Water Worlds

The Latest & Greatest in Aquatic Park Design

By Chris Gelbach

As the nation shows promising signs of a return toward vaccination-enabled normalcy, waterparks are also looking to continue their pre-pandemic advance. As construction of new indoor and outdoor aquatic parks again ramps up, park designers are seeing clients opt to go bigger and better using the latest product innovations to create more exciting, more active and more intergenerational parks. These choices are raising the bar for aquatic designs while also extending visitor stays with an eye on boosting revenues.

COVID Considerations

As waterparks begin to see the light at the end of the slide tunnel in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, designers expect the experience to influence park designs over the longer term. "I see a lot more focus on how we keep people apart together, if that makes sense," said David Keim, director of public market business development for Aquatic Development Group (ADG) based in Cohoes, N.Y., "with increased deck areas and thinking a lot harder about what queuing lines look like for refreshments and food and beverage as well as for rides and attractions."

Designers are also seeing park operators embrace smart-park apps that give them information on visitor demographics, locations, ride preferences, food purchases and other items. They also enable visitors to do things like view wait times, purchase food, open lockers, and locate family and friends in the park.

"I think people [post-COVID] have this expectation of, 'I don't just show up anymore,'" said Josh Martin, president and creative director of Martin Aquatic, an aquatic design firm based in Orlando, Fla. "'I am planning what I'm going to do.' So we're developing a socially distanced app-centric approach for things like foodservice or picking up food or getting tickets or access control from day one."

Likewise, designers expect to see an ongoing focus on deck and grass space. "I think people are going to be sticking with the habit of spreading out a little bit," said Jen Gerber, business development manager for Water Technology Inc. (WTI), an aquatic design firm headquartered in Beaver Dam, Wis.

She is likewise seeing some attractions like lazy rivers go a bit wider. "The basic function and form of a lazy river is already kind of COVID-friendly, and widening it a little bit is just another opportunity to create a little more space," Gerber said.

Keim is also seeing some wider rivers in parks like Soaky Mountain in Sevierville, Tenn.—but that's because it's an adventure river featuring large, aggressive waves.

In many respects, designers feel that waterparks are already doing a lot of things right, from the COVID-killing chlorinated waters to the high air-exchange rates of indoor parks. If anything, Martin expects indoor parks to go even further in that direction by increasing their adoption of openable and retractable roof technologies. "Having the ability to crack your roof and windows open and get fresh air—specifically in a COVID environment—is an incredible advantage," Martin said.

Bigger and Better

Martin is seeing both public and commercial waterparks get bigger and better. "What I'm seeing is that traditionally you may have done a body of water that had a connected basketball pool and a connected lazy river, and you're seeing all of those elements space out and be given a little bit more room," Martin said. "We're seeing larger footprints for project sites. It's not that we're seeing a massive increase in some budgets, but we're seeing people looking at a larger acreage of land." This gives them more space both for their day-one build and for future park expansions.

He's also seeing more counties and local municipalities build out waterparks, such as in Collier County, Fla., where the local government has built pocket aqua parks spaced throughout the county that feature a slide tower, lap pool, family pool and toddler/baby pool.

Designers are also seeing large-scale waterpark-like attractions being added to resorts, or those that already had them upping the ante. "If the resort had a lazy river, now they're adding a bigger slide tower. If they didn't have either, they're adding both," Martin said.

Keim is also seeing this growth in high-level water amenities at resorts and campgrounds. "Let's face it, the kids are the ones that generally end up making the choice of where the family goes on vacation," Keim said. If two similar competing resorts offer golf and other adult-friendly amenities, but one has a waterpark, it often wins. "The families are going to be more inclined to go there because that's where the kids want to go," Keim said. "And those properties are generally able to get higher room revenues than the run-of-the-mill resorts. It's exploded in the resort market."

Next-Level Rides and Theming

This growth in waterpark attractions, in turn, is pushing large-scale commercial entertainment parks to take things to an even higher level in their offerings, assisted by the continual innovations of product developers.

