Wet & Wild
The Latest Trends in Waterpark Rides & Operations
By Dave Ramont
When most of us hear the term "swimming pool," we typically think of relaxation and refreshment, or exercise and fitness. But when we hear the term "waterpark," we think of fun, action and adventure. And apparently, action and adventure are exactly what consumers are seeking, because waterpark popularity continues to grow. And whether the parks are indoor or outdoor, private or municipal, designers and operators are always looking for the next great idea or innovation to get patrons through the gate.
According to Hotel & Leisure Advisors, more than $1 billion will be invested in waterparks and their related resorts in 2018, with more than 30 new facilities slated to open this year, substantially surpassing 2017's numbers. More than 20 existing facilities were planning to expand or improve, with slides and play structures topping the list of new amenities, which also includes wave pools, lazy rivers and raft rides. Parks are now being attached to a wider variety of businesses such as cruise ships, campgrounds and ski resorts. And, continuing a trend, more municipal parks are opening as cities look to improve their cost recovery from aquatics installations while also giving residents more recreation options.
Formed in 1982, the World Waterpark Association (WWA) is an international nonprofit trade association serving waterparks, aquatic venues and spray parks. The association serves around 1,200 members who fall into two categories: park members and supplier members. WWA focuses on providing these members with education and networking to aid them in operating their facilities safely and effectively.
Aleatha Ezra, director of park member development at WWA, said that one reason for continued growth is that parents can feel confident about bringing their families to a waterpark. "Waterparks are the safest place to have fun in the water, compared to oceans, rivers, lakes and even swimming pools," she said.
Technology is another driver of waterpark growth, according to Ezra, who pointed out that in the past, slides were basically built on a tower or hill, but now technology allows slides to follow any path imaginable. "Ride designers have created technology that allows them to move riders up and down the slide path, so they're not limited to simply using the momentum derived in the past from starting out at the highest point on the ride."
Action and adventure are exactly what consumers are seeking, because waterpark popularity continues to grow.
Ezra also explained how waterparks are now merging attractions. In the past, parks may have offered a wave pool, slides, a leisure river and a kid's area that were individual elements, whereas now, many parks are tying these together. "For example, many leisure rivers now offer wave elements and water spouts. At other parks, you can now float from one ride to another without ever having to stand in a queue," Ezra said. "Today, we're seeing the whole waterpark experience change based on the new technologies now available."
One attraction that Ezra mentioned as getting more elaborate is the bowl ride. "Bowl rides are like giant funnels. You slide down a chute or tube into the top of the funnel and swish around the inside before dropping down the middle into a splash pool or run-out. Another emphasis in ride technologies in recent years has been among family rides or raft rides."
Jessica Mahoney, director of marketing for Aquatic Development Group, said that in addition to creating innovative products, the company has designed and built projects for waterparks, resorts, aquatic centers and recreational facilities worldwide. It has also installed more than 90 percent of all wave systems in the United States. She said that parks got used to thinking that adding a slide or play structure was the only option available, but now there are new and non-traditional rides entering the market. "With advances in wave technology, waterpark staples such as the lazy river and the wave pool are also being transformed, with new configurations, higher throughput and skill-based excitement, creating new experiences."
In addition to new rides, parks are also becoming more focused on enhancing the overall guest experience, according to Mahoney. "Experiences that lend themselves to a destination setting—with the ability to blend surrounding deck space, cabanas and room for food and beverage—are growing in popularity as parks look for ways to keep guests engaged and on property longer."
Allen Clawson, vice president of Cloward H2O, a company that specializes in all things water, said they work in the designing, planning, engineering and building of projects internationally, including aquariums, spray parks, pools, fountains and of course, waterparks. He explained how designers and engineers are finding ways to make rivers, wave pools, climbable aquatic play and even slides and spray pads more interactive, using cause and effect relationships that participants can manipulate to change the experience.
"Yesterday I watched a group of 6-year-olds spontaneously working together at a splash pad to build a human dam that produced a 2-inch-deep pool so some littler kids could splash around in it for a bit. What a great example of what designers can and should implement to promote exploratory play and learning in the principals of hydraulics!"
According to Clawson, skill-based and competition-based attractions are finally gaining ground over "rides." "The surf simulator is providing a venue where guests may attempt something new that takes great skill to master, but that anyone can experience," he said. "Gaining true skill requires repeat visits, and what facility doesn't want to encourage repeat visits?"
