Things to Consider In Developing Public & Private Waterparks

By Kevin Post

Published in World Waterpark Expansion Guide, 2015-2016

Things to Consider in Developing Public and Private Waterparks


The recreation industry is a competitive market vying for disposable income driven by population trends, income levels, demographic profiles and favorable locations. Large aquatic centers and destination facilities offer a grand scale of cutting-edge amenities, deliver a unique customer experience, and draw from a large radius.

In 1977, the first commercial “waterpark” was created by George Millay (the creator of Sea World) in Orlando, Florida. Wet ‘n Wild featured numerous water-oriented rides for all ages.

Over the past two decades, we have seen more and more communities take an entrepreneurial approach to aquatics and develop a municipally run waterpark. While both public and private waterparks are discussed as similar facilities, due to different definitions of success, the planning and design of these facilities is vastly different.

Defining Success

Public facilities have more challenges than just getting a return on their investment (ROI).  They have numerous community stakeholders that they must satisfy.  For this reason, municipal waterparks need to be more flexible in their use and provide a benefit to the community.  Oftentimes the goals and objectives of a private facility won’t fill all of the public needs, such as areas for instruction, competition and wellness programming.

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

  • Earn revenues that cover its costs and any future expansions.
  • Earn revenues that help pay for other subsidized facilities within the park system.
  • A reduction in 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 the waterpark design. Determining your definition of success will help make sure your goals are in-line with realities.

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

Planning, Design & Construction

Since municipal waterparks use public dollars to fund the facility, a 30+-year design solution is required to create a valuable asset for the community.  This requires an increase in the quality of the materials and equipment selected to construct the facility, as well as planning in advance for a capital replacement fund.  This helps offset using annual operational funds to improve the park each season and keep up with the high replacement costs for sophisticated equipment such as pumps, filters, pool surfaces, etc. This may also require specialty design and construction professionals to complete the work.  The interrelationship of water use is critical, and pools designed for romping and splashing are separate from the quiet waters of adult hydrotherapy and spa amenities.

As the industry continues to grow, we see new attractions beyond the standard wave pools and waterslides. One of today’s most popular attractions is the leisure river, which offers a continuously flowing stream, forming a loop within the park where guests can laze away by floating on inner tubes. Inside the loop, the area can be accessed by bridges over the leisure river to create action islands for teens or family picnic areas. Wave pools and leisure rivers with zero beach entries actually complement each other quite well as they add options for guests looking for open water where they can splash around and enjoy the feel of a beach right in their hometown.  Other popular attractions include boxed surfing mechanism, various sized play features, climbing walls, zip lines, inflatable aquatic obstacle courses and spraygrounds.

Pricing differences in private vs. public parks

One of the main differences for public sector water parks is the ability to be seen as a family facility that residents frequent more often than a commercial amusement waterpark. While taking an entrepreneurial approach, public sector facilities still strive to offer reasonable pricing, the ability to bring in your own food and a more manageable overall park size, which are a key factor in driving families to these facilities on a recurring basis.

Waterparks face fierce competitors vying for discretionary leisure spending. You’re not just competing with other waterparks; you’re competing with any activity where people spend discretionary income, including movies, sporting events and dining out. The entry fee will have the biggest impact on your revenue.  This fee not only provides initial revenue as people walk through the turnstile, but also impacts how many people come to your waterpark and spend money in other areas.  As a general rule of thumb, keep pricing simple. Too many parks offer a special price for every situation.  You’ll see 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 say it from memory, you have too many options.

The other part of setting your fee is establishing what you feel is your park’s value.  This is an area where publicly-run facilities tend to fall short.  Private parks recognize that they are offering a unique experience and are willing to charge guests a reasonable rate based on the value of that experience.  With publicly run parks, political leaders are often concerned that high prices will limit the ability for some taxpayers to frequent the facility.  For this reason, they often price the facility below market value, but still may able to meet their definition of success.  Whether you are running a private facility or a public one, everyone loves discounts; set your price higher and offer discounts. This puts pricing control in the field and will allow the general manager the ability to adjust how much money they bring in without changing your fees each year.

