Just Add Water
Indoors or Out, Waterparks Offer Fun for All
By Dave Ramont
On a hot summer day, it's pretty safe to say that most people would enjoy some refreshing ice cream. But it's also a safe bet that many people would enjoy that ice cream any time of year, no matter the outdoor temperature. So you might say that waterparks are a bit like ice cream: In the summer, visitors flock to them to cool off, but their popularity remains strong year-round, with many people seeking out indoor parks in the off season.
The popularity of waterparks continues to grow, driven by innovation and progress in the industry, according to Hotel & Leisure Advisors (H&LA), which said that in the United States and Canada, $1 billion in investment was slated for indoor and outdoor waterparks and their related resorts in 2019. They projected that 33 facilities would open this year, and they anticipated the expansion of nearly 20 existing facilities.
"Today's waterparks are focusing strongly on differential experiences and providing patrons reasons to continue to enjoy pool spaces and repeat their engagement of features and amenities," according to Ryan Nachreiner, regional director of project development at Water Technology Inc. (WTI), a Wisconsin-based aquatic planning, design and engineering firm. "Aspects to rides and pools that give users options and variability are helping to prolong the interest and appeal of the waterpark."
"Generally speaking, there are less 'parking lot' parks being developed these days—the model of packing as much fiberglass onto a flat site as possible," said Allen Clawson, principal at Cloward H2O, a Utah-based aquatic planning and engineering firm. And he thinks that's a good thing. "Themed IP (Intellectual Property) parks like Legoland, Nickelodeon or Universal's Volcano Bay are popping up more often. The indoor/outdoor model is also more common."
Nachreiner said that while there has been no diminishing the appeal of being in the outdoors on a beautiful summer day, there is a desire in most communities to provide year-round aquatic recreation.
Jessica Mahoney, director of marketing for Aquatic Development Group, a New York-based corporation specializing in design/build projects, agrees that indoor parks are gaining popularity. "Both remain popular, however interest and demand for indoor waterparks seems to be at an all-time high right now.
"Hotels and resorts continue to look for ways to differentiate themselves, and indoor waterparks offer a sort of 'super amenity' appeal," Mahoney said, adding that one big challenge of designing indoor parks is having to incorporate as much fun in a much smaller space than you would have compared to working outdoors. She said that building levels is one way to achieve this, citing the Gaylord Opryland resort in Nashville as an example. "You need to make sure you have experienced and skilled aquatic designers and builders who know how to properly balance the need for active play, excitement, deck space and guest flow with the mix of attractions to create the ultimate guest experience."
Clawson agrees that since indoor space is premium, there's a great deal of work to get the space as condensed as possible. "We've been involved in some very innovative designs overseas. Imagine an outdoor waterpark on the roof of an indoor waterpark with interconnecting slides, conveyors and water courses, all on top of an ice rink adjacent to an indoor skiing venue with several hotels, convention space, retail, dining, etc.—all in one development."
Hotels and resorts are indeed looking at ways to differentiate and attract guests of all ages, according to Jim Dunn, president of ADG, who said that one way to do this was by adding—or expanding—their water area, creating a hybrid setting delivering both resort and waterpark experiences. He described some of the factors that play a part in developing a creative water setting for hotels and resorts, including budget, space allocation, target audience, staffing, bed-base, existing amenities and timeframe. "Key things to consider are your attraction mix, landscaping, food and beverage outlets, towel stations, lounge chairs, cabanas and deck space, and how all these pieces will look once they come together.
"No two creative water settings are the same," said Dunn, "because no brand, target audience or space is exactly the same."
He explained that many resorts have started incorporating surf rides into their attraction mix, as well as lazy rivers, activity pools with rock climbing and basketball hoops, wave pool applications, waterslides and multi-level play structures.
Located in Kellogg, Idaho, Silver Mountain Resort has been a popular ski destination for more than 40 years. But they've also been enhancing their marketability as a four-season destination resort with golfing, mountain biking, hiking and gondola rides. And now their 40,000-square-foot indoor waterpark, which incorporates mountain lodge themes and views of the stunning mountain valley below, has increased their ability to fill beds and generate revenue year-round.
Jeff Colburn, general manager at Silver Mountain, said the waterpark drives occupancy in winter as well as summer. "It's great to go into the 84-degree warmth after a chilly day on the hill."
He explained how waterpark access is included with every stay. Additionally, day groups of 15 people or more can book time at the waterpark, and a limited number of passes are sold online each day, which Colburn said has been popular.
