Trickle Down Theory

Boosting Waterpark Fun to Grow Revenues, Build Community

By Rick Dandes

Smaller waterparks, both privately run and those operated and funded by local municipalities, are finding new and creative ways to survive, and even prosper, within tight budget constraints. In fact, many municipalities now understand that their waterparks are not only beneficial to the well-being of residents, but can also be a financial asset to the bottom line of their annual parks and recreation budgets.

In the past, the private-sector mega-sized waterparks and the municipal waterparks were vastly different, said Justin Caron, a director of business development and marketing and project manager with Aquatic Design Group, based in Carlsbad, Calif. "In smaller parks," he said, "you'd have a large rectangular pool, a baby pool for area residents and an attraction or two, some slides, a wet play area maybe, but nothing very big."

Users of the park would come from the surrounding vicinity, and nowhere else; attendance and revenues were flat—not an ideal situation when maintenance costs and the basics of running an operation keep rising. In order to keep the water running at their waterparks, operators had to find ways to increase attendance.

"And so they have," Caron remarked. "The biggest trend I've seen over the last five years has been for smaller, municipally run waterparks to go bigger and bigger in what they offer their patrons, while still not competing directly against the big, private-sector parks."

To some degree, Caron noted, municipal waterparks are keeping pace with privately owned waterparks through theming and the mix of attractions; for example, offering the latest ride innovations like surf simulator rides, water coasters, bowl rides and rapid rivers. "No doubt," he said, "many small town waterparks work under incredibly tight budgetary considerations, but they are doing a lot of pretty cool things for recreation within their communities."

And all at affordable prices. Smaller waterparks get a price point of $10, maybe $20 a head to get in versus the large privately run waterparks, which cost upwards of $40 to $60 a person to enter. "What that does," Caron said, "is allow families to spend a little bit less money than they would for a normal day at a Six Flags style waterpark. Smaller parks have been able to keep their prices down by not having as many of the larger slide towers. Instead of having 15 different slides, you'll have three different slide towers with six different slides. We're seeing more and more things like Flowriders that reach out to the harder-to-entertain kids, the 12-to-18-year-olds who feel like they are stuck with their families for a day and are bored. Now they have a little bit more of those things they enjoy doing. They can see and be seen—there's more social interaction."

Smaller waterparks, both privately run and those operated and funded by local municipalities, are finding new and creative ways to survive, and even prosper, within tight budget constraints.

Smaller parks are finding ways to afford adding exciting slides, lazy rivers (spiced up rivers with small waves and rapids), specialty pools with rock climbing and other activities and bigger tower structures with large tipping buckets.

A somewhat recent trend from an attraction standpoint is the uphill water coaster, either using jets of water or linear induction motors as the conveyance up the hills, added Steve Loose, Water World general manager, Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District in Federal Heights, Colo. "We installed our first hydro magnetic coaster ride in 2012, and it is a big hit."

More Trends

Municipally run waterparks are also now providing areas within the facility for older, less active people, including shady areas for parents and grandparents to sit. And it's not boring shade, it's highly stylized, often themed shade. For instance, if you have a pirate theme in the park, there might be sails. If you have a Wild West theme you'll have shade that looks like rickety buildings for people to sit under.

"A trend is to provide an area with a lot of natural shade," Caron said, "and it's far away from the pools themselves, with trees and things along those lines. Along that same front, we are seeing more therapy pools. So that when parents or grandparents accompany their kids, they do what they would normally do for exercise while their children are being entertained."

Another friendly amenity is offered at Water World in Hyland Park, where officials implemented an all-you-can-eat buffet, which has proven to be popular.

It is worth noting that many municipalities wisely have turned to creating relationships or even sponsorships with private partners in their communities. Others are reaching out to residential school districts, saying, in effect, "We have a waterpark with 50-meter pool" that could be subsidized by three or four different school districts, each of which might pay thousands of dollars a year to use the pools whenever they need to. Think outside the box: YMCAs in some cases, or therapy centers can be partners.

"We've even seen a couple of cases where stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads, whose kids have to have state-mandated PE credits are partnering on the front end to help endow these facilities so that their children can use them for free," Caron said. As money is harder and harder to raise and subsidies are less and less politically possible, you are seeing a lot more of the communities reaching out to the private entities to help pay for things.

"And I think it's only going to continue," Caron added. "We work on a lot of large private-sector projects, and many times they'll have a green light, but they'll just keep the money on hand and not move forward. I would not be surprised in a few years to see the Raging Waters or Wild Rivers—the smaller private park players who do really nice projects—teaming with municipalities to help out, the theory being that the municipality has the land, they have the money, let's work something out."