Staffing challenges and how to plan for them in private vs. public

One of the biggest challenges facing pools today is finding enough people to staff the entire park.  As school calendars keep making summer shorter and shorter, the availability of part-time workers becomes limited.  With staffing costs making up 50-60 percent of your operating budget, both public and private parks require a significant number of employees.  Compared to traditional style pools, all the turns and blind spots in a waterpark increase the lifeguard requirements significantly.

Finding qualified personnel to operate a waterpark is difficult for both private and public facilities, but each one faces a different challenge.  Private facilities have the ability to incentivize managers based on facility performance.  This does two things:  First, they are able to bring in more qualified people by offering a decent compensation package that has a large upside if the facility performs well.  The other thing this does is it ties facility performance to the manager’s personal gain.  This helps create a win-win for the owner and the operator.  The challenge private facilities often face is with their part-time staff.  Private operators tend to have a high expectation of their part-time staff, but aren’t willing to pay much more than minimum wage.  On the other hand, public facilities may not be able to bring in highly incentivized managers, but are able to pay higher rates for part-time staff.  And since the “new city pool” is the place to be, public waterparks can have a plethora of applicants.

Support Spaces

Rounding out the experience, a variety of smaller support components are included that, in many cases, increase visitors’ discretionary spending. These include food and beverage facilities, merchandising, arcade games, changing rooms, lockers, raft rentals, etc.

Everyone likes to plan the rides and fun features of a waterpark, but one of the crucial areas that will affect the long-term operational success for your park is the support spaces.  Proper placement of your restrooms, concessions and mechanical spaces can greatly improve the overall experience.  Giving proper consideration for how people will use these spaces and how they will affect the traffic flow within your park is a fundamental part of the planning effort.  You also need these spaces to be easily cleaned and maintained for years to come.  While nobody will come to your waterpark to visit the restrooms, they will certainly not come back if they are appalled by them.

Publicly ran waterparks tend to spend more money on the quality of finishes and longevity of these buildings.  The bathhouse at a many public waterparks may be part of the facilities “features” offering a grand entrance with theming and large locker rooms that can double as a storm shelter if need.  On the other hand, private facilities try to keep this area simple.  Simple to build, simple to clean and simple to replace if needed.

Expansion planning for both types of parks

Attractions can be added to the park in increments as more capacity and market draw is required. Waterparks typically should strive to add additional features every 3-4 years to keep the facility fresh and provide new thrilling amenities for guests, which improves the overall guest experience.  Privately owned waterparks are very aggressive in adding new amenities and making constant improvement so they can continue to offer a unique experience.

Attractions can be added to the waterpark in increments as more capacity is required. No matter what size of waterpark or how many rides you have, over time people enjoy seeing something new. To generate additional excitement, add a new ride or amenity every two to three years.  When initially planning your park, consider where your first expansion will go. This keeps you from having to place the newest thrill ride right next to the quiet waters you’ve established as an “adult area”.

As the time comes for your expansion, make sure it’s the right choice. Go back to step one. Review your market and see what area you need to address.  Look at how your park operates and consider what would make it better. Adding a new attraction isn’t always the right answer. You may need to add more capacity, or you may need to meet the needs of an underserved age group. Once the decision has been made to expand there are several key items to consider that will affect its success. What is your budget?  What do you want to include in the expansion?  How much land do you need?  What will it cost to operate?  Will it make money?  Essentially, you need to revisit previous planning efforts.


Private parks strive for impeccable service; however, public facilities have become much more entrepreneurial in the last decade. While community-owned and operated facilities continue to evolve and emulate the hospitality industry, municipalities compete for the sought after professionals to manage these types of facilities.  So while we see a vast difference today, the gap between private and public parks will continue to close.

  1. World Waterpark Assoc. Fun Facts.

Kevin Post is a project manager for Counsilman-Hunsaker, focusing on feasibility studies and operational assistance. Post’s aquatic experience includes pool management, feasibility study analyst, facility audit coordinator, launch operations training and CPO training. This broad base of experience has allowed Post to offer his knowledge to communities interested in planning new aquatic facilities across the U.S.