When Aquatics International published its first issue in 1988, recreational aquatics facilities were undergoing a revolution.
Places such as Wet 'n Wild, Schlitterbahn, Disney and the Wisconsin Dells were proving that people would drive far and wide to take part in water entertainment, and even plan vacations around it.
Owners and operators of smaller aquatics facilities had to look at this phenomenon and compare it to their own state of affairs. With simple, rectangular pools, the centers at the time generally served people who came solely for lessons or swim practice, while their guardians and siblings sat on the sidelines counting the minutes.
With the well-publicized parks hitting the scene, aquatics operators were exposed to several new concepts and moved to benefit from what they were seeing.
Waterparks everywhere were demonstrating that people would pay a lot of money to have fun in the water, if there was something exciting and engaging for the whole family. Not only that, but consumers would stay in one place longer, resulting in the increased purchase of concessions.
“If you look at the municipal swimming pool market in the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for the entrance fee to be a quarter or free even,” says Scot Hunsaker, president of Counsilman-Hunsaker, based in St. Louis. “When we saw the waterpark market come on board, we saw people dramatically willing to pay more for increased recreation value.
“The thing that became evident is that the more recreation value and the more programming value there was, the more market penetration there would be.”
However, facilities that appealed only to aquatic athletes were incompatible with these new trends. Competition pools were being built with deeper water to prevent diving injuries, which made them even less appealing to those not interested in sport. Moreover, vessels designed for competitive and lap swimming could only accommodate a limited number of people, since each person needed a lane.
In the mid- to late 1980s, aquatics centers began to respond by incorporating multiple pools of different shapes and depths to appeal to a variety of users. Umbrellas and small waterfeatures were also beginning to be added to increase comfort and aesthetics.
In the 1990s, the evolution of aquatics-facility design took a huge step forward. The centers truly began to look like miniature waterparks as their creators tried to customize each space with the addition of wet play features and different configurations of the vessels.
Zero-depth entries had been around for a while, but they exploded in this decade, sometimes designed to ease access for the disabled or elderly, and other times utilized with spray features to provide a fun place for small children. The inclusion of play features rose noticeably during the ’90s as well. They especially were used to convert the old-fashioned “baby pools” into splash grounds.
Designers also were adapting a feature found in more waterpark and resort pools — lazy rivers, meant to appeal to adults who wanted to relax but still enjoy a little movement. The smaller versions found in these centers were sometimes referred to as current channels, and they lent different shapes to the atmosphere.
At about the turn of the century, a trend toward multi-level play features began. Not only did this create a more interesting environment for kids, but it also took advantage of vertical space, thus helping to alleviate a shortage of square footage.
“People can climb up this big interactive play structure that is situated on a very tight footprint, but it’s multilevel with lots of ... slides that are adapted to fit into very tight spaces," says Ron Lausman, vice president of design for WhiteWater West Industries Ltd. in Richmond, B.C., Canada. So we’re taking a recreation experience that would typically be in an aquatic facility on one level and transferring that up into multiple levels ... so there’s a lot of entertainment value in a short, small footprint.”
These first years of the 21st century have been devoted to bumping up the wow factor on the features that sprang up the previous 20 years. Lazy rivers have become not so lazy, with enhancements such as dumping buckets or spray cannons incorporated into them.
All the while, aquatics facilities have become more themed, with play structures, colors and landscaping to set the mood.
“We moved the fences back and took a holistic approach, so we have some soft areas, turf deck areas, buffers, landscapes and those types of things. It [brings] the park inside the aquatics facility,” says Claude Rogers, aquatics planner and designer with Water Technology Inc. in Beaver Dam, Wis. “That made it a much more pleasant place to be.”
The end result has been a legacy of properties that provide fun and relaxation for the whole family.