"They're focused on where they can offshoot their dollars toward thrills and theming and to get people to come back to create immersive environments every time they visit," said Gerber. "Parks like Volcano Bay in Universal Orlando are a great example. It's got theming galore, and you don't realize you're in a waterpark—it feels like you're in a tropical oasis," Gerber said. And these environments are aimed at not only spurring visits, but lengthening family stays at these larger resorts.

This approach is being applied to both outdoor and indoor waterparks. Gerber's firm recently worked on the Kalahari Resort in Round Rock, Texas, which bills itself as America's largest indoor waterpark at 223,000 square feet and features safari theming throughout, including the Barreling Baboon slide, the Cheetah Race mat slide, the Rippling Rhino flume and the Screaming Hyena drop slide that starts through the roof 60 feet above the waterpark floor.

Another new WTI park, the DreamWorks Water Park in East Rutherford, N.J., claims on its website to be the largest indoor waterpark in North America. It features a 1.6 million-gallon indoor wave pool that purports to be the world's biggest. Its over-the-top theming is based on popular DreamWorks characters, from an area called Shrek's Soggy Swamp to the Kung Fu Panda Zone to the Thrillagascar and Jungle Jammer capsule drop slides.

But these theming ideas can also be applied to enhance the experience of a municipal waterpark. "It's one thing to say, 'Mommy, when I get there I want to ride the red slide,'" Martin said. "It's another to say, 'I want to ride the green mamba.' There's something associated with it. 'I conquered the Slingshot,' or 'I conquered Daredevil's Peak.' Simple names, but giving people an opportunity to go, 'Yeah, I want to do that.'"

Things like photo capture and social media sharing of these signature activities can help with this branding and also create a more fulfilling experience for guests. "It's building the anticipation. And I think that that can come to a community center and come to a local municipality. Because it's not that expensive to do," Martin said. "It's just, have a good website, have good photos, and set the experience and the tone."

Super Slides

A variety of new slide innovations give waterpark operators a sometimes-overwhelming array of new and interesting options. Gerber's firm is working on a new installation called Garden Rapids at the Big Pool in Garden City, Kansas, which will feature launch rider slides that shoot you up into the air instead of down into the water, and another newer slide option that's a standup waterslide.

The "Big Pool" bills itself as the world's largest hand-dug pool, originally built in 1922, and once was used to bathe elephants from the local zoo. "We've been working to balance and respect the history of the pool while bringing it up to date and finding fun new amenities that will engage users for the next 100 years," Gerber said.

Slide stair towers can also serve as more than merely functional—they are in some cases becoming the iconic focal point of the waterpark. That was Martin's firm's intent in the design of Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at Coco Cay waterpark in the Bahamas, which features a 150-foot tower with multicolored metal cladding. "It became a symbol or a way to say, I can make my tower that I'm already spending a lot of money on the icon of my park," Martin said. "I can make it my Cinderella castle."

Other slide options that are increasingly being implemented are timers to make it a competitive event and increased gamification with LED lights and elements riders can touch and activate.

Multigenerational Appeal

Bigger and better aren't the only trends in waterpark design, however. The overall designs of parks are also focused more than ever on offering multigenerational appeal, both through attractions that provide communal experiences that different ages can do together and through attractions aimed at specific age groups.

"We're making sure if we have a kid's play structure that caters to 5 to 11, that maybe we have a toddler pool or a small kids' play structure that caters to 2 to 5 and we put them near each other," Martin said. "Because the high likelihood is that you [the parents] have kids in both of those demographics."

Keim's firm designed a mini wave pool with tiny wave action for kids, accompanied by benches integrated into the walls with shade structures over them. "The tots can be out and about in the waves and under the spray features doing their thing while mom and/or dad are sitting with their feet in the water in the shade but still within arm's reach of their kids," Keim said. "Those are starting to pick up in popularity for sure."

Cabanas are another feature that continue to grow and to provide multigenerational appeal. "It gives a family a home base at the park as opposed to rushing in when the gates open and claiming your lounge chairs," Keim said.