An interesting design development at smaller parks is aquatic recreational areas that residents can enjoy at no additional charge. These areas often include interactive water features with artificial rivers that integrate splashpads and spray fountains. "Such areas are increasing traffic to sections of cities or towns that were experiencing fewer visitors due to aging facilities," explained Stephen Colvin, director of business development at Cloward H2O, a Provo, Utah-based aquatic design and engineering firm with projects in the United States, the Bahamas, China, Canada, Dubai and other countries around the world.

New Developments in Conservation

The recently completed Wet'n'Wild waterpark in Las Vegas provides a good example of what can be done to help conserve water, while also providing a fun recreational experience. "Due to things like slides ending in shallow run-outs instead of pools," Colvin said, "water is captured and reused more efficiently. We designed it to have the water stored in storage tanks underground, away from the dry desert air. Another conservation tool is the use of regenerative media filters that discharge a fraction of the water to the sewer that traditional sand filters use during a backwash cycle. Regenerative filters also operate at a lower pressure, which allows for about 20 percent less pumping power, that in turn leads to less energy usage."

Variable frequency drives (VFDs) on pump motors are another energy saver. These devices allow pumps to operate more efficiently, lowering the electricity usage demands. The technology has been around for a long time, but the prices of the devices have been coming down, making them more feasible even on small projects.

Just to put into perspective what effect conservation efforts have, Doug Bennett, the Southern Nevada Water Authority conservation manager, explained how much water is really being used in the waterpark: "If Wet 'n' Wild's projected water use is spread out among 300,000 visitors a year," he said, "it equates to about one 10-minute shower per person. That's less water than you would use if you let your children run through the backyard sprinklers for two minutes." To be able to operate a fun, and large waterpark in the middle of the desert while using that small an amount of water is huge.

An interesting design development at smaller parks is aquatic recreational areas that residents can enjoy at no additional charge.

As hot water solar power (not PV solar) is being more and more accepted, "we are seeing that used at smaller waterparks," Caron said. "The return on investment here is usually two-to-one or three-to-one depending on the area you are in and how it gets set up. But solar power is popular for two reasons: one, because it reduces your operations cost and two, it's a very visible way to say, 'We're green,' which is very trendy these days."

The use of pool covers, thermal blankets that lay on the surface of the water and prevent evaporation loss, can be a tedious daily maintenance chore, but "we're seeing some of those in recto-linear pools more than in wave pools or lazy rivers," he noted. There are liquid pool covers that are used indoors and make a lot more sense than outdoors. "We haven't seen a lot of that used outdoors," he continued, "but for indoor facilities where you can shut things down at night, or at least scale them back, it can reduce your water loss and combined with water loss is heat loss, which relates to energy dollars and chemical use."

Meanwhile, there is some movement to reuse backwash water. But that is very dependent upon where you are in the country and where it is allowed. "We have been sending our backwash water from our pool filters to a common sump, then re-filter the water, send it through ultraviolet disinfection, and pump it to a lake where we re-use it for irrigating turf," said Loose, of Water World. "We are converting to low-flow toilets that flush less water. We also use pool covers where feasible during our shoulder seasons to reduce heat loss from the pool surface. And, we have begun to install more efficient pool filters that minimize backwashing and the amount of water needed to backwash." A further energy-saving move at Water World is the use of LED lighting where feasible, replacing old light fixtures.

Water Treatment Innovations

Many of the technologies that have been used for years in aquatic life support systems (LSS, or systems designed for aquariums) are starting to be more effectively utilized in swimming pools and their associated treatment systems. LSS engineers rely on the highest quality equipment, redundancy, high turn-over rates, mechanical filtration, ozone and vigilant staff to keep healthy aquatic environments. Proper water quality control and chemical balance are crucial to pool health.

"Great technology cannot compensate for poor maintenance or control systems," Colvin explained. "Aquarium life support systems turned to ozone some decades ago for its unique ability to achieve high microbial kill rates with no harmful residual effects on the water." While not new, ozone could be more utilized in swimming pools, as it is the most powerful oxidizer and sanitizer available. The result of a system using ozone, Colvin continued, is safe and crystal clear water.

"While UV is being utilized more in commercial pools, it is not the most effective or the least expensive method of sanitizing pools," he said. "UV has its place, as well as salt chlorine generators. … Salt chlorine is not usually applicable in a high-use system. Regenerative media filters have had a huge impact on both water quality and sustainability."

Safety Concerns

Safety continues to be the highest priority at waterparks, because when someone gets hurt the fun stops. The challenge is the inherent risks in aquatics. Recent laws (such as the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act) exposed some serious deficiencies in the industry, Colvin noted. Slip and fall injuries still continue to be the highest safety problem at any aquatic facility. Many facilities are designing with this in mind by installing softer and slip-resistant decking materials.

