The Water's Fine!

What's New in Waterparks

By Dave Ramont

It's unfortunate that these days—when discussing pretty much any industry—we have to consider how the ongoing pandemic is affecting business. And as we examine new trends at waterparks, we also wonder how they're weathering the storm and what the future may look like. And while it's true that some parks were unable to open this season and others opened with limited capacity and new restrictions and protocols, we're also happy to report that there is some good news when it comes to new waterpark construction and renovation projects.

Jen Gerber, business development leader, and Robbie Hazelbaker, project director for Water Technology Inc., report having a variety of aquatic projects in all venues—municipal recreation, commercial waterparks, resorts, hotels and more. And while many municipalities placed projects on hold due to funding constraints, many other communities moved forward with development plans. "There are also many pools that are closed for the summer or for the short term as their leadership addresses operational impacts for the pool, and we're finding that many municipalities are taking advantage of this time to audit and assess their facility and engage firms like us to plan for brighter days," Gerber said.

Drew Ford, sales manager for a Kansas-based firm that designs, engineers, manufactures and installs waterslides and waterpark attractions, has also seen new projects and renovations moving forward. "Much of this is based on the age of the park, the location, the political climate—whether funding has been secured or still needs to be sought out—and by the type of venue. Is the venue publicly owned? Private? There is still work taking place, and we're seeing all markets work through this the best way they can to provide aquatic recreation to their users."

Fun in the Water

So as waterparks are getting back to business, what are some of the current trends with regard to attractions? "Waterslides will always remain a mainstay of waterpark attractions, but if we look beyond these colorful structures, what we see is the foundation to creating the overall waterpark experience, and that's the in-water attractions," said Jessica Mahoney, director of marketing for Aquatic Development Group. "A lot of what's happening today in terms of innovation is taking place in pools and rivers. From innovative wave rivers to in-water play and adventure obstacle courses, these water attractions are redefining the typical flat pool areas and lazy rivers, providing parks with all new ways to get people in the water, increasing guest satisfaction and length of stay."

"One of the big trends right now is the element of competition in parks of all shapes and sizes," said Gerber. "Whether that's a timing element for a waterslide or an aquatic obstacle course, the industry is looking to engage that historically challenging demographic of teens and tweens."

She explained that while patrons can race their peers or family members, they also look to beat their own personal best time, creating a unique user experience for guests of all ages and abilities. "This audience is more focused on technology and social media; as designers we're working to find ways to increase thrill and adrenaline activities while providing safe opportunities for aquatic exploration. Other solutions for providing these experiences include features like log rolling, surfing, slacklining and experience-driven water-slides."

Along with body slides, speed slides, drop slides, family slides, kiddie racers, splash bowls and raft rides, Ford's company offers innovative new attractions, including a waterslide you ride while standing up, holding the side rails and gliding down on your heels. A new extreme drop slide features a drop capsule with a curved back riding surface, making for a smooth and ergonomic ride. And it allows for multiple capsules to be linked together for a thrilling multi-user experience. Custom light and sound packages can be added to any new or existing waterslide design. "Each slide has its own unique experience for the rider. Whether coasting or flying, there's always something to look forward to on these innovative rides. The best thing about an adrenaline ride is the feeling of the thrill and the unknown, when in fact these rides have been proven to be predictable and safe," said Ford.

Mahoney's firm also builds and manufactures their own equipment, technology and attractions, including skill-based surf attractions. Surf rides can be tailored to each riders' level of comfort and experience, with operators altering the wave shapes and sizes with one-touch adjustable power level controls. These attractions are offered in various configurations, including single, double or triple lane, as well as a 180-degree surf ride utilizing an inflatable surface.

Surf rides continue to be popular mainstay attractions for both private and municipal waterparks nationwide, according to Mahoney. "It is not only an exciting attraction to ride, with additional revenue generated through lessons and tournament participation, it is the perfect attraction for bystanders to sit, grab some food and enjoy the show!"

Hazelbaker agreed that these attractions create great opportunities for spectators and extra revenue, pointing out that they're often located near food and beverage areas.

