CDC also advises against consuming alcohol while supervising children in a pool. Moreover, American Red Cross safety guidelines state swimmers should not drink alcohol because it impairs balance, coordination and judgment.

The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram last year reported that Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in Arlington, Texas, would begin selling beer at certain restaurants and drink carts within the facility, except on days specifically set aside for school field trippers. Drinkers must remain in designated locations and are not allowed to roam around with beer. Signs throughout the park remind errant imbibers that alcohol must be consumed where it was purchased, and fences and railings at points of sale make it easier to monitor who's coming and going. For further ease of enforcement, beer is sold in clear plastic cups instead of the Coke-branded cups used elsewhere for soft drinks.

Many additional control measures and precautions are commonly employed by waterparks that serve alcohol, including relatively steep pricing; the cost of alcoholic beverages is intended to dissuade people from drinking to the point of intoxication. At some parks, guests can purchase only one drink at a time, with some facilities setting a limit of as little as two drinks total per sitting.

As with most venues that serve alcohol, waterparks generally require servers to check identification and train them to watch for signs of intoxication and to cut guests off who have reached the limit. It may be necessary to eject drinkers should they become a nuisance or safety hazard. Two reputable certification programs for the responsible sale and service of alcohol include ServSafe Alcohol (developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation) and Training for Intervention Procedures, or TIPS.

Hurricane Harbor's liquor license was granted more than a year after the park's initial application, which when submitted sparked hundreds of protest letters and phone calls. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission decided to hold a public hearing, where the city's mayor spoke out against the application; however, after denying an appeal for a second public hearing, the commission granted the license on the grounds it did not pose a threat to public safety.

Still, "There are a lot of potential risks. An intoxicated patron is more likely to lose their footing on slippery surfaces and to disregard rules designed to keep swimmers safe," said attorney and consultant Katharine Nohr, Nohr Sports Risk Management, Kaneohe, Hawaii.

Aside from injuries and drowning, medical problems can result if a person drinks too much and becomes dehydrated or overheated, or throws back a few icy-cold brews while soaking in a hot tub, she said. Drinking in hot tubs can cause drowsiness and heartbeat irregularities, among other potential health threats.

A drunken guest can spoil or compromise everyone's experience, and not just by acting boorish. The person could vomit in the pool, forcing an evacuation for cleanup. And where judgment is impaired and bodies are on display, sexual harassment and assault could occur, Nohr pointed out.

Accordingly, alcohol liability premiums are rising, due in part to increasingly convincing fake IDs, stricter regulations known as "dram shop laws" and the threat of litigation. Waterparks that run afoul of the law face costly criminal charges and civil suits. Applicable to waterparks, dram shop laws allow for an establishment and its owners and employees to be sued by someone injured by a patron who had been drinking alcohol at the establishment.

Share and Share Alike

Splash pads, or spraygrounds, often are set apart from the main park with landscaping and fencing to create a sense of safety and serenity for toddlers and their supervisors. However, with careful product selection and placement, splash pads can accommodate and engage the whole family, including teens.

Picture the splash pad's layout as a series of concentric zones. From the outside in, you'll first want to provide a sizable zone for shade structures and seating, followed by an outer edge of "small, gentle, nonaggressive water-play features" geared to toddlers, said Amy Altman, sales manager for an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based manufacturer of water play equipment.

These first two zones should be arranged so that parents can keep an eye on and actively engage with their children without necessarily getting wet, she said.

The tiniest members of the family "want to touch and feel textures, whereas bigger kids want the wow factor along with interactivity," Altman continued. "The littler ones like misters and bubblers and little foaming mounds of water. They basically just squat over them and play with them. They don't want anything taller than they are, they don't like to be sprayed in the face, and they don't like to be surprised."

By contrast, older kids like to soak one another with water cannons and dump buckets. These opportunities can be found by progressing toward the center of the splash pad, sometimes with Mom and Dad in tow.

Altman's company, along with several others, manufacturers design interactive features that encourage kids to play cooperatively with their parents, siblings and fellow patrons. With one such piece of equipment, players can plug up water nozzles, thereby building up water pressure that ultimately leads to the formation of a geyser.

