Appealing To The Masses

In 2007, plans began for the new YMCA of the BrandywineValley, located in West Chester, Penn. One of the goals for the new property development was to create an iconic water play structure that would attract the public. Since it would be visible from surrounding roads, it needed to make a big impression on the community and hopefully drive membership.

“We wanted a unique experience for our members, an experience that wasn’t available anywhere else in the community,” says Chris Wiseman, associate executive director of the West Chester Area YMCA. “We began with a drawing of the water play area to show our members what the sprayground would look like, and after a few meetings we had a final design in place.”

“The very first theme was a realistic pirate fort and a ‘swash-buckling’ captain brandishing a realistic sword,” says Eric Zelman, representative for Rain Drop Products. “The YMCA board requested we develop a design incorporating its mascot, Brandy the dog, and to create a more animated feel to the sprayground design.”

In The Theme Of Things

The design soon morphed into one that successfully combined the pirate and family-friendly themes with Brandy the mascot, all located in a zero-depth entry outdoor pool. Designers and fabricators developed a lighter pirate theme with Brandy decked out in a pirate hat and wielding a child-like wooden sword. Brandy can’t be missed either; the 5-foot-tall mascot is perched on top of the colorful pirate structure. Behind Brandy, a dog bowl bubbles over with water.

The pirate structure consists of three platforms--one 5 feet tall and two platforms at 7 feet. Children can access the platforms via cargo-net climbs or stairs. “The platforms are connected by suspension bridges, and can be exited by way of a wide gang-plank slide or an enclosed tube slide,” says Zelman. “The three roofs feature Brandy and a sail, a dumping barrel that splashes water on anyone within range and a cannon spilling water.” Other features include water cannons that allow some directional movement, as well as plenty of places to get splashed.

In designing the sprayground layout, the flow of people was addressed as well as the area of influence (i.e., how far the water splashes off the structure). “With any water features, you need to keep the water within 5 feet from the edge so that it is recaptured by the circulation system to minimize water loss,” says Zelman. “You also have to have enough space for the guests to circulate through the features, and that is best done by having plenty of entry and exit points throughout the area.”

Polar Bear Plunge

The new YMCA building opened in October 2008. The sprayground installations soon followed with the grand opening--dubbed the Polar Bear Plunge--in late May 2009. The event was open to the public, and brought in over 400 brave souls to play in the frigid waters. Interest in the water play areas only increased, and over the first full weekend over 1,000 people came through the gates.

To gain access to the pools, a membership to the YMCA as well as a membership to the pool is required. “We pre-sold nearly 400 memberships because of the sprayground,” says Wiseman. “It has been and continues to be a huge draw. In fact, we sold over 900 family memberships over the course of the 2009 summer.”

“We have a diversity of ages enjoying the pool complex, with daily attendance reaching 400 to 500 during the week and 1,000 on the weekends,” says Wiseman. “When we have busy days, the pool and sprayground area never seem crowded because there is plenty of room for people to move about.”

Camped Out

The benefits of having a sprayground have included summer camps and swim lessons. “We’ve had record numbers at our day camps,” says Wiseman. “Last year, we averaged nearly 100, and now we are averaging 250 kids.” Summer camps are held weekly, and the campers can go swimming in the morning and again in the afternoon.

“We have aquatic camps at the indoor pool, which also has water spray features,” says Wiseman. “The zero-depth entry area has several spray features, and the deeper end has three lap lanes.” The indoor recreational pool is kept slightly warm to make it more comfortable for members.

Lessons Learned

The Brandywine Valley YMCA hosts four pools--a diving well that is 14 feet deep; a competitive 12-lane pool that is 7 feet deep; an indoor recreational pool that ranges from zero-depth entry to 5 feet; and an outdoor pool which ranges from zero-depth entry to 7 feet. With experience managing four pools and two spraygrounds, the YMCA has learned a few things along the way.

“A lot of YMCAs are going with the zero-depth entry pools because of the ease of access for people in wheelchairs,” says Wiseman. “It’s also a different element for families--you don’t have to have a baby pool for little ones to have access to the pool.”

“You have to take the time to investigate the history of the companies you are thinking about working with. Have they been in business for a long time? What is their reputation? How well do they follow through on what they say they are going to do?” advises Tim Ryan, facility manager for West Chester Area YMCA. “You need to work with companies that are good at communicating and can work well with other companies to achieve your goals.”

“What kind of warranty is offered on the products and what is the return policy if a feature fails?” Ryan asks. “A good warranty will cover the structural components for 25 years.”

“When designing a sprayground, select features that have a broad appeal, not only for toddlers, but also for young teens and families,” says Zelman. “Every facility needs a wow factor to bring in people. For the YMCA of the BrandywineValley, it is Brandy the mascot and the customized pirate theme.”

Plan Ahead Now

“Don’t let the budget constrain you at the beginning of a project,” says Zelman. “You want to plan for the future, not what you can afford right at the moment.” Design the dream sprayground project, and then begin incorporating it little by little. One easy way to do this is with a universal connection system that, once installed, the features can be added or moved.

Another benefit of using a universal connection system is that the features you currently have can be rearranged, allowing you the freedom to generate a “new” sprayground each year. “Look at maintenance down the road, and don’t lock yourself into a set configuration,” says Zelman. “By taking the time to plan ahead, you can save yourself a lot of headaches.”

Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC, which specializes in media and public relations for outdoor recreation businesses. Her book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Cincinnati, is available online and in bookstores. She can be reached via e-mail at