Photo courtesy Hermiston Aquatic Center

Then the Silliman Family Aquatic Center in Newark, Calif., opened in 2004, senior recreation supervisor Peter Beireis had no idea if the pool would be mobbed or empty. But the opening had an overwhelming response. Due to the popularity of the water slides, lazy river and play structures, there was a three-hour waiting period for recreational swim use. In addition, the learn-to-swim program filled to capacity almost immediately.

“All of a sudden, we realized we had to be cautious in the utilization of space so that we could provide something for the majority of the community at large,” he says.

Beireis knew the pool would generate interest in areas beyond the water-play features. So he pulled together a full list of programs, ranging from water aerobics to pre-natal classes, to satisfy all of his patrons. “People want to maintain their health. If we took [any programs] away, we’d definitely hear about it.”

But, first and foremost, the entire pool is “the general open swim area,” he says. To add programming to that space requires a strong knowledge of the pool’s demographics, and a lot of creativity to make a space worthy.

Many leisure-pool operators understand the value behind programming, but the challenge is fitting it all into the confines of a leisure pool. While such pools are designed to draw wider audiences, their shallow-water areas and lazy rivers don’t seem right for aquatics programming. But with proper planning and foresight, savvy operators can still run a variety of programs through their leisure facilities — and recapture an important source of funding.

Before deciding what kind of programming to add, take inventory of your available pool space. Determine which swimming areas are available, and the best way to cordon them off. For example, ropes and racing lanes can be easily used to create small classrooms

Shallow water

Leisure pools tend to have zero to 4 feet of water, which is ideal for a number of programming activities. It’s a great place to hold children’s lessons, says Linda McKee, recreation supervisor at the city of Mountlake Terrace Recreation Pavilion in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. The facility offers pre-school classes in the leisure pool, where the water is no deeper than 3 feet. “What’s nice about that is, we don’t have to put a deck in the water for kids to stand on,” she says. “The water is shallow enough to start them in 1 foot if they’re a little bit scared, and then move them to the 3-foot area.”

Juliene Hefter, president of the National Recreation & Park Association’s National Aquatic Branch, concurs. “I like teaching swim lessons where kids can stand,” she says. “It gives them more confidence.”

The leisure pool is a good place to teach waterpark lifeguarding, McKee notes. Her facility offers the Red Cross certification for waterparks because it has the components needed for teaching the course. It also holds an annual April Pools Day event, which teaches the community and children about safety in leisure pools and shallow water.

The leisure area can be divided into a couple of lap lanes and a spot for water basketball, providing more options for teenagers and older patrons, Beireis says. He doesn’t offer basketball as a league or class, but rather as a pickup game during open swim.

The space also can be used for shallow-water aerobics for the able-bodied, says Ruth Sova, founder of Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute. “Walking in zero-depth is excellent for leg strength and balance,” she says, while “walking in 3-foot pools is excellent for core strength because the body has to involve deep tissue muscles to move through two different mediums without leaning forward.”

Catch pool

Sova says classes such as Ai Chi and Water Yoga can be taught in the catch pool of a water slide. Because catch pools can involve a good amount of space, turning off the slide while the kids are in school and holding classes in the area is another way to include programming.

At the Silliman Family Aquatic Center, the water-slide catch pool is 20-by-20 feet, 3 1/2 feet deep, perfect for the facility’s pre-natal course and a therapy class for those with physical limitations. The area is somewhat separate from rest of the pool, giving personal space to those who need a little distance from other facility activities.

The catch pool is good for hosting lessons and smaller aerobics classes, too. Hefter even suggests incorporating the water slide into workouts for able-bodied participants by using the stairs in a combined land/water workout. Naturally, patrons should use caution when walking barefoot on wet surfaces

Lazy river

The lazy river is another element that more and more facilities have incorporated into programs. And once it’s become the program’s venue, it is anything but lazy. “You can do water walking, water aerobics and use the current for resistance,” Hefter says. “It’s also a great way to do lap swimming against the current, with more resistance and a better workout.”

The lazy river current can be turned on or off, depending on the type of class. The Summit Aquatic Center in Canton, Mich., offers “River Blast & Sculpt,” a high-intensity workout that combines cardio, strength and flexibility training. The entire 75-minute class takes place in the lazy river, using noodles, water weights, the current and even the movement of water caused by people.

Senior citizens enjoy walking in the lazy river current in an open-swim type of setting, without inner tubes in the way. Some walk with the current if they suffer mobility issues, while others walk against it for resistance and more exercise, McKee says.

Mountlake Terrace also holds classes in the bend of the river and at its opening, where the pool opens up. They hold swim lessons for young children because they can stand in the water, nor do they require great distances for swimming

Play structures

For children who aren’t ready to begin swim lessons or who require different water-based exercise, using the play structure is a good base for youth aerobics programming. “Have a circuit course around all the play features you have, and make up activities that can be done at each one,” says John Spannuth, president/CEO of United States Water Fitness Association in Boynton Beach, Fla. “But don’t call it a fitness class. If it’s good for kids, they don’t want to do it.” Spannuth prefers to call it “Youth Splash.”