Mahoney agreed, and added that new wave-based attractions are being designed to appeal to guests of all ages and skill levels, providing operators with significantly increased rider throughput and capacity in similar footprints to slide complexes. "As a skill-based attraction, surf riders provide the perfect platform for guests to learn the basics, then return time and again to hone their skills and compete, building park loyalty and repeat visitation."
And now there's another new innovation available, which provides an easier platform for first-time surfers who aren't interested in putting the time in to learn the skill. Mahoney explained how it allows for the wave angle and speed to be manually controlled and fine-tuned in order to match the rider's ability. "With minimal instruction, guests of all ages can start anywhere from a lying down to standing position on a low, gentle wave that gradually increases in size and shape until the rider is fully ensconced in a 'tube,' allowing them to experience the thrill of ocean surfing without having to put in the work," she said.
New wave-based attractions are being designed to appeal to guests of all ages and skill levels.
Boogie boarding rides are also popular now. "With large, repeatable, perfectly-timed breaking waves, this attraction allows guests to launch and ride a boogie board the entire length of the pool," Mahoney said. "As a skill-based attraction, each ride is a different experience."
Mahoney described how a peninsula-style dispatching port means multiple riders can launch at the same time, doubling throughput and lessening time spent waiting in line. The timing and pacing of the waves allows for multiple people to be in the water at the same time, making this a shareable ride experience with increased overall capacity.
Ezra said that gamification is certainly one of the exciting innovations currently happening within the industry. "As more rides are opened that include some sort of gaming component, guests are beginning to recognize that sliding down a waterslide or riding a surf wave can be a much more interactive experience. Having that component creates excitement amongst guests and gets them talking across social media channels and through word-of-mouth testimonials."
Wave-based attractions offer virtually no wait, a big draw for users, but these rides also attract spectators, whether there's a formal competition or park users are just showcasing their skills. "Each of these water rides can be enhanced to create a complete destination experience for guests," Mahoney said, "easily augmented with ample deck space, shaded areas, landscaping and rental cabanas, providing park owners the ability to create a family-friendly oasis that lends to increased time on property and greater per-cap spend."
In fact, revenue-generators like cabana rentals, gift kiosks, locker room upgrades, raft rentals, arcade games, photo opportunities and, of course, concessions are becoming increasingly important to park operators. "We've heard from our members that last year's tough weather season has galvanized their efforts to find new ways to increase per-caps through additional revenue streams, whether that's in food and beverage packaging or creative in-park events," Ezra said.
She added that cabana rentals are definitely proving successful, as parents love having a reserved place to meet up with the rest of the family. "And today's cabanas often come with appealing amenities such as dedicated food service, charging stations for cell phones, safes for storage of personal items, etc. It extends the stay for many families and makes their visit that much more enjoyable."
Raging Waves outdoor waterpark in Yorkville, Ill., is the state's largest waterpark. It features many attractions, including 26 waterslides, a quarter-mile-long lazy river, a 350,000-gallon wave pool, multiple kiddie areas and more. In 2018, two new body slides with more than 600 feet of twists and turns were added, along with a new adventure area for younger kids featuring slides, interactive play features, a zero-depth pool, shade structures and additional restrooms.
Parks are also becoming more focused on enhancing the overall guest experience.
Brad Donati is the marketing manager at Raging Waves, and with regard to additional revenue-generators, he said they're always putting an emphasis on upselling services. "We use a lot of in-park advertising to do so, whether signage or a commercial on our in-park radio service. As we continue to promote these add-ons, we've seen our per-caps grow year over year."
Several restaurants are located on the premises, and a variety of cabanas are available to rent, featuring different capacities and amenities. "We continue to add more cabanas each year as we typically see these sell out daily," Donati said.
Birthday parties and other private gatherings are good ways to attract patrons as well. Donati said that group outings—from camp groups to company picnics—are very popular, and they offer significant discounts if a party is 15 guests or larger. "One thing that has been a key for our business is offering groups discounted rates if they book early in the off-season. This way we get them to commit to an event prior to summer, plus we receive payment in full during our winter months."
Entertainment and special events are another tactic that parks continue to utilize. Clawson said that they often plan for events at many of their projects—with performance stages, accommodations for large groups, etc.—especially at the larger surf pools and whitewater centers.
