When the first waterparks came online more than a quarter of a century ago, they represented a whole new world of mechanics and engineering. But things have changed since then, thanks to a number of developments including changing market forces, evolving financial realities and increasing environmental concerns.

Manufacturers are responding,  and today’s innovations are all about taking the  developments of the past and launching them into a whole new galaxy using the latest technology. The goal is to create a more efficient operation that provides an exciting experience for more people.

Such developments are turning the once unimaginable into a cost-effective reality. 

Rides and Attractions

LEDs Those little light-emitting diodes that you might remember from high school physics are taking the world of waterparks by storm. First introduced in the 1960s, LEDs emit light in a range of color spectrums through a physical process called electroluminescence. Recent advancements make it possible to use LEDs in a number of new applications, including as a way to enhance water slides.

“It allows lighting and visual effects that were not feasible before,” says Franceen Gonzales, vice president of risk management and aquatics at Great Wolf Resorts Inc., based in Madison, Wis.

The latest LED technology makes it possible to create an enhanced slide or attraction that allows riders to customize their experience — setting a specific light pattern that also could be combined with music, sounds or other effects.

Next-generation materials The materials used in the creation of waterpark attractions have come a long way, and innovations are producing less expensive, longer-lasting products that are better for the environment. Experts point to newer closed-mold manufacturing techniques that are more efficient and create fewer chemical off-gas emissions; more composite materials that hold up better in a humid environment, and may replace steel and wood; and new formulations of fiberglass.  

Hydromagnetics Hydromagnetic technology currently is held under exclusive patent by Ottawa, Ontario, Canada-based ProSlide Technologies, and used in its aquacoaster rides. Based on a concept featured in dry attractions, hydromagnetic aquacoasters are powered by what’s known as a linear induction motor and work like this: Each ride vehicle (designed like a standard rubber raft) has a large metal plate on the bottom that is attracted and then repelled to alternating magnetic fields below the slide surface, allowing ride vehicles to move smoothly uphill and down, at exciting speeds.

The technology was first introduced by ProSlide approximately seven years ago with a two- or four-person design. Now there are six- or eight-person designs, and the company expects to have more than 18 in operation by the end of 2012. Hydromagnetic coasters offer high through-put and can be adapted as a “dry” ride. Another benefit: The design also is energy-efficient.

“We’re working with anywhere between 10 and 15 percent energy of a traditional coaster,” says Ray Smegal, product development manager at ProSlide.

Computerized controls Whoever said water and computers don’t mix was wrong! Ride designers are finding new and innovative ways to spice up tried and true concepts by incorporating computerized controls on a variety of levels. One example is the skybox launch system from ProSlide. The pod-like design launches riders onto a high-thrill slide by literally dropping the floor out from under their feet, and it’s controlled via a computer. Other uses of computers might range from allowing teens on a water slide to select the music they want to hear as they experience the attraction, to allowing toddlers on a water-play structure to choose which spray or feature they want to activate.

Mechanics

Variable frequency drives Simply put, VFD drives are designed to control the speed of an electric motor.

In so doing, the technology can increase efficiency and preserve the life span of a motor. VFD drives have been used in a wide range of applications for some time, but use in the aquatics industry has only become feasible since they have become more cost-effective in the past two decades. Today, VFDs can be used on any waterfeature pump motor, from slides to competition pools, and the cost ranges from roughly $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the size (horsepower) of the motor, says Mike Fowler, commercial marketing manager at Pentair Aquatic Systems in Sanford, N.C. 

Operators who install VFDs can expect better pump performance and significant energy savings. Payback often is realized in less than 1½ years, Fowler adds. With benefits like that, he and other industry experts anticipate that those who have not yet adopted VFD technology will do so soon.

Multipurpose pool covers Imagine if you could safely, quickly and economically cover your pool during evenings and colder months with a hard top that would allow other activities to take place! Think of it like an arena with a modular flooring system that be converted to accommodate either a hockey or basketball game.

With more and more operators looking to increase revenue by expanding their operations to include evening hours and off-season special events, the concept is becoming increasingly important, says Scott Hester, studio director and principal at Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis. While he can’t point to any specific suppliers that currently offer such a product, he says to stay tuned! The technology is in development and it’s likely to show up on the market soon.

Filtration innovation Regenerative media filtration currently is the most state-of-the art option commonly available. However, as operators and patrons demand cleaner water and air with less chemical treatment, several other advances are making waves.

