By Karen Appold
Many of today’s waterparks are in a major transition period; they’re changing from the old school way of doing things to offering cutting-edge attractions and features. This change is not always easy or economical, but it’s a cost of doing business, said Dan Dodge, finance manager at Island Waterpark in Fresno, Calif.
Guests have become so accustomed to having automation and reliable technology, that they carry those expectations into all industries, including waterparks. “It isn’t enough to have safe and clean facilities, great food and awesome employees, waterparks also need to make sure that their digital user experience is top notch,” Dodge said. “This includes, but is not limited to their website, online purchases, ticket and season pass redemptions, in-park purchases, lockers, radio-frequency identification (RFID) and so on.”
Kyrie Butler, waterpark manager at Kings Pointe in Storm Lake, Iowa, said a lot has changed, even in the past two years. “Every year another waterpark pops up with newer and better slides,” she said. “Younger guests want interactive slides and more exciting features. It’s harder and harder with technology nowadays to make a simple waterpark fun.”
Beth Wheeler, director of waterpark operations at Breaker Bay Waterpark at Blue Harbor Resort and Conference Center in Sheboygan, Wis., said waterparks offer a lot more than waterslides nowadays. “The industry needed to change the park experience so it’s more interactive for patrons, who want and expect more,” she said. Many parks have added cabanas and seating areas; servers for food and beverage sales; music, and perhaps bringing in a DJ for special events; light features, water features, sounds, timers (for racing) and photo-worthy opportunities for guests to share their experiences on social media. “They create an experience,” she said.
The Beach Water Park in Mason, Ohio, got new ownership in July 2012 and reopened in May 2013 after a $5 million renovation to enhance the park. “Since taking over, we added a new play structure and spray ground for younger visitors, a basketball pool for those looking for something different from the normal waterpark experience and a new mat racer waterslide for guests looking for something more extreme,” said Natalie Dunlap, vice president of marketing. In addition, cosmetic upgrades were made throughout the park.
Waterpark managers and directors unanimously believe that attendance is growing at waterparks. “The demand for waterparks is increasing; the number of new parks and additions at parks grows each year,” Wheeler said. “The reason why is simple; people want to have a unique, fun experience.”
Dodge also said demand for waterparks is increasing – however competition depends on a particular park’s geography and changing demographics. “Since we’re located in central California, our only competition until recently was from parks in Los Angeles and the Bay area,” he said. “Over the last year, multiple companies in central California have either started constructing brand-new waterparks or added large-scale water play elements to existing family entertainment centers or dry parks.” At the same time, Island Waterpark has seen demand for tickets and offerings increase.
Butler also believes demand is up, as she keeps seeing more parks open. “This is due to the demand for more exciting attractions,” she said. “As the population grows, we must always keep up with demand.”
Dunlap also believes demand is increasing. She attributed this to a stronger economy and people having more disposable income.
Generally speaking, Dodge said that the most popular ride is whatever is newest. “A lot of the newer rides appear to be focused on or categorized as thrilling,” he said. “If guests are looking for something real, tactile and engaging, a thrilling ride will generate more interest than a relaxing ride.” The demographics at his park however, are not the norm. Where many parks target the teen market, Island Waterpark focuses on parents. This has allowed it to get a lot of mileage out of its more relaxing attractions such as the lazy river.
Butler said the most popular ride depends on the age group. Children like slides they can ride with someone else. Adults often choose the scariest rides. “In general, tube slides and slides that represent a toilet bowl or big slope seem to be the most popular,” she said.
“The most popular rides in waterparks are waterslides with a thrill component,” Wheeler said. “Drops and turns are a must.”
Between 220,000 and 240,000 guests choose Island Waterpark to be their family’s go-to place for summer fun. Its annual visitation was up for the year, mostly due to specific strategic decisions on its product mix and pricing, Dodge said.
Butler said the summer season is always up compared to winter. “We have bigger slides and pools outdoors, plus when it’s summertime people want to be in the sun on the beach or by the pool,” she said.
The Beach Water Park’s annual visitation is 120,000 guests. “Attendance was down this year due to record rain in our area in the beginning of our season,” Dunlap said.
About 40,000 patrons have day passes to Breaker Bay Waterpark. “Our weather can change from 80 degrees and sunny to 60 degrees with rain and strong winds within minutes,” Wheeler said. “We are an indoor and outdoor facility, and are located right on Lake Michigan. Many visitors like to be outside after a long, cold winter, so the lake is the draw in the summer months. With a hot summer, guests were drawn to our outdoor pools and attractions.”