Tubes. Waves. And sprays. These are the elements that transformed the waterpark industry over the past 20 years from an experiment into an international business, according to Andrew Mowatt, vice president of resort waterparks at Whitewater West Industries Ltd. in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Mowatt says inflatable tubes were the first to make a splash, transforming the water slide from a body ride to a tube ride. Those soon made room for the family-style raft ride and upped the participation rate for water slides from one person to multiple riders.
That direction still shapes the rides of today, says Jeff Janovich, vice president of sales at ProSlide Technology in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. ?There are just different versions of family raft riding,? Janovich says. ?There?s a strong appeal to a wide demographic that you didn?t have with the old-style speed slide.?
Next on the scene were waves. With their ability to absorb hundreds of users, popular wave pools were a way to offer lots of fun without long lines. ?From a park operator standpoint, they?re people eaters,? Mowatt says.
Not far behind the wave pool came the stationary wave machine. Mowatt also credits Tom Lochtefeld?s invention with expanding the activity and enjoyment of waterparks, especially for the teen set.
Spraypads went after a younger demographic, but also made it possible for the whole family to have fun together with interactive spray features and lots of other thrills. The brainchild of Rick Briggs, now of MagiQuest fame, the spraypad quickly took on a life of its own, branching into multi-level play structures and elaborate themeing.
?If you look at the common theme they all have, it?s that they raised the level of participation. Mom and Dad and families can now enjoy an activity together,? Mowatt says.
Another big change came in waterpark ownership, says Bill Haralson, principal of William L. Haralson & Associates, an Alto, N.M.-based industry consulting firm. Through the mid-?80s, the business was largely held by the private sector. ?[They didn?t have] the benefit of guidance by amusement park professionals,? Haralson says.
As a result, a huge number of early parks failed. And while publicly held venues existed at the start of the boom, they are more common today; however, the most popular venues now are owned by large amusement park operators.
The top two most-attended waterparks in the nation are owned by Disney, and many of the nation?s other top waterparks are owned by firms such as Six Flags.
So it should be no surprise that waterparks have gone the way of amusement parks when it comes to rides: It?s all about the experience. In the waterpark world that has translated into so-called extreme rides. And manufacturers have been busy churning out new variations as fast as operators can scoop them up. From ?Tornadoes? to ?Bowls,? these are the marquis rides that keep guests coming back for more.
?We?ve been able to press the envelope to go higher and faster and bigger,? Mowatt says. ?People really get a charge out of those kinds of rides, and they?ve flourished over the last 10 years.?
But again, these rides, which use family rafts, are as much about the shared experience as the thrill, Janovich says. ?If you look at the popular extreme rides, it?s the group rides people gravitate toward,? he says.
So whether it?s extreme or not, Janovich and Mowatt agree that innovtion will continue to drive the industry. ?There?s a real race to build things bigger and better than the next guy,? he says. ?I don?t think that?s going to change any time soon.?