Diving into the Future

Learning from past experience and gathering information about current trends to helps you plan for the future aquatic venues.

By Scot Hunsaker and Michelle Schwartz | 2007
Park and Recreation


Every agency wants to be on the cutting edge with its aquatic facilities. And it’s not always easy to be prepared for the next big trend. Because well-planned facilities will likely last 50 years or longer, insight for looking forward can often be gained by reviewing the successes and failures in
hindsight. Continuing a common mission of community outreach, modern aquatic facilities have come a long way from beginnings as varied as marble bathhouses in Rome to a common backyard swimming hole.

Reflecting Back

Bathhouses were the hub of the ancient Roman community offering social and wellness attributes. A good place to meet friends or business colleagues, the baths also had steam rooms, saunas, exercise rooms and hair salons. Some contained gardens, courtyards and larger gymnasiums. Each bathhouse contained several pools heated to different temperatures and bathers went from one bath to another. The most impressive bathhouses were in the city of  Rome, decorated with marble and statues. These were the precursors to modern man-made aquatic facilities. Fast-forward and skip a continent or two and we find that Early American aquatic programming used the closest natural water source for recreation—often referred to as a “swimming hole.” As demand for aquatic offerings increased, manmade facilities came on the scene. But they were rudimentary fill-and-draw vessels—the water was replaced like a bathtub. These facilities became more sophisticated and focused on a consistent experience. With sport being a common component, many of the recreation facilities built in the mid-1900s were rectangular in shape, following a competitive standard. These pools were routinely built for many years and still dominate the aquatic programming landscape across the United States.

In 1977, George Millay created the first commercial waterpark, Wet ’n Wild in Orlando, Fla. This innovative concept in recreational amusement parks featured waterslides, manmade waves, waterfalls, swimming areas and water oriented rides for all ages. “Nobody understood the concept, including us,”said John Seeker, former vice president of marketing for Wet ’n Wild. “The first couple of months, George had to make payroll out of his own pocket.” Despite the initial setback, the second year’s attendance began to rise and in 1982, Millay added the second of what would be seven Wet ’n Wild parks, including a 47-acre complex in Arlington, Texas, three times the size of the Orlando waterpark. This departure from what had been done before resulted in new experiences for guests. Millay quickly learned that this kind of facility resulted in significantly increased use and a greater willingness to pay. As a result, other facilities began to take notice and began to develop bigger and better facilities than in the past. By the late 1980s, the definition of the municipal swimming pool morphed from a rectangular deep water pool to a family aquatic center with zero-depth entry, interactive play features and waterslides for all ages.

Planning Ahead

Based on aquatic history, one leading indicator for aquatic programming in the future is the entrepreneur. Our history radar shows that the entrepreneur has left the commercial waterpark market and is developing year-round family resorts. These destination resorts often bundle other program elements with aquatics to extend the length of stay and focus on each age group of the family. Another leading indicator for municipal aquatic programming is aquatics in the college setting. While varsity athletics are still a driving force on many campuses, funding for new facilities is often from the student body at large. Aquatic elements are geared to meet the needs of every student, not just athletes. The University of Missouri, Columbia; Boston University; University of Alabama, Birmingham; University of Maine; and Ohio State are defining a new expectation of lifestyle amenities and qualities with recent aquatic facility projects. This is relevant to every community, as these students will soon be your residents and leaders. Lifestyle and community facilities will have a significant impact on their decision making when selecting a community to live in.

Applying The Past and Present to the Future

Learning from past experiences and gathering information about current trends leads to some important conclusions about planning for the future.

Age-Focused Experiences: In the early versions of the family aquatic facility, it was not uncommon to see a multi-purpose pool developed with features undefined for particular age groups. Today, patrons expect amenities and areas developed in community aquatic facilities for each age group— and age groups are becoming increasingly defined. For example, tots have their own area out of harm’s way and a feature that may have been designed for the 8- to 12-year-old market will be broken into two separate features and experiences. Scott Runkle is the aquatics and safety manager for Skokie Park District in Illinois and president of NRPA’s National Aquatic Branch. He says there has been a shift in age-specific facilities. “It used to be that you had two holes in the ground. This one was for kids and this one was for the adults. This one was hectic and this one was calm,” Runkle explains. “The facilities I’ve seen recently built have been divided with specific age groups in mind.” He says that he’s seeing pools divided into two subsets below the teenage years, one for the thrill-seeking high school students and a more leisurely pool for adults. Unfortunately, the teenager has been absent from many family aquatic facilities, likely a result of a focus on the 12-and-younger market. To compete with the mobility that a driver’s license brings and the social realities of this age group, aquatic facilities are offering thrill rides and extreme aquatic challenges in addition to socialization opportunities.