“Our goal should be the best water quality with minimal use of chemicals,” says Jim Tanner, director, Aquatics Division, ProMinent Fluid Controls in Pittsburgh.

He and others are looking at advances, including the use of chlorine dioxide as a supplemental sanitizer and drum filtration. Chlorine dioxide is a gas that acts as a powerful oxidizer. Currently approved in Europe for use in pool systems, it may be of interest to U.S. operators looking for something that can help reduce cleanup times after a fecal accident, Tanner says. “It’s a supplement, another piece of the puzzle in certain applications,” he adds.

Another option, drum filtration, currently is being marketed by a Swedish manufacturer. The technology aims to reduce chloramines, and developers claim the unique design removes nearly 90 percent of organic particles by backwashing several times an hour for just a few seconds each time.

Back-of-House

Social media monitoring In a 2010 survey of nearly 220 Aquatics International readers, at least 75 percent of those who identified as being affiliated with a waterpark or waterpark resort reported using social networks such as Facebook to communicate with patrons and potential customers. And as more and more operations dive into these new media platforms, it’s not surprising that there’s a growing interest in technology that can help monitor online activity, says Gonzales. That might be something as basic as using free tools available from Google, or registering with a service that specializes in online reputation management, such as reputation.com.

Remote control “I think the control side of things is where we’re going to see the biggest changes,” says Hester. There are already products available that allow operators to monitor some facets of their park from anywhere via an Internet connection. As Hester indicates, that’s likely to grow. One-stop control systems that can allow an operator to view and change all aspects of pool water chemistry; software and apps that allow instant access to sales figures; and online maintenance tools are all just beginning to hit the market in a big way.

Mobile technology Mobile-friendly Websites, SMS (text) message marketing, and pool-specific apps are just a few of the mobile tools currently available for operators. According to statistics, Internet access via a smart phone is set to outpace access via PC, which makes it likely that there will be more advances ahead. At NRH20 Family Waterpark in North Richland Hills, Texas, guests will soon be able to purchase tickets and redeem them right from a smart phone, says Stephanie Hee, marketing specialist. Her patrons also will be able to order a meal from a concession stand, pay for it, and receive a text message with an estimated time to go and pick up the food.

Guest Services

Radio frequency identification The use of  RFID continues to expand. As more operations adopt the technology, patrons will catch on, and it’s a safe bet that new possibilities for use will become cost effective. RFID embedded wristbands contain and transmit information through microchips, which work via radio waves. Currently, some waterpark resort operations use RFID wristbands as room keys, but perhaps the most unique benefit in the waterpark setting is that they can also be used to make cashless payments.

At NRH2O Family Waterpark, patrons can use RFID technology to access lockers. Last year the park also debuted an RFID cash system for season pass holders.

“It’s so convenient to put the money on there, we just need to make sure our guests know about it,” Hee says.

Line management systems No one wants to wait in line, and operators are finding that today’s customers want the option of bypassing a long queue. As a result, systems that allow guests to “reserve” a spot on a certain ride are generating substantial interest — and significant revenue. Disney’s Fastpass system has been in place for about a decade, and several Six Flags parks offer similar options. A number of new technologies now are also available to waterpark operators. The British firm Lo-Q, headquartered here in the United States in Lithia Springs, Ga., offers a mobile platform for ride reservations, as well as the Q-band RFID band, and Q-bot, a handheld device that allows virtual queuing.

Some operators have even gotten creative and developed their own systems, notes David Sangree, president of  Hotel & Leisure Advisors, based in Cleveland. He adds that the benefits of a system that can provide virtual queuing are twofold: From an operator standpoint, it’s possible to charge a higher ticket price. Plus, when guests spend less time in line, they have more time to spend at the concession stand and in the gift shop. From a guest standpoint, being able to enjoy all that a park has to offer creates a better, more memorable experience, even if it does cost extra. 

Socialized “sharing” platforms Approximately two-thirds of online adults use social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, according to fall 2011 data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Given that statistic, it’s not surprising that waterpark operators are adopting technologies and software that will allow guests to automatically share photos and other information about their visits.

The concept was very successful among Israeli teens at a 2010 Coca-Cola-sponsored experience, and Great Wolf Resorts introduced Great Wolf Connect last year at its Grand Mound, Wash., location. Guests can register their Facebook accounts and by scanning their RFID enabled wristbands at photo stations throughout the resort, they can take a picture that will automatically post to their Facebook pages, with a caption.