Kids also can be involved in relay activities that include running from the edge of the pool to different parts of a play structure and back, gathering items placed on the play structure ahead of time.

For adults, incorporating stairs into an aerobic workout is another option, Hefter suggests. Using stairs on the side of the pool, on the water slide and on the play structure are ways to build a water step-aerobics program

Watch out

No matter what type of programming you do, fitting everything into a pool without overwhelming the spaces and the patrons is critical. That is Dee Johnson’s biggest challenge — keeping as many patrons as possible satisfied at the exact same time. “Generally, I think we’ve got a pretty good schedule,” says the aquatics director of Perry Park Center in Perryville, Mo. “It’s just hard to plan sometimes. Basically, we section it off and try to maximize [the spaces].”

Scheduling is one of the most important ways to balance programs. “Open the pool early in the morning for lap swimmers” or higher-intensity water aerobic classes, Hefter suggests. Usually the early-morning crowd uses its aquatic routine to jump-start the day. Offer more intense, cardio-type classes during this time.

While the kids are in school, schedule slower-pace classes during the day. Sculpting, water yoga and strength training allow participants to concentrate on their form. This time is particularly good for seniors who come in for water walking, water aerobics and therapeutic sessions. “Seniors like to come in and do open-walk, because there aren’t a ton of kids during the day,” McKee says.

It’s also a great time for parent/toddler classes and pre-school swim lessons, when little children have the fewest distractions around them, experts say.

After-school hours and weekend mornings are the best times for children to take learn-to-swim classes and aerobics. At Perry Park Center, the pool is closed between 5-6:30 p.m. for aerobics and adult lessons. “The public likes the adult-only swim hour right after work,” Johnson says. The center even taught an 88-year-old how to swim.

Separating the pool is equally important to keep patrons happy. “It’s definitely a multitasking challenge to incorporate swim lessons and space for guests and classes,” says Jeanette Williams, recreational specialist in health and wellness at the Summit Aquatic Center.

Hefter agrees: “You have to look at who’s using the pool at the same time. If you have an arthritis group coming in and elderly people in the pool, I try to keep a buffer between them and [others] so they don’t get splashed. I wouldn’t schedule a birthday party the same time I have my senior exercise class going on.”

Rather, she says, put lap swimming with water aerobics in the same pool separated by lines, or yoga and gentler classes with therapeutic ones. Similarly, schedule children’s swim lessons at the same time a kids’ aerobic workout is being held, or during an open swim so they can play after their lesson. While trying to use every inch of pool space is one way to fit in all the different programs, balance is essential, Beireis warns. “You don’t want to lose [that balance] by trying to create more and more programs,” he says.

Lastly, setting the right water temperature is critical to running a multipurpose pool, experts say. It’s an ongoing battle in all facilities that cater to a wide range of customers. “That’s one of the biggest complaints you’ll get, no matter what kind of facility,” Hefter says. Warmer temperatures are good for seniors and small children, while cooler temperatures are better for the more active lap swimmers, swim-team trainers and aerobics classes.

“[Temperature] is just something we have to compromise on and deal with,” Johnson says. “The swim team wants it at 83, and the [elderly] ladies want it at 88.” The center keeps the temperature at 85.

Hefter says keeping the temperature in the middle is the best compromise. “I try to keep it at a [setting] where I get the same amount of complaints and compliments on that temperature.”

Host special events

Sometimes all that’s needed to warm things up is a fun event that will draw families and the community together. Holiday celebrations, birthday parties, tournaments and other such activities are good ways to use a facility and renew interest in the pool.

During holidays, the Mountlake Terrace Recreation Pavilion hosts events. For example, there’s an underwater egg hunt at Easter. Plastic eggs are weighted with cement and dropped at different depths, so even 1-year-olds can participate, McKee says. Similarly, at Halloween, little bags of plastic gold coins are sunk for a pirates’ treasure hunt.

Other regular events that are popular at facilities include the dive-in movie, where patrons sit in inner tubes and float in the water while watching a movie. This can be held year ’round at an indoor pool. Other ideas include kids’ relay races around play features and the lazy river, and inner tube races. Hefter says Friday evening is a popular time to schedule events, to kick off the weekend.

Water basketball or volleyball tournaments are another way to draw in a crowd of teenage or young adult players ... and audiences. Beireis sets up such games during the summer and winter camp seasons, when many patrons are on vacation for the holidays.

If a facility has lap and leisure pools, it can rent out the leisure part for parties, McKee says. Parents of young children don’t need the entire space for a birthday party, and their interest is more in the fun part of the pool anyway. She rents it out for $50 an hour to city residents, $60 to nonresidents. This is a favorite revenue-generator for many leisure pools, and a popular option for the community. It also introduces the facility to guests’ parents, who may not be familiar with the pool, thus generating more interest. If you have unique programming to boot, they may be lured to sign up.

“People have to be creative with what they’re offering and how they’re offering it,” Hefter says. “It’s what we can offer that brings more people into our facilities.”