Fun & Functional

Aquatic Design Trends

By Deborah L. Vence

Cutting-edge technology and sophisticated play features continue to propel the aquatic industry to new heights, giving aquatic facilities the opportunity not only to offer patrons more breathtaking rides, but boost long-term profitability.

"The commercial waterpark has been off the charts in recent years by increasingly complex and high-intensity rides, which emulate their 'cousin,' the amusement park," said Melinda Kempfer, business development manager at Water Technology Inc. (WTI), based in Beaver Dam, Wis.

Some of the latest design trends include, "Incorporating increasing levels of interactive play features and true commercial waterpark elements into the more traditional aquatic venues," said David Keim, vice president of sales and marketing for Aquatic Development Group Inc. in Cohoes, N.Y. "Products like the elevated wet ropes courses, surf simulators and action rivers are finding their way into the public pool market."

This month, we discuss the latest trends and innovations in aquatic design, as well as highlight facilities across the country that have more progressive design principles in place.

Picking Up the Pace

Every year, it seems the next best aquatic feature tops the one before. Water rides are faster, allow for more people to ride and are even longer in duration, making these just a few of the latest trends in aquatic design.

"The length of many rides is growing over time, which makes for a more engaging experience. I have recently seen several designs with a continuous loop attraction that allows someone to ride for an extended period of time without exiting," said Stephen Colvin, director of global business development, Cloward H2O, a Provo, Utah-based company that designs aquatic leisure and marine facilities.

In fact, there are two new water-coasters that use magnets to propel riders uphill and down an exciting thrill ride. "These are two examples of rides that are faster and allow for people to ride them," Colvin said. He added that there are now rides for up to six people to enjoy at a time, and many rides now last more than a minute or two in duration with continual loops.

"Superloop or aqualoop are what speed slides are migrating to; things with large and fast drops, but some other element besides straight down," Colvin explained. "Another trend is to add a sense of competition to the attractions, where people want to beat each other on time or skill level."

Kempfer shared some trends she sees in aquatic design, including:

  • Guest accommodations are becoming commonplace in a municipal pool.
  • Shade is increasingly important today, too, along with deck chairs and pavilions where guests can be comfortable. "A comfortable guest spends more time at the park. Many outdoor family aquatic centers are including rentable cabanas within their facilities that have become a great source of revenue for municipalities. These cabanas are rented for an increment of time and allow for families and groups to have a shaded, centralized meeting area," Kempfer said.
  • Conversation and socializing areas within the pool—in three to five feet of water—with bubble benches and sitting areas are becoming prevalent in new designs.
  • Designing for future expansion. During programming and master-planning, design teams can identify opportunities for future equipment or pool additions when funds become available and account for these in the initial design. Examples include building a slide tower that accommodates two slides, but only includes one in the initial project and planning space for water play features that can be added.
  • Zero-depth and tube slides are synonymous with today's aquatic centers. "They aren't new trends. People want to be entertained. Commercial waterparks are a big influence in the municipal family aquatic centers. Family aquatic centers are making rides more exciting to keep up with the public's entertainment needs. We are starting to see amenities like surf generators, speed slides, wave pools, water coasters and multi-level play structures in public aquatic centers," she said.
  • Mini-versions of attractions are becoming available as suppliers and designers cater to younger guests by providing smaller versions of waterpark attractions—mini-lazy rivers, wave ponds, mini slides (run out slides are ideal because they don't exit into a pool with 42-inch minimum height requirements).
  • Skill-based amenities, both wet and dry, challenge guests and their peers to create an interactive experience; guests will want to improve their skills, thus driving guests to return to the water park for repeat visits. The hottest trends tend to be adding elements that offer more active participation. "We are seeing more elements being included that provide opportunities for guests to interact with each other and the surrounding environment. Colleges, universities and other historically competitive venues are offering more family aquatic center attractions in response to their increasingly varied demographics of families and young adults," Kempfer said.
  • Climbing walls, water slides, "spa" pools and similar attractions are finding their way into the once stoic lap pool environment. The municipal-based leisure facilities, such as those operated by park districts and community groups like the Salvation Army and YMCA, are seeing an increased attraction mix once limited to the commercial waterpark such as multi-level play structures, rivers and themed environments that could include more effects elements, such as lighting and audio packages.
  • Non-traditional waterpark/aquatic activities like climbing walls, aqua courses and zip lines.

