Waterparks around the country are constantly doing their best to comply with federal and state regulations on a daily basis. But there is one set of regulations that waterparks try to accommodate even before they become official: those set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
There are many ADA requirements that cover everything from entrances to bathrooms and everything in between. This year, a new regulation requires waterparks to have lifts for its pools and lazy rivers so those with disabilities will have the same access to those amenities that everyone else does.
“That is what everyone has been dealing with,” said Bob Turzak, waterpark operations manager for Sam’s Surf City in Pensacola Beach, Fla. “We are in the process of installing one into our lazy river so people can get right from their wheelchairs onto an inner tube. They were going to have it all go into effect last year, but a lot of places couldn’t get it done because they weren’t manufacturing enough lifts to accommodate all of the pools and waterparks that needed them.”
Lee Hovis, operations manager of Nocatee Splash in Ponte Vedra, Fla., already installed the lifts, anticipating the regulation.
“It’s one of those things that people have been knowing it’s coming, and we took the approach to be assertive and aggressive and took care of it right away,” said Hovis, whose park draws about 50,000 visitors a summer and primarily caters to Nocatee, a young residential community that is only 10 percent completed at about 1,300 current households. It is the 10th fastest growing community in the country, increasing by about 500 households per year. “We were compliant even before they extended the deadline. We needed to install two lifts; one in our lagoon pool and the other in our lazy river.”
Laurie Schobelock, aquatics supervisor for the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department that manages and operates the Coconut Cove Waterpark & Recreation Center in Boca Raton, Fla., and the Calypso Bay Water Park in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., said both of the parks already have lifts, but they are currently dealing with relatively new ADA requirements to have two entries for pools over a certain size.
“We are in the middle of a construction project at Royal Palm Beach to refurbish the pool and part of it is to make entry steps compliant with proper handrails, and to offer ADA entry at two access points,” said Schobelock, whose parks draw about 80 percent locals and 20 percent tourists in upper-middle class communities.
Complying with ADA regulations could be costly for parks. At Sam’s Surf City, for example, concrete must be busted out and water lines must be relocated to accommodate the new lift.
“It can be an expensive proposition,” Turzak said. “But I don’t think the ADA is unreasonable in their expectations. I have been here for about six or seven years and I haven’t found any of their demands to be outlandish.”
“Thank God the requirements don’t extend to the large slides,” Schobelock said. “It would be pretty much impossible. So there is some reason in play when those slides are exempt.”
Amber Watson, general manager of The Island Waterpark in Fresno, Calif., agreed, “Everyone was worried that slides would be included in ADA regulations. But in reality, to do something like that would be difficult for so many reasons. For starters, we need to make all of our money in three or four months and we really aren’t a cash cow.”
Meeting ADA standards proves to be more difficult for some of the older parks. Waterparks like Sam’s that were built more recently, were built to accommodate the ADA, which was originally written in 1990. The ADA requires pools to offer “Zero Entry,” meaning wheelchairs can roll right in. Other regulations require: certain handrails to be installed at pool entrances, bathroom specifications to include certain stall widths and sinks within some stalls, entrance widths and more.
“We were built that way,” said Turzak, whose park draws a combination of tourists and season pass holders for the two kiddie pools with play areas, a junior activity pool with four smaller slides, six large sides and a 700-foot-long lazy river. “All of our pools are handicapped accessible so you can roll right into them.”
Schobelock said both of the parks she manages are aggressive in meeting ADA regulations. However, sometimes it’s more difficult for Calypso Bay than Coconut Cove because the park is older.
“The newer parks are designed with ADA requirements in mind,” she said. “One of the things they ask is that anyone coming into a waterpark can get into any area of the waterpark without any barriers. And that is a challenge for Calypso Bay because of the way it was designed. But we are even exploring ways to fix that.”
Big Kahuna’s in Destin, Fla., was built in the 1980s before the ADA was enacted. General manager Bob Cordier said that means his park had to play catch-up and continues to be aggressive to meet ADA requirements, and then some.
Nocatee Splash was only built three years ago, so its adjustments have been relatively minor.
“We had to do some small revisions and adjust to make sure extra handrails were placed and things like that, but it is definitely easier for a newer park to remain compliant,” Hovis said.
“We definitely had to do some things, but we’re not spending millions and millions of dollars,” said Cordier, whose park draws between 200,000 and 500,000 annual visitors in a community that is comprised of many military families. “We had to put ramps to allow access in places where stairs to bridges were. That process started a few years ago. We made sure the bathrooms were all compliant as far as the width and number of stalls and we had to put sinks in a few of them. We had to adjust some pools to have proper rails and retrofit some other things. And we need a few of the lifts in our lazy rivers and an activity pool.”
The Island Waterpark opened in 1997, making things a little easier when it comes to ADA compliance.
“All of our pools have zero entry and the first thing we do when considering expansions or new attractions is making things ADA compliant,” Watson said.
Waterpark managers said they are aggressive to meet the needs of those with disabilities. And while the ADA certainly serves as a needed guideline, many parks are ahead of the curve in making disabled guests comfortable.
“I think we are pretty forward thinking when it comes to those with disabilities,” said Schobelock, whose park averages 80,000 to 90,000 visitors annually. “For example, we are purchasing a new wheelchair with large rubber wheels in case someone needs that.”
Cordier said that although Big Kahuna is an older park, it has adapted well over the years without even being nudged by the ADA.
“We were always trying to be proactive and started our projects before we even knew about some of the ADA changes,” he said. “We saw some people with convenience issues just moving strollers around and we reacted right away. We want to be accessible in every way to all of our patrons. That’s a goal. If it’s a minor thing like putting a lift in, we’re going to do it to bring pleasure to our guests. The ADA is not burdensome. We are in a heavy military area and wounded veterans are always coming here, and good gosh, anything we can do for them is a no-brainer. If it’s a matter of buying a lift to get them into our pool, that’s a minor thing and that extends to anyone with a disability.”
Hovis said Nocatee Splash adjusts before ADA regulations are enforced.
“Our biggest thing is to listen to what our clientele and residents need,” he said. “I think we’re about as compliant as we can be, but if there’s something we can do to accommodate someone with special needs, we do it. And we would do that whether we had to or not. It doesn’t make sense not to. Our residents who live here basically pay for it. So if it means adapting a play structure for handicapped steps so someone with a disability can get to a platform like everyone else can, then we do it. It really is about convenience, too. We look at it from the perspective of, ‘OK, there’s a problem there, how can we fix it?’ And we fix it.”
Watson said The Island, for example, retrofitted its food stands to lower the counters for guests.
“It wasn’t that anything was a legal requirement, but something we wanted to do for our guests,” said Watson, whose park averages about 200,000 visitors and mostly attracts families from a 90-mile range in either direction. “We’re in a business of providing fun so if we have to turn people away, that’s certainly not our goal and not in our best interest. We want to invite everyone and make sure they have the best experience they can. There should be no limitations.” –
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