Photo courtesy Jim Messina

Then Carolyn Hamilton was shopping for play structures, she was bombarded with numerous options. “When I grew up, if we had something that was a big blue blob, that was pretty exciting,” Hamilton says with a laugh. The aquatics supervisor at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, adds, “Now you need to have 20 different colors, it has to move in different directions and [you] get to be a part of it.”

She knew, however, that having a play structure would create a “wow” factor and draw more families to the leisure pool. So she and her staff set out to find structures and elements that would be most appropriate for each facility.

It’s an increasing trend in leisure pools across the country. In a recent survey conducted by Aquatics International, 37 percent of leisure facilities already had play structures. As Hamilton indicates, many more are considering them.

But experts warn that adding a play structure won’t automatically increase attendance. To get the most for their money, operators must take care in choosing the right structure that maximizes benefits for patrons and management alike. Demographics, pool size, theme and maintenance are all critical aspects that determine what kind of play structure to select — and how big a draw it will have.

Start shopping

When contemplating all of these aspects for the community, first consider the demographics. Who attends the pool the most? Who has the potential to come once there’s a play structure in it?

Until you know the answers to those questions, don’t walk into a designer’s office and tell them what you want, says Steven Wagner, vice president of sales and marketing at SCS Interactive in Englewood, Colo. Quite often, facilities are off the mark with what they need. He’s had people come in requesting a structure and features for populations that would not likely play with them.

“Based on the demographic you determine, do you even want a structure?” Wagner asks. “If you’re talking about a bunch of male teens, they’ll want the fastest, the best slides … wave pools, surfing machines. Not a structure.”

However, if the demographic is families, then everyone’s on the same page, he says.

Once you’ve decided a play structure is appropriate, consider a wet deck (sometimes called zero-depth) vs. a shallow-water pool. A wet deck costs less because it doesn’t require as much water to heat and treat, says Jeff Nodorft, studio director of waterparks at Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis. A wet deck also requires less guarding and is safer in terms of drowning incidences, Wagner says. Not being in water doesn’t take away from the overall experience, and multilevel play is still possible.

Nevertheless, a wading pool “translates into more actual wet play area. It also offers a place for parents and patrons to sit around the rim of that pool,” he says. Even if the play features aren’t turned on, the pool can be used.

According to the survey, nearly 42 percent of those with play structures placed them in zero-depth spray areas. Almost 33 percent were in shallow-water areas in the main pools, and the remaining had separate wading pools.

Regardless of which type you choose, pool capacity and size must be calculated. How many kids and families will be playing there at any one time? While there’s no general rule for percentage of play space in a given pool, Nodorft suggests the pool or wet deck should be twice the size of the play structure. Similarly, manufacturers recommend enough distance from the structure to the pool’s edge to avoid splashing bystanders who may be reading books in lounge chairs. Wagner suggests 25 feet for a tipping bucket.

Hamilton found one of her features was spraying water out of the pool area and draining away into the gutter rather than back into the pool. “We had to tone down one side of it,” she says. She also had to make sure water wasn’t splashing everywhere following complaints from some parents who wanted to sit along the side, but not become drenched themselves.

Treadwell Jones also recommends using stainless steel piping rather than epoxy-coated, galvanized steel throughout the structure, particularly at the waterline. Corrosion occurs at the waterline, except with stainless steel, says the director of design at the Schlitterbahn Development Group with NGBS in New Braunfels, Texas.

Similarly, make sure the finish is baked on rather than sprayed, says Nancy Arnold, aquatics director at the Motion Fitness & Racquet Club in New Berlin, Wis. The same goes for treated wood. A baked-on piece of equipment will stand the corrosive environment longer.

Lastly, price is a huge part of the decision-making process. A single-platform structure can start at $50,000 and increase in cost depending on additions in valves and buttons, Jones says. In addition, replacing and fixing elements adds to the original cost.

Pick and choose

Once these considerations have been made, additional features, size and themes can be selected. Again, keeping demographics in mind is important when deciding what to add.