"One final trend that shouldn't be overlooked is theming. Themed environments within a park have become increasingly popular in municipal and commercial waterparks. The ability to package some sort of experience and create an instant atmosphere transforms guests into another world as they navigate through the park," she added. "This concept creates excitement and a sense of arrival for the guest and can help to increase the length of stay."

What's more, Ryan Snyder, manager of project planning at Aquatic Development Group Inc., Cohoes, N.Y., said he sees active play coming back. "What is old is new again," he said. "The 'swimming hole' and general swimming lagoons; rope swings; water rock climbing walls; zip-line pools; rock jumps."

Other trends he sees include:

  • That resort feel into waterpark design and the flipside: waterpark excitement-infused traditional resorts. "Both versions are designed to help attract higher-end guests, while still providing that thrilling and family, and adult-only orientated experiences," Snyder said. "Blending of resort and waterpark amenities helps to increase occupancy and spending at resorts that need a draw to bolster their convention businesses and to fill rooms during the weekends when the business traveler has returned home, or to encourage the traveler to bring their families along—extended stays."
  • Amusement parks expanding into water—"Six Flags has proven that waterparks can significantly increase if not more than double attendance at park over their traditional," Snyder said.
  • Surfing—sheet flow body boarding and stand-up board surfing to large wave pools of various types—produce boogie boarding and a stand-up surfing feel. Girls and young women are still the fastest-growing segment of the surfing world.
  • Adventure (Eco) Park attractions layered into traditional waterpark design.
  • Ziplines and wet ropes courses.

Stretching the Limits

Newer technologies in aquatic design include magnetic induction propulsion systems used on multi-person family rides. Along with water-coaster-type rides, hybrid rides that integrate two or more rides into one ride path now exist.

"Rides now are constantly pushing the envelope on zero g-forces to give that truly thrilling experience to park attendees," Colvin noted.

In addition, more attention is being given to water quality and control of recreational water illnesses, UV systems being included not only on pools where required, but on pools of every type in virtually every jurisdiction, Keim said.

"Significantly increased water turnover rates help ensure that the water 'sees' the filter and disinfection system far more often," he said.

Kempfer added that innovations that represent a current and future industry trend include changes in water filtration systems, such as UV filtration.

"UV is quickly becoming a standard for addressing chloramines at indoor aquatic facilities and proactively addresses Cryptosporidium and other chlorine-resistant pathogens in outdoor pools," she said.

"Water usage is an important consideration in the operation of swimming pools. Contributors to water usage include evaporation, bather carry out, splash out and backwash. Control of water usage is important because of the operational efforts placed into the water, including chemical treatment, balance and heating," Kempfer added. "Using regenerative media filtration, it is possible to reduce backwash loss by more than 90 percent. These filters represent a capital investment premium, but one which the client would be given the information to make informed decisions regarding the value of this investment."

For splashpads, there is a new set of products in research and development that bring interactive rivers with working path diverters and pump actuators that have to be controlled manually by children. "These rivers can be integrated with existing splashpads or can be an individual attraction," Colvin said.

"Waterpark design is now focusing on fitting more attractions in the allotted footprints. By having water coasters and other high-capacity rides, park operators can get more people through the lines than ever before, which only encourages return attendance," he said.

Furthermore, splashpad innovations include new features for more education—hands-on water wheels, water flow, etc., to teach alongside with the fun, more sustainable operations on splashpads, Kempfer noted.

Keim added, "A plethora of new and exciting features seem to be introduced on a continuing basis. Education-based interactive features in addition to the more traditional spray features are becoming more and more popular. Theming of feature elements seem to constantly advance and improve."

Additionally, Snyder asserted other new innovations that include light, as well as combined slides and rides.

"Be it the embracing of natural light into indoor aquatic centers and waterparks via ETFE (Texlon) transparent roofing systems, to the use of light effects in pools and with water features.

"Proper use of natural daylighting provides indoor facilities with an outdoor park feel, with the weather safeness of a traditional indoor park.

"Utilizing the benefits of natural sunlight into indoor waterparks," he added, "allows for large reductions in the use of artificial lighting during daytime operating hours, as well as the [fact that] heat gain from the sun can actually reduce the extent and expense of the HVAC systems, thus creating noticeable development and energy savings to projects and operations."

