Making Waves

Municipal Waterparks Getting More Competitive

By Joe Bush

Not all waterparks are created equal, but they have a lot in common.

There's water, sure, but also slides and zero-depth entry, lifeguards, entry fees, seating areas and concessions. The separation begins where the buck stops: Private ownership typically means larger parks and more state-of-the-art features like wave pools and surfing areas and wall slides. And high ticket prices.

These for-profit extravaganzas can be parts of resorts or hotels or standalone, indoor and out, and while their glitz and glamor can be destinations, the gap between them and municipal waterparks is closing. Community parks have historically been smaller with minimal attractions—fewer and smaller slides—but there are more of them in the United States and industry experts say their approach to size and thrills is changing.

"The tide has started to turn," said Dave Keim, vice president of business development for Aquatic Development Group, a waterpark design and development company in Cohoes, N.Y. "Big municipal waterparks are no longer the exception to the rule."

Most municipal waterparks are outdoor and standalone. One indoor standout is the 52,000-square-foot Snohomish Aquatic Center run by the city of Snohomish, Wash. Built in 2012-13, it features a 151-foot long slide, a lazy river and a surfing simulator.

A gold standard for all municipal waterparks is Water World, run by the Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District in suburban Denver. It covers 67 acres and boasts 40 different water features, including more than 20 listed in the park's website's "Thrills" category.

Municipal parks, no matter their size, have the advantage of proximity, lower entry fees and community service.

The most recent state-of-the-art rides include a hydromagnetic water coaster and Warp Speed, a slide that utilizes slideboarding: In a space wormhole theme riders use controllers embedded in their raft to shoot hazards to try to outscore others. Yes, an aquatic videogame.

Steve Loose, the general manager of Water World, said his park is trying to draw visitors away from not just other waterparks, but Mother Nature as well.

"Our principal competition is any recreational activity or service, including visits to the Rocky Mountains," Loose said.

Size & Scope

The annual waterpark industry report put together by Hotel and Leisure Advisors (H&LA), a hospitality consulting firm based in Cleveland, Ohio, shows more municipal waterparks than private, and more parks in the Midwest than in other regions. There were 858 waterparks in the United States as of March 2015, 24 more than at the time of the publishing of the 2014 report.

H&LA President and report author David Sangree said the main differences between municipal and private waterparks are their size and the amount that is spent on attractions. Private and public waterpark owners and operators are targeting customers with different priorities, however, so they tend not to hurt one another.

Privately owned parks seek families on vacation who will spend more than a day there, or will use their property as a one-day getaway. Their admission prices demand all-day use, and their revenue must cover not only profit goals but debt service.

Municipal parks, no matter their size, have the advantage of proximity, lower entry fees and community service. Their goal is to re-invest any profits or help fund other municipal projects, and they are not concerned with principal and interest.

"(Municipal parks) definitely do compete, but in general the private facilities are nicer and more elaborate, and the customer is more willing to pay for that and pay the higher prices because they appreciate a more elaborate facility," Sangree said. "There are some municipalities that spend the money to build a pretty nice facility and in that case it's almost impossible for the private facility to compete."

Waterpark Pioneers

Loose said that Water World began in 1979 after city officials met a slide salesman at a trade show the year before.

"Our plan was simple: Could we create a new, unique recreational opportunity for our residents that would also have the potential to generate much-needed revenue for our district?" Loose said. "After building the first two waterslides in the Rocky Mountain region, it was off to the races as they exceeded all of our projections."

The next step was funding to expand the park. The original construction budget for Water World in 1980 was $1,755,500, Loose said, and the final cost was $1,886,684 because as the project was being completed, officials determined that additional amenities would be beneficial, including added landscaping and support facilities.

While that cost for an entire park is only a little more than today's price for a couple of state-of-the-art attractions, the Water World plan was focused, and it is still a model of a facility that not only pays for itself but can provide money for improvements and additional attractions, as well as help finance other city recreational pursuits. Loose described the monetary benefit as "many millions of dollars."

In 1979 the city passed a general obligation bond issue to begin the addition of a wave pool, and enhance some neighborhood parks. The park's fathers were very much pioneers, Loose said.

"At the time there were not many waterparks in operation, and we looked toward facilities that already had wave pools in operation, and also toward some of the existing waterparks at the time, such as Wet & Wild in Orlando," he said. "However, our uniqueness, in part, is that we are located on uneven terrain, which ultimately determined the type of ride mix we could accomplish through the years."

A Strong Foundation

So, though Water World seems to be exceptional in the category of municipal waterparks, its area and attractions were not built up overnight. The aim of re-investment can be achieved, and if a public entity already has a pool used for programming, it can count that as an additional advantage over commercial parks, which do not have classes for swimming or aerobics and do not make space and time for lap swimmers.

Typically, municipal parks are smaller because they're for the customer who's not willing to pay $30 to $40 for a ticket to get in.

"Municipal facilities are providing a service to the residents," said Steve Crocker, director of sport swimming for Water Technology Inc. (WTI), an aquatic planning, design and engineering firm based in Beaver Dam, Wis. "It's about health, it's about instructional programs. I've often said no one died from not playing enough golf when they were young, but you can die if you don't learn to swim."

Fees for those programs are nice, but do not typically amount to more than their operating costs. The pools used for them can be the foundation for a future waterpark, and features are many and may not be as expensive as they are fun.

"Typically, municipal parks are smaller because they're for the customer who's not willing to pay $30 to $40 for a ticket to get in, but they are popular because a lot of times they're in association with a regular lap pool," said Steve Brinker, head of the parks and recreations division of a waterpark features manufacturer and designer with headquarters in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada.