While inflatable obstacle courses are still popular amenities, there are now more advanced obstacle course systems available. Indoor systems are mounted to the ceiling, while outdoor versions utilize a structural support truss that bolts to the pool deck. These can be deployed in under 60 seconds with the push of a button. Featuring many interchangeable elements and modifiable obstacles, these systems can be reconfigured to appeal to all ages and levels, offering fun and challenging competition. Users can input their name and track time with a touch-screen interface and scores are recorded in a database.

These systems also offer up different programming opportunities, with some facilities using them for low-impact aquatic fitness and aqua HIIT group classes. Other venues feature recreational obstacle course racing, even creating leagues and hosting tournaments and other spectator events.

Wave pools and rivers are often the largest and most used attractions at a waterpark, and Mahoney's company offers a wide variety of wave system options, from children's pools to family recreational wave pools to high-performance surf and boogie boarding pools. Mahoney notes how the river ride is taking on a whole new life with all the innovation in river waves, lighting and fast currents for swimming. "We're seeing more and more waterparks adding second river experiences to offer both a lazy river option as well as a more thrilling one. Even indoor waterparks are jumping on this trend. Soundwaves at Gaylord Opryland in Nashville is one great example, featuring both a lazy and fast-swim river in their indoor waterpark."

Lazy rivers are more popular than ever, according to Gerber. She explained that multi-generational design is a critical consideration, and lazy rivers, current channels and wave pools are great examples of amenities that serve the masses. "They're considered 'people-holders,' and will provide space for swimmers to cool off. Amenities like slides bring excitement and even notoriety to a park, but lines get long and there should always be space for large quantities of people. Lazy rivers are people-holders that appeal to families, young children, teens and even active seniors who might be utilizing the river for resistance walking or a relaxing float."

She pointed out that adding action to lazy rivers by increasing the water flow and adding waves adds to the "watertainment" factor, and theming the environment around the lazy river adds to the experience and makes the ride more interesting.

What's Your Theme?

Speaking of theming, is this still a trend for waterparks? Absolutely, said Hazelbaker. Theming provides marketing benefits, increased recognition and increased usage. "The city of El Paso is wrapping up three neighborhood waterparks that are all themed to fit the culture of the communities they serve. Cost related to theming represents about 15% of their construction budget. But there are also lots of solutions for low-cost ways to achieve a theme. Working within an overall design aesthetic to select specific colors, features and art can aid in making an aquatic facility feel like it has more theming involved than the budget might have allowed."

Designers and manufacturers seek to achieve an immersive experience that unites a park in a way that will engage users on every visit, according to Ford. "The great thing about theming is that you can do a lot with very little. Whether that is thatched roofing to create a jungle/island theme, sculpted elements to suspend one's imagination or a multitude of colors for slides, powder coat or accessory items. Attendees are transported to a unique environment with every visit to the park."

Mahoney agreed that clients seek out custom themes. "Kartrite indoor waterpark (in New York) was designed to reflect the natural landscape of the surrounding Catskill Mountains." She also mentioned a recent project in Tennessee, the 50-acre Soaky Mountain Waterpark, which opened in June of this year and was designed to reflect the park's location in the Smoky Mountains. From the entry point to the furthest part of the waterpark there was 100 feet of elevation. A key objective in the design was to preserve and showcase the unique elevation grade as much as possible, creating a unique 'mountain modern' landscape, which allowed them to creatively design the amenities into the elevation versus just flattening it.

Expanding Opportunity

One design trend that Gerber mentioned is a focus on multi-purpose and multi-season use. "Finding creative solutions to utilize aquatic facilities that are outdoors into either shoulder season or year-round will provide an opportunity for added revenue and a unique experience at the facility."

She mentioned a recent project in Langley, British Columbia—the Aldergrove Credit Union Community Center. A circus theme is carried throughout the waterpark, which features a wave pool with a movie screen, a river channel with spray features, various waterslides, a splash pad, an adventure playground, interactive features, a social pool, a competition pool and more. And in the winter, the 25-meter lanes, lifestyle pool and hot tub will all remain open under a large wood canopy.

Generally speaking, other things that park operators are looking for include sustainability, durability, value and safety, according to Hazelbaker. Features that last. "Many of the spray park feature manufacturers create spray components that are interchangeable when budgets allow for updates and upgrades. There are also solutions for lower-cost flexibility in programming like lily pads and floatables. By changing these out from location to location or pool to pool, there's a fresh, new amenity for swimmers to climb and conquer."

