Aquatic Playgrounds

As a master-planned community focused on a natural, forested setting, The Woodlands, Texas, has the benefit of a parks-focused mentality.

The town's parks and recreation department is heavily involved with each development in town long before the ground is broken.

Successful development often revolves around the recreational amenities offered in each new neighborhood, or village, as the term is used in The Woodlands.

Because parks and recreational facilities are typically in the works and sometimes completed before the first home goes in, the department has to know and respond to user trends sometimes before the trend is realized.

Houston, We Have Splashdown

One trend The Woodlands has been on top of, and ahead of the curve on, is zero-depth splash pads and water play features. With four parks, and more underway, that include the more recent understanding and trend of aquatics facilities, The Woodlands has found the value of these features.

It's not only something the community is doing now, but has been doing, from which The Woodlands has learned that these types of features are here to stay and how they might manifest themselves in the future.

"The first one we built, we approached like a playground, with what we thought would be a younger area and an older area. We're now thinking that the separated play is not as critical as we thought then," explains John Powers, parks and recreation director.

"The last one we built is totally integrated; the equipment itself dictates the age use. If it was unsupervised, we might think differently about it, but the combination of parents and lifeguards makes it self-policing."

Though future community-wide water park-type development is not likely to be purposely segregated by age, Powers says zero-depth splash pads with a separate pool nearby does work well for a neighborhood development.

"We have one splash pad by itself and two that are integrated with pools in village parks, but the one with the large interconnected, multi-age play structure with the water cannons, spray features and slides is the facility everyone's going to.

One of the things that has benefited us is that those families concerned about the interaction of age groups have a choice," says Powers.

"The families that grew up with the first one we built have since grown into the newer one as their children have gotten older. The families that live in the proximity of the integrated one might think it's overwhelming and go to one that's a little more low key. They're both valuable, and we're considering splash pads in neighborhood parks, and offering a play facility with all the bells and whistles in a community park. We're going to discuss building one or two of these in the future."

One of the drivers toward a larger, community-wide water park is local competition. Though there's not a water park in the nearby radius of The Woodlands, Powers says that residents would prefer a large water park in their community, rather than commuting down to Houston, or even Galveston, to get the water park experience.

"More and more people are not traveling, even more so now, and want to stay close to home, and I think they're willing to help pay for a water park facility," says Powers.

"The planning session we have coming up should tell us that we need one large community-wide water park indoor/outdoor aquatics center, with the big slides and interactive features, and then build around that with village pools catered toward each neighborhood. We're also looking at a higher-end type of detail.

"Our last few pools were not the standard plaster and concrete deck. Integrated landscaping, planters, elevation change, color, mosaics, umbrellas and shade structures are becoming more the norm. The manufacturers have better products and pricing for these amenities, so it makes a custom, high-end look more accessible."

This approach may also make The Woodlands' aquatic centers more of a regional draw from surrounding towns. In that case, the strategy would be for non-residents to pay market rates or higher to help subsidize the operation for residents.