Food and beverage offerings are great revenue generators, according to Colburn, as are cabana and deluxe cabana rentals, which include lounge chairs, swivel chairs, a table, couch, refrigerator and flat screen TV. "People love them as a camp headquarters for their time here, and the less adventuresome have a place to chill and even watch TV while the rest of the family is off playing. I wish I had more of them."
As far as attractions, Colburn said their surf simulator and their family raft ride—a four-person raft that drops four stories through a large tube—are their two most popular rides. Surf lessons are available one hour before the park opens. After-hours surf simulator rentals are popular, and the waterpark hosts a sanctioned surf competition each year, which attracts additional visitors.
Other attractions at the park include a 315-foot lazy river, an interactive spray deck and an adventure island with a themed multi-level play structure, spray elements, a giant tipping bucket and two body flume waterslides. There's a floating obstacle course, an activity pool, enclosed fiberglass tube slides, a family spa and a shallow water pool with kiddie slides and a bungee swing. A surfside bar and grill overlooks the waterpark and includes hot tubs. "All people love water, so it's easy to attract a variety of ages. We see many multigenerational visits with three generations playing in the park," said Colburn.
With indoor parks the roofing systems are a major consideration. A proprietary transparent roofing material combines exceptional light transmission and high thermal properties, allowing for natural tanning in the dead of winter. The system also provides ideal growing conditions for lush landscaping, and it's acoustically tuned, allowing louder sounds of active play to escape, creating a more pleasant environment.
"They're the best system for air quality and for bringing the outdoors in with a 100% transparent roof. Beyond the cost efficiencies and ideal environmental conditions they offer, they also offer creativity in design through shape and color," said Mahoney, adding that they can light up at night if desired.
Since there is so much pressure on waterparks to be bigger and better then the next guy, Clawson says that many waterparks are adding hotels now, and not just the indoor parks. "Most of the outdoor waterparks we're working on these days have a resort complex associated with them including hospitality, retail and dining along with other recreational activities, sports venues, movies, etc."
Sometimes venues offer waterpark attractions without the waterpark. This past summer, at the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort in Glenwood Springs, Colo., Shoshone Chutes officially opened. It's an exciting river ride complete with twists, turns and banks that mimics the thrill of a Colorado whitewater experience. It's one of three new family-friendly play areas that comprise the Sopris Splash Zone at the resort. Hanging Lake is a wade-in waterfall-fed pool perfect for youngsters, and Grand Fountain is a splash pad by day with water spraying seven feet in the air and an illuminated show fountain reaching heights of 17 feet after hours.
Cloward H2O worked on the three phases of the Glenwood project, and Clawson said Shoshone Chutes takes advantage of a slope in the northwest corner of the property. "This is a thrilling and exhilarating experience for a broad range of guests who will be able to ride on either single or double tubes along a waterway with as much as 32,000 gallons per minute of flow.
"The decision to add these amenities for the owner of the hot springs facility was based on their need to provide additional activity for children," said Clawson, explaining that the old slides, mini golf and dilapidated 1950s-era wading pool weren't cutting it. "The owner wanted something that respected 'authentic Colorado,' with class and a touch of the European spa roots. When they saw the concept for the uniquely-designed rapids river—the first of its kind in the United States—they were all for it."
Waterpark designers know that it's crucial to appeal to all demographics, and Mahoney points to their recent project at the Gaylord Opryland SoundWaves indoor/outdoor water experience as an example of how indoor resort waterparks are now perceived. "The inspiration behind the design is tailoring the water experience for not only children but for adult enjoyment as well, and using theming and design to capture and appeal to each audience." By combining fun active play, high-end architecture and adult upscale amenities, Mahoney said the ultimate resort-water experience was created.
Keeping the waterpark community connected is a mission of the not-for-profit World Waterpark Association (WWA), according to Aleatha Ezra, director of park member development. "We have members in more than 40 countries representing waterpark owners, operators, designers, developers and suppliers working in parks of all shapes and sizes." WWA provides its membership with the most comprehensive information on industry trends and best practices through in-person and online learning opportunities, as well as regular networking events.