"One interesting trend," he said, "is the removal of diving boards at many of the existing facilities, and new facilities not even installing them to begin with during construction. At the same time, slides and rides are maturing in design and becoming more intrinsically safe through materials, finishes and refined geometric design. Large format flumes for three, four, five or even six riders are also safer with riders inside (instead of on top) of their vehicle."

Safety continues to be the highest priority at waterparks, because when someone gets hurt the fun stops.

Loose, of Water World, talks about safety in succinct terms: Guests need to review, understand and abide by all posted safety rules, he said. And parents need to actively supervise children at all times.

Another safety concern during the summer is the sun and heat, added Zach McIntyre, director, Magic Waters Waterpark and Aquatics, Rockford Park District, Rockford, Ill. "We try and remind guests to eat and drink plenty of fluids. Guests come to the park to experience a good time and want to get as much enjoyment out of their day as they can. It is important for them to remember to take short breaks to eat and drink. This will help prevent dehydration."

One of the largest safety concerns for any aquatic facility is pathogens and the potential for waterborne illness. Every year, new cases highlight this major issue. The industry is working to create updates to codes and guidelines that more adequately address aquatic sanitation through the Model Aquatic Health Code and promoting thoughtful implementation of secondary sanitizers in code revisions. Here again ozone can be an effective means of achieving the highest of standards, Colvin said. "Operators and owners should be wary of oversold products and do their research before making an expensive decision on what sanitation methods they use to keep their water free of the potentially dangerous pathogens."

People also need a safe area for families to change clothes, particularly dads who bring daughters or mothers who bring sons and are not comfortable in the male or female locker rooms. Smaller parks might have only one area for family changing, leading to long waits. That is something that, from a design standpoint, is being incorporated into the newer municipal pool locker room designs. You'll see three, four, five different family changing areas or even pods. Some changing areas have a hallway with pods on either side that anyone can use.

Maintenance Is Key

Think of how an attraction can be accessed for maintenance and if special training is required before it is built.

Looking at lifecycle costs from a design perspective, don't automatically think that a particular kind of filter is best simply because it is the kind of filter you've had in the pool for the past four years and it works. These days, people are thinking more in terms of what might work better over a 20-year lifecycle and what makes more sense. Take saline systems, for example. There are new saline systems that are four to five times more expensive on the front end than a similar-sized chlorine unit would be, but the ones that regenerate naturally on their own over a 20-year lifecycle can save you lots of money. When putting together your maintenance staff, make sure there is someone who knows what they are doing so that they can take care of the specific equipment you choose for your facility.

As with any mechanical/electrical system, Colvin said, the water treatment system must be well maintained. It is essential to follow manufacturers' recommendations for preventative maintenance and repair of damaged equipment.

"One of the most common occurrences is poorly sealed and poorly ventilated chemical tanks releasing vapors that corrode everything around them. The same conditions usually apply for the public spaces, decks, pool finishes, railings, slide flumes, skimmers and so on. A lack of attention to details will lead to costly replacement before the true service life is reached."

There are several other maintenance issues to consider when operating a park, McIntyre explained. The first is the maintenance of your attractions. This includes making sure all pumps, motors and chemical controllers are in the proper working condition. "Some-times these will go down without any warning," he said, "So, my suggestion is to have a backup for each if you can. This will allow you to get up and operational again quickly. You must also take into consideration the maintenance of the slides. Make sure they are buffed and polished on a regular schedule to help prolong the life of the slide. On top of all the attractions, you cannot forget about your other buildings, from water heaters, furnaces and air conditioners to fridges and freezers. It is important to have a plan in place so all the scheduled maintenance gets done on schedule." If any of these items fails, it could cripple your operation.

Loose offers some additional advice: Think of how an attraction can be accessed for maintenance and if special training is required before it is built, he said. "Constantly monitor water quality. And your operators should maintain rigorous safety inspections of attractions."

Make It Exciting

"We are providing a lot of value-added activities at our park," McIntyre said. "Activities such as treasure hunts, bands, giveaways at the gates that go along with our special event for the day, live radio remotes, mascots, etc. One of our most popular is Christmas in July where we decorate the park like Christmas. We have also had a lot of good experience with Groupon, Living Social and Social Media offers. This is a great way to sell tickets in advance to get people to come to your park."

All that said, if you make things exciting, you are going to boost attendance. Think about bringing in new rides, talk about the future so that people have things to look forward to from a larger perspective. Waterparks are special, and municipal ones are affordable enough for everyone to attend. The private-sector parks are amazing in terms of scale and amenities. But you can't have a normal family with grandparents go to a private park without spending $300 to $400 a day. To be able to do all that for under $100, including food in the municipal sector is a special thing.

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