A single-level structure is good for smaller children, more economical and easier to maintain. It also fits better in a leisure facility where space is limited. A multilevel play structure appeals to older kids, and can offer more features and attract more attendance. It’s also more expensive, requires more maintenance and more lifeguards, especially if there’s an attached slide. In the Aquatics International survey, 60 percent of leisure pools had single-story play structures.

“Typically in a community situation, [the play structure] is … an amenity to an overall aquatics pool,” says Andrew Mowatt, vice president of resort sales and marketing at WhiteWater West Industries Ltd. in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. He says up to two platforms is usually enough, unless the leisure pool is similar to an indoor waterpark.

Features are the most important and most fun to choose. Arnold added a slide that doesn’t require a 48-inch height requirement so younger children can use it as well as older ones. “[The structure] has multiple places where water sprays out, and appeals to a lot of age groups,” she says.

Arnold, who is also owner of Certified Aquatics Professionals, a consulting company in Delafeld, Wis., says different features and water pressures appeal to different ages. For those younger than 5, small pops and quiet play are more interesting. “They’re fascinated with water pouring, water squirting, but you want to be careful not to have a piece of equipment that will scare them by inadvertently squirting them in the face,” she says.

Wagner agrees. “We may put elements on the spraypad and hopefully discourage little people from even getting on the structure,” he says, noting that toddlers should stay clear of the constant action and older kids running around the structure.

For youngsters age 5 to 9, an interactive spray is a good choice, Arnold says. “Things that they can do to stop the flow of the water and start the flow and change the intensity — they like to do things like that,” she says.

Nodorft says older kids enjoy using squirt guns to fill other people’s buckets that will dump over their heads, or soak their friends who get in the line of fire. Even parents like to get involved in the water cannons, Hamilton says. “They like that as much as everybody else,” she says with a laugh.

Lastly, theming can help tie the play structure in with the rest of the facility. “The benefits are that you get a unique product that may match some historic or [other factor] in your place,” Jones says. “But I don’t rely on theming to make or break an experience.”

Nearly 78 percent of those surveyed did not have a theme. Jones says it’s good only if the facility already has a theme, such as a forest or tropical setting. But other types, such as movie characters, will look old in a few short years. “A lot of ‘Finding Nemo’ fish floating around here is going to be so [dated],” he says. “And it costs money — a tremendous amount.”

Instead, he suggests providing textures or colors to enhance the play structure. Using natural elements such as rocks and trees can be tastefully done and challenge children to use their imaginations.

Maintenance

Finally, maintaining the play structure in top condition as the facility’s highlight requires constant checks and upkeep. While manufacturers provide clients with operations and maintenance guidelines, other steps can be taken to ensure proper care.

“People who want to invest have to understand there’s more work when you have that type of amenity,” Hamilton says. “You have to make sure anything that moves won’t come off or break off.”

Experts say preventive care is the best kind of maintenance. According to the survey, 61 percent inspect their structures at least once a week. “Fix it before it breaks, and immediately address the concerns as they happen,” Jones says. Check ropes and pulleys, which receive much wear and tear throughout the recreational day.

Also inspect the tipping bucket regularly, looking at the bearings, pulleys and support structure. The cyclical nature of the tipping bucket can cause wear on certain parts. Make sure lines aren’t clogged as well. The easiest way to figure that out is to note if the various spouts are shooting water correctly, Hamilton says.

Proper winterization is critical if it’s an outdoor play structure, Wagner says. Drain and prep properly and check the structure for mineral deposits, necessary paint touch-ups, and new ropes and nets. Make sure bolts are on tight and parts are moving correctly. Of all the maintenance issues with a play structure, nearly 64 percent of survey respondents said their staffs were able to fix the problems.

If all is in place, the structure is sure to impress patrons, Hamilton says. “The sheer color, the fact that something had design to it, the moving water — it was something to do and for kids to be creative on,” she says. “It’s a big draw for people just walking by seeing water shooting everywhere, and there’s movement and all kinds of things.”