Ezra explained that their educational content is often curated by members for members. Their popular online Webinar Wednesdays are archived, covering a wide variety of topics that improve safety, maintenance, training, marketing and operations. "WWA Online University also offers a variety of downloadable training courses to members at a low cost that enable them to provide additional training to their team members." WWA's annual Symposium & Trade Show features networking events and more than 100 speakers presenting in educational sessions, panels and roundtables. The trade show hosts more than 300 booths, and many designers and ride manufacturers will debut their latest innovations.
The trend toward municipal waterpark development continues to move ahead at a robust pace, according to Ezra. "As more and more traditional, flat-water pools age out, cities and counties are looking at the waterpark/aquatic center model as the next-level community service amenity."
She said designers are continuing to find new ways to create footprints that are pleasing to the eye, safe to manage and generate steady revenue. "And it's not just the smaller facilities that are coming onboard; many of the latest public-sector waterpark venues have substantial theming and a varied attraction mix that puts them in line with their privately-owned counterparts."
Mahoney points out that her company's popular surf simulator is featured in more than 30 municipal locations across the United States. "It's a great way to generate active participation and increase a park's age demographic—appealing to kids who may otherwise have outgrown the facility offerings. Offering additional attractions, like slides and wave pools, plus more active play allows them to compete with larger, private parks and offer a lower price point."
"More communities are continuing to follow the longstanding trend of developing waterparks and waterpark features within their aquatic centers," said Nachreiner. "A focus on recreation and entertaining the multigenerational family have proven to provide higher levels of cost recovery and increase participation rates in aquatics."
In fact, H&LA tell us that of the 33 waterparks that debuted in 2018, 16 of them were municipal facilities.
In 1995, the Deep River Waterpark opened in Crown Point, Ind., after a survey determined that residents desired more water-based activities in their Lake County Parks system. The WTI project features a wave pool, two body slides, a tube slide, a slow river and a children's play zone. The park surpassed expectations, drawing 220,000 visitors that first season.
To meet demand, the park added the Storm the following year—a ride featuring three enclosed tubes that start five stories above the park, propelling visitors through twists and turns in total darkness. In 1999 they opened the Dragon—a speed slide complex standing taller than any of their other structures. They also added two food and beverage areas, more restrooms, chairs, tables and shade structures. In 2005 the park nearly doubled in size, adding an interactive family play structure, an action river, dueling bowl slides, more food stands and visitor amenities. Parking and bus drop-off areas were expanded. And in 2017 the Kraken debuted, a popular six-lane mat slide racer ride.
"We're part of the local parks department and always have been," said Chris Nawracaj, Deep River's general manager. "It's 100% staffed and maintained by Lake County Parks Department employees."
He said that they're always trying to add on to make the park bigger and more exciting for their guests, explaining how they added an ice rink in the 2005 addition. "Being in northwest Indiana, the waterpark is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The addition of ice skating let us open in the winter months to provide an additional amenity for our guests." The 14,500-square-foot ice plaza features food and beverage locations, heated indoor bathrooms, skate rentals, birthday parties and private rink rentals.
Catered birthday parties are also available at the waterpark, and day groups are popular, as are private events for groups, who can rent the park for two or three hours most evenings after 6:30. "The park is exclusively theirs for the night," said Nawracaj. "Some groups use these as fundraisers; others use them as events for their employees. We generally have private events most nights during the summer operating season."
Tubin' Tuesdays are another park mainstay, according to Nawracaj. "It's always a popular event with a DJ, and it's the only night of the week where we stay open until 9:30 for the general public."
Life jackets are free to use for visitors, and lockers—standard, large and jumbo—are available to rent. Nawracaj said that food and beverage outlets are popular, and their retail space sells branded souvenirs along with things that people might need throughout their day. "It's nice to be able to generate that little extra revenue and provide people with a memento of their day at the park."
Deep River allows coolers, which is a selling point since most water and amusement parks don't. "We inspect all coolers prior to entering the park for items that we don't allow such as glass, alcohol and knives. Lots of people take advantage of this," said Nawracaj, pointing out that this does result in more trash for employees to tend with.
Nawracaj said they use Facebook for social interaction—promoting exclusive offers, contests and events—along with partnering with local media and radio stations for marketing. "We do partner with the local food bank for Food Bank Mondays. Guests can bring in two canned good items to donate and in return they receive $5 off their admission." Family Saver packages feature drink, snack and water toy add-ons with admission.
Deep River has two gazebos and a large shelter to rent, and their eight- and 12-person cabanas are always sold out. "Customers are always looking for that exclusive space that's theirs, and the cabanas provide that. We're always talking about adding more of them to the park," said Nawracaj.