"A lap pool typically loses money every year," Brinker added. "Whatever extra business they can gain with waterpark features allows them to cover more of their operating costs."

Brinker's company uses computer 3-D simulations to design slides that are safe yet thrilling, and while just the mention of that kind of sophistication implies more expensive equipment, he said the number of municipal projects using more than a standard slide is growing.

"Six or eight years ago, we were hardly doing any looping rides, wall rides, inner tube rides," he said. "It was basically just body slides, which are cool, but for a certain demographic. This year we'll do eight to 10 projects with those types of rides in them."

Creating 'Watertainment'

So, what needs to be added to make a waterpark? A certain number of slides, buckets, wave pools? Sangree's definitions of waterparks are:

  • Indoor standalone: a minimum of 10,000 square feet of indoor waterpark space inclusive of attractions such as slides, tubes and a variety of indoor water play features.
  • Outdoor standalone: three or more waterslides and often other water elements requiring lifeguards such as lazy rivers, surf simulators or wave pools, as well as splash features for younger children.

Such designations are for surveys and reports, however. Like Water World at the end of the 1970s, each municipality can answer what to add and how and when to be self-sustainable and more without considering the number of slides and square footage.

There's a case to be made for less amazing but very effective features to boost the experience. Assuming a municipal pool has a deep end, it has all it needs to spice up the area and see how a little improvement affects attendance, then using that information for analysis and perhaps evidence to bolster arguments for additional funding for bigger and better features and attractions.

Doug Whiteaker, president of WTI, said that if a pool area has deep water, it can easily be in the business of what he calls "watertainment."

A lot of these parks are leisure pools that have evolved into aqua parks but not quite a full-blown waterpark.

Slack lines, climbing walls, inflatable obstacle courses, volleyball, basketball, rope swings, log rolling—all are portable and relatively inexpensive ways to turn a swimming area into a play area. Timing systems can be added to slides for competitions.

"Looking at today's consumer, they like to do a lot of different things in a short period of time," Whiteaker said. "The commercial waterparks can have all these different amenities scattered around a larger format, whereas municipal waterparks typically have a more abbreviated site and they have to be able to have multipurpose spaces.

"The waterslides are the hallmark of a lot of different types of leisure pools, but to engage people for the long run today's consumer likes that friendly competition," he added.

Crocker said adding sport to fun is crucial with kids who have grown out of splash park type attractions.

"What's interesting about the idea is it appeals to the same age group that a large waterslide would," he said. "You have to be a little bit older. You're not going to get a 4-year-old doing a slack line, so it's going to be older kids who are swimmers because you want to do this over deeper water, with features that require some skill and levels of success.

"I often say with the waterslide, a traditional waterslide, if you do it one time you're as good as you're ever going to be and you're probably as fast as you're ever going to be, and in reality you don't even know how fast you are."

Inflatables are available for pools and even open water like lakes that can be combined into obstacle-course configurations to add a competitive element to the water.

"The least expensive ones are the ones that become multipurpose, slack lining, the inflatables," Whiteaker said. "That's kind of the entry level of features—climbables, log rolling. The next tier is waterslides and bowl slides. Close to that is your wave pools, surf pools, then the very extreme waterslides, very tall and very fast.

"A smaller community," he added, "if they have a zero-depth entry, a little bit of a lazy river and maybe a lap pool, they might designate that as a waterpark but that's just because they're trying to draw people in to have that name association.

"A lot of these parks are leisure pools that have evolved into aqua parks but not quite a full-blown waterpark, or lifestyle pools where people come to these pools every day because they have the kind of features that appeal to their lifestyles. They want to come enjoy time with their family in safe, clean water and deck surfacing and lawn chairs, but they're not going to a huge waterpark that costs three times as much to get in. It provides a quality aquatic experience for a family."

Know Where You're Going

Keim agrees that municipal aquatics serve an important role in the community; drowning is the second highest cause of death for children ages 1 to 14. He added that anything that can be designed for a commercial waterpark can be scaled down for a municipality. ADG helps the planning of parks, the traffic flow, the location of elements such as towel handouts and deck layout and seating areas, and yes, attraction selection and placement.

What he suggests as the best way to plan an aquatic area adds excitement to utility, but every project, municipal or not, should begin with an understanding of project scale and expense.

"We take a very different approach than most when planning a waterpark," Keim said. "We use the same approach whether municipal or private. Virtually everyone that comes to us says, 'We're thinking about doing a waterpark, and I want you guys to help me figure out what rides to put in.'

"The answer is, 'Hold the phone, that's not where you want to start.' What are the business goals? What are you looking for this thing to do? How many people do you want to serve? What kind of population base do you have? What kind of age groups? Do you want to target teens? Get a feasibility study done. Do you have enough people, do they have enough disposable income to afford to come to this thing?

"It has to be built so it's appropriate for the goals established. Once you have a business plan framework you can start filling in the spots--do I do a wave pool or a lazy river, or do I have enough people that I do a wave pool and a lazy river? Do we need slides and rides for big kids? Do we need a tremendous thrill factor? Figure out the business plan first and slides and rides and attractions follow."

Brinker said the arrow for municipal water parks is pointing up because there are more and more models indicating return on investment, their lower pricing and their proven draw for many age groups.

"Look at it through the prism of, 'Do I want to drive two hours and spend $35 per person to spend a full day, maybe even a weekend at some of these waterpark resorts, or spend five or six hours at the local waterpark, driving 15 minutes and spending $15?'" he said.

"There are more and more municipal waterparks. In some cities, there are three or four in the metro area. The next municipality to do one has to do something better. People cross municipal lines to go to these parks and they're already thinking they're going to a municipal park somewhere, 'Hey, this one just opened up, it must have something new. Let's try that.'"

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