It wasn’t the first time Alison Osinski had seen such a scenario. Undoubtedly, everyone involved from the Texas town (which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) thought they were doing a good thing. An expansion project renovated a traditional rectangular pool facility, adding some water slides, a shallow water-play area with several waterfeatures, and a large play structure. With free admission for residents, the renovated facility was expected to attract local families.

The public was indeed enthusiastic, and it quickly became clear that operators underestimated just how popular the updated facility would be.

By the time Osinksi, principal of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego, was called in for advice, the facility was drowning in capacity crowds of more than 1,000, before noon. The big problem, she found, was that the large numbers of people overwhelmed the filtration systems, and water quality got so bad operators had to regularly shut down the facility by early afternoon. Additionally, backups in the parking lot caused traffic problems on local streets, and the staff could not control the crowd of hot, frustrated people waiting at the gate for their turn to get in.

The community had an exciting opportunity to improve aquatics offerings and, clearly, it did not turn out as anticipated. Ultimately, problems came down to failures in planning.

“There [should be] a lot of planning before any dirt is moved,” Osinski, Ph.D., notes.

As the economy bounces back and funding becomes available again, many operators plan to expand their facilities. In fact, a December 2009 survey of more than 700 Aquatics International readers reveals that approximately half intend to add a new amenity to their facilities in the next four years.

Certainly, no one wants to suffer through what Osinski’s client did. But preventing surprises and minimizing unintended consequences requires a lot of consideration — and careful planning.

Today’s aquatics professionals have an array of exciting options when it comes to amenities and, according to experts, the key is planning how an expansion fits into your big picture. Installing a new amenity means knowing what your public wants and needs, establishing clear goals and understanding all of your options.

Start with research

Everything should start with research. Determine the needs of your facility by evaluating the desires and necessities of your market, as well as your physical space and other logistical considerations, experts say.

“It all depends on what you have already,” says Mick Nelson, facilities development director at USA Swimming, Colorado Springs, Colo.

That’s true for your facility and your market.

In planning for a new installation, think about what your current mix of pools and attractions looks like, and how adding something new should fit in. Which areas of the facility get the most use? Do you need to increase capacity on the kinds of amenities already offered, or is something completely different needed?

Either way, a new amenity should complement any existing theming. For example, says Bob Feller, if your brand is geared toward children, “even though a thrill ride is something Mom and Dad would like, it might not be a good investment.” The architectural director of Iconica in Madison, Wis., adds, “If they can’t take the kids on it, it will sit empty.”

The feature also should have a guaranteed “wow” factor, according to Clinton Hill, general manager of Hawaiian Falls-Firewheel in Garland, Texas. “We have [many] returning guests and season pass holders,” Hill says. “That requires us to keep adding something new so they’ll keep coming back each year.”

There are physical considerations as well. You’ll need to know exactly how much available square footage you have and what that space looks like. What’s the grade of the land? How close is the proposed space in relation to other structures and property lines, which may mean height restrictions?

“The first thing we ask [of clients] is, ‘Give us a copy of the site plan of your park,’” says Jeff Janovich, vice president sales at ProSlide in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. “That’s helpful in terms of knowing how much [space is available].”

Parking, storm drains, utilities, water lines, and piping from other attractions and buildings also may restrict the space.

“You at least need to know where things are in advance so you know what you have going in,” Janovich adds.

Another factor to consider is whether your back-of-house space can handle the new addition or if it will require work as well. For example, is your pump room big enough to fit new equipment needed for a new attraction?

“If you can use existing infrastructure, that can go a long way to keeping the budget down,” says Jeff Nodorft, studio director at Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis.

Know your patron

Along with assessing your physical space, determine which market you need to target. Any new feature you consider should attract that demographic. For example, if your goal is families with young children, don’t opt for a water slide with a height requirement of 54 inches.

When it comes to markets, Osinski says the driving question should be, “Do you want to attract a new group or provide more for existing customers?”

Answering such questions might seem daunting, and generally there are two options. You can either hire an outside firm to gather market data, or you can actively collect it yourself via guest surveys and other communication with your public.

Chris Swartz, park manager of NRH2O in North Richland Hills, Texas, relies heavily on guest surveys and communication. “We try to let our guests help guide the process,” he says.

After you’ve heard from your patrons, be sure to go back and compare their opinions with what’s actually going on at the park. If the responses you receive indicate a need for more for little kids, but during recreational swim hours there’s always a line of teens at the water slide and never anyone in the kiddie pool, maybe adding something for little kids isn’t the right option now.

Another part of the market evaluation process is understanding your competition.

“You have to do your homework and know what the city next door has,” says Aaron Hunter, director of business development and marketing at USAquatics, Delano, Minn. “You can try to complement what they have [or even try to work together with them], or you can try and one up them.”

Build a budget

Along with careful research, you’ll also want to solidify a budget before proceeding further into the design/build process.

“If you’re going to add something, it had better make sense fiscally,” Hunter says.

