Riding the Wave of Success

Waterparks Find New & Creative Ways to Stay Afloat

By Kelli Ra Anderson

After almost 30 years as a waterpark attraction outside Houston, the amusement park that first began as a dry park, Hanna-Barbera Land, had begun to show its age. The time had come to forgo the occasional nip and tuck of an added new ride here or a new discount there, and to consider a serious makeover to keep the crowds coming. This summer, the park enjoyed its debut as Wet n Wild Splash Town, a reinvented, rebranded multi-million dollar attraction in Spring, Texas.

Of course, attracting more patrons with dazzling thrills and wetter spills after a generous injection of capital isn't the only way to increase revenue. It's also about addressing ways to design, manage staff and to create amenities and convenience that will keep them staying longer. It takes planning, creative ideas and listening carefully to patrons' concerns. These days, with families looking for more affordable entertainment and convenience than ever before, waterparks have to do a lot more than install the latest ride.

"People are sticking closer to home for vacations and sometimes don't leave home but spend three days out enjoying a favorite theme park," said Aleatha Ezra, director of park member development of the World Waterpark Association about a staycation trend. "And making less of an indent on their budget, I think operators have been doing a good job of listening to people's needs and finding different ways to make adjustments."

By giving options to do picnics and parties, offering discounts, bundling package deals or adding cabanas so larger groups can have private gatherings, waterparks are doing more than ever to help ensure patrons want to stay longer and take advantage of their offerings.

At the Copa, Copacabana…

Certainly, the longer a group stays at a park, the more money they are likely to spend, so it pays to keep them comfortable and happy.

"Definitely the rides and slides keep them around longer, but more than a couple of hours can be rough," admitted Lou Cirigliano, director of operations at Casino Beach Pier LLC in Seaside Heights, N.J. "But if we give them the ability to enjoy themselves longer, that's key. Whatever we can do to make their experience more convenient and more fun, that's our goal."

One of the ways Casino Beach Pier entices guests to linger longer is with very popular cabana rentals, where guests can relax and get out of the way of the park's hustle and bustle. Perhaps no other amenity says "comfort" and "convenience" quite like a cabana, and its siren call to families and large parties is undeniable.

"Cabanas are inexpensive compared to adding new $4.5 million rides, and not everyone realizes how popular they are," said John Gannon, general manager of Zoombezi Bay, of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio. "We now have 29 cabanas and they are a key amenity. Ours are sold out every weekend and most weekdays," he said, attributing their appeal to features like overhead fans, a refrigerator stocked with beverages, a safe for valuables and, of course, a lot of shade.

Certainly, the longer a group stays at a park, the more money they are likely to spend, so it pays to keep them comfortable and happy. Some high-end cabanas feature such luxuries as flat-screen TVs, air-conditioning and even personal staff to fetch food from concessions or to wait in line for a ride so Johnny doesn't have to. But even if it is only to offer some shade and a "home base" to which kids and teens can return while adults enjoy a little private peace and quiet, cabanas definitely enable guests to enjoy their longer hours at the park.

And the Survey Says…?

When Jody Kneupper, general manager of Wet n Wild Splash Town, looked for ways to increase revenue during a major renovation and rebranding project last year, her team knew they needed a fresh set of eyes. From drawing on the expertise of food consultants, local contractors and other waterpark directors' insights, to listening carefully to the wants of patrons, their park's new-and-improved success was so much more than just about the new rides.

"There is an increased level of expectation about value for money and so we had to raise our standards to match theirs," Kneupper said of survey results from the community. "So we looked at amount of shade, added nicer lounge chairs everywhere and more seating near the kid pools. It wasn't always that they wanted new rides; they wanted nicer restrooms so we upgraded our restrooms from floor tile to paint, partitions and faucets. We also added large family changing rooms and dressing rooms for men and women."

