Worlds of Water Fun
A Deep-Dive Into Outdoor Aquatic Park Design
By Rick Dandes
The integration of science, art and economics is one of the key challenges faced by designers in building new, or reimagining existing, outdoor aquatic parks.
You want to give communities what their residents want, in terms of programs and amenities, said David L. Keim, director of public market business development, Aquatic Development Group, Cohoes, N.Y., but you also want to be practical and suggest ways to prevent budget drain.
"We deal with many municipalities, and early in the planning phase we ask about their economic goals right out of the box," Keim said. "We'll say: Are you looking for this new or upgraded facility to make money? Are you looking for it to break even, or do you even care? There are some places we've found that don't really care. Having an aquatic park is an amenity that they are providing for the citizens in the community, and as long as they don't lose too much, they are OK with it."
Every project is unique, added Ryan Nachreiner, project director, Water Technology Inc. (WTI), of Beaver Dam, Wis. "Communities come at this from different perspectives in trying to determine what is best for them, what to include in their project, and what not to include."
From a practical perspective, added Jen Gerber, business development leader at WTI, getting everybody on the same page about terminology before drawing up a proposal is key, because so often people get caught up in the words and wind up not knowing if they are talking about the same thing. "There is a massive educational process that has to take place, both within the design team, getting everyone up to speed, and with the stakeholders' group within the community. And then, after all that, getting this in front of everyone's eyes. Once we know what all the terms mean, we can be confident that everyone is talking about the same things, seeing the same things, and working out where their priorities are."
There are three big processes that go into what a project is, Nachreiner explained. "The planning process begins with preliminary design and feasibility efforts, and that involves looking at the community and the area where the potential project is going to be developed. We need find out what else is out there—if other aquatic and recreation centers exist—to see where in the region there might be a deficiency in programming offerings. All this so that we know how we can best serve the community with different program options that could be developed. That is a huge component of the decision-making."
Nachreiner's team will run a market analysis, and a demographic analysis as well. A major factor is always going to be the budget, and what a community can afford. "From a capital perspective," he said, "we don't want to develop something that is at a debt level the community can't support. Operationally, we want to keep in mind what it is going to cost to run those facilities. We want it to be financially sustainable."
Oftentimes communities will rely on their own aquatic staff for advice, said Scott Palmer, director of marketing, Aquatic Design Group, Carlsbad, Calif. "It helps to know their level of experience and what they've done with other facilities."
Palmer also relies on outreach meetings and talking to user groups, but with a caveat. "The challenge with that is the most vested stakeholders are going to be the swim team, the water polo team and maybe triathlon-training individuals. But although these users have the most vested interest in the facility (they're the ones using it the most), they might represent 1% or even half a percent of the potential user population."
If you are trying to come up with something that will be successful at a municipal facility, Palmer continued, you need to reach out to the 14% to 15% of community members who are already park users, and likely to be interested in aquatic programming—what he refers to as "the silent majority." "These are the people who are going to make the difference on what happens with revenues and cost recoveries—but quite often these are people who aren't motivated to show up at a parks commission or a city council meeting to go to the podium and talk about their needs, their desires, and wishes."
The challenge you will likely face, Palmer said, "is how do we make sure we represent all these other potential users when we talk about an aquatic center and what it can and should be?"
"You should certainly try to get as much feedback from the surrounding communities and the potential pool users as possible," Nachreiner agreed. "If they don't attend meetings, your interaction with the community can still come in many forms, from public meetings to surveys, whether they are anecdotal or online surveys. We are a believer in social media engagement. There are many different forms of communication with the public to try and get that feedback."
Beyond the Basics
A strong ongoing trend in municipal aquatic parks? "They look more like commercial waterparks," Keim said. "They are including features like big, iconic slides and rides. Communities are beginning to add theming into their features, which was unusual in the past. But they have really stepped it up, and they are adding attractions like surf simulators."
There is interest in wave action these days, Keim explained. Not only in wave pools, but in what previously were lazy rivers. "They are turning them into more of an action river kind of experience by adding wave action and boosting a higher level of flow in the rivers so that you actually get a faster current than what you would see in a typical lazy river."
