It was good news for the aquatics industry when the U.S. Department of Justice ruled to allow portable pool lifts this spring, but that turnaround represents only a fraction of the most recent Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Operators have until Jan. 31, 2013, to comply with the ADA pool accessibility requirements, but many waterpark operators are still asking what it all means.

With the help of compliance experts and waterpark professionals, Aquatics International has taken a closer look at some of the biggest questions regarding the requirements. There are still some gray areas, but the following should help your waterpark follow the letter of the law, and observe the spirit of what it was put in place to achieve.


The ADA specifies that the more elevated components a facility has, the more ground-level accessible ones it must provide. Here’s a closer look at the requirements.

Number of elevated play components provided Minimum number of ground-level play components required to be an accessible route Minimum number of different types of ground-level play components required to be on accessible route
1 Not applicable Not applicable
2 to 4 1 1
5 to 7 2 2
8 to 10 3 3
11 to 13 4 3
14 to 16 5 3
17 to 19 6 3
20 to 22 7 4
23 to 25 8 4
More than 25 8, plus 1 for each additional 3 over 25, or fraction thereof 5


What are the primary concerns when addressing accessibility in waterparks?

When tackling accessibility in waterparks, “readily achievable barrier removal” is the buzzword of the day. Many operators are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of changes they must make to become 100 percent ADA-compliant, but the good news is that they aren’t expected to fix every accessibility issue overnight. New construction must be in line with ADA, but existing pools and attractions only need to be addressed if the resources are available, which is determined on a case-by-case basis. If it can be accomplished without undue difficulty or major cost, the barrier removal is considered “readily achievable.”

However, the “readily achievable” concept isn’t a free pass to forget about noncompliant areas of your waterpark. “Any type of barrier removal is an ongoing responsibility, and what’s not readily achievable today may be different tomorrow,” says John Caden, accessibility specialist at S.R. Smith in Canby, Ore. For example, a waterpark may have a major renovation planned, but can’t begin for another year. Its operators have already complied with ADA where readily achievable, but other areas of the park that could not be made immediately accessible must be addressed once the renovation project begins.

To determine what is and is not readily achievable, experts recommend teaming with a consulting firm to conduct a barrier-removal analysis. These experts can identify the areas of your park that can be made ADA-compliant most easily, and create a plan for further accessibility down the line.

Also, as you adapt your waterpark to the latest ADA standards, keep one more thing in mind: inclusion. Beyond following the letter of the law, an operator’s main goal should be to ensure as many patrons as possible can enjoy as much of the park as possible.

“People come to waterparks as part of social groups and the members of those groups want to be able to enjoy the waterpark  . . . and not be segregated or excluded from the fun,” York says.

Do waterparks fall under Title II or Title III

Waterparks qualify under either Title II or Title III, depending on the ownership status.

Title II pertains to anything owned by a state or local government, which would include municipally owned waterparks. Private facilities, such as those owned by Six Flags Entertainment or SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, are Title III.

Under the ADA, the focus for Title II entities is program accessibility. “For existing facilities, each service, program or activity, when viewed in its entirety, must be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,” says Sherril York, executive director of the National Center on Accessibility in Bloomington, Ind. For example, that means that if a city offers swim lessons, it must have at least one facility that can accommodate swim lessons for individuals who use wheel chairs.

Conversely, where readily achievable, Title III facilities must remove physical and communication barriers to individual attractions, goods, services and activities.

Which rules/requirements are different between Title II and III?

“The main difference is that Title II entities do not necessarily have to make each of their existing facilities accessible, as program accessibility can be achieved in a number of ways,” York says. If disabled patrons can access programs offered by Title II facilities by some other means, such entities don't need to remove barriers, even where readily achievable.

“It is important here to acknowledge that Title II and Title III are really more alike than different,” says John McGovern, president of Recreation Accessibility Consultants, LLC, in Hoffman Estates, Ill. His firm helps states and local governments (as well as private entities open to the public) comply with ADA. The goal for Title II and III facilities, he says, is to “eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability [by imposing] specific requirements and prohibiting certain activity.”

What are the rules for water slides and catch pools?

ADA does not mandate access to the top of a water slide, but an accessible route to the catch or plunge pool at the bottom is required. No entry into the catch pool is necessary, however. “By having access to the catch pool, people with disabilities can be close to the play action, which may be important for parents, siblings or friends of those playing on the water slides,” York says.

Additionally, diving boards and platforms themselves are exempt from ADA, but there must be an accessible path to the base of these structures.

“Part of the rationale [for exempting water slides] is that the rider needs to be able to maintain a specific body position to enjoy the ride safely,” says Franceen Gonzales, vice president of risk management at Great Wolf Resorts in Madison, Wis. “For a person who does not have the use of their lower extremities, it is difficult to enjoy a water slide safety.”

Does a wave pool or lazy river need two accessible means of entry?

For specialty pools such as lazy rivers and wave pools where there is only one means of entry for able-bodied patrons, only one accessible means of entry for disabled users is required. This is the case even if the body of water measures more than 300 linear feet.

This has been a source of debate, though, because some lazy rivers have more than one entry point. Wave pools nearly always have just one access point because of safety concerns, but lazy rivers often are designed with various launching spots. In such cases, “some might argue that there is only one way for the disabled to enter the pool,” Gonzales says. “Some of our lazy rivers have multiple means of entry, so we provided pool stairs and lifts for the longer ones.”