Keeping adults happier, whether it's increasing the comfort of their lounge chairs, the amount of shade or offering free Wi-Fi for their computers (while keeping kids entertained), is certainly one way to encourage longer hours at the park. But surveys also indicate another major area of desired improvement: food. There is no doubt about it. Today's parents and caregivers want healthier, fresher, made-on-the-spot foods with more choices than the traditional carnival fare of yesteryear.

Last summer when Rolling Hills Waterpark in Ann Arbor, Mich., constructed the third phase of its master plan, it included a strong focus on concessions improvement, along with the addition of a three-flume, three-story high slide tower, new bathhouses, parking lot and redesigned entrance. "They really focused on concessions," said Coy Vaughn, deputy director of the waterpark. "Initially, it was inside a building. We looked at different options and when we went to an outdoor grill, people could now smell the food and it boosted our sales at concessions."

Steve Wyatt, superintendent at Rolling Hills, agreed, saying that in trying to keep current, the park's foodservice now makes to-order meals along with summer fare and snacks. In response to the customer base, the park has introduced a lot of healthier choices including a very popular vegetarian menu and fresh fruits.

When Wet n Wild Splash Town brought in consultants to make sure they were up to date with trends and standards, they, too, concluded that people want healthy and fresh menu options. But, like Rolling Hills, which saw the marketing advantages of putting the grill outdoors, Splash Town realized that perception and packaging also was vitally important. "We wanted to fight that stigma about park food being bad and wanted to use freshness to enhance our sales. From the way we chose our product, to how we packaged it, we changed the perception of quality," Kneupper said.

As a result, the park made a commitment to quality salad ingredients and fruits, making items in full view of customers thanks to an open, bright, colorful kitchen design. As a result, they're seeing better reviews for quality and are getting higher sales.

The Waiting Game

Convenience isn't just about comfortable amenities, however. It's also about finding ways to make an overall experience more enjoyable, and for waterparks, that means reducing the time patrons spend waiting in long lines.

New rides, for example, address this as they incorporate multiple features, tying together traditional lazy rivers with wave elements and water spouts. In fact, in some parks, patrons can float from attraction to attraction without ever having to stand in line.

Another time-saver attraction used at Casino Beach is a cashless wrist band, a band that can be loaded with money for the day and used everywhere in the park. From foods to ride, parents can relax in their lounge chairs all afternoon without having to attend their child for every purchase or every ride.

Three years ago, after learning about this idea at a trade show, the Zoombezi Bay waterpark implemented a "Zoompass." "Guests reserve their time and wait less in line," Gannon said, quoting the tag line from their very popular system. "It's a wrist-watch device with a count down. When ready, you reserve your time with the watch with a virtual countdown. You wait as long as someone else standing in line, but you wait somewhere else like the wave pool or action river. It's starting to become a big money maker—not as much as the cabanas—but even more so, it's raising the perception of the quality of the park. It's a modern amenity and people who use it want to use it again. We can tell our sales are already up 20 percent from last year and is catching on."

Bang for the Buck

According to Ezra, another way parks are increasing their appeal is by offering more value-added features like package pricing. Splash Town, for example, has seen its concession sales improve as a result of bundling meals with their ticket sales, just one of many ways parks can help customers feel they are getting a good value for their hard-earned money. Wyatt agreed, describing the Rolling Hills Waterpark strategy as "more aggressively bundling items in meal options making them more available." He added that "… people see it as a savings, getting a slight discount as opposed to purchasing everything individually."

In fact, one very popular convenience at Casino Beach, since they are close to a nearby hard park, is their "ride and slide" package that allows guests to go on rides all day back and forth through both properties.

Then there are the various kinds of price reductions to encourage early arrivals or to entice latecomers. Daily twilight price reductions, for example, or discounted season passes later in the summer, attract those who might not otherwise be willing to come at full price.

