Sometimes an issue of the magazine develops an unintended theme. When that happens, it signals a sort of Zeitgeist that best not be ignored. The theme of this issue was supposed to be a celebration of the nation’s top waterparks.

For the first time ever, we put together a list of the highest-grossing waterparks based on data from the Economic Research Association and our own reporting. To be sure, the parks on that list are an impressive bunch and there’s much operators can learn from them about how to be successful. I welcome readers’ opinions about the list and the criteria.

That said, a bigger and, arguably, more important theme developed as we put this issue together: patron safety.

It begins with our news section, which includes a story about recent drownings that have rocked the industry. One particularly troubling case involved a supervisor who stopped a lifeguard from a rescue — not once, but twice —because the supervisor didn’t want to upset patrons, according to police reports. (Apparently, the supervisor thought the victim was only pretending to drown).

Another news story details a $16 million judgment for a teen who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident. The jury determined the country club where the accident occurred didn’t properly warn of unsafe diving conditions — and that the lifeguards weren’t properly trained. Yet another article documents the collapse of a water ride while in operation. (Miraculously, no one was injured.)

The patron safety theme continues with an important point-counterpoint column on the efficacy of the10/20 lifeguarding rule. The fact that questions still linger about this widely used lifeguard protocol is troubling and begs the question: If professionals can’t agree on such safety protocols, what does it say to patrons?

That leads directly to our next unintentionally themed article, a defense of the activist patron from Michael J. Beach of the Centers for Disease Control. The RWI guru lays out a cogent argument for so-called activist patrons in fighting these waterborne illnesses (We report on a major outbreak in this issue). But he also points out an inescapable reality for the industry: Like it or not, patrons are going to start asking questions. And that’s where all of these stories coalesce.

In today’s wired world, drownings, outbreaks and lawsuits don’t happen in a vacuum. Anyone contemplating a visit to a waterpark or any other aquatics facilities need only do a quick Google search to learn about these issues — and be scared away. Once people start asking questions, it’s not long before the government steps in with new regulations.

The best defense against this scenario is to invest in top lifeguard training and be sure sufficient staffers are on watch. Operators must show patrons that water and air quality are maintained at top-notch levels. And industry leaders need to get past their territorial, proprietary roadblocks and come together on proven lifeguard procedures that aren’t subject to debate.

Interestingly, none of these issues are affecting our top waterparks. So maybe an argument can be made that success and safety go hand in hand.

Gary Thill

Aquatics International welcomes feedback from readers. All correspondence may be edited for clarity and space considerations. Please include your complete name and contact information.Letters may be sent by mail to Aquatics International, Attn: Editor, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 600, Los Angeles, CA 90048; by fax to 323.801.4986; or via e-mail to gthill@hanleywood.com.

Credit: Gary Thill