Water Zones

Editor's Note: Parks & Rec Business magazine presents the third part in a year-long series of articles that will focus on... Everything H20, from pool equipment, safety, staffing and programming to profiles and perspectives on the latest aquatics facilities, water parks and splash parks in public parks and recreation.

You'd be hard pressed to find someone who has more fun with their aquatics program than Elise Knox.

Knox is the aquatics manager for the city of The Colony, Texas, located about 20 miles north of Dallas, and wants to make sure The Colony's residents have as much fun as she's having.

Part of that goal will be reached when the city opens its Splash Zone -- a shallow-water interactive play structure with various spray toys, all designed and manufactured by Koala PlayGroup -- this May.

Zoning Philosophies

The Splash Zone will augment and help further define the city's Aquatic Park. In addition to the Splash Zone, there are three pools -- a heated indoor pool overlooking an outdoor Leisure Lagoon with a waterfall, and a baby pool that is a miniature lagoon with a waterfall.

An important quality that the Splash Zone helps identify is the concept of zones. The park is separated so that each zone can be rented individually. Doors can be pulled down to segregate the indoor pool, and a combination of fencing, rocks and landscaping separate the Splash Zone from the Leisure Lagoon/volleyball area.

"I went rather hefty on the landscaping to break up the view. I also took a cue from Disney, so that everywhere you turn, you see another Kodak Moment. The main Leisure Lagoon is the center of the facility, but there are many smaller focal points on all sides," says Knox.

"Driving by on North Colony Boulevard, you first see the explosion of color and water from the Splash Zone. I saved that front corner for something eye catching for more than 15 years, and I dropped less visually exciting things like the volleyball court and workshop to the back areas.

"Future annual budgets include a new shade structure every year to wrap around the backside, along with a perimeter of new shrubs and trees. Every year our guests will see something new go up, and every year we'll make the park a little lusher."

The concept of the Koala Watercolors design fits right into the Aquatic Park's annual expansion program. Knox likens the design to an accordion.

Starting with a few basic platforms, individual interactive play pieces such as water blasters and tipping troughs, are easily installed around the outside of the structure.

When all of the possible openings on the existing platforms are full, a new platform can be added and all of the colorful gadgets moved to spread out evenly. As the budget dictates, the configuration fills, only to be spread back out when new platforms are added.

"That's the beauty of this project... you buy a basic skeleton, and install just the pieces you need to start. Ultimately, you plug in more pieces as you can afford them. What I've just bought is less than half the final structure, and all of the future piping is already in place under the concrete," explains Knox.

"When I get my next platform I can ask for a lot less money, and then I spread out all my gadgets again. The growth continues until every platform is in place and every window has its own play toy."

The equipment can be monitored and changed for guest needs.

"If I notice that grandma is getting an earful of water cannon blast, I can shuffle something more passive in its place because the pieces are interchangeable. The entire structure has one major water pipe going to it, without an underground manifold system. The manifold system is literally part of the skeleton, which means you can exchange things without having to tear out the concrete.

"My wonderful maintenance man, Frank, pulls out a wrench and easily makes the structure look different. If the kids are getting bored, you can rotate things around. And, if you're drawing an older group you can make it more complicated," she says.

The Colony's selection of water toys is geared toward toddlers and pre-schoolers, says Knox.

She expects the biggest challenge to be behavior control. Not that the kids who live in The Colony are bad, they're just, well... kids. So Knox wants to make sure they know better than to get too rowdy in the Splash Zone (or any other zone of The Colony's Aquatic Park), and that the older kids behave in the little kids' haven.

"We're going to try behavior control, rather than age or size control," Knox said. "I'm always bothered when I see lifeguards regulating access to a feature by the height of a stick," she says.

"In the past, we restricted the age in the Little Lagoon to six and under, which leaves out the older siblings. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping it works to maintain strict control over behavior instead. So, the first time a big guy nudges a little one out of the way, we plan on marking an x on his shoulder. On the second tag that big guy needs to move to the larger lagoon."

Knox says she used that technique at the archery range when she worked in the children's camp business. Improper form brought a Zoro-like mark.

"They hated it, but they learned it fast, so I didn't have a lot of trouble with it. That was at camp with an enclosed set of people, but I don't know if I can pull it off here," says Knox.

"At the beginning of the summer you have to train kids. We're very lucky that we have a family environment and the kids learn it very quickly. I consider myself very fortunate when I look through my problem book and my incidents mostly involve simply rough language, rather than brawling. We're very stiff on the cursing -- if you can't say it in school or church, you can't say it here."

Insulation Zone

The Splash Zone will be have a 0-5" depth, so trips, slips and falls will be the primary concern, thus the crackdown on behavior that could lead to injuries. However, as Knox points out, "You can't foam rubber the entire world."

Short of foam rubber, Knox is making staff a major priority. They are the facility's proverbial foam rubber. The important factor, she says, is to find the most intelligent kids, not necessarily the fastest kids on the swim team, to guard the facility.

"I want kids who are smart; you can teach anyone to swim better. My hiring process is completely different. They are diverse, but when I put them together as a team, they're a scream," says Knox.

"I want a smart kid and those kids think for themselves. They fight the status quo sometimes, but doggone they're good with the public, and I make sure to keep telling them they're good."

As part of the training, guards take Schmooze 101, which is designed to focus them on customer service, and Knox says it works and works well. Some of their safety training includes doing drills blindfolded.

"It takes more guards to run this facility than your standard L-shape or square. Having that free-form lagoon is a nightmare for a guard. So what we do is have two guards inside, one on work, two on the lagoon, one on break, two at the Splash Zone, and one guard who will make sure all the guards have adequate fluids and does a walkthrough. I think the guards will appreciate it," says Knox.

"Part of what we have to do is psychologically sell the staff on the addition of the Splash Zone, and that it will actually improve their rotation. They'll be out longer, but they're also going to be able to take care of each other by adding that extra slot."

There are also subtle ways to help the guards, such as the aforementioned zoning of each area, which cuts down on the possibility that a toddler might wander out of the Splash Zone and into the lagoon without their parent, grandparent or a guard noticing it.

Also, a simple improvement was the use of high-backed sand chairs instead of lounge chairs. Knox says the lounge chairs can operate more as a teeter-totter, plus the sand chair forces the adult into a more upright position, further integrating them into the action.

And, as mentioned earlier, sunshade structures and landscaping are an integral part of the atmosphere and practicality of the park.