Another design trend involves wave pool configurations; for example, kids' wave pools, with smaller waves where more kids can enjoy the stimulation of being in a wave pool. Or dual-entry wave pools where there are two beaches. Here, parents can sit along the shallow end and your kids can be in the other space.
The new facilities look like and are designed as a place for families to spend all day. "They are beginning to step it up," Keim said, "in terms of providing better and more shade, and improved food and beverage offerings, as opposed to the old greasy hot dog that has been sitting on a roller for four hours.
"I'm even seeing upgrades in furniture at these facilities," Keim noted. "You didn't used to see that at a city pool, where the kids went to get swim lessons or where moms would hang out for an hour while kids splashed around in the wading pool. It's not like that anymore."
A Case Study in California
Working with Aquatic Design Group, the City of North Richland Hills, Texas, worked to upgrade its aging municipal waterpark with a state-of-the-art slide attraction. City officials wanted to reduce costs and increase attendance at the park.
Aquatic Design Group worked with officials to develop a long-range, phased development plan addressing the immediate need, as well as future development.
The best slide attraction option was identified—one that stayed in budget while maximizing the user experience.
The result? The park's "Viper" waterslide was opened in 2011, a family ride featuring high banking turns and a drop into a 20-foot megatube.
You obviously need to look at the demographics of the community, Palmer said. "We know that as a whole, the U.S. has an aging population. So, you'll want to offer a variety of amenities that reaches out to the entire community. That means from children 2 years of age to seniors 102 years of age, and everywhere in between.
"The biggest trend I've seen in outdoor facilities are designs that have flexibility, in spaces and in water, so that the entire park has the ability to serve a wide array of programs. Oftentimes at outdoor facilities, that means we are going to get into multiple pools."
A designer might take a look at a facility that has initially been targeted as an Olympic-size pool, and take that same amount of water and break it up into two or three pools, so you can have varied water temperatures and water depths that can be specific to service specific programs.
Having multiple pools also can provide flexibility in off seasons, where you might not have a need for one of the pools, Palmer said. "You'd have the ability to let it go dormant. And not have to staff it, not have to pay to heat it to maintain it, as you would if it were in operation. "This can help reduce operating cost, which gets back to how it affects our operating cost recovery potential for a pool."
Nachreiner agreed that the number-one trend, and maybe the best way to recover costs, is trying to make pools as multipurpose as possible, so that you can have the different program options.
"There are a whole group of options," he said, "that we know are popular and are going to serve most communities. You still want to have lap swimming, but also have water aerobics and learn-to-swim classes. If we can have in that same space where you can add some of those new unique activities—overhead spray features, retractable obstacle course systems, all within that same environment, it really maximizes the return on the investment in that square footage."
You want to appeal to all ages within a typical family, Nachreiner said, which will cover a wide range of users. "You can have everyone from grandma and grandpa, a senior fitness type of user, to middle-age users looking for entertainment, teenagers, young kids and toddlers. We try to configure that whole family in a multi-generational approach to cover all the potential users."
Typically, the age group that is so often discussed as hard to engage with is in the teenage range, Gerber said. Surf simulators and other adventurous activities can help. "Anything from tweens, 11- and 12-year-olds and on up, engaging in action adventure sports is really going to appeal to that group that is typically head-down and into a phone and looking away."
Waterslide racing is another way to appeal to the tween-teen demographic. Thanks to technology, you can install timing systems on slides, so that one person going down the slide competes with the next person going down the slide.
"You can customize a user's experience in waterslides so that it is something different as they go down every time," Gerber said. There are slide manufacturers, she noted, that have music in them and different animal sounds, different lights, false bottoms so it feels like you are going to fall down or shoot out the side when you are actually continuing around to different curves. You can time an entire music show to the lights, so the lights of the clouds that are ceiling-mounted and have water coming down off them also played music during the slide. Even consider installing nighttime lighting, she said, so that your facility can be used and rented out after dark and can keep contributing to cost recovery.