Donati said they offer a variety of special events within their park, from music acts to tumbling performances. "One of the best ones we've added on is our annual Princess Days in which guests can meet their favorite princess friends and sing along with them at the Pepsi Family Stage. Another fan favorite is a reptile show featuring turtles, snakes and even an alligator!"
Another reason for the increase in waterparks lately is the fact that more municipalities are abandoning their old pools and getting on board with creating waterparks instead, taking a more entrepreneurial approach to aquatics.
"Once people have experienced the fun of a waterpark, they are less interested in visiting a regular flat-water pool," Ezra said. "Plus, many of the nation's pools are getting older, and the costs to repair and maintain them are expensive. So these facilities are replacing their old pools with waterparks, thus adding to the industry's growing numbers."
Clawson agreed. "In general we have seen a trend for some time for municipal aquatics adopting some waterpark or waterpark-ish attractions. At the same time, this has pushed the private waterparks to innovate more in order to remain competitive and relevant."
Birthday parties and other private gatherings are good ways to attract patrons.
Sometimes cities that open waterparks will oversee all facets of operations, while in other instances they'll contract with outside entities to handle certain aspects. In Missouri, The Bay Waterpark is owned by the city of Kansas City but operated by Midwest Pool Management. The park provides a full-on waterpark experience, with many amenities including a surf simulator; a leisure pool featuring a lazy river with waves, giant tube slides, a large plunge pool and giant swirl bowl slide; a play pool used for swimming laps, shooting hoops or floating on an inflatable animal; and a family pool with several slides, kid-controlled sprays and fountains and a huge dumping bucket. There are special events and birthday party packages, and groups can rent the park or parts of it after normal operating hours.
Douglas Schroeder is the manager of aquatics for the city of Kansas City, and he explained that Midwest handles everything except for building and equipment maintenance. This includes programming, events, hiring, concessions, etc. The city does decide what attractions or amenities might be added, with Midwest's input. Additionally, there are things at The Bay that are more common among municipal facilities, such as private and group swim lessons, and an aqua camp. And guests are allowed to bring in their own food and drink, with restrictions.
While some waterpark staples remain popular, they've also benefitted from new upgrades. Donati said the lazy river remains very popular at their park, and within the industry. "Over the years we've added more theming and spray features to help give the river more variety. Within the industry new upgrades and twists have included the newer adventure-style river, some including wave generators."
Mahoney added that the addition of uniquely designed ports of entry and exit utilize the river's wave action to create a wave pool, virtually eliminating any lines.
Recent advancements in pool geometry and wave technology have led to innovations in the shape, size and usage of the traditional wave pool as well, according to Mahoney, which includes the new dual-beach, dual-entry wave pools. "The shallower design and customized wave flow pattern allows guests of all ages to use the entire pool, traversing from one end to the other. And with no 'dead space' and twice the usable area, capacity is virtually double that of the traditional wave pool."
These days, green initiatives are also on the minds of waterpark designers and operators, and new technologies and practices are always being tinkered with. Donati explained that one of their recent efforts to become more eco-friendly involved upgrading the filtration system within their wave pool to a regenerative media system.
"The system has allowed us to be more efficient with water waste. For example, instead of backwashing daily (about 4,000 gallons of water), the new system only drains a fraction of the water every few weeks compared to our previous system. We also recycle the backwashed water from our pools to water our vast array of landscaping throughout the park."
Safety is also of utmost importance throughout the industry, with parks not only relying on staff to inspect and maintain attractions, but specialty firms being regularly brought in as well. "Each year we have audits from outside firms to ensure all standards are being exceeded," Donati said. "In regard to safety, each day we inspect and test the slides to make sure they're functioning properly. When adding new attractions, these all must go through a lengthy approval process and then be inspected by the manufacturer and the state if waterparks will keep gaining in popularity as long as designers and engineers keep innovating and coming up with the next great idea. Ezra said that they're anticipating more than 350 booths at the World Waterpark Association's annual Symposium and Trade show in Las Vegas. "We expect that a number of exhibitors will be showcasing new product innovations that will work for waterparks, whether public or private, large or small."
And park operators will be more than willing to dive right in.
As Clawson said, "Water, by definition, is an immersive experience."
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