The combination of various traditionally singular water features and waterslide types into a string of two or more different experiences allows for a combination of sensations into one ride or attraction. Some examples include: bowls, funnels and serpentine slides into one combo slide; and waterslides (family rafting) and river channels combined into one varied path.

Fit for All

Advancements in aquatic design also have enabled people of all ages and abilities to enjoy aquatic facilities more.

"In waterpark design, I see more teenage and adult attractions being scaled down to a size that even young children can enjoy. At the same time, the large tube rides that can have anywhere from two to six people allow those with big families or just a lot of friends to experience the fun together in ways that were not really possible in the past," Colvin said.

Kempfer said the ADA does not have an overt impact on new facilities in any market. But, a skilled designer incorporates accessibility into their new design and many manufacturers have stepped up to accommodate these requirements.

"It is not limited to the ADA and the disabled. It is providing amenities and attractions that can be accessed by everyone. Our designers' work begins with the thought of how to make facilities more open and accessible to people of all abilities," she said. "Facilities that have to be renovated will see the greater impact due to working with what is present and reallocating financial resources to respond to the cost associated with the refit."

Meanwhile, Keim added that the rectangular "kiddie pool" and the rectangular lap pool have long been things of the past. "Splashpads, activity-based features, such as climbing walls, [surf machines], ropes courses and wave pools coupled with mandatory ADA accessibility requirements, have made parks answer the needs of individuals of virtually any age or ability," he said.

The inclusion of ADA into pool design technically has opened the gates to more users of a variety of different abilities.

However, "The challenge to aquatic designers and operators," Snyder added, "is to develop pool solutions that provide access without creating any negative experiential impact to the masses, nor create an unsafe condition to traditional popular attractions like wave pools."

A Boost to the Top Line

Advancements in aquatic design also have contributed to an increase in revenue for aquatic facilities.

"Rides that increase turnover, competition and the thrill level have people clamoring to stay at parks longer and return over and over. The rides that increase competition, (i.e., mat racers with timers to show who won) can actually increase bystanders' food and beverage consumption as people want to watch the 'competition'," Colvin said. "Surf machines and surf wave pools are becoming more popular and worth the added expense due to the increased food and beverage sales from those witnessing the activity."

Besides that, "Another source of increased revenue that many people don't think about, but is essential to long-term profitability, is decreased costs from engineering the facilities correctly in the first place and not skimping on quality consultants and materials," he added.

That is, using better filters, like regenerative filters, having exceptional secondary sanitizing systems, such as ozone systems and using variable frequency drives on motors and pumps, can save facilities a great deal of money and thereby increase profits. At the same time, many of these things decrease water, power and chemicals consumption, Colvin explained.

"We have even used solar pavers on pool decks, which draw heat from the sun and then transfer the heat to the pools, reducing heating costs. If done right, a park can definitely have a lower carbon footprint and make better use of the resources that are used up in these facilities," he added.

Increased revenue at aquatic facilities also can be attributed to placement and adjacencies of elements, Kempfer said.

"For example, placing a 'spectator' amenity, like a surf rider, near a concessions stand helps to increase concession sales," she said, adding that the use of cabanas is another outlet for revenue; as well as iconic rides and theming that help the marketing of a facility; and multi-generational designs that help to attract the whole family, not just parents dropping off the kids.

"Understanding the needs for multiple programming spaces is a design consideration often overlooked by an inexperienced team. Knowing what areas can double as teaching spaces, training areas and recreational swim/buy outs and rentals, while still meeting guests' needs is an acquired skill," Kempfer said.

For example, current channels or lazy rivers can be used for resistance or assistive walking classes during one time of the day and can then be used as a recreational river to serve another group. Warm-water wellness pools provide a place for therapy and rehabilitation, but also present adequate and appropriate depth and temperature for learn-to-swim lessons.

And, "The more exciting the park, the better attendance may be expected. Adding revenue-generating, skill-based activities or other features or attractions that may justify an upcharge from the basic park entrance fee increases revenue," Keim said. "Having features that increase a guest's length of stay adds to in-park purchases of food, drinks, etc., all of which add to the bottom line."

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