Three key factors to consider are:

  • Marketability. How can you use the new amenity to drive visits?
  • Impact. How will the new amenity affect day-to-day operations? Will you need to change opening/closing routines or staff training?
  • Market changes. What are the expected changes in your market? If you’re building something for teens, are there currently many families with young children who will become teenagers tomorrow?

If funding is not already established, figure out where money will come from — grants, loans, operational revenue, donations or some other source — and how much you’ll have available to spend. Then write up a business plan, including information on how the attraction might generate revenue.
“With something like a Flowrider, it brings in the older crowd, which might spend money differently,” Feller explains. “It’s not so much a return on investment via ticket sale increases, but maybe through increased spending on food and arcade games.”

If a new feature could significantly change the value of the property, operators also may want to find out how insurance and liability premiums might be affected, Hill notes.

Survey your options

Once you’ve determined what you’ve got to work with, it’s time to survey your options.

Perhaps the newest amenity category is aquatic play equipment. Though the concept has been around for longer, in the past decade play structures have become larger and more elaborate. As Janovich notes, that’s why “play structures are the new ‘must have.’”

He and other experts suggest that play structures may be so popular because they offer a high level of interactivity, along with opportunities for the entire family to play together. Everyone can enjoy the wide variety of elements, from dump buckets to squirt guns.

Generally priced starting around $200,000, the largest and most elaborate can cost up to $200 million. One advantage in adding a play structure is that often it can be designed and built in stages, meaning you can easily plan to add to the initial structure over time.

Play structures also can be a good choice because they create a strong visual impact; however, they take a beating, so regular maintenance is essential.

But with amenities, few beat water slides. Forty-four percent of the Aquatics International survey respondents say their facilities include at least one water slide, making it one of their most common amenities.

When installing a new water slide, there are three primary considerations: the type of slide (body slide, tube slide or a family-style slide), whether it will come off an existing slide tower or a new one, and whether it will end in a plunge pool or a runout.

“If you already have a slide tower, a mat racer slide is a great addition,” Feller says. “Tube slides are more expensive because they’re typically larger in diameter and require more water.”

Nodorft adds that the height of the slide also will affect the price, generally starting at $500,000 and going up to around $2 million, for the largest, most elaborate concepts. An important consideration if you decide to add a tube water slide is the expense and maintenance required with inner tubes.

Another option might be a lazy river. Nearly 6 percent of survey respondents are planning to add a lazy river in the next four years, and one thing driving their decision might be the fact that lazy rivers have nearly universal appeal. They’re also what some in the industry call “people eaters,” meaning they can hold large numbers of patrons at once.

While lazy rivers should help anchor your facility for at least the next 20 years, they can be costly upfront. Lazy rivers require significant excavation and concrete work, and can cost $800,000 to $1.5 million or more, Nodorft says. Along with the lazy river itself, ancillary design features such as theming and landscaping are an added expense.

Osinski suggests other questions to consider, such as whether you’ll need additional structures such as bridges to maintain easy access to all areas of your park. How many areas of ingress/egress will there be? And will the design create any potential traffic jams?

Also, lazy rivers take up lots of space. “It’s a large area to guard. The more turns and bends, the more lifeguards you need,” Osinski notes. That means you may be committing to a staff increase for the lifetime of the attraction.

Another amenity choice is a spa or hot tub. At an average cost of $100,000 to $200,000, this will likely be one of the cheapest options. The environment you’re trying to create ultimately drives the cost, Nodorft says. Large hot tubs with a lot of curves and theming are will be more expensive than something more basic.

Think ahead

Planning a new addition to your facility today also means considering how it will fit in tomorrow, particularly in terms of return on investment and revenue opportunities.

All told, any new attraction will boost attendance, but often it’s programming that provides long-term fiscal sustainability. For that reason, many experts suggest that operators give careful thought to how an addition can generate revenue through programming.

Think about how you might be able to use the ride or amenity for something other than its standard purpose, Hunter suggests. For example, a recreational lazy river could also be used for water walking and perhaps some other types of aquatic fitness.

That could also mean looking at how you might change the amenity over time. For example, if you build a water slide, could you add a second slide to the tower or new lighting in the future? If so, is that something you need to plan for now?

Also analyze how the new attraction could change usage patterns. What’s the expected increase in attendance and how will a new element affect use of ancillary facilities? For instance, is the space available for a children’s play structure going to be close enough to restrooms? Will it cause crowding at a nearby shaded seating area?

Finally, operational costs will vary, so don’t overlook expenses for things such as increased staffing, tubes, new training, specialized cleaning equipment, and water and chemical costs.

“Long-term operational costs are as important [as the initial costs],” Swartz says. “What looks great ... can end up costing you more if you don’t factor in the cost of staffing from the design phase.”

Ultimately, that’s true with more than just staffing.

“Having a plan helps ensure that we’re putting in the right attractions at the right time and for the right price,” Swartz says, “and to ensure that they have the greatest impact on our guests.”