With facility design, Gerber described how they look toward the next few decades, considering potential updates and upgrades, working with clients to understand when there is a possibility for phased additions to the aquatics area. "Whether that's the future construction of an outdoor park or simply planning a large enough slide platform and mechanical equipment to accommodate an additional waterslide as budget allows, front-end planning can make a tremendous impact on long-term park development."

With regard to refurbishing, Mahoney points to Kings Dominion Waterpark in Virginia. "Here we took an older wave pool and transformed the space into an all-new kids area called Coconut Shores. By reutilizing the existing footprint and equipment space, it allowed for tremendous cost savings when it came to the renovation. The new area was transformed into a 3,000-square-foot kids wave pool with playful one-foot tall waves and interactive splash elements, a 45-foot tall multi-level aqua play structure featuring hundreds of interactive elements and a new dining area as well."

Speaking of dining, Mahoney reminds us that out-of-water experiences are crucial too. "This includes everything from ensuring enough deck space, lounge chairs, shading and cabanas, to the amount and locations of food and beverage outlets, changing rooms and restrooms, even ticketing ques and parking access. Increasing length of stay and per-person in-park spend is extremely important."

"Concessions are important, but what is truly profitable for parks is birthday parties and pool reservations", said Hazelbaker, pointing out that everyone is anxious for private parties to return. "Rentable space is incredibly profitable for parks and now we're starting to consider how parks can utilize cabanas to provide distance between guests and to deliver additional revenue streams. We believe that might be a design trend that comes from the current pandemic situation—more deck and dry space to accommodate social distancing and potentially as a revenue source."

COVID Impact

And what other changes might evolve from this current situation?

Hazelbaker said that in discussions for future planning, owners are considering crowd limitations, seating layouts or providing no seating at all. "From an operations standpoint, we're seeing park staff utilizing a 'reservations only' system with limitations on bather loads and extra sanitizing time for equipment like chairs, tables, tubes etc. As designers we're watching the current pandemic situation as it evolves, and we believe that the best thing we can do is remain aware and informed for potential project implications."

Looking back over the summer when most parks had limited capacity, Mahoney said that spacing revisions, along with creative adjustments for lines, seating areas, etc., seemed to do the trick to sufficiently meet social distancing requirements. "That being said, I do think it will become a talking point and something that will be taken into consideration as we move forward, ensuring that a park design must be flexible to work in both 'normal' times and in times when we're facing issues such as this pandemic."

Mahoney said these considerations might include creative design solutions that can be easily adjusted, allowing for simple in-park changes to ensure social distancing when needed. "For example, planning ahead for adequate spacing for allowing alternate guest flow patterns throughout the park; adequate deck space with larger umbrellas to ensure social distancing; ensuring queue areas are sufficient to handle longer spaced lines when needed; spaced out seating areas around food and beverage outlets; single flow entrance and egress capability; etc."

"Historically, throughput has been a major focus for waterparks and recreation centers alike," said Ford, suggesting that headfirst mat racers or multiple person rafting rides may be one way to address capacity issues. "The current pandemic situation has presented challenges for designers and manufacturers alike. We're all focused on the safest, best way to provide recreational experiences where we can increase the space between individuals and families. Whether these solutions come from queuing on the tower from deck to deck to maintain social distancing between nonfamily members or facility layout, we're all working to examine the best path forward for these safe environments."

Our contributors also said that sustainability initiatives were an important design driver, and agreed that the pandemic has put even more focus on water treatment, filtration and air quality. "With disinfection being a top-of-mind concern, more and more parks are looking to advanced, secondary disinfection such as UV and ozone to provide an added layer of protection against recreational water illness," said Mahoney. "Sustainability and energy efficiency are also gaining momentum at parks nationwide. Where possible, the addition of variable frequency drives to motors and installing LED lighting has proven to reduce power consumption and reduce operating costs."

From thrilling attractions to a good hotdog, there are many factors that add up to a successful waterpark. And it's important to ask the people what they want. "Successful designs take place when the local community or target market is considered in the planning stages of the project," said Gerber. "We want to be sure that there is an opportunity for aquatic engagement for all ages, abilities and types of guests." RM

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