Fresher Waters

Boost Attendance With Aquatic Play Features

By Wynn St. Clair

For more than a decade, the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in New Braunfels, Texas, has worn the title of World's Best Water Park with pride. The 70-acre park features more than 100 slides and attractions, making it a popular tourist attraction and the unrivaled darling of travel writers worldwide.

The family-owned facility's managers, however, know they cannot rest on their laurels alone. If they want patrons to come back summer after summer, they must find ways to add new attractions and features to keep the park exciting and fresh.

As part of that philosophy, the Schlitterbahn opened a new park area called Tubenbach, which included a whirlpool river and a children's area complete with a butterfly slide and several body slides. The area also features the Boogie Bay Heated Pool, a secluded hot spring that offers a faux tropical setting where adults can enjoy a cold beverage.

The Tubenbach opened during the 2012 season to rave reviews. Patrons loved it and amusement-industry critics drooled over it, thereby securing the World's Best Water Park crown from Amusement Today for the Schlitterbahn for the 15th consecutive year.

"Not only do we feel that this is the most thrilling new collection of attractions to open (in 2012) in Texas, but we are also honored to be recognized as the world's largest and best waterpark," said Darren Hill, Schlitterbahn New Braunfels' general manager.

Of course, most aquatic managers don't have the Schlitterbahn's square footage or budget. But whether you're running a major tourist attraction or a local facility, the point remains the same: Aquatic centers cannot stand pat if they want to remain successful.

"You don't need to rebuild the Taj Mahal," aquatic park consultant Melanie Landress said. "Any feature that kids can control or spray at their friends will get lots of enjoyment and use. As long as you keep things new and exciting, the attendance will follow."

And that's a good thing because the stakes—as well as the North American public's interest—have never been higher.

Each year in the United States, there are approximately 301 million swimming visits taken by people over the age of 6. Swimming remains the country's fourth most popular recreational activity and the top recreational choice for children and teens, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Studies show 36 percent of children ages 7 to 17 swim at least six times per year. An estimated 15 percent of adults do the same.

And they're all spoiled for choice, with 309,000 public swimming pools and aquatic centers competing for their attention and patronage.

In an effort to maintain the public's fancy, most recreation managers transformed their pools into modern aquatic facilities with fancy bells and whistles nearly a decade ago. But the pressure to maintain a lively, engaging facility remains. In fact, the need to keep facilities feeling fresh and new may be greater than ever.

The majority of aquatic managers already know that a slide and zero-depth entry, features that undoubtedly helped break attendance records just a few years ago, aren't enough to lure swimmers these days. The 21st-century aquatic consumers are a savvy group that simply doesn't settle for the old-fashioned—or even the 1990s—swimming experience. They want to make waves and spray their friends. They want climb, crawl and catapult.

In short, they want to be entertained. Fortunately, the aquatic industry offers several ways to enliven any aquatic programming without killing the budget. With an array of inflatables and easy-to-add splash play elements, there are countless ways to increase attendance and heighten the aquatic experience.

"You're limited only by your own creativity and flexibility," Landress said. "There are so many options out there right now, it's never been easier to find ways to boost attendance and make your facility a lot more fun."

Officials in Chillicothe, Mo., embraced this philosophy last summer when they renovated Chilli Bay Water Park, one of the town's most well-loved recreation sites. Originally constructed in 1963, the facility received a facelift in 1994 that included a zero-depth entry area, a mushroom waterfall and two waterslides. The original renovations proved successful with thousands of visitors coming through the doors each year.

Despite the park's popularity, the city wasn't content with the status quo and launched an initiative to refurbish the facility through an existing capital improvements sales tax. The project included, among other things, two large slides, a family slide and children's play area in the northwest pool, underwater seating, a log roll, climbing wall, basketball hoop and high and low dives in the southwest pool.

The renovations made a big splash in their inaugural year with the total number of visitors exceeding 36,000 people. The average daily attendance was 419 people. Because Chilli Bay's opening was 10 days late, officials estimated that the total number of visitors would have been more than 40,000 had it opened on time.

"I feel like we had a very successful year," said Josh Norris, Chillicothe's director of Parks and Recreation. "We were anticipating large crowds, but we did not expect them to be that big."

Despite its delayed opening, the waterpark exceeded revenue projections by $13,000. The renovations also addressed water loss issues in the pool basin, which allowed the facility to end the season $60,000 under budget. All totaled, the waterpark turned a small profit this summer, something many publicly owned facilities in the Midwest struggle to do.

Norris believes the city's decision to carry a tropical theme throughout the park played a large part in Chilli Bay's successful renovation. The little touches such as palm trees and surf boards gave the facility a fun, high-end feel, he said.