According to Nachreiner, deck amenities are just as important as the aquatic attractions to the user experience and appeal. He points out that the first thing a pool guest does upon entering a facility is figure out where to put their "stuff," whether it's a lounge chair, locker or cabana. "Enhancing these spaces for upgraded experiences—such as the privacy and amenities of a cabana or the extra area for celebration of a reservable shelter/room—continues to be a great source of additional revenue for aquatic centers."
Keeping park amenities fresh is important for the bottom line, since people have more choices for what to do with their time and spending money, according to Ezra. "Parks don't necessarily need to add a new ride every year, either—sometimes it's adding a new evening event such as a dive-in movie or adding early entrance hours for season pass holders. Having something new can help your brand break through and stand out to consumers."
"Consideration for future changes and phases is always part of the design process," said Nachreiner, explaining that they're involved in many renovations and upgrades, whether it's changing a piping valve or adding a waterslide. "Over the life of the facility, maintenance needs will require repairs and replacements, and expansions and additions maximize appeal and help to prolong the relevancy and lifespan of the facility." Clawson said they're involved with evaluation and planning for expansion, redesign or renovation works on eight to 10 facilities a year. "Especially as many of the first-generation parks are getting to be 30 to 40 years old."
Mahoney agrees that parks are always on the lookout for something new to keep the experience fresh and exciting for guests. "It's about differentiation and excitement, but can also be about meeting the need for more capacity. We've designed our water rides to be the perfect expansion project that allows you to build out to incorporate deck space, cabanas, food and beverage, room for entertainment and more as needed." She cites Castaway Cove in New Hampshire's Canobie Lake Park as an example, where the entire expansion was built around a river ride.
Deck layouts are crucial to the user experience, safety and operational efficiency of a facility, according to Nachreiner, and creative designs can maximize capacity potential with areas for cabanas, food and beverage, retail and event space, while also managing guest flow. "Adjacencies between aspects such as the change rooms, shallow pool areas, play features, team staging areas, shade structures and many others are huge drivers to the overall design." Seating areas are often situated around the most popular attractions, especially skill-based rides, allowing for prime spectator viewing.
Are skill-based and competition-based attractions still growing in popularity? Clawson says yes. "You learn a skill like surfing or challenge yourself or others in a wet ropes course—of course you have to come back to improve, or watch your kids improve. Large-format surf parks, whitewater parks, cable ski/boarding parks—these kinds of venues are making their way into the waterpark space."
Participation in skill-based attractions can often be purchased on an hourly basis to incorporate lessons, and monthly memberships and season passes target repeat customers dedicated to honing their skills. Mahoney cites the popularity of surf simulators, which are available in single, double, triple and 180-degree configurations. Organized leagues and sanctioned competitions with major sponsorships are increasingly common.
There are boogie-boarding surf rides, tidal rivers and skill-based adventure rides which target multiple demographics. Innovative launch portals, wave pool entries and multiple exit ports are incorporated into the designs to maximize rider throughput. Wave pools and wave systems feature more options in wave height and pattern variety, and they've become easier and more efficient to operate. There's a mini wave pool for toddlers featuring two-foot waves. Active play is another way to incorporate skill-based attractions, according to Mahoney. "Our Adventure Lagoon water ride includes not only rock climbing and water crossing areas, but inflatable obstacle courses as well."
Nachreiner said that courses, structures and equipment that create competition and challenge the participant against the elements have a strong future in aquatic programming. He feels it's a great time for developing an aquatic center, as there are many new and enhanced programs and attractions available. "These include new methods of adding waves in compact pool spaces, new types of waterslides and interactive features in slide flumes, exciting underwater games and more advances in the ever-evolving industry of surf simulation."
"Finding creative ways to integrate technology continues to play a big role," said Mahoney, describing a park they recently opened in Orlando called Island H2Olive. "The entire theme of the park is centered on social media. They also integrated a new RFID (radio frequency identification) system for guests that allows them to personalize their park experience through music choices, upload photos to an app, accumulate points for rewards, etc."
Clawson said that since many aquatic venues are getting more waterpark-like in nature, it's putting pressure on true waterparks to really differentiate themselves. And while it's partly a competition thing, partly he believes it's a recognition that we have a basic connection with water. "Why does every resort brochure feature a photo of their pool with the resort in the background? That's what we go there for—it's all about the water. What a great business to be in." RM
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