No doubt waterparks have come a long way.

And thanks to certain changes in societal norms and technology, their design continues to evolve. Something that doesn't change: If it's possible, waterpark teams still try to cast a wide net when designing and planning their venues.

“If you’re budgeted more, that is your goal —to have something for everybody,” says David Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors, a Cleveland-based waterpark advisory firm. “If budgets are smaller, they focus on younger families and children, because some of the rides that teens might like cost more.”

Here, designers discuss four of the broad trends currently marking the evolution of these ever-popular destinations.

Minding the little ones

As difficult as this may be to believe, there was a time when occupying and entertaining small children came only as an afterthought in waterpark design.

“[The kiddie area] was just a big circle or rectangle of water with maybe a mushroom feature, and that was about it,” says Timothy Sheehan, manager of planning for Aquatic Development Group of Cohoes, N.Y. “There were some chairs on the outside, and [the message was], ‘Here you go, kids. Go play.’”

At that time, the focus remained primarily on entertaining older children and adults who were seeking the thrills of a good waterslide. These days, many waterparks and aquatics venues see young families as their bread and butter. So they now take the spotlight in design.

In today’s child play area, you might find miniaturized versions of rides and features usually associated with teens and adults.

“Now there’s more diversity of activities, interactive play features, and slides,” Sheehan says. “The kids can graduate themselves up on adventure and difficulty level based on the different offerings that we’re able to incorporate.”

For instance, designers are offering scaled-down, gentle wave pool suitable for children aged about 3 to 6 years old.

“[The ones we’ve designed] go down to a little over 2 feet deep,” Sheehan explains. “Where a big wave pool may be 80 feet across, this is only about 20 feet across at the caissons. The waves aren’t as big, the water isn’t as deep, but it still gives enough wave action that the children feel like they’re getting all the benefits of being in a wave pool without all the risk and danger of it being deep water.”

More small-child-friendly slides also are finding their way into waterparks. For really small kids, multi-passenger slides allow a parent or guardian to ride along with them.

And where older properties might have a slide or two for smaller children, now they often have whole areas with multiple waterslides. Designers will take care to provide different types of slides — tubes, open, flat, smooth, bumpy. “Even though they’re all pretty short and shallow, they’re still different experiences,” says Kevin Post, a principal in St. Louis-based Counsilman-Hunsaker. “It’s all about extending that length of stay.”

When it comes to features unique to small children, interactive ones remain popular, especially those that demonstrate cause and effect, says Connor Riley, a studio director with Counsilman-Hunsaker. For instance, play tables provide children the opportunity to push buttons and otherwise control the flow of water.

“Or there are other [features] where you step on a little push button or membrane and water squirts up a couple feet away, then they step on this one and water squirts up over there,” Riley says. “The cause and effect has been really popular with little kids.”

In addition to minimizing depth, turbulence and other factors that could place a small child at risk, designers are now finding ways to more closely incorporate parents into the experience, with seating that is part of the area rather than set around it like spectator seating.

Amping the versatility

Features such as lazy rivers and wave pools remain highlights at many of the waterparks currently being designed or renovated. However, designers are looking for ways to broaden the appeal of these destinations.

Lazy rives, for instance, might be engineered with quicker-moving water and spray features to go beyond the ambling rides of the past. More rapids, turns and interactive features engage users. And a variety of speeds can offer something for everyone. “There can be sections that are faster or have more wave action, and then you can come around the corner where maybe it slows down and has less waves and spraying,” Sheehan says. “So you can ramp it up, ramp it down, or even work it on sequencing.”

This is largely made possible by the evolution of the wave and current generators. Before, the flow used to be released from one end of the river to flow to the other. Now, some wave generators can be installed on the sidewall, making it possible to create isolated areas with more turbulence.

In other cases, timers can be used to create different experiences. “They can be turned on and off as needed,” Riley says. “In a recent project we did, we have [the wave generator] on for 10 minutes at the top of the hour, and that’s the only time it’s an action river. For the next 50 minutes it’s a lazy river.”

Because the water can make its way from one end to the other more quickly, action rivers sometimes need more length, which developers should keep in mind while planning and budgeting.

Designers also look for ways to expand wave pools beyond a single note. For instance, they may be parceled into different zones — say, a traditional wave area and a surfing spot.

With existing wave pools undergoing renovation, the team may make them shallower, creating more usable square footage than traditional ones that dip to 8 feet deep.

Staying on theme

Within the aquatics design community, opinions vary on theming. But they agree on one thing: The old ways no longer apply.

“Gone are the days where municipalities or park owners say, ‘I want this to be pirate-themed,’ or ‘Our theme here is going to be ‘under the sea,’” says Jennifere Gerber, business development leader with Water Technology Inc. of Beaver Dam, Wisc.

The meaning of that can go in one of two directions. Some, like ADG and Sheehan, see their clients transitioning away from theming that involves characters and storylines. Existing waterparks with an established theme will generally retain it, Sheehan says, but newer ones will avoid that approach.

Instead, they’ll rely more on colors or a refined resort aesthetic to set the tone. If they want stronger visuals, they can use panel graphics, which can be replaced easily.

This tends to help with the budget, but there’s more at work. “Aesthetics seem to change so quickly these days,” Sheehan says. “It’s like kitchen design — what was cool three years ago no longer is. It’s always evolving. So the less committed you are to one particular theme, the easier it is to change and modify. You can swap out panel graphics a lot easier than you can something that’s custom-molded and carved.”

For Gerber and WTI, the departure from traditional theming goes in the opposite direction. Their clients lean more into it, using it to educate and support actual storylines, as opposed to just vague notions of pirates or sea creatures.

“The theming/visioning process is far more integral to the park’s design, and it’s becoming more sophisticated,” she says.

Municipal waterparks and even some commercial locations use the property as an opportunity to educate about the region and its history.

“So it’s a little bit more thoughtful and far less simple,” Gerber says. “Theming is becoming more popular in parks of all shapes and sizes, even municipal parks — they’re some sort of nod to people in that community.”

Maintaining Personal Space

A trend that has been taking off for a few years became even more pronounced after the COVID pandemic hit.

Waterparks are including more rentable, shaded private spaces to congregate such as cabanas and party spaces.

“I think that as users we have gotten used to congregating in our own smaller groups,” Gerber says. “So it allows a space that is just dedicated to one family or group, where they can come and drop their stuff and rest and sit outside the water. I think that’s certainly more popular post-pandemic.”

In her experience, waterparks can never offer too much of these spaces.

“No one has ever told us, ‘We have too much cabana space,’ or, ‘We have too much rentable space,’” she says. “It’s a great revenue-generator for parks, and if you build it they will come. That’s the same with cabanas in an outdoor facility, or indoor birthday-party room spaces.”