Protected From the Elements

Read how indoor waterparks can offer fun year-round.

By Scot Hunsaker | 1992
Aquatics International

Indoor aquatic parks are appearing with growing frequency across North America. Inspired by their developersê desires to meet the needs of the community in an attractive and entertaining way, these facilities offer year-round attendance, greater revenues and lower subsidies and À in some cases À surplus cash flow for the municipalities that build them.

However, indoor aquatic parks can involve unexpectedly high capital and operating costs. For this reason, an understanding must be developed of the different design features that are available, their entertainment value and their potential economical return.

Several parks, including Water World at Timothy Lake in Pennsylvaniaês Pocono Mountains, the Shoreview Community Center in Shoreview, MN; and the recently opened North Clackamas Aquatic Park in Milwaukee, OR, are proof that indoor waterparks can be profitable.

Historical Perspective

The indoor leisure pool or waterpark had its genesis in Western Europe, where 30 years ago governments began to include water-play features, such as wave pools, elaborate waterslides, waterfalls and endless rivers into conventional natatoriums. This concept was then seen, modified and copied by architects in Great Britain. In time, the indoor leisure pool appeared in Canada, but indigenous variations. Now, the design is being imported into the United States, with even more modifications.

“I think the indoor waterparks are excellent. Our parent company in London has several of these of various sizes, and we are bringing the style to our system. Iêm always entertaining people who are interested in doing this type of thing in their area. We see ourselves as a prototype for the country,” said Steve Walston, manager at Water world, Bushkil, Pa.

The indoor park includes a 290-foot lazy river, two 18 foot waterslides, a Lily Pad activity pool and kiddie pool with a New Braunfels General Store Little Bucaneerês ship, a raindrop and a few small childrenês slides.

There are two basic prototypes for an indoor aquatic center. The first is freestanding “wet” recreation center, such as the new North Clackamas Aquatic Park. This type of complex consists only of a natatorium with the necessary support spaces for dressing, administration, food service, mechanical systems and maintenance. “We went and looked at nine indoor leisure centers to get ideas for our floor plan and to decide what to include. A lot of the Canadian ones had ice rinks and community centers attached to them, but our facility is strictly an aquatics park” said Lori Stirn, Aquatic Park, which opened in June.

The second prototype is a leisure pool natatorium that is part of a multi-use community center that also provides dry activities such as gymnasiums, a weight room, meeting rooms, a game room and perhaps even an ice rink or tennis center. Shoreview Community Center is an example of the multi-use community center, offering an array of aquatic attractions at its indoor leisure center: a 210-foot Speed King waterslide, pool with zero-depth entry beach area, a New Braunfels General Store mushroom waterfall, 15-person spa, outdoor wading pool with sun deck and a tropical décor. In addition, the facility includes a gymnasium, aerobics studio, a weight/fitness room, and day-care facilities, meeting rooms, a banquet room, administrative offices and city hall.

Indoor vs Outdoor

While on the surface, indoor waterparks seem similar to their outdoor cousins; many distinct design differences must be considered. This is especially true with regard to wave pools and waterslides.

Indoor wave pools are smaller and engineered differently. Space must be included for the wave generation equipment, which can be sized for relatively small pools and for combination wave/lap pools. The latter design has been used to meet multiple program requirements with a limited capital budget and/or a small building footprint.

However, a wave pool within a natatorium creates special dehumidification and acoustic challenges. Humidity caused by the wave action can impact the building materials and should be accounted for in the air-handling system design. The design response to noise can occur in a variety of ways. With the sound of the breaking waves and the squeals and shouts of swimmers, the noise level is significant. To prevent the noise level from being so high that patrons cannot hear directions from lifeguards or instructor reverberation must be controlled.

Lighting also is essential for safe operations, yet there can be a great temptation to develop excessively novel lighting arrangements. While illumination can significantly influence the “fee” of the room, the designer must be careful not to poorly implement a good idea. Windows to the outdoors as well as skylights are successful and can create a feeling of bright space. However, care must be taken to avoid glare on the water surface.

Unlike at outdoor wave pools where large zero-depth entry beach areas are used for soaking up the sun, such expanses at indoor facilities are sparsely used and may not be a good investment in space or money. An alternative is a broad ramp, with the surplus space designed at a depth of 2 feet, 6 inches to 3 feet with access by stairs.

The installed indoor waterslides bring with them a very high per-square-foot cost relative to other parts of the natatorium due to their footprint, the recirculating pumps and the required ceiling height. However, this usually is an acceptable cost, because slides have a large capacity for participants.

Other items, however, easily make the transition from outdoors to inside. Water fountains are colorful, gentle and appeal to all ages. The fountains can be placed in many areas, including zero entry areas, endless rivers, spray or fountain slabs or recessed alcoves. Features À such as whirlpool spas, bubble couches, mist sprays, indoor/outdoor pools, deck showers, lounge furniture, water spouts and wet side snack bars À can provide a respite from the more active areas. Most of these amenities are not expensive, yet can add much variety to the visit.

