Waterpark Success: Designing the Perfect Waterpark

Published: World Waterpark – Development and Expansion Guide

November 2011-2012 issue

By: Kevin Post

Rather than traditional, flat water, rectangular pools, stimulating waterparks are becoming the norm for today’s recreational aquatic experience. Once the decision has been made to build a mini, medium or destination waterpark, there are several key items to consider before starting construction that will affect success. What is your budget?  What do you want to include in the waterpark?  How much land do you need?  What will it cost to operate?  Will it make money?

Defining Success

For private developers, the definition of success is simple … to make money! For municipal waterparks, however, the definition of success can be:

  • Earn revenues that cover its costs and any future expansions.
  • Earn revenues that help pay for other subsidized facilities within the park system.
  • A reduction in the subsidy of the existing obsolete pool. It doesn’t have to make money as long as it’s losing less money.

All of these are appropriate definitions of success, but each one affects the outcome of the waterpark design. Determining your definition of success will help make sure your goals are in-line with realities.

Studying Your Opportunities

If you don’t have the market draw in your location, building a waterpark too big will increase your expenses, but not your revenues. If you build it too small, you may not have the amenities to attract a large segment of the population. Paying for a feasibility study at this early stage may be the best money you could spend in helping to define your market while determining realistic outcomes. It’s a small fraction of what your waterpark will cost that will save you from making expensive mistakes later.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is underestimating the cost of operating a waterpark.  Labor alone can make up 50-60 percent of your operating budget. With all the turns and blind spots in a waterpark, the lifeguard requirement is significantly higher than a traditional style pool.  Also, it’s not just one recirculation pump running now.  You may have a dozen or more pumps running aquatic activities and features, which demand a lot of energy.  And don’t forget all those patrons coming to your waterpark bring dirt, organic matter, bacteria, hair, makeup, suntan / body oils and other debris into your pools, which significantly increase your chemical demand.

The other mistake is getting too excited about all the money that can be made. People often go to a waterpark on a Saturday and think, “Wow look at all these people … this place must be making a fortune.” But during the week there might be a fraction of this attendance. You may hit your capacity every Saturday, but during the work week attendance drops off. Not to mention the weather factor that could cause closures and school calendars that recess for the summer in mid-June, while others start back in mid-August.

The Proper Blend

Once you’ve established some parameters for your project, it’s time to start thinking about the design and layout, at least conceptually.  Having the proper amenity mix will impact the feel of your waterpark and its viability within your market. In general, a waterpark needs three aquatic elements:  a capacity holder, a children’s area and rides.

Capacity Holders: A wave pool can hold a lot of people and is one of the areas most commonly expected to see at a waterpark.  These capacity spaces don’t necessarily make money, but are a crucial part of the overall success of your park.  In addition to wave pools, another popular capacity holder is the leisure river. These capacity holders serve as the hub of the waterpark and keep families entertained without having to wait in line.

Children’s Area: Sensitively designed environments for children and tweeners can be vital to attendance.  Families with toddlers and tweens need to be accommodated in order for them to come to your park and spend the day together. Large water play structures provide water play gyms for the entire family. They can be themed as water jungles, pirate coves and rainforest temples to name a few. With slides, waterfalls and water features, families are entertained for hours while experiencing physical fitness and family togetherness.

Spraygrounds, tot pools and children’s pools with participatory play features with all sorts of pulleys, rope ladders, water buckets, geysers, dumping buckets and slides need to be located near the bathhouse for convenience purposes.

Rides: Everyone wants to go down waterslides at a waterpark, but not everyone likes the same thing.  Teens like thrill rides, while families like modest rides that most anyone can enjoy.  These can be a mix of body slides or tube slides and should be both open and closed flumes to offer diversity. Having a ride that allows multiple riders is another way to keep the entire family happy. Big tube slides that have three to four people per ride add to the social aspect. Having a head first mat slide where riders can race their friends can provide a competitive experience for young teens.

Artificial surfing is another “thrill” ride. These environments use high-output pumps to produce a flow of water just a couple inches thick over a fixed padded surface. Competitions are formed and spectators enjoy watching as much as “inland surfers” enjoy the challenge.  The thrill ride can be your signature attraction that differentiates your park from the competition.

Age Group Recreational Aquatic Age-Group National Trends
Age 0-3 Tot Pool, Tot Slides, Gentle Spray Features
Age 4-7 Water Sprayground, Zero-Depth Pool, Participatory Play Features, Sand Play
Age 8-11 Water Walks, Large Play Structures, Full-Size Waterslides, Open Water
Age 12-16 Water Walks, Large Waterslides, Open Water,LeisureRiver, Gathering Places, Sand   Volleyball, Mat Racer, Bowl Slides
Age 17-22 Action Island, Intense Waterslides, FlowRider, Mat Racer, Climbing Wall, Open Water, Sand Volleyball, Drop Slides, Bowl Slides
Age 23-45 Zero-Depth Pool (to be w/children), Open Water, Spa, Sun Deck, Lap Lanes, Leisure River, Waterslides, Diving Boards
Age 46+ Spa, Sun Deck, Lap Lanes, Lazy River, Family-Friendly Waterslides
Source: Counsilman-Hunsaker

Support Spaces

Everyone likes to plan the rides and fun features of a waterpark, but one of the crucial areas that will affect the long term operational success for your park is the support spaces.  Proper placement of your restrooms, concessions and mechanical spaces can greatly improve the overall experience.  Giving proper consideration for how people will use these spaces and how they will affect the traffic flow within your park is a fundamental part of the planning effort.  You also need these spaces to be easily cleaned and maintained for years to come.  While nobody will come to your waterpark to visit the restrooms, they will certainly not come back if they are appalled by them.

Setting Your Fees

Waterparks face fierce competitors vying for discretionary leisure spending. You’re not just competing with other waterparks, you’re competing with any activity where people spend discretionary income, including movies, sporting events and dining out. The entry fee will have the biggest impact on your revenue.  This fee not only provides initial revenue as people walk through the turnstile, but also impacts how many people come to your waterpark and spend money in other areas.  As a general rule of thumb, keep pricing simple. Too many parks offer a special price for every situation.  You’ll see a standard fee, followed by a children’s fee, a family fee, a senior fee, then a resident rate, followed by a non-resident rate, then a daily rate vs. season pass rate, then … well you get the point. If the person at the front desk can’t say it from memory, you have too many options.  The other part of setting your fee is establishing what you feel is your park’s value. Everyone loves discounts; set your price higher and offer discounts. This way you can adjust how much money you bring in without changing your fees each year.

Planning for Expansion

Attractions can be added to the waterpark in increments as more capacity is required. No matter what size of waterpark or how many rides you have, over time people enjoy seeing something new. To generate additional excitement, add a new ride or amenity every two to three years.  When initially planning your park, consider where your first expansion will go. This keeps you from having to place the newest thrill ride right next to the quiet waters you’ve established as an “adult area.”

As the time comes for your expansion, make sure it’s the right choice. Go back to step one. Review your market and see what area you need to address.  Look at how your park operates and consider what would make it better. Adding a new attraction isn’t always the right answer. You may need to add more capacity, or you may need to meet the needs of an underserved age group. Once the decision has been made to expand, there are several key items to consider that will affect its success. What is your budget?  What do you want to include in the expansion?  How much land do you need?  What will it cost to operate?  Will it make money?  Essentially, you need to revisit previous planning efforts.

With aquatic recreation being one of the most popular activities in theUnited States, a properly planned waterpark can be a magnificent asset for your community.  Opening a new facility can seem overwhelming, but taking the proper steps during the planning process can ensure success for you and the waterpark.