"People have been blown away by what we've been able to accomplish," Norris said. "It doesn't feel like a city pool when you enter. We wanted it to feel more like a private resort or a small private waterpark. And that's the impression people came away with."

But the project did more than just beat expected revenues, produce stunning attendance numbers and cause jaws to drop. It also earned the Missouri Municipal League Innovation Award, a statewide award that is given to groundbreaking and creative projects.

"The City Council wanted the new facility to increase local usage and attract out-of-town visitors," the municipal league said in announcing the award. "Secondly, they wanted a unique facility that would be an asset to the city and add to the quality of life in Chillicothe. With more than 30 palm trees, surfboards and thatched roofs, Chilli Bay achieved those objectives."

There are no plans for Chilli Bay to stagnate. The city is looking into adding chairs, shade structures and parking in the near future. Within the next five years, Norris said there is a possibility of an additional slide being placed in the park as well.

"We want to continually add to the facility," Norris said after winning the innovation award. "We want to add small things here and there that will better the facility."

Recreation managers, however, need not embark on a pool renovation in order to provide patrons with a fun aquatic experience. An increasing number of communities are turning to spraygrounds, which have become a lifesaver for parks departments looking to provide aquatic diversions. In addition to being environmentally friendly and accessible, the spray pads can be updated easily.

In Washtenaw County, Mich., officials opened North America's largest sprayground this summer to much fanfare. The Blue Heron Bay splash park, which cost $4 million and took two years to build, has separate play areas for toddlers, tweens and families. It also boasts a two-story waterslide with two flumes, one that is enclosed and one that is open.

Each area is designated by colored concrete and interactive water toys targeted at specific age groups. Toddlers, for example, have ground-level water features and frogs that spit water. In the family zone—the sprayground's central focal point—a tall spinning wheel slowly fills with water before dumping it on those below. The tween zone is located on the opposite side of the park, as far away from the toddlers as possible. The older kids' area includes much-loved water cannons and a 15-foot spider that creates a web of water when certain sensors are activated.

The universally accessible facility replaced the county's retired splash park, which had been in operation for 12 years and was mechanically failing. The sprayground, which can accommodate 420 people, uses less water than a traditional pool and boasts a "higher fun value," officials said.

The project involved building the spray park in a more centrally located area in the 414-acre park, significantly improving access to the amenity. The sprayground also benefits from some of the most advanced technology in sustainable water usage, including water distribution system, nozzles, spray sequences, flow controllers and intervals of usage.

Though the old pad was free to the public, county officials opted to charge an entrance fee for the new sprayground. The decision proved a wise one, as Blue Heron generated more than $100,000 in revenue this season. The facility drew nearly 18,000 visitors and 70 facility rentals in 2013, despite an unusually cold summer.

"We felt that was a pretty good start," said Jeff Dehring, principal park planner for Washtenaw County. "We feel this is going to be a great addition to the community. We offer something that's a little different from what you find in other parks around our area."

The park's success, in large part, reflects the homework that county officials did before deciding on a layout. They went to nearby spraygrounds, saw what they offered and knew they wanted to do something different. For example, most area splashpads had slides that required users to be at least 48 inches tall, so Washtenaw installed slides that had a 42-inch height requirement.

"It's important to know what other parks have and to offer something different," Dehring said. "We wanted something that catered to a different demographic—toddlers and young families—and it has worked for us."

The 20,000-square-foot facility is so impressive, the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials recently honored Washtenaw County with its prestigious NACPRO award, an annual recognition given to programs that contribute to the American park system. The Blue Heron project was specifically praised for its design, planning, construction and benefit to the community.

"Splashpads are colorful and exciting. They offer greater value than a traditional pool and have a much higher fun value," Dehring said.

Huntsville, Ala., residents also learned the perks of a fantastical sprayground this summer when the city opened a splashpad at the "Everybody Can Play Playground" in Brahan Spring Park. A joint project between the local parks and recreation department and the area Optimist and Kiwanis clubs, the pad boasts a space theme with 51 different water features including sprinklers, dumping buckets, bubbling geysers, roll arches and water cannons.

The $250,000 sprayground—the fourth and final phase of the Brahan Spring project—had long been part of a citywide dream to have a completely accessible park for all Huntsville children. All the features are wheelchair accessible and free to the public.

"We've worked for five years on this, to make the idea of a playground where everyone in the community could play become a reality," Russ Grimes of the Metro Kiwanis Club of Huntsville said at the dedication ceremony. "Having it a reality makes me both proud and humble."

The city's residents seem equally enamored with the sprayground. The splashpad proved so popular this summer, the city extended the operating schedule until mid-November.

"In my time here in recreation, this is by far my favorite project," said Greg Patterson, Huntsville's director of parks and recreation. "It was absolutely a team effort."

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