A Pioneer Project

By Nick Hamill

The Western Kansas town of Dodge City—made famous as a frontier settlement of the Old West and infamous for gunslingers, saloons, brothels, and gambling halls—has added a new tourism gem: a western/prairie-themed water park. The Long Branch Lagoon Waterpark, settled in Wright Park and the downtown Heritage District, celebrates its rich western roots with exciting features and authentic theming elements throughout the park’s design. From its grand opening in summer 2016, it quickly became a regional tourist destination, giving community members and visitors a place to cool off during the hot and windy Kansas summers on the prairie.

The History Of Long Branch Lagoon
The start of the project can be traced to 2001 when community members first proposed the idea of renovating the city’s existing facility, which was undersized, outdated, and suffering dwindling attendance numbers.  Throughout the next decade numerous funding efforts supporting aquatic improvements failed, until 2013 when city council and county commissions backed a Community Aquatics Task Force-proposed “Why Not Dodge” initiative. A new waterpark was budgeted by a one-cent city and county sales-tax increase designated to grow the tourism economy. 

Long Branch Lagoon, a $12.3-million facility, was a major part of the $45-million, downtown redevelopment program that helped transform Dodge City into a major parks and recreation hub in the heart of the Midwest. To date, other projects that are a part of the “Why Not Dodge” program include Legends Park, a premier four-diamond baseball/softball complex and Cavalier Field Baseball Field, Dodge City Raceway Park, a motor sports facility, and United Wireless Arena and Boot Hill Casino Conference Center.

Planning Was Key To Success
A lot can be accomplished with more than a decade to plan a project, and that’s exactly what happened with Long Branch Lagoon. The community saw the project as having not only an economic impact but also an enhancement of “quality of life” for its citizens. The effort by city representatives and community groups, including swim team groups and a pool committee, advocated and raised awareness for the project.

An evaluation of the existing pool—revealing the poor condition of the aluminum pool shell—prompted the city to take action and conduct an aquatic master plan. The study involved feature education, community surveys, benchmarking studies, user-group meetings, design workshops, and open houses to identify the needs and goals of community members and city representatives. The completed master plan recommended a new indoor aquatic facility that would support competitive swimming with a lap pool and a supplementary, small recreation pool, and a new outdoor waterpark to serve all demographics and increase tourism. Conceptual designs and 3D renderings of both the proposed indoor and outdoor facilities were produced, along with capital and operational cost projections to aid the city in fundraising and promotional efforts.  

Once the final design was approved, construction began with an anticipated grand opening on Memorial Day 2016.  To generate even more buzz for the project, the city held a contest (the winner receiving a season pass) to decide the name of the waterpark.

Ace-High Features And Amenities
The design team was tasked with designing a facility that fulfilled the needs of the community, including its strong swim teams, while also implementing amenities and features that would draw regional interest. During the planning phase, the city and design team sought to mesh the comforts of a municipal aquatic center with the attractions of a destination water park. To accomplish this vision, the design included a four-pool structure, creating a multi-family waterpark destination. Each pool was designed to cater to different user and age groups, while maintaining the western/prairie theme throughout the park.

Many waterparks typically carry a theme only through the water features. Long Branch Lagoon went above and beyond with its attention to detail; theming elements don’t stop at a pool’s edge—they are noticed throughout the park, from the bathhouse to landscaping. Each pool and large feature have names that celebrate western heritage, including “Wrangler Rapids Wave Pool,” “Doc’s Plunge” (Boomerango water slide), “The Gunslinger” (tube slide), “Fort Splash Play Area” (recreation pool), and “Chuck Wagon Concessions.” Additionally, an actual antique wagon is displayed near the deep end of the 50-meter lap pool, along with a vintage water pump, antique signage, and rustic-looking benches.

The recreation pool, meant to attract young families, features shallow water and many spray features intended to be a fun and safe way to introduce young children to water, including cactus-themed tall sprays, a windmill spray, a rattlesnake spray, and small, tin dumping buckets. The pool also has a large play structure with a dumping bucket that honors the western-heritage theme with steer heads, a covered wagon, and cowboy silhouettes.

The 50-meter lap pool, designed for swim/dive lessons, swim practice, and competition meets, required the addition of play features to keep the pool active during recreation hours. The pool has 1- and 3-meter diving platforms, two drop slides, a family slide, and water basketball, adding plenty of activity to avoid unused water during peak hours.

The lazy river features rockscaping with waterfalls, sprays, and landscaped islands. The relaxing lazy river eventually meets the wave pool. This innovative design creates a very different experience from a traditional lazy river. Riders can continue through the pool back into the lazy river or stay in the pool and enjoy the exciting waves. Finally, an integrated plunge pool supports the popular boomerang water slide (the only one within 700 miles), and the long and winding closed body water slide. After plunging into the water from the slide, patrons can either exit the pool or choose to float the lazy river.

Numbers For The Record Books
The Long Branch Lagoon ribbon-cutting and grand opening experienced a great turnout, with guests enjoying many different games and fitness classes. Initially projected at 61,800 attendance, the final season attendance was 80,513—30 percent above projections! Additionally, in the first season, the waterpark averaged a staggering 1,000 visitors per day! The staff didn’t rely only on peak hours to increase attendance; special events such as “Night Swim” every Tuesday and Saturday were implemented to increase attendance and the buzz surrounding the park. Compared to other aquatic facilities in the region, Long Branch Lagoon had the largest attendance, even outpacing Kenwood Cove in Salina.

FACILITY                                                     2016 ATTENDANCE
Colby Aquatic Center                                 17,723

Great Bend Wetlands                                 24,000

McPherson Water Park                               29,395

Hutchinson Salt City Splash                       31,000

Hays Aquatic Park                                      53,504

Salina Kenwood Cove                                 74,494

Dodge City Long Branch Lagoon              80,513


Old Dodge City Municipal Aquatic Facility                  Long Branch Lagoon

2015 Attendance:  12,265                                              2016 Attendance:  80,513

2015 Revenue:  $35,484                                                2016 Revenue:  $562,943

Nick Hamill oversees project development for Waters Edge Aquatic Design in Lenexa, Kan. Reach him at (913) 438-4338, or nhamill@wedesignpools.com.