For Zoombezi Bay, something as simple as offering a refillable supercup has encouraged lots of return visits to the park. "The refillable supercups that are initially free the first day, are only 99 cents when they bring them back every day afterward," Gannon said. "We've sold a ton and it's helped our food per-caps. We've had a high sales point at first and it helps them to buy food with their refills."

Splash Town has implemented the initially free souvenir cups, too, and also has attracted budget-conscious visitors with free parking and a significant savings on renewed season passes. Groupon savings are another great way to partner with local businesses to attract new customers, as well.

Coming Attractions

Daily twilight price reductions, for example, or discounted season passes later in the summer, attract those who might not otherwise be willing to come at full price.

Attracting new customers and keeping current ones, however, takes a one-two punch of creative marketing with novel, quality on-site experiences. Riding the latest wave of ride trends, parks like Casino Beach have added new attractions like a topsy-turvy lazy river that takes riders 50 feet in the air, through slides, up on walls, to high speeds circulating two or three revolutions before being pushed out the bottom of an enclosed tunnel.

"Waterparks are merging and blending waterpark attractions," Ezra said. "For example, many lazy rivers offer wave elements and water spouts. Some of our most exciting rides offer a similar ride to that of a roller coaster, except they ride in a raft."

According to Ezra, even bowl rides are becoming more elaborate, but designers are always mindful of offering something for everyone, recognizing the importance of families as the backbone of the industry. Some attractions even offer a variety of themes to customize each ride, making sound effects, lighting and music during a ride different from person to person.

But the latest aren't the only way to bring people through the door. It's also about programming, quality of the amenities like bathhouses and the appeal of the overall environment.

At Pirates Bay Waterpark in Baytown, Texas, patrons hate to miss a single day for fear of missing the seemingly spontaneous activities and antics of the staff. "We're always trying to add new activities and try to go with a resort feel where every day is something different," said Michael Flinn, director. "We have a lot of season holders who come every day, and we gear it to them. We steal ideas like from the Jimmy Fallon show, we play games with them, and have some of our staff when they go on break, have lip sync battles with guests. It's little 'wows' and surprising events and it's working well."

In fact, it's working so well a "party starter" position has been created where kids try out for these positions to volunteer on their days off just because it's so much fun. Not forgetting their younger visitors, another successful attraction is the waterpark's "Itty-Bitty Beach Party," an event that has become a noticeable favorite. Every Wednesday morning the zero-depth entry is partitioned off and hundreds of children and stay-at-home moms enjoy a party created especially for the 5-and-unders, a creative response to the popularity of their Friday dance parties where little ones ran the risk of being overwhelmed by older siblings and adults.

Understanding that families are the life-blood of waterparks, more parks these days are expanding their reach to engage all ages in a myriad of ways. "We've been trying to make it more family-friendly to attract all age groups," Vaughn said with a nod toward a new attraction next year for a mini-golf course with spray effects. "The teens and tweens get to have a fun-filled day as well as the toddler. We're marketing toward more birthday parties and events, pavilion rentals at Blue Heron Bay sized for different groups and put together party packages that seem to be really popular."

Understanding that families are the life-blood of waterparks, more parks these days are expanding their reach to engage all ages in a myriad of ways.

In addition to rides where the whole family can climb in and take part, side-by-side slides, too, are being designed with different ages and temperaments in mind. From the speed slide for the daredevil teen to the more traditional slides for the easy-as-you-go adult, parks are making an effort to provide attractions the whole family can do together.

Then there's the importance of attention to detail, an aspect of park design no one should take for granted, as Wyatt, superintendent for 24 years, knows only too well regarding recent upgrades and new buildings, including a new bathhouse. And while patrons are most likely noticing the new triple flume slide and two serpentine speed slides, they also are voicing their appreciation for a bathhouse facility upgrade that is more customer-friendly.

It Takes Two

According to Wyatt, partnerships with community organizations are a great way to build bridges of interest to groups that might not otherwise step foot in Rolling Hills Waterpark. They've found that partnerships with community groups can provide creative ways to expose certain demographics to the park, while benefiting the community in return.