Ultimately, it’s best to err on the side of inclusion where readily achievable.

In areas where there is no legal requirement for accessibility, what can a waterpark operator do to comply with the spirit of ADA?

Your staff is a valuable resource when it comes to accessibility. Provide training on the ADA rules that apply to waterparks and empower employees to make decisions using that knowledge when working with disabled patrons, Gonzales says. If a person in a wheelchair must wait at every attraction for the employee to call his or her supervisor and formulate an access plan, that patron can feel like a burden or that their time is being wasted.

“There are a lot of disabilities out there,” Gonzales adds. “Have a plan for each one, like hearing or visual impairment. Also, for example, seeing kids with autism-spectrum disorders in our parks has become so much more prevalent. How can we make the experience best for them?”

Are service animals allowed into the pool?

“Service animals must be allowed to the pool or water’s edge, but not necessarily into the pool,” says York, who recently spoke to a former Department of Justice representative about this topic.

Most experts suggest referring to your local health department to make sure other rules don’t require service-animal access, “Most facilities are certainly not allowing them in the pool itself,” Caden says, citing maintenance and safety issues.

How many play elements need to be accessible?

Where play elements are provided at ground level, at least one of each type of element must be on an accessible route. However, most waterparks also have elevated play components and, according to ADA requirements, the more elevated components a facility has, the more accessible ones it must provide.

The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design includes a table that specifies the number and types of ground-level play components required to be on accessible routes.

Keep in mind, some elements present a bit of a gray area. “There’s no scoping for play elements like splashpads and all that stuff, so technically they should all be accessible to the point that it’s readily achievable,” Caden says.

Do I need a lift at every pool? What are the other options?

The size of each pool determines which means of pool entry and exit can be used. Pools that measure 300 linear feet or more must have two accessible means of entry. The primary means can be either a pool lift or sloped entry. For the second entry point, acceptable methods include another lift or sloped entry, transfer walls, a transfer system or stairs.

“The secondary means cannot be used in place of the primary means of entry because not everybody can use every secondary means,” Caden says.

Pools measuring less than 300 linear feet have different requirements, and the permitted means of entry is either a lift or sloped entry. Wading pools must have a sloped entry (as long as is extends to the deepest part of the pool), while wave pools can use a lift, transfer system or sloped entry.

What about kiddie pools without a zero-depth entry where a lift won’t work?

“The characteristics of a ‘kiddie’ pool must be considered,” York says. “Typically, kiddie pools are small and have 12- to 18-inch depths, which do not meet the requirements for the installation of a pool lift or the water depth requirements of a sloped entry — 24 to 30 inches.”

If the depth of your kiddie pool does require accessible entry, you can either use a portable ramp or re-slope the entire vessel. However, portable ramps may not be ideal in these pools because of all the children running around. Many experts advise against them. Additionally, there are some situations where re-sloping is simply too expensive or not feasible, such as when the length of a ramp would be longer than the pool itself. In those cases, the “readily achievable” guideline would likely apply.

“In these cases, have a plan in place for the next remodel,” Gonzales says. “Show the public that you are planning to do something when it can be done.”

In what other ways does ADA cover waterparks?

As operators scramble to comply with the new ADA requirements, they may forget that past ADA rules still apply to the rest of their waterparks. Parking lots, ticket kiosks, locker rooms, toilet areas, food service, concessions, pay phones and everything else detailed in the entirety of ADA must be accessible to your patrons, along with pools and other attractions.

Are handrails required on both sides in sloped entries?

In a word, yes. Handrails are required at the top landing but not at the bottom of the entry, and the width between rails must be greater than 33 inches and less than 38 inches.

“Wave-action pools, leisure rivers and sand-bottom pools do not have to comply with clear width requirements,” York says.

There are other exceptions, according to Caden: Sloped entries in wading pools do not require handrails, and handrails also could be a safety hazard in kiddie pools where children are running around.

Can a pool lift be shared between two pools?

According to the 2010 standards regarding new pool or spa construction, each vessel must have its own accessible entry and exit, so sharing lifts would not be permitted. In existing pools, whether each should have its own lift depends again on whether it is readily achievable. Ultimately, each pool should have its own lift eventually, as soon as it becomes possible for the facility to install one.

“This is one of the areas that’s a moving target,” Caden says. He expects further clarification on this topic from the DOJ in the future.

Though a shared lift may be allowed, keep in mind the possible problems that may pose for disabled users. “Sharing a lift between two pools requires people with disabilities to rely on staff assistance to find, move and set up the lift each time they want to enter or exit the pool,” York says. “Also, this may create a safety risk to swimmers with disabilities, as they may be unable to exit the pool when desired or necessary.”

Which pools are “grandfathered in”?

Technically, no pools are “grandfathered in.” The 2010 ADA standards do have a Safe Harbor provision, which states that elements which comply with ADA 1991 standards do not need to be modified to meet ADA 2010 unless they have been altered on or after March 15, 2012. But because ADA requirements relating to pools did not exist in 1991, Safe Harbor does not apply.

“If any requirements changed between 1991 and 2010, and the facility did a barrier-removal study and complied as best they could, then they do not have to change anything for 2010 until they do a renovation,” Caden adds.