"There's interactivity, there's an educational component, there's anticipation and there's a reward at the end," Altman said.

Increasingly, designs specify that the heart of the splash pad be a multilevel structure with climbing elements and slides. "These are nice centerpiece structures," Altman said, "and each is internally plumbed" so you save on construction, supply lines and mechanical systems.

A Canadian manufacturer provided a similar concept for Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. Theirs is a multilevel structure with several platforms connected by slides and net climbs.

One potential downside to this concentric, or layered, design is that older kids must go through the toddler area to get to the bigger attractions and centerpiece, which requires some consideration and grace on their part.

The Park After Dark

Some waterparks have sought to attract and engage adults strictly on their own terms with adults-only, after-hours gatherings complete with cocktails. Parks are advised not to offer such events lightly, though, insofar as liability and risk management issues, including insurance coverage, must come into play.

"Only in Texas" was my brother's response when he learned about the BYOB swim parties held at Summer Fun Water Park in Belton. Besides drinking and swimming, activities include dancing, playing volleyball and floating down the lazy river. Uniformed police patrol the grounds to check IDs and enforce the rules, and anyone who's intoxicated is sent home in a cab or with a sober driver. Marketing materials stress there's "zero tolerance" for drunkenness and encourage the use of designated drivers. Nevertheless, according to the park's Web site, one of the perks of buying a season ticket for these events (there are 10 adult nights per season), besides the 10 percent discount, is a free "I survived Summer Fun Adult Night" T-shirt, which speaks to the degree of partying expected.

While the BYOB provision is perhaps unique to the Lone Star State, after-hours imbibing is not. Splash City Family Water Park in Collinsville, Ill., this summer held an adults-only luau with a Hawaiian buffet, live entertainment and cocktails.

At Sandcastle Waterpark in Pittsburgh, Pa., the quality of nightlife ensures the riverside facility transcends its daytime function without compromising its primary focus. The park is home to the Sandbar, an open-air bar and lounge with boat docks, a dance floor, dining and an oversize hot tub.

The Sandcastle's nightlife isn't all geared to adults, though. Family Dive-in Movie nights held throughout the season feature kid-friendly films over the wave pool.

Maybe Next Year…

My research has assured me that an invitation to a waterpark resort ought not to be dismissed out of hand, even by a land lubber like me who's likely to show up without a bathing suit. With so many "dry" and adult-friendly things to do, there's no need to put myself in a situation where more of my flesh is exposed than not.

Unless it's on a massage table. I'm down with that.

And spa treatments in general.

Let Jeff and the kids swim and slide to their hearts' content.

I say, "Bring on the loofah."

How Not to Do It

The way the alcohol flowed at the now-defunct Action Park in Vernon, N.J., you'd think the waterpark was geared to adults with a death wish. Yet according to, the place was more or less staffed and run by teenagers, and the combination of unruliness and lax enforcement, not to mention the poorly engineered rides and snake-infested pools, led to so many real and rumored injuries and deaths that Action Park earned the nicknames "Accident Park," "Class Action Park" and "Traction Park" (on account of the friction burns caused by some of the rides).

In 1985, Action Park's reported accident toll exceeded 110, including 45 head injuries and 10 fractures, according to a 1986 article in the New Jersey Herald—though the park got into trouble with the state for not disclosing injuries so the actual sum may have been higher.

In 1987, the Herald spoke with the director of the ER at a nearby hospital, who said five to 10 people were brought there daily from the park. The doc added that many of the injured had alcohol on their breath. According to, this is not surprising because "beer kiosks were more plentiful than ice cream stands at Action Park."

In fact, in addition to Action Park's Water World, there was a go-kart section of the park called Motor World with its very own bona fide brewery. A former Action Park employee reveals on that he and his co-workers stole kegs and raced go-karts after hours, and then went for a swim to "sober up" before heading home. There was no nighttime security to speak of.

Action Park was sold in the late 1990s and in its present incarnation as Mountain Creek Waterpark has won industry safety awards.

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