By Hilary Larson
After a year of lockdowns, closures and other pandemic-related restrictions, water parks are rebounding in a big way. “We’ve been busy since January,” said Darin Kuhnke, director of Aquatics at Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells, where he oversees four indoor and four outdoor waterparks. “We have a very good outlook for this summer. Bookings are going up, and with all the progress this country has made on vaccinations, everyone’s getting more comfortable with being out in public again.”
The water park industry, like many across the entertainment landscape, took a serious financial hit last year; few parks have the wherewithal to invest in major installations. Instead, guests will find refreshed attractions, new dining options, and a greater emphasis on customer service to ensure a memorable summer.
For Wilderness Resorts, options are the draw. “With eight water parks, we have the variety to cover all bases,” noted Kuhnke. Families with small children go for gentle rides, while teenagers can satisfy their extreme sports urge on the looping slides. “We truly have something for everyone,” Kuhnke said. “Our motto is, make it fun and enjoyable for the customer. Make a real experience.”
Jesse Wilder, general manager at Springs Water Park at The Ingleside Hotel in Pewaukee, Wis., said great service starts long before a guest ever sets foot on the property. “From the moment the guest books a visit, it’s about providing prompt answers,” Wilder said. “On weekends and at peak times, a manager walks around the property and interacts with our guests.” Another aspect of service is safety, especially this year; Wilder noted that Springs regularly wins praise for its attentive lifeguards.
Guest follow-up surveys are discussed at weekly team meetings, and feedback — positive or negative — is incorporated into operations decisions. “When a guest mentions a team member who made a positive impact on their stay, that team member receives recognition and prizes through our Winning at Work Program,” Wilder said.
Eric Bertch, general manager at The Lost Island Water Park in Waterloo, Iowa, said his employee training program is critical to a positive guest experience. “Our staff understands it is going to be busy,” he said. “So it’s about making sure they know how to upsell and service the guests beyond expectations as we all finally get back to normal. Finding a way to make their visit unforgettable is part of staff training.”
Bertch said he expects this year’s attendance to grow 20 percent over 2019 levels. Guests this summer will find refurbished slides and five new deluxe cabanas. The facility also enlarged the staff break room and performed need maintenance to building infrastructure.
For Randy Witt, owner at Raging Waves Waterpark in Yorkville, Ill., a profitable summer starts with a focus on consumer experience, rather than a brand-name installation. “Yes, Aussie Mat Dash has six lanes and is a thrilling experience,” he said, referring to this season’s new ride. “But more importantly, the attraction allows friends and families to compete against one another, sharing laughter and smiles as they tease each other about who’s going to win. We focus on highlighting those more intimate and special moments between people.”
To foster those moments, Witt trains his staff according to three principles — consistent communication, emotional management, and active listening. “I would argue that consistent communication is the most important of the three,” reflected Witt. “By making sure your website, social media, mobile app, and signage are all consistent, you minimize guests being upset when they’re told something different than what they’d read earlier.”
Like many in the industry, Witt anticipates a banner summer. He was fortunate to be able to re-open Raging Waves last July, and has seen numbers steadily tick up this year. “Based on pre-season sales and pent-up demand, we are very optimistic about our attendance numbers for 2021,” Witt said.
Attendance is also rising steadily at Sahara Sam’s in West Berlin, N.J., and Big Kahuna’s Water and Adventure Park in Destin, Fla. “Guests are eager to get out of their homes, and are seeking interactive activities with family and friends,” said Brandon Moore, regional operations director for Boomers Parks, the parent company of both attractions.
To maximize revenue, Boomers upgraded menus at Sahara Sam’s and Big Kahuna’s, with more sophisticated food and drink choices. Pricing was changed to reflect increased costs, and an unsuccessful season pass was discontinued. And both parks got makeovers, debuting new and expanded dining areas.
Moore said Boomers promotes a corporate culture that emphasizes honesty, respect, accountability and continuous improvement. “We want our team members to have fun, be friendly to our guests, and most importantly focus on safety,” he said. “Our Clean, Safe Fun initiative includes six safety videos from our CEO explaining to guests what our parks are doing to keep them safe.”