Transforming Pools & Splash Pads for Post-Pandemic Fun

By Chris Thomas

Although many commercial pools and splash pads have been forced to close during the pandemic, savvy facilities are using their closure time as an opportunity to look for ways to do much-needed maintenance or even embark on renovation projects. Forward-thinking aquatic managers realize that planned renovations will help them bring patrons back to their facility once they are allowed to reopen. New spray and play water features, slides and poolside climbing walls provide multiple thrill levels to a wide range of ages. By creatively reassessing aquatic facility space and capitalizing on existing plumbing and pumps, commercial aquatic facilities can quickly create a renovation plan that will bring back old patrons and reach out to a larger group of new patrons to quickly increase attendance and boost profits.

Getting Started

In most cases, aquatic facilities start exploring ideas for their facilities when they know it's time to resurface their slides, repaint their water features or they have deteriorated features that need to be removed and are wondering what options they have to put in their place. "A large part of what we do as consultants and designers is to bring awareness to the many things that can go in the place of an old water feature or an old slide or diving board," said Cory Anderson, aquatic consultant and owner of 80West Group in South Carolina. "We like to provide options that fit within their budget and timeline that will give the facility something new with a big 'wow' factor that will attract patrons."

There are hundreds of options available, but not all facilities have the space, the budget or the time needed to do huge renovations. It's important to take the time to evaluate the site to determine what can be easily incorporated. When it comes right down to it, aquatic facilities are looking to get the biggest 'wow' factor for their investment. "Because of the popularity of large waterparks, aquatic facilities are trying to emulate waterparks by bringing small-scale versions of what people experience at Great Wolf Lodge," said Anderson. In fact, those the field agree that aquatic renovations should strive to transform the space into a community's central attraction. Aquatic directors realize that the waterpark model has the potential to attract patrons of all ages and truly revive an aquatic facility.

Designing Around Existing Plumbing, Pumps & Feeds

One of the best practices in aquatic renovation design is to begin with a reverse-engineering perspective. "We often begin working on our designs by determining what water lines, plumbing and pumps are already there and design around it, when possible," Anderson said.

Maximizing untapped potential is the most efficient way to quickly determine renovations that will provide varying levels of user interaction. "We frequently find that an aquatic facility has a fully functioning large-feed with a fully functioning feature pump and stable feed line, so we use that as our design launching point," noted Anderson.

Many older aquatic facilities have a single water feature that only serves one age group and no longer provides a thrill for other potential users. One of the fastest, simplest renovations in such a case involves removing the older component and using the water feed to create a multi-level play structure. This would involve choosing a series of water features that fit in the same space but cater to various age groups—from toddlers to tweens.

"I've done several projects where I have taken an old mushroom off that typically pushes 350 gallons of water per minute, then we have taken that same water to redistribute to a multilevel water play structure that can be bolted into the pool deck—using the same existing feed and existing pump," explained Anderson. "We try to minimize the infrastructure costs and use what is there that is working and provide them with a big 'wow' factor with new play components to promote their facility."

Simple Solutions

For aquatic facilities looking for features that require minimal renovation but provide a big "wow" factor, Anderson said that poolside climbing walls and smaller slides are an ideal choice. "We find that older aquatic facilities typically have underutilized deep-end pools where the water is flat and not appealing to tweens and teens," explained Anderson. "One of the easiest and best solutions for these areas is to add a poolside climbing wall that has tremendous visual appeal and immediately attracts tweens and teens to those underutilized deep areas of a pool." Climbing walls can be easily attached to the pool deck and do not require any water source, making them a quick, simple solution that quickly and easily provides a renovated look to an older pool.

Smaller slides also provide a quick and simple solution for aquatic facilities, particularly for the often-underutilized "kiddie" or "baby" pool. It's common for older aquatic facilities to have underutilized kiddie pools with stagnant water that tends to just grow algae. There is little attraction to that flat water by toddlers and younger children. "When it comes to kiddie pools and splash pads, we immediately offer a slide for facilities looking for a quick renovation that packs a huge visual punch, attracts toddlers and younger children and is super easy to install," said Anderson.