The young adult is also demanding a more high-end experience. Not comfortable in a primary-color play land filled with youngsters and parents, this demographic is attracted to environments more closely associated with a resort. Amenities are important and the atmosphere is critical. Aesthetically pleasing design with well-developed landscaping, lighting, acoustic management and relaxing spaces are the requirement. While spa services are not common at the municipal pool level, they are frequently offered at universities and resorts. Seniors are also becoming more demanding. The key to this demographic is a consistent, warm environment. Aquatic wellness programming offers an increased quality of life while also providing an important social hub in the community. Indoor warm water is the norm; however, having the needed support spaces with generous circulation and convenient access is important to the overall success of the facility.

Each community approaches age specific facilities differently. Some create separate facilities; others create separate spaces within a facility. As individual needs of different age groups are more defined, and the vision for the future facility takes place, it is important to frame the experience based on the family unit and how its parts will use and experience the aquatic center.
How will the design create a unique experience for each user and provide an easy flow of interaction without negatively impacting each other? This is where the skill of art and science

Art and Science of Design: While an amenity or feature may bring a guest to the facility once or twice, the experience will make them a loyal user. One of the primary influences on the experience is the design. Today’s users expect a well defined, thought-out and comfortable environment. While themes are a strong consideration, many communities are instead creating a “theme” of community. The key here is to understand the users and meet and exceed their expectation on the environment they will be in. What the daily community user may prefer will be different than the destination-oriented facility. In general, the future will be a more developed design solution and with it will be the need to invest in this experience. For example, broom-finish concrete may be the cheapest and most durable choice, but selecting materials and finishes that demonstrate a palette for community-wide expectations will likely have a positive impact on the image of the facility. Communities are savvy and scrutinize what other communities have, desiring great places where they can enjoy and be proud to invite others to partake in.

Managing the Experience: Guests expect a professionally managed facility that is clean, organized and well-run. Clear communication through Web sites, marketing materials and knowledgeable staff are a must. A waterstreaked message board will cost the facility visits and not add program value. Uniforms and professional appearances are expected.

Choreography of Users: The future is likely to bring a greater awareness of the customer experience. While surveys and suggestion boxes are common, greater emphasis will be placed on studying the use patterns and preferences of guests. In the near future, if not already, municipal facilities will be studying how the facility is used, who uses it, when they use it and how they use it. We will then develop strategies to further influence protection, comfort, access, linkage, uses, activities and sociability to have a positive impact on the operation of the facility.

Financial Sustainability: Historically, there have been three models of fiscal sustainability in the municipal market. The subsidy model responded to a community that was willing to use tax dollars not only to develop a facility but to operate it. We often see these facilities with admission prices under $2.00. The second model is the break-even model. These are communities that are willing to use tax dollars to develop facilities, but expect the users to pay for the direct operating costs. The last model is the positive cash flow model. These are communities that not only expect the users to pay for the direct operations, but also the capital development costs. Park systems are being asked to do more with less. As a result, more financially focused or self sustaining models are being developed. Jeff Maxey is the aquatics supervisor for the Town of Castle Rock, Colo. He says that the new facilities the public demands have resulted in a different way of financial management. “We are now in an era where what we are attempting to do is faster and different and better than the swimming hole that is down the street so that people can come in and spend considerably more money to visit your facility for a completely different aquatic experience.”

Lifecycle and Decisions: One aspect that is significantly different for the park and recreation professional when looking at other providers as leading indicators is the time horizon. The market is filled with pools in the 35- to 40- year range that are reaching the end of their functional and practical uses. Programming decisions you make regarding your new facility will likely impact operations for more than 50 years. Even with the best radar system to anticipate what is over the horizon, we need to build in flexibility to respond to unforeseen changes. When making decisions, build in expansion and renovation considerations. In addition to creating a fun, exciting environment for every member and guest of the community, think about changing conditions with security realities (i.e., are three bike racks a must or will one get the job done?) and water quality concerns (new technologies to address cryptosporidium and E. coli).

As we take a 360-degree view of aquatic programming and development, we find a pastime that began in America at the fishing hole, and is now a sophisticated industry continuing to grow in programming and experience complexity. Today’s aquatic guests are expecting a well-developed and thought-out facility that meets their needs and exceeds their expectations. As recreation professionals, we are expected to have the tools and ability to respond to a changing aquatic environment that the ancient Romans would give a nod to.