Like many waterparks in recent years, they have opened up their lazy river to generate a little extra revenue by introducing a walking program to supplement water aerobics. They have also expanded their swimming program to attract niche guests like introducing water orientation classes to toddlers, a great success when the program was started three years ago.

"River walking is so new for us, however," Wyatt said, "that it really hasn't caught fire, but we think it's valuable to try. We have minimal overhead so the numbers aren't large, but it feels valuable. Deciding what to keep doing depends on how valuable we think something is and the cost-benefit radio to produce the program. In this case, the overhead is very small, so we can tolerate smaller numbers compared to swimming classes where we need substantial amounts to justify the guards."

With the advent of variable frequency drives, LED lights, and the latest filters and pumps, energy reduction and cost savings are much easier than for parks built even a decade ago.

Where his facility has definitely decided the effort is valuable despite modest numbers is working with the local autism coalition to offer a day each year for families with autism. Although only an estimated 50 families usually attend, it has been warmly received by the community and rightly so. By offering them a safe and calm day to themselves, devoid of the usual crowds and noise often so difficult for those on the spectrum, these families and their children get to enjoy a place they might never otherwise have the chance to experience. "Many find as they slowly work in the program, that they can begin to participate in larger groups," Wyatt said. "It's good for the families to see if it's a good fit for their activity level."

Pet owners, too, often have a special day all their own at many parks, usually the day after the last day of the summer season. At Rolling Hills, they have taken it a step further, partnering with the local humane society to sponsor a popular "Walk and Wag" event each year, a 5K run fundraiser for people and their pooches. From sponsoring disc golf events, Red Cross training, dog days to 5K biking, Rolling Hills has been up front and center in many of the community's special attractions.

Cutting Costs

Raising new revenue with creative programming, events and new ride attractions certainly is one side of the financial equation. Saving money is the other. Those lucky enough start from scratch will find new water ride designs are more water-efficient than their predecessors, cutting down on water usage and energy costs. Today there are many more energy and cost-saving options to be found throughout a park's overall design.

With the advent of variable frequency drives, LED lights, and the latest filters and pumps, energy reduction and cost savings are much easier than for parks built even a decade ago. However, even in remodeling and upgrading, it's never too late to take advantage of cost-saving features like auto-sensors in bathrooms, showers and toilets, timers on lights, or water recycling systems to offset domestic water use.

But where many parks are finding their biggest savings is with their biggest overhead cost: staffing. "As far as decreasing overhead, our biggest overhead is our staff, so we have reevaluated where we need lifeguards (shallow vs. deep water), and we're looking at different things with our shifts so that we cut back depending on the number of people coming in each day," Flinn said.

Paying attention to peak and non-peak hours and adjusting staff accordingly has become even easier thanks to a computer program that also tracks staff schedules more efficiently at Casino Beach. With younger staff so accustomed to the internet, putting schedules online has also been a great time saver, allowing everyone access to everything. From job applications to day-to-day communication, the computer program and online presence has been a time saver.

It's also one of the reasons turnover at Casino Beach has been so low and saves money from needless retraining of new staff. "Preventing turnover is critical, too," Flinn said. "We try to keep people happy—it's the little things because people aren't just there to put in hours. We try to cater to them and their needs."

Among the perks of the job, guards and staff enjoy their own break room, have the park open to them for night slides, get discounts on food and merchandise and enjoy sponsored employee events and a ball club. Significant savings also have come in the form of making one simple change—closing at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.

"Sometimes it's not rocket science," Kneupper concluded. "A few years ago we had to make sure dollars went as far as they could go. If you have limited finances, ask your guests. They may ask for super-expensive things but you might see they only want simple things: more shade, nicer loungers or improved bathrooms. So listen to them; they know you're not going to put in a roller coaster, but if you're improving your park, they'll see you are listening to them."

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