In terms of revenue, for a facility to be successful it needs to become a destination facility, and not a drop-off facility, Palmer said. "At the old municipal outdoor pools, you would drop off your kids for a swim class and then pick them up an hour or two later. Now we want the facility to be a place where the entire family can come and recreate. And when the family comes to recreate, they are going to spend more time, which means the ability to generate more revenue, whether it is concession sales or program sales."
If your facility is a recreation-type destination facility, you'll see more repeat business. "The other thing we look at from a revenue recovery perspective, is the basis of revenue structure," Palmer said. "The more personalized the programs become, the higher or more market-value fees the facility is able to charge."
A perfect example of that is the onset of swim schools at outdoor facilities that are operating at a profit. There is a lot of money to be made by offering swim lessons, Palmer said, but it is not simply offering swim lessons when it is convenient for kids but marketing this as a level of service to the community.
"From a personalized standpoint," Palmer continued, "if you go from a group swim lesson, where you charge X dollars, and if it can become a semi-private lesson it will be X-plus dollars, and if it becomes a private lesson it has an even greater revenue potential. Offering programs like that, which can reach out to a community, is a way to generate more revenue for the same water."
There are a few other ways to attack budget drain, Palmer said. "We know that a flat-water facility, a rectangular eight-lane or six-lane Olympic-size pool, on average, at an outdoor facility, will generate about a 30 to 40%, maybe up to a 50% annual operating cost recovery."
Pools that have more amenities that reach out to the public can generate 70 to 90% annual operating cost recovery, he said. "Part of that cost recovery is going to be based on two things. One: If you look at outdoor aquatic centers, about 60% of the annual operating expenses are staffing. Labor, wages, benefits. Another 30% is going to be your utilities." So to reduce operating expense, you need to look carefully at staffing and maintenance.
If you look at a multiple pool facility, you can start reducing some of that 30% annual operating cost, via the utility and maintenance part of it. With multiple pools, Palmer said, you might have areas you can cordon off. One side might be for competitive fitness users, with recreational water on another side. "You might even bifurcate the site, build barriers so that during the winter, when kids are back in school you might not have need for that recreational water."
The benefit of an outdoor facility, Palmer said, is it is not limited to that natatorium. It is going to intermix the dry land and the wet amenities. Knowing that the family might come, you might have other amenities that older people, for example, might get involved with, that is not part of swimming, but allows the entire family to come and recreate at this destination facility. Provide plenty of shade areas, for example.
Make your park an adventure park. Take that rectangular, flat water and install floating obstacle courses to generate additional revenue. Facilities might put up this obstacle course and then for an extra dollar, patrons would get a wrist band and they get to use that amenity. It becomes more of a personalized program and provides ways to generate more revenue for the same existing infrastructure.
The focus, more and more, is on trying to create a facility that can at least break even and is not a drain. And aquatic parks of all sizes are doing that by stepping up their game, Keim said. "Adding a variety of family-appealing attractions that make the facility a destination for the better part of a day or the entire day. In doing that, it is easier to justify an incremental increase in the gate admission or memberships for the year."
Facilities are starting to do many different things that make it attractive enough for families to part with more money than they had in the past, he said. "But it is still an absolute bargain when compared to going to a larger commercial park and paying a $35 or $40 admission per head that it takes to go to their waterpark."
Attractions like a surf simulator, where you have to learn a skill in order to ride the attraction, can draw a younger, more adventurous clientele. Users who want to ride the surf simulator sign a release, pay an upcharge and get a wristband that gives them access, Keim said.
Other ideas: Facilities with surf simulators can do early-morning lessons, where kids can pay and come in and take lessons and learn how to surf, learn how to flow board. And then in the off hours, after the park is closed you can run a league, with teams that compete against one another.
Event days are a big deal, Keim said. If you have the facility available in the evenings you can rent the entire park for an event: a corporate outing, a birthday party. The possibilities are only limited by the imagination.
Another good thing about the surf simulator, said Julie St. Louis, of Aquatic Development Group, is the opportunity for adaptive programming. "You can provide access to people with learning or physical disabilities," she said. "In that way the facility becomes a learning tool for people who have challenges." RM
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