The slides require a very low flow of water so it makes them very easy to add to pools. Additionally, these slides come in a variety of themes to quickly give the pool the feeling of mini-waterpark. Aquatic facilities can choose slides with pirate themes, nature themes or sports themes, and the slides come in a variety of sizes and footprints so they lend themselves to work on virtually any space. "When helping a facility choose a slide, we show them the many themes available then narrow down a slide that will fit into their kiddie pool, splash pad or beach entry area such that they have the safety zones and clearances needs around the structure to be in compliance with all ordinances," explained Anderson. Best of all, there is no need to break up any of the deck. "When facilities are short on time and have a limited budget, a slide is a fast, easy, budget friendly solution."

Experienced aquatic designers realize that the most successful aquatic renovations are those that leverage underutilized space or underutilized water features so that there isn't a need to completely overhaul the existing facility. "We always want to know what is already there and try to build and add to it in order to maximize untapped potential," Anderson said. Aquatic designers agree that it is important to optimize space and maximize any existing infrastructure.

Planning for Different Thrill Levels

During the design process, it's important to keep in mind that in choosing different upgrades, the features should each be tailored to engage every age group in a family. "The most successful renovations are the designs that provide comfortable play spaces for the really young ones as well as the older kids," said Anderson. Whenever possible, it's important to plan for a toddler area, a different space for the 4-to-7-year-olds and a bigger kid area for the 8-to-12-year-old crowd.

"It's best to plan for multiple thrill levels in the design process so that your aquatic facility will engage every member in a family," said Anderson. By engaging every member of the family, aquatic facilities are more likely to attract new patrons with children of all ages. It's also important to designate a toddler area with calming, interactive water features that are not too close to the slides, water cannons or larger dumping buckets designed for the middle and older children in a family.

Adding Inclusive Features

When choosing play products to renovate an aquatic facility, it's also important to choose products that provide a variety of experiences that make them inclusive for all physical, developmental or cognitive limitations. The arrangement of play features is key to ensure those with developmental or cognitive limitations have areas within a splash pad to participate.

A variety of sensory experiences that build upon one another make the facility more inclusive for those with developmental and cognitive limitations. For example, designers can create a sequence of features, starting with sensory exploration with something as simple as a bubbler, and slowly graduating to those with increased intensity, which draw users into the splash pad. When done properly, this sequencing provides participants the opportunity to try something more powerful, like an archway with spraying water, but also allows them to quickly retreat to a less forceful water feature. Moving from one zone to another allows users to explore the area at their own pace.

"One of our favorite, go-to products that is inclusive for all, is the Mushroom Maze, which provides both a simple and attractive design for users of all ages and abilities," Anderson said. "Kids can either play from outside the mushroom of water or sit under the dome of sprays, which creates a pleasing white noise and allows them to retreat into a world of their own." This type of feature provides a 'wow' factor while also appealing to a variety of patron cognitive and developmental needs.

More Than a Play Space

As with any community gathering space, having a visually striking feature on a pool or splash pad can provide excitement and interest for all users. Using a large climbing wall on a deep end pool, a themed slide in a kiddie pool or an iconic water feature piece within the splash pad are all important to aquatic facilities that want to give their facility a waterpark feel that will attract patrons. Large buckets of water that anchor the splash pad add an element of attraction even when the facility is not in use. Just watching the water flow—even from a distance—adds to the excitement. One of the more eye-catching options for splash pads are large rings that spray a mist. These are both attractive and easily integrate into a sequencing design for inclusive play. Having water splash, cascade and bubble creates a series of soothing sounds, which invariably enhances the ambience.

It is also important to remember that splash pads serve a smore than mere water play areas. By employing strategies to enhance the overall visual aesthetics, a splash pad can lend year-round appeal to a facility, even in the winter. Some clients, especially homeowners' associations and residential developments are interested in adding lighting to their splash pads and changing their colors several times a year. For example, red and green can be used around the winter holidays. "Water features with LED lighting serve to help promote the facility at night, even when the facility isn't open," explained Anderson. "There are many water and lighting elements that together create an exciting visual impact and even allow some facilities to extend their operating hours."

While aquatic facilities are focused on welcoming patrons back as states allow reopening, now is the time to explore renovation products that provide a big visual impact and thrills for all ages and members of a family. Remember that there are many simple solutions like smaller themed slides, poolside climbing walls and water features that can be easily integrated into the existing footprint and infrastructure of your pool. Don't wait. Get the solutions that fit your budget, footprint and timeline to make your aquatic facility the talk of the town in 2021.



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