Green Light? Good to Go!
Find Smarter Solutions to Manage Riders

By Samuel E. Baker

The projections for growth in square footage for waterparks in 2014 is the best it has been since the "Great Recession." So writes David Sangree in Hotel News Now, in an article titled "Indoor, Outdoor Waterparks Show Growth in 2014." With continuing announcements of new parks and park upgrades, it appears the projections should be thrilling for park operators and owners. Add to that new and improved rides that are higher, faster, scarier, steeper, loopier and generally more thrilling, plus a dedicated cadre of thrill-seekers with way too much demand for adrenaline, and you have a sure prescription for success!

The World Waterpark Association (WWA) estimates in excess of 82.5 million guests will visit waterparks this year. Tracking right along with the square footage increase for parks is the square footage increase for park visitors, a reality all too evident in the world we live in. Estimates vary regionally, but at least one calculation says that over 1 billion world citizens are considered overweight, and that cuts across all age groups. One estimate says at least 64 percent of the U.S. population is overweight. Consequently, waterparks must find guest-friendly, non-confrontational ways to accommodate the increased weight of their visitors.

Waterpark ride manufacturers are well aware of the challenge , so their solution is to supply park operators with recommended weight limits, especially for the most thrilling rides, like one where the rider "free falls at 70 degrees, speeding at 26 feet per second into a looping 240-foot long translucent waterslide," or any of many variations on that theme. The concern is even more prevalent for multiple-person rides, as well as for underweight riders. It is all great fun until the ride goes too fast, too high in the funnel or the underweight kid comes blasting out of a tube and flying 6 feet through the air before falling into a slide.

For many parks, the solution for all this fun and excitement is to measure the height of riders and put up detailed signs, as if any one goes to a waterpark to read signs. They may even ask harried attendants to size up riders and politely suggest that the individual does not meet weight requirements, or that a group of four or six riders is over the posted weight limit. The potential for confrontation seems to increase with the "size," not height, of the problem.

But, every one is familiar with stoplights—red means stop, and green means you are good to go. So, a light system goes a long way to alleviate direct confrontation. Who argues with a red light, especially when it is for their own safety? Insurance carriers and risk management companies are delighted with these solutions, as are some OSHA and state health boards.

Many parks are taking manufacturers' weight limits seriously. Consequently they have decided the best way to deal with weight limits is to actually measure "weight."

The scenario goes something like this: "Hey, Wal-Mart sells scales. Let's get one there." "No, let's go to the farm store and get one for cows." "How about one of those loading dock scales?" "We'll block the readout so only the attendant can see it—that way we won't embarrass the guests."

A blocked readout may sound like a plan, but realistically it is generally not convenient or practical. A good system avoids the use of a readout and uses a light system to eliminate attendant and guest anxiety and embarrassment. Clearly, it is important to avoid possible confrontations or challenges concerning actual weights.

The stories of ingenuity in weighing visitors are impressive if not somewhat novel. One park manager bought materials to "make a scale" at a cost of $1,500. It worked great for almost a year, then rust and corrosion took over and it didn't work. Undaunted, he went out and bought a similar setup for another $1,500. At least it wasn't such a big surprise when that setup only lasted a year.

Another facility acquired some "balance beam" scales—like the ones you see in a lot of doctors' offices—basically a mechanical scale with lots of metal parts prone to rust, especially in a humid environment. So, with that system several of those heavy and awkward scales were carried all the way up the tower where they were to be used. Unfortunately, about halfway through the season rust had taken over and the scales didn't work so well. So nothing to do but carry them down to the shop to be wire brushed and spruced up for the rest of the season. Of course, then they have to be carried back up the tower to be put in use again.

The wide variety of climatic conditions from Saco to San Antonio and from Denver to Dubai, not to mention the particular challenges of indoor parks, make the selection of scales challenging and worthy of careful investigation. One American manufacturer has coined the phrase "Purpose Built" to identify a scale system "specifically" designed and built for use in waterparks. One size does not fit all, so the variety of scale sizes offered easily will accommodate from one to six riders on freestanding or flush-mounted scales. Scales are supplied with a light system designed to take the stress and confrontation out of the attendant's workday. If the light stays green, riders are "good to go." If the light is red, adjustments need to be made to meet weight limits. It is all done for safety, so guests don't complain.

To meet the wide variety of climatic conditions for indoor and outdoor parks, special attention must be paid to design, materials and construction of a scale system. Scales made of stainless steel with hermetically sealed load cells and water-sealed electronics work well to meet environmental conditions. The weighing surface must be extremely tough, chemical resistant, and non-skid. All these accommodations make for a product designed for heavy-duty, long-term, trouble-free use, simple installation and a lifespan of more than one season. Scales should be backed by a solid warranty, with readily available technical service.

Parks interested in "value added" data collection software can have a variety of key performance indicators included in their basic guest weighing system—information that speaks to the practical business side of operating a waterpark. Is there a need to track the number of riders per minute, day or hour? This could help in the scheduling of attendants. Parks spend a lot of money on rides, and clearly they want to be sure to get maximum return on their investments. In one recent situation it was determined that the ride was so popular, the number of riders was changed from two to three. A "purpose built" scale can easily be re-calibrated on site to accommodate the additional rider.

Maximizing rider participation, avoiding rider disappointments, knowing the "turn down rate due to overweight/ underweight" and a number of other operational details for each ride all is easily captured by software. This information ensures park operators can get maximum value for new and existing rides. The statistics could also be transmitted to a handheld device where needed.

When parks are serious about insurance, risk management and safety, they also begin to identify a number of venues where scales would provide benefits to attendants and guests. The initial financial outlay could prove challenging, so a scale supplier should offer reasonable lease arrangements.

It would appear that James Sinegal, the colorful former CEO of Costco who is credited with increasing the company's stock price by 2,000 percent had it right when he said, "in the final analysis, you get what you pay for."

Samuel E. Baker is director of Global Development for SR Instruments Inc. For more information, visit www.srinstruments.com.

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