At Magic Watersin Rockford, Ill., something magical happens each year on July 25: Christmas. The waterpark is transformed into a holiday wonderland with Christmas trees, wreaths, inflatable snowmen, colorful garlands and candy canes. There’s a snowmen contest, families take pictures with Santa (in swim trunks), Christmas music plays all day long, and kids can decorate holiday cookies. Family pictures with the Swimming Santa end up on many holiday cards.
The event is all part of the Rockford Park District’s strategy to bring guests to the waterpark more than just a day. Jessica Steinberg, director of Magic Waters waterpark, says that especially now, people are looking for a true investment and purpose for spending their money at the park besides just being in the water.
This is particularly important for a municipality, which functions differently from a vacation resort and relies on its visitors to return all season long.
Magic Waters had a difficult 2009 season due to a combination of lower revenue and cold, rainy weather. To make up the difference and hit attendance goals without spending a lot of on improvements required much creativity.
“People really want to find ways to add value to the experience of coming to the waterpark and for their purchases,” she says.
The most important consideration, of course, was making guests feel the waterpark was their own, and creating a personal touch to the experience. “They’re not just coming to the waterpark. They’re getting that full family experience,” Steinberg says.
The planning started early — in the middle of winter at Christmas (the actual Christmas). December is when people begin purchasing season passes for summer. This year, Steinberg’s team added a handmade, waterpark-themed Christmas stocking filled with candy and $75 worth of coupons for the waterpark. They created incentives for purchasing a season pass during the holiday season, including free rentals,
discounted rates for luxury cabanas, deals on gift shop items and a bring-a-friend-free option.
Because people return to the waterpark all summer long, it was important to make it feel as if it were the local watering hole. That’s where Magic Waters’ lovable mascots shine — there to greet guests and play with kids throughout the day.
This year, a new mascot — Ocho the Octopus — joined Tiki Tina and Shelbert the Turtle. The popular mascots have a special daily events schedule. They have photo sessions with kids and do a parade through the park. The mascots and waterpark staff create activities such as bingo, races, fake tattoos of the mascots and the special Tiki Tribe for youngsters. “It’s been a great success,” Steinberg says. “The kids just love it.”
She notes that special events are bringing spikes in attendance on those days.
Overall, attendance has grown more than 20 percent, and on the park’s “$10 buck Tuesdays” it jumped as high 300 percent.
Another popular fund-raising event is the Duck Derby. In partnership with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the waterpark hosts an event where people purchase pink rubber ducks and watch them race down the water slide with 1,000 other birds. Each person who purchases a duck also receives a discounted entry to the waterpark.
At regularly scheduled times and on special holidays such as Father’s Day, Magic Waters brings in a band to play for four hours. In addition, the park formed a partnership with Radio Disney whereby the crew performs for the guests. On Wednesdays, the gift shop offers free fingernail polishing. On Friday it’s family fun night, with the park staying open later — until 8 p.m. — to encourage families to come after work and kick off the weekend together. There’s also a reduced rate for families coming after 3 p.m.
To attract new or infrequent guests, Magic Waters partners with different departments within Parks and Recreation to offer a free waterpark day pass with the purchase of another ticket — for example, to the ice skating rink or a football or hockey program. The park also joined forces with the local public school to entice children to complete a reading club program. Everyone who does earns a free ticket to the waterpark.
On the group sales side, the facility reached out to companies that once rented the space for corporate outings, but have cut back. The new package includes a semiprivate party with another company. For families, the park also presents packages that complement the special events calendar — on particular days, there’s a discount on food and beverages, or a special is offered at the gift shop; still other packages include admission, lunch and a tube rental.
Steinberg says many of the changes were made in response to economic challenges, but they’re also changes that are here to stay. “One thing we talk about are the new norms,” Steinberg says. “What are the new norms for the new economy? What can we do to look at things in a new way and [operate] differently? We’ve come up with some ideas that have been really successful. Our customers love it and we love being able to provide them with the extra family experience.”