They're also a great source of revenue, and something that designers like Martin see operators clamoring for more of after they've installed them. "They're not cheap to rent by any stretch, but a lot of families find them to be a fantastic value," Keim said. "And it does elevate the experience in the park."

While some feature upgraded furniture, a fridge, ceiling fan and servers that bring you food, some of the new larger parks go even more extravagant. The DreamWorks Water Park, for instance, features options that range from poolside cabanas to skybox suites that range in size up to 650 square feet, feature 65-inch flatscreens and offer décor and unique skybox themes designed by famed designer Jonathan Adler.

While most waterparks aren't going quite that far, many are upping their game in amenities, including elevating food beyond the usual park fare. "They really have elevated the experience offering a variety of different types of food and different outlets and really just increasing the guest experience," Keim said.

And in cases where they don't want to take that task on, they're trying other creative approaches. "We've seen a lot of owners talk about things like circle drives where food trucks can pull in rather than by investing in brick-and-mortar concession space," Gerber said.

Attractions for Tweens and Teens

To truly hit a home run in terms of multigenerational appeal requires providing attractions that engage the hard-to-reach teen and tween audiences. Designers are including a variety of active and skill-based attractions as one way to do it—and to do it at different budget levels.

"On the lower-cost side of things, slacklines are very low cost, they can be added in to pretty much any body of water, usually lap lanes, and it provides a unique competition environment," Gerber said.

While climbing walls aren't new, they're a tried-and-true amenity. "Things like adding to that height can increase the competition level and the skill level that's required, and often that deck space gets used just with the people sitting around the edges watching that competition take place," Gerber said.

Martin Aquatic is putting in an adventure pool featuring inflatable lily pads or other children's obstacle course elements or a rock-climbing wall in a pool in almost every new waterpark project featuring multiple bodies of water.

These kinds of attractions can be done even in small pools, like Martin did with Hawaiian Falls Roanoke, which features an inflatable water walk, a sun shelf for sunbathers in the middle and a basketball hoop in the other end of a 1,500-square-foot pool. "It's not all about slides. Having that flat water adds a lot to it. Most kids—most people—like to be active. You don't want to just sit in the water all day long," Martin said.

Higher-end obstacle courses are also either being included or being considered in more and more new park designs as another way to provide exercise, competition and programming opportunities in the waterpark environment.

Surf attractions are also growing, and the options available range from huge patented surf pools with beaches and boardwalks to traditional sheet-wave technologies to options in between.

While some of these options have lower throughput, they are also skill-based and offer significant revenue opportunities. ADG has installed more than 100 sheet-wave surf attractions in waterparks, with more than 30 of them in public parks.

"It is definitely a spectator attraction, and if you put food and beverage and a place for people to sit and relax nearby, you'll see people sit and watch it for hours," Keim said. "It's pretty much nonstop entertainment."

It's also a skill-based attraction that can bring repeat visits and even be programmed through lesson programs. Keim is also seeing parks open up the surf attraction during the shoulder seasons, since surf enthusiasts will go out even when it's chilly, and the attraction only requires two staff members to operate. This also enables the attraction to be used at off-hours. "As a birthday party or corporate event rental space, they're great revenue generators," Keim said. And because people sit and watch the surfers during regular operating hours, "It increases in-park spending and increases time in park," Keim said.

Operation Is Key

Designers are also looking at every other avenue possible to provide big thrills and immersive experiences while still offering the most desirable sightlines for reducing lifeguarding needs and operational costs. "We have a couple of parks that focused more on ceiling-mounted amenities," Gerber said. These can improve sight lines, reduce operational costs and provide something different.

"We've all seen play features in splash pads," Gerber said. "We don't all see storm clouds that send water down from the sky that are full with colorful light shows."

As they go bigger and bolder, designers are also taking great care to create designs focused on easy operation, reduced operational costs and lower maintenance costs. "We want you to be able to have a facility than in 25 years looks great and is operating well and you're making updates and enhancements because you want to, not because you need to," Gerber said. RM



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