Interactive Aquatic Strategies

Thinking about an aquatic play park, or re-evaluating your current system? Here are some strategies and tips based on real-world experience.

Parks and recreation departments are not planning to turn their pools into humongous water parks complete with tubing rides, multiple slides, giant tower slides and wave pools.

However, a lot of them are taking some cues from the for-profit water park business and creating play areas that, while not competing with the large water parks, have brought new life to their aquatic programs.

"It's probably the most popular thing our city's done in the last couple of years," says Greg Esler, director of parks and recreation for the City of St. Clair Shores, Mich. "We've had hour-long lines to get into our Splash Zone (the city's name for its zero-depth interactive spray park)."

St. Clair Shores' aquatic play park has geysers, tumble buckets, popcorn jets and themed play features, like a kiddie car wash. It's part of 15-acre Veteran's Memorial Park, which also includes a playground, picnic areas and lakefront.

The Splash Zone has been open since Memorial Day weekend of 2001. It's usually open from Memorial Day to some time in September, based on Michigan's fickle late-summer weather.

In the heat of the summer when the lines begin to stretch out at the Splash Zone, Esler says they rotate 70 people every 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, the water is turned off, signaling in the next group.

Early on, particularly given the steady rotation of people in and out of the Splash Zone, St. Clair Shores' parks and recreation department noticed that the filters were getting plugged up earlier than expected.

"We had some trees that were hovering around the Splash Zone, and the leaves and sticks were getting into the filters. It was a maintenance nightmare at first, but since then the trees have been shaved down a bit and we haven't had any problems," says Esler.

"Also, the playground surface material was getting in the filters so we put a border and foot washers up to keep it out of the Splash Zone."

When the city began planning for the Splash Zone there were two important pre-planning steps -- scouting other similar parks and making sure the location would be easily accessible to infrastructure and amenities.

"We knew we wanted it by our playground equipment and next to the restrooms, which is especially important with small children. We also wanted it to be sunlit and not covered by trees," says Esler.

"Then we needed to figure out how much trenching was needed, how far we needed to go with electrical and where to house all of the electrical, software and pumps."

The convergence of these factors pointed to a specific plot of land at Veteran's Memorial Park. The decision was also made to do the concrete work and installation in-house, which Esler says brought the cost of the entire project down to within $200,000, including structures, fencing and picnic tables.

A lot of the strategies incorporated into St. Clair Shores' park were taken from the initial research Esler and building and maintenance director Mike Liess did as they traveled to similar parks in New York, Michigan and Ohio.

This represents what is perhaps the most important facet in the process. In addition to knowing the wants and needs of your community, it's crucial to see what's going on outside of it.

Form & Function

"If you want to know what people want, go look at the big water parks. They have to have a lot people at their parks to pay the bills. We tried to create a water park-like environment at a community rec center, and that's how we made our decisions," explains Chuck Prince, parks and recreation director for Plainfield, Ind.

Currently in the construction process and slated to open next year, Prince says this water-park research led Plainfield to create a Caribbean-themed park.

Though not constructed to the same proportions as a typical big water park, Plainfield's water play area incorporates key water park elements.

It's a scaled-down version, but one that should increase the popularity and usage of the facility as a whole. Prince adds that Plainfield's been blessed with the funding to create a themed aquatics play area, but says that even when funding is low a parks and recreation department can take intermediate steps toward a water-park goal.

"You can do it to a smaller scale, but you can also plan in advance for it. If you want a themed water play structure in your pool, but can't afford it right now, you can put all the underground plumbing and all the pipe penetrations in the filter room for that aquatic feature and then just put concrete over it. One day, when you can afford it, you bust through the pool deck and put it in, because you knew in advance you were going to put it there," says Prince.

Also, Prince says the layout needs to be conducive to effective life guarding. The plan should be open enough that there are few blind spots.

At Plainfield's new recreation center, the main lifeguard "bullpen" will sit near the back of the facility where the water park features are located.

Enclosed with convex glass, the bullpen -- when coupled with lifeguards on the deck -- will provide full coverage, front to back. Life guarding strategies have to adapt to the new environment created by aquatic play park elements.

"You need to think about it in three-dimensional, 360-degree terms. With the interactive water play toys there are a lot of hidden spots," says John Powers, parks and recreation director at The Woodlands, Texas.

"We're not using traditional lifeguard stands -- we're using portable stands and/or standing guards, shorter time durations on shift so the lifeguards can stay fresh and we're increasing our staffing."

The Woodlands typically lays out its interactive spray grounds with a zero-depth entry that gradually deepens to usually no more than 18"-24".

This scenario tends to cut down on kids running full blast through the spray ground, as is easier to do in an area that's totally zero-depth.

The Woodlands has also been developing its spray parks in steps, graduating to bigger and better with each new pool. Each builds on lessons learned from previous pools, plus the resulting response from the community.

The Woodlands' next pool project, called Crane Brook, incorporates a zero-depth entry spray park and water slides, that transition to a teaching area and a small lap pool. Powers says that its citizens wanted a well-rounded aquatics area that also included more deck space and shade.

"We think our operations on pumping and filtration might be a little less than a regular pool -- there's not as much water and it turns over a lot faster," says Powers.

"We're also anticipating larger attendance and revenue. Our projection is that its attraction will drive more people to buy season passes to all of the pools, which will help increase the overall revenue to offset the expense this one is creating."