Photo: Universal Orlando / courtesy Water Technology Inc.

Like just about every kind of business, the waterpark market took off after the Great Recession and has continued to gain altitude ever since.

It seems waterparks are enjoying an age of prosperity, and customers only benefit, with owners and designers finding new ways to offer an immersive guest experience.

Here, waterparks experts discuss the state of the industry from both business and design perspectives.

View from 10,000 feet

After years of a tight financing market, various institutions are finally beginning to open up, says David Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors, a hospitality consulting firm based in Cleveland, Ohio. Funding from various sources such as banks and private-equity firms has helped expand the field.

“We see a large investment in waterparks between now and 2020,” Sangree says. “So it shows that developers are feeling that these waterpark resorts and stand-alone waterparks can be very popular with customers and are a good return.”

Indoor waterparks, in particular, have benefitted. Because most of these properties come attached to a resort, they cost considerably more to build. So, until fairly recently, finding the funds was a challenge.

Where new properties from chains such as Great Wolf and Six Flags may make more headlines, the available financing means that opportunities are still ripe for independent waterparks, says Una de Boer, director of global marketing and strategy for WhiteWater, the waterpark designer and water slide manufacturer based in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada.

“With the continued growth of the attractions industry, as shown by Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), we are seeing an entry of private equity money into the industry, which I think means we’ll continue to see new single, independent waterparks, especially in the U.S.,” she says.

Aspiring owners of smaller community waterparks are finding creative ways to collect enough funding for their dream projects, says Jennifer Gerber, business development leader with Water Technology Inc. (WTI), based in Beaver Dam, Wis.

“We’re seeing a lot of partnerships and collaborations because, especially with indoor facilities, it’s oftentimes hard for any single entity to come up with that $40 million to $80 million. But when you get a group together, you can achieve so much more.”

Such joint efforts can include medical establishments, high schools, junior colleges and parks and rec departments. They just need to make sure each group’s stakeholders are served.

To help ensure return on investment, waterparks are broadening their marketing to include the extended family. Where marketing generally used to spotlight only Mom, Dad and the kids, now you'll see grandparents in the picture. This especially holds true in waterpark resorts, where operators need to fill more rooms. “In a lot of cases, grandparents are more active than in previous generations, and they relish time with their grandchildren,” says George Sells, creative studio director for WTI. “And many parents have plenty of disposable income.”

About the experience

While a few of the up-and-coming waterparks are pushing the boundaries of size, a more dominant trend, among waterparks of all sizes, is the emphasis on offering an immersive experience.

Larger properties are able to offer light and sound systems that allow customization. For starters, owners, developers and designers are giving more mind to lighting for indoor waterparks, in particular. Many seek to introduce as much natural light as possible by using translucent roofs over at least part of the parks. But others want more control. They don’t want Mother Nature to determine the mood of a space, so they use an opaque roof and invest more in their artificial lighting systems.

Designers and manufacturers are finding ways to give individual visitors more control as well, with software upgrades that allow them to customize their own experience of a ride. Depending on the complexity of the system, they may be able to pick a theme that combines a lighting scheme with a soundtrack. Other times, the choice may just involve the musical genre.

“Those are things that are being added to rides or [included] when a ride is being built,” says Dan Moore, a business development leader with WTI. “So the ride isn’t really much different, but the experience ends up being different, depending on how you pick your program to go with it.”

The media and entertainment thread continues with waterparks incorporating more and larger television screens. Lately, more clients want TVs at the tip of their wave pools, so they can host in-pool movies or continuously play footage of other attractions. “So while they’re in one attraction they can see video about the others in that park, and that encourages people to move around and creates excitement,” says Jessica Mahoney, director of marketing for Aquatic Development Group (ADG) in Cohoes, N.Y.

Not only do technology and engagement come to bear in this immersive approach. In the past few years, waterparks and their designers have placed a larger emphasis on theming and storyline.

This continues to extend into incorporating trademarked brands and characters. “We especially see more use of intellectual property to differentiate parks being used in Latin America and Asia than in North America or the Middle East,” De Boer says.

It also has translated into more use of landscaping, even for indoor parks, Sangree says, which accomplish this by using a clear roof over part of the building to allow sunlight. “That is something that European indoor waterparks have been doing for a while but American ones have not,” he says. “I think this is a really positive thing: It’s a little more work for the landscaping department, but it makes the space much more appealing.”

Regaining focus

Waterparks of all sizes are taking advantage of these technologies and approaches as much as possible. In fact, they may have swung slightly too far in that direction: As designers focus on engagement with every attraction and every space, they may forget that people sometimes just want space to relax or regroup from all the excitement.

“People have invested heavily in ‘water slides, water slides, water slides,’” says Ray Lauenstein, business development manager for ADG. “But we’re hearing more people say, ‘I don’t have enough lay-down space.’”

For this reason, ADG makes sure to include space for what it calls unprogrammed water. This often involves some type of flat-water pool or other low-pressure body of water away from the high-intensity activities. Plenty of deck space and seating should also be part of this space.

“It’s just a body of water you can get into and you don’t have to react to anything,” says Lauenstein. “It gives you a chance just to hang out and relax. ... It helps keep people in the park a little longer and gives them a break.”

This also gives them a chance to spend time completely immersed in water and take a break from the heat. “And it serves a lot of people,” he adds. “There’s no weight limit, everybody can use it. It’s not 20 seconds and I have to leave. I don’t have to wait in line. I just go in and I can hang out and play.”

To recover some space for these lower-key features, at least one ADG client so far has opted to remove a lesser-performing water slide.

Like at any public venue, people always seem to be looking around for a place to take a load off. So in these unprogrammed-water areas and other spaces throughout the park, the ADG team also tries to incorporate more seating.

Regardless of waterpark size, observers expect their owners, developers and designers to continue these efforts to fine-tune the customer experience.