When the weather sizzles, crowds wither away at many zoos and aquariums. Facilities that offer splash pads, spray parks and waterparks have discovered that if they provide a way to cool off, customers will brave the heat, stay longer and spend more.
Particularly at zoos where most exhibits are outdoors, a spike in the mercury can mean a dive in attendance. When a facility offers a splash area, guests know that even on the steamiest summer day they can cool off and recharge, so hot weather doesn’t discourage them from planning an outing, managers said.
When crushing heat contributed to a decline in 2011 attendance, the Knoxville Zoo quickly designed and opened the Clayton Safari Splash for the 2012 summer season, said Lisa New, the zoo’s executive director. Despite record-breaking heat in 2012, zoo attendance increased 21 percent during the hottest summer months, and New credited the splash area.
The 5,000-square-foot splash pad built for $650,000 is set amid animal exhibits and features two 19-foot tall spouting giraffes made especially for the zoo. Adding excitement to the theme is the fact that as kids cool down they can watch real giraffes stretch their necks in the Grassland Africa exhibit just over the wall. A second water area, the Kids Cove, opened in 2005. Designed as a stylized Appalachian farmstead, it features a waterfall, bridge and squirting frogs for younger children.
The splash areas are a “heavy membership driver,” New said. “It’s very attractive to them and a selling point for members. They can come every day if they want to cool off.”
The zoo recently added changing cabanas and restrooms near the splash pad so guests can switch to swimwear. Construction is underway for a kiosk that will sell water-themed sundries such as swim diapers, sunscreen and towels.
At the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa, visitors can duck out of the heat while viewing marine exhibits indoors, but Thomas Stork, president and CEO, believes the aquarium’s outdoor waterpark, Explore a Shore, has increased average guest visits from one hour and 45 minutes to 4 ½ hours.
When Explore a Shore opened in 2004, family memberships jumped from 8,000 to 17,000. The park provides two acres of Caribbean-themed adventure with gushing geysers, slides and water guns. A Cantina smack in the middle invites parents to sip a pina colada while they watch their kids play in the spray.
“In the summer we are a local country club for mothers,” Stork said. “It’s stroller city. It has been a wonderful addition to the aquarium.”
While the $1.5 million project overlooking Tampa Bay Port has been a huge draw for nearly 10 years, there are no plans to expand or change the design in the near future because, Stork said, Explore a Shore is working.
Record-breaking weather in Indianapolis in 2012 meant kids weren’t the only ones seeking relief in the zoo’s Kroger Splash Park, said Tim Savona, vice president of Guest Experiences. Other guests also enjoyed the Daisy Mae sprays, Aqua Arches, Spilly Soaker buckets and more, he said.
Attendance at the 64-acre Indianapolis Zoo in White River State Park on the city’s west side has increased by 300,000 since the 2,400 square-foot splash area opened in 2008, Savona said.
“There’s no doubt that (splash park) keeps people at the zoo longer,” Savona said. “The average guest spends 20 to 30 minutes in the splash park. We have dining areas around the splash park where parents can sit and watch their kids.”
Set in the flatlands of the Coastal Bend, Texas State Aquarium’s HEB Splash Park boasts a nautical theme with a fishing vessel at its center that kids love to board, said Tom Schmid, President and CEO. Rainbow spray tunnels, water cannons, dump buckets and other interactive features make the park a hit.
The 4,000-square-foot splash pad with seven different zones cost $1.1 million and was “a real coup for us. There is nothing else like it in the area.”
“We underestimated the number of members who would frequent the splash pad on a regular basis,” Schmid said. The Aquarium saw a 12 percent increase in attendance in 2011 when the splash park opened. In addition, membership revenue and food and beverage increased by 30 percent.
“We knew it would be popular but we didn’t realize it would be that popular,” Schmid said.
In Jackson, Miss., stifling summers also wilted attendance, said Beth Poff, executive director. The 100-acre Jackson Zoo serves about 167,000 annually, but after installing a 2,000-square-foot splash pad last summer, Poff is eager to see if visitor numbers rise this season.
The new water play area, which includes squirting fish, a tiger slide and spitting chimpanzees “can handle up to 180 children at a time and has been crucial as Mississippi summers keep getting hotter,” Poff said. “We had been experiencing declines during summer months but we think that the splash pad has been a fun, safe way for Jackson’s children to stay cool.”
The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans installed water fans and misters in 2002, but found it wasn’t enough to draw Jefferson Parish guests during sizzling summers. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina waylaid plans for a water splash zone and the zoo was forced to close for three months to repair destruction from the storm.
Finally in 2011, the $3.5 million Cool Zoo debuted, offering 15,000 square feet of refreshing, wet fun. Rising above all the splashing is a 28-foot tall white alligator with blue eyes, a larger-than-life representation of a rare reptile that calls the zoo home.
The Audubon Zoo charges a separate entrance fee to The Cool Zoo, but the fee does not discourage guests from visiting, said Larry J. Rivarde, executive vice president and managing director. Attendance increased by 15 percent, the biggest rise the zoo had seen in years. The feature has been so successful that plans are underway to expand with a second phase. “Gator Run,” an 800-foot-long, winding lazy river is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014. An adjacent pizza parlor and sandy beaches are also in the planning stages.
“We’re not the only zoo moving in this direction,” Rivarde said. “Zoos are finally realizing you’re not going to made budget simply on attendance and food and beverage. You’ve got to kick it up a notch.” –