Indoor Waterparks: Where the Theme Can Define the Experience

For indoor waterparks, theming is as important, if not more important, than it is for indoor waterparks.
“You want to give the impression that you’re not just operating the local swimming pool, but something different,” said Holly Prater, marketing and promotions coordinator at Fort Rapids, in Columbus, Ohio.
Fort Rapids attracts 100,000 visitors annually and sets itself apart with a Wild West theme. The theme is carried out in the water area, where the decorative elements include cowboys, bulls, horses, and wagon wheels, but just as significantly, throughout the building. “There’s Western décor, old West signs, saloon signs, and there’s a Western style to the paint and wallpaper,” Prater explained. A huge fireplace occupies one end of the lobby; wagon wheel benches are found throughout the building, Western-themed murals dominate the hallways, and Western music plays in the water area as well as in all other sections of the facility.
The restaurant menu is also Western themed; available items include a Wagon Wheel Cobb Salad, the wraps are called Round-Ups, and the best-selling burger is the Cowboy Burger. T-shirts sold in the gift shop are emblazoned with the image of Fort Rapids’ bull mascot, and children can select Mining Gems, which, Prater noted, are “little bags of dirt that kids can sift through to find little semi-precious stones.”
To keep the theming fresh, park management is always looking for new attractions. Additions are currently on the drawing board, but Prater declined to reveal specifics, noting that an equally concerted effort is made to maintain existing themed fixturing. “Every night, the waterpark gets cleaned, so they’re always checking the decorations down there to make sure everything’s clean and nice and not grungy,” Prater stated. Power-washing occurs frequently, and some wood elements are presently being replaced with realistic-looking composite.
As is true at Fort Wilderness, management at Six Flags Great Escape in Lake George, N.Y., is always looking to upgrade its theming, which in keeping with its location in the Adirondack Mountains has an Adirondack theme characterized by “bear, canoe and snowshoe imaging,” stated Jeff Bartone, director of promotions and marketing. “We’re always looking to upgrade our theming,” Bartone said. “Last year, we added our Timber Town characters, including a bear, a moose and a fox, throughout the lodge. We recently added a kids-only area, which is very vibrant and follows the Adirondack theme.”
The Adirondack theme continues in the facility’s restaurant, gift shop and guest lodge. A large canoe over the bar and wood décor distinguish the Tall Tales Tavern, where diners are encouraged to tell their “tall tales of fishing and hunting, that sort of thing,” Bartone said.  The Northwoods Traders gift shop is modeled after an old trading post. Guest rooms feature Adirondack-style furniture, and 10 suites were recently transformed into “Adirondack Cabin Suites” that have a built-in cabin element with bunk beds inside to give children a “mountain cabin” experience that melds with the feel of the waterpark. Guests enter the lodge through a large, rustic-looking outdoor portico, stepping directly into a grand lobby with a fireplace, seating areas and a moose hanging on the wall.
Meanwhile, a nature theme, espoused with the tag line “Experience the Great Indoors,” brings 100,000 visitors per year to Wild Bear Falls in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The waterpark is situated within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has a retractable roof that is open when the weather is appropriate and plays up the theme by bringing more of the outdoors inside, according to Roseann Graham, activities director.
Reproductions of black bears that are native to the national park, along with hand-carved cement trees Graham deemed “so natural, people go up to them and don’t realize they are not real,” are the key themed elements of the facility. A 30-foot carved cement oak tree serves as the centerpiece of the waterpark. All décor is brown and/or green, taking the natural bent one step farther.
“Our snack bar and gift shop have log siding to make them blend into to the overall theme,” Graham observed. The snack bar, which is called the Roaring Fork Grille, is named after one of the trails in the park.
Graham added that until a few months ago, the roof was only partially retractable. However, management decided to render the roof fully retractable when it concluded that such a step would help to better reflect the waterpark’s theme.
Also in Tennessee is the WildWater Dome waterpark at Wilderness at the Smokies, in Sevierville. Ryan Sievers, spokesperson, described the theme as based around wilderness and the outdoors, noting that in addition to using “wood everywhere” and an overall rustic look to benches and similar accoutrements, the theme is expressed largely through the nomenclature and icons of  the waterpark attractions. For example, the indoor surfing simulator is called the “Smokies Surfrider;” decorative icons include a bearded mountain man and a pack mule.  “Trail Twisters” is the name of the indoor water slide attraction, and the “Storm Chaser” thrill ride involves a 55-foot plunge down a dark rustic “wood” tunnel.
To give returning guests something new to enjoy during every visit, as well as to keep the theme fresh, attempts are made to introduce new attractions each year. The Wild Vortex, a 66-foot near-vertical looping tube slide and the only one of its kind in the Southeast, opened in June of 2012. After guests board a launch pod, a distressed-looking floor drops out from beneath them.
“Right now, we’re not releasing any information about it, but we are looking to expand some more in 2013,” Willis said. “In March, we opened Adventure Forest, which is a large indoor dry park that holds a three-story rope course, lots of arcade games, laser tag – it give people something to do without getting the kids wet.” –

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