One effective way to tie all of the elements together within the leisure pool natatorium is theming À from Polynesian to tropical to cartoon characters. Theming also can include music, but if a sound system is to be included in the design, the choice of materials and components can be critical. Many speakers designed for public spaces, for example, do not have adequate defense against the aggressive atmosphere that can exist in a natatorium. A sound or acoustical consultant experienced in natatorium installations can address this design challenge effectively and economically.

Making the Numbers Work

Indoor waterparks must be understood in their entire context, not just for their design elements. To avoid disappointment, the most important step any potential owner can take is to develop accurate estimates of construction development and project costs, as well as meaningful projections of revenues and expenses. Financial planning and feasibility studies À including revenue, operating costs and any possible competing organizations À must precede any firm development plans.

Revenue is the result of attendance and the income earned from the attendees. The fee structure should be set to maximize cashflow for the center. Frequency of use also is a key to cashflow. The recreational swimmer at an indoor leisure aquatic enter typically spends more money per visit than the users of a conventional lap pool center.

The recreational swimmer also will pay higher user fees than other aquatic users À two to three times what the competitive/fitness lap swimmer is will to pay.

Admission fees typically are higher at indoor aquatic parks than at traditional pools. At North Clackamas, for example, the daily admission fee is $9 for adults who live out of the park district and $6 for residents. However, the fee is less for lap swimmers or program participants who want to use the facility for a brief period of time. And, special prices are offered for senior citizens.

“Thereês a little sticker shock for the patrons, at first. After all, itês not the $1 swim it used to be. But the recreational value is high per the hour; it costs less, hour-for-hour, to use our facility than to go to a movie.” Stirn said.

Attendance is influenced by the attractions in the aquatic center, competing aquatics facilities (indoor and outdoor), non-aquatic recreation facilities plus non-recreational attractions. Other factors that will affect attendance are weather, seasons, school schedules, demographics and geographic locale.

Families are the primary market for the indoor leisure aquatic center. This profile is somewhat different than the conventional lap-pool natatorium, which attracts swim-team members, fitness-lap swimmers and students of all ages to organized classes.

“We basically are employed by the residents of the City of Shoreview, so they are our No.1 priority and have advantages at the facility. They have first choice on program and less expensive entry fees. They have preferential treatment because they helped build the facility.” Said Mark Themig

Aquatic Program Supervisor of Shoreview, which is one the three facilities located within the St. Paul-Minneapolis metropolitan area. “But I donêt want to draw away from the non-resident use of the facility, which is approximately 60 percent. We are able to attract from the entire metropolitan region,” he added.

In planning events and programs to attract members of the target market, it is important to understand that such an attraction is a destination. Few people “stop by” an indoor leisure aquatic center on the way to somewhere else. They go to this destination specifically for recreation and entertainment.

However, because indoor aquatic parks owned by municipalities or park districts must offer traditional aquatic programs À learn-to-swim classes, lap swimming, competitive and exercise classes À recreation cannot be the only use of the facility. “Our hours of operation are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. This allows us to meet all the North Clackamas swim and educational needs as well as meet the operational expenses of the facility, ” Strin said.

The schedule at the facility includes unusual programs that make use of the centerês wave pool and waterslides as well. “We have a program called •Teen Waveê for teen-agers without swim skills who feel out of place with the younger children in the learn-to-swim classes. We use the slides and wave pools to aid them in water acclimation. Our facility is like having the best of both worlds. We donêt have to worry about the weather. We can get 1,000 people in here and still offer a full aquatic program,” Stirn said

Weighting the Cost

Just as careful analysis of market demographics and fee structure is essential for revenue, detailed planning is critical in minimizing operating costs while maximizing operating costs while maximizing efficiency. Expenses for an indoor aquatic recreation center fall into several subgroups.

Site Operating Costs – The everyday expenses necessary to operate the facility such as labor, commodities, services and utilities.

Overhead Costs – Expenses incurred in the administration of the facility. This may include marketing, payroll, accounting and personnel.

Debt Services -The last major element of expense, but in the case of government-owned facilities, dept service is rarely required because the aquatic facilities are capitalized with general-obligation bonds or revenue bonds structured so that the facility revenue doesnêt have to cover both it and site operating costs.

The two largest expenses in the operation of the indoor leisure aquatic center are labor and utilities, which are greater than those for conventional lap-pool facilities. The greater number of pump motors and their higher energy consumption increase electrical costs. Also, the indoor leisure natatorium experiences greater evaporation and therefore must process and/or exhaust more water.

To be successful, an indoor waterpark requires a lot of careful research and planning. With proper preparation and communication, a municipality or other agency can build a facility that will be the pride of the entire community.

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Making decisions based upon inaccurate information
  • Failure to factor in inflation cost for a future project
  • Confusing construction cost with development and project costs
  • Developing in a project-cost budget based upon numbers reported for a similar existing project
  • Develop a project cost without taking into account the unique features, design program, size, location and schedule of finishes.
  • Confusing site-operating costs with overhead costs
  • Failure to identify variable operating-cost factors between geographical sites (i.e., labor utilities, insurance, services, etc