Akvamir Waterpark recently opened in Novosibirsk, Russia as part of a 1-million-square foot retail development.
WhiteWater Akvamir Waterpark recently opened in Novosibirsk, Russia as part of a 1-million-square foot retail development.

Malls are increasingly becoming places to play as well as shop.

Just take a look at real estate developer Triple Five Group's plan for what used to be landfills near the New Jersey Turnpike. Called The American Dream Meadowlands, the 2.9 million-square-foot retail and entertainment complex will include, among other things, a live theater venue, ice skating rink, ski slope and, yes, an indoor waterpark.

Triple Five is planning another humongous mall in Florida, which will be the nation’s largest. The American Dream Miami calls for a theme park and waterpark, each comprising 370,000 square feet -- all under one roof. At 6.2 million square feet, it will dwarf the original mamajama of megamalls, the Mall of America in Minnesota. It, too, is owned by Triple Five and also is persuing a waterpark as part of a major expansion.

Beyond these high-profile projects are many similar concepts in the works throughout the U.S. and globally, representing an emerging market for waterpark operators to tap into.

In some cases, malls own the aquatics facility but hand the keys over to an experienced operator. In other cases, waterpark developers finance some of the initial capital investment in return for a portion of the revenue.

Either way, it can be a win-win.

“At WhiteWater, we see great potential in the shopping center industry,” said Grant Poje, executive vice president of the Richmond, B.C.-based attraction maker’s Barcelona division, which focuses on markets in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Russia.

One of WhiteWater’s newest European projects is the Akvamir Waterpark in Novosibirsk, Russia. The country’s largest indoor waterpark is a part of a 1-million-square-foot development that will eventually include a shopping center and other amenities.

It’s just one of several mall/waterpark hybrids that the company is involved with.

“I am currently working on nearly half a dozen projects spread across Spain, Portugal, Italy and the UK,” Poje said.

Driving demand for waterslides at retail centers is a shift in strategy toward offering a fun experience in addition to an assortment of stores. It’s a tactic that’s growing necessary as brick-and-mortar merchants struggle to compete against e-commerce giants such as Amazon. In short, malls need to do more to get people through their doors, and waterparks are proving to be an effective lure, especially in cold weather regions.

“These are treated as an anchor attraction as a way to keep shoppers engaged longer and as part of an overall experience or as a destination experience,” said Glenn O’Connor, senior director of waterparks at Forrec, Ltd. The Toronto, Ont.-based firm master planned and designed World Water Park, which occupies 5 acres inside the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, also owned by Triple Five.

The trend appears to be largely limited to sprawling new developments with the square footage to accommodate elaborate amenities. In China, for example, massive malls are “popping up seemingly monthly, most of which tend to include waterparks,” Poje said.

But retrofits aren’t out of the question.

“We have worked on a number of designs for existing shopping malls, looking to convert small, underutilized spaces or parking areas into waterplay zone,” Poje said. “Nearly anything is possible -- it just comes down to optimizing the design to maximize functionality of the area.”

There have been issues with space constraints, said Dan Martin, managing principal of Chicago-based Market & Feasibility Advisors, which specializes in the attractions industry. Martin has consulted with several developers interested in mixing shopping and splashing, and he recalled a project in Mexico where a retail destination was hesitant to sacrifice parking for a waterpark. They came up with a clever solution: A sort-of stacked aquatics facility with a minimal footprint. The uppermost level would feature a swanky infinity edge pool where adults could relax with margaritas while kids played in the lower levels.

He’s proposed other adult-friendly features for waterparks, such as a country music venue with hot tubs shaped like pickup trucks.

“It was kind of a joke, but a serious joke,” Martin said. “My suggestion was, 'Why don’t we cater more to adults?'”

Martin believes waterparks and retailers can mutually benefit by being under the same roof. It bridges the divide between teens and adults who’d rather shop and kids who’d rather get soaked. To take full advantage of that synergy, mall waterparks should offer something for everyone, he said.

Poje concurs: “Combining shopping centers with leisure activities instantly achieves a target demographic wider than each achieves individually.”