Planning The Perfect Waterpark

Photo Courtesy Of Crafton Tull

Rather than traditional flat-water rectangular pools, stimulating waterparks are becoming the norm for today’s recreational aquatic experience. Once the decision has been made to build a mini, medium, or destination waterpark, several key items should be considered before starting construction. What is your budget?  What do you want to include in the waterpark? How much land do you need? What will it cost to operate? Will it make money?

Defining Success

For private developers, the definition of success is simple—to make money! For municipal waterparks, however, the definition of success can be different:

  • Earn revenues that cover costs and any future expansions.

  • Earn revenues that help pay for other subsidized facilities within the park system.

  • Reduce the subsidy of the existing obsolete pool. It doesn’t have to make money as long as it’s losing less money.

All of these are appropriate definitions of success, but each one affects the outcome of waterpark design. Determining a definition of success will help make sure the goals are in line with realities.

Studying The Opportunities

For those who don’t have the market draw in a particular location, building a waterpark too large will increase expenses, but not revenues. Building it too small may not provide the amenities to attract a large segment of the population. Paying for a feasibility study at this early stage may be the best money spent in helping to define the market while determining realistic outcomes.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is underestimating the cost of operating a waterpark. Labor alone can be 50 to 60 percent of the operating budget. With all of the turns and blind spots in a waterpark, the lifeguard requirement is significantly higher than at a

Photo Courtesy Of Counsilman Hunsaker

traditional-style pool. Also, there’s not just one recirculation pump running now. There may be a dozen or more pumps running aquatic activities and features, which demand a lot of energy.  And don’t forget all of those patrons who bring dirt, organic matter, bacteria, hair, makeup, suntan/body oils, and other debris into the pools, which significantly increase chemical demand.

The other mistake is being too excited about all of the money to be made. A facility may hit capacity every Saturday, but during the work week, attendance drops off, not to mention weather factors that may cause closings and school calendars that recess for the summer in mid-June, while others start back in mid-August.

The Proper Blend

After establishing some parameters for a project, it’s time to consider the design and layout, at least conceptually. Having the proper amenity mix will impact the feel of a waterpark and its viability within the market. In general, a waterpark needs three aquatic elements:

  • A capacity holder

  • A children’s area

  • Rides.

Capacity Holders. A wave pool can hold many people, and is one of the attractions most patrons expect to see at a waterpark. These capacity spaces don’t necessarily make money, but are a crucial part of the overall success of the park. In addition to wave pools, another popular capacity holder winds its way into the waterpark—the lazy river. These slow-moving pools serve as the hub of the waterpark and keep families entertained without having to wait in line.

Children’s Area. Sensitively designed environments for children and “tweeners” can be vital to attendance. These diverse groups must be accommodated equally if you expect them to come to the park and spend the day together. Large play structures provide water-play gyms for the entire family. They can be themed as jungles, pirate coves, or rainforest temples, to name a few. With slides, waterfalls, and water features, families are entertained for hours while experiencing physical fitness and togetherness.

Spraygrounds, tot pools, and children’s pools with participatory play features and all sorts of pulleys, rope ladders, water buckets, geysers, dumping buckets, and slides need to be located near the bathhouse for convenience.

Rides. Teens like thrill rides while families like modest rides that most anyone can enjoy. These can be a mix of body slides or tube slides, and should have both open and closed flumes to offer diversity. Having a ride that allows multiple riders is another way of keeping the entire family happy. Large tube slides that accommodate three or four people per ride add to the social aspect. Having a head-first mat slide, where riders can race their friends, can provide a competitive experience for young teens.

Artificial surfing is another “thrill” ride. These environments use high-output pumps to produce a flow of water a couple inches thick over a fixed padded surface. Competitions are formed and spectators enjoy watching as much as “inland surfers” enjoy the challenge. The thrill ride can be the signature attraction that differentiates the park from the competition.

Age Group

Recreational Aquatic Age-Group National Trends

Age 0-3

Tot pool, tot slides, gentle spray features

Age 4-7

Water sprayground, zero-depth pool, participatory play features, sand play

Age 8-11

Water walks, large play structures, full-size waterslides, open water

Age 12-16

Water walks, large waterslides, open water, lazy river, gathering places, sand volleyball, mat racer, bowl slides

Age 17-22

Action island, intense waterslides, flow rider, mat racer, climbing wall, open water, sand volleyball, drop slides, bowl slides

Age 23-45

Zero-depth pool (to be w/children), open water, spa, sun deck, lap lanes, lazy river, waterslides, diving boards

Age 46+

Spa, sun deck, lap lanes, lazy river, family-friendly waterslides

Source: Counsilman-Hunsaker

Support Spaces

One of the crucial areas that will affect the long-term operational success for a park is the support spaces. Proper placement of restrooms, concessions, and mechanical spaces can greatly improve the overall experience. Giving proper consideration for how people will use these spaces and how that will affect the traffic flow within the park is a fundamental part of the planning effort. Address how these spaces will be easily cleaned and maintained in the future. While nobody comes to a waterpark to visit the restrooms, they certainly will not return if the restrooms are in poor condition.

Setting Fees

Waterparks face fierce competition from other waterparks but also from any activity where people spend discretionary income, including movies, sporting events, and dining out. The entry fee not only provides initial revenue as people walk through the turnstile, but also impacts how many people come to the waterpark and spend money in other areas. As a general rule, keep pricing simple. Too many parks offer a special price for every situation. There’s a standard fee, followed by a children’s fee, a family fee, a senior fee, then a resident rate, followed by a non-resident rate, then a daily rate vs. season pass rate, then a … well, you get the point. If the person at the front desk can’t repeat the fees from memory, there are too many options. The other part in setting the fees is establishing the park’s value. Everyone loves a bargain, so set the price higher and offer discounts. You can then adjust how much money is brought in without changing fees each year.

Planning For Expansion

No matter the size of the waterpark or the number of rides, people enjoy seeing something new. To generate additional excitement, add a new ride or amenity every two or three years. When initially planning a park, consider where the first expansion will be located. This decision prevents placing the newest thrill ride right next to the quiet waters that were established as an “adult area.”

As the time comes for expansion, make sure it’s the right choice. Go back to step one. Review the market and see what area needs to be addressed. Look at how the park operates and consider what would make it better. Adding a new attraction isn’t always the right answer. Adding more capacity or meeting the needs of an underserved age group may make more sense. Once the decision to expand has been made, several key items must be considered:

  • What is the budget?

  • What will be included in the expansion?

  • How much land is needed?

  • What will it cost to operate?

  • Will it make money?

Essentially, it will require revisiting previous planning efforts.

With aquatic recreation being one of the most popular activities in the United States, a properly planned waterpark can be a magnificent asset for a community. Opening a new facility can seem overwhelming, but taking the proper steps during the planning process can ensure success for the community and the waterpark.

Kevin Post , Principal and Studio Director at Counsilman-Hunsaker, specializes in providing facility evaluations, aquatic facility business plans, city-wide aquatic master plans, and Certified Pool Operator instruction and certification. As a former competitive swimmer and Aquatics Director, he draws on this aquatic experience, allowing him to address the needs of various client types. Reach him at or (314) 416-2080.

Bryan BuchkoComment