Although public sector waterpark provenance dates back over 30 years, many counties and municipalities considering developing waterparks today struggle with defining exactly what waterpark is. So, it is not unusual when dealing with the public sector that everything from a splash pad to a family aquatic center to a full blown waterpark be referred in the media as a “waterpark.” In times of tightening public sector budgets, water restrictions and controversy over subsidized recreation versus “pay for play,” the term “waterpark” can be demonized by a misunderstanding public with roots in traditional swimming facilities.
In order to clarify what a “waterpark” is in the public sector, the following definitions can be have been used successfully in many communities:
Splash Pad – A small water playground with ground sprays and/or vertical water features typically with no standing water, no lifeguards and no admission cost that often uses potable water that is wasted to an adjacent sanitary sewer or recycled into a water quality pond. Amenities typically include a mechanical enclosure with limited shade and seating.
- Typical Design and Construction Costs: $250,000 to $500,000 (2013)
- Admission Cost: $0.00 (No Operating Expense Recovery or Revenue)
- Attendance: Varies Based on Demand and Size / Up to 10,000 per 100 day season
- Space Requirements: (One Half Acre) plus limited or no parking
Sprayground - A larger water playground with many ground sprays and/or vertical water features typically with no standing water, no lifeguards and no admission costs that often uses potable water that recycled via a pool filtration and chemical treatment system with a secondary sanitation system such as UV light or Ozone. Amenities typically include shade, seating, mechanical enclosure and adjacent restrooms.
- Typical Design and Construction Costs: $500,000 - $1,500,000 (2013)
- Admission Cost: $0.00 (No Operating Expense Recovery or Revenue)
- Attendance: Varies Based on Demand and Size / Up to 20,000 per 100 day season
- Space Requirements: (1/2 Acre to 1 ½ Acres) plus limited parking up to 50 spaces
Family Aquatic Center - A modern public sector pool complex incorporating elements to appeal to the entire family (tots, families, teens) with traditional pool features (lap lanes, diving boards, learn to swim areas), splash pads (ground sprays and vertical water features), and waterparks (waterslides, interactive water play structures, current channels of 5’ to 10’ wide and leisure rivers 10’+ wide to 20’+ wide) including admission costs of $5.00 to $15.00. Amenities typically include shade, seating, lounge chairs, restrooms, operations offices, shade, and group shade pavilions.
- Typical Design and Construction Costs: $1,500,000 - $10,000,000 (2013)
- Admission Costs: $5.00 to $15.00 (Typically to recover operating expenses or generate limited revenue)
- Attendance: Varies Based on Demand and Size / 15,000 to 150,000 per 100 day season
- Space Requirements: (2 Acres to 5 Acres) plus parking of 50 to 500 spaces
Waterpark - A full scale commercial type waterpark operated by the public sector to generate revenue incorporating elements from the above but on a larger scale with multiple water slides, longer leisure rivers, a wave pool and extreme or unique water ride attractions. Amenities typically include shade, seating, lounge chairs, restrooms, operations offices, shade, and group shade pavilions.
- Typical Design and Construction Costs: $10,000,000 to $25,000,000+ (2013)
- Admission costs: $15.00 to $40.00 (Typically to recover operating expenses, debt service and generate maximum revenue)
- Attendance: Varies Based on Demand and Size / 150,000 to 1,000,000 per 100 day season
- Space Requirements: (5 Acres to 15 Acres) plus parking of 500 to 10,000 spaces.
Certainly, you can call just about any water recreation area a “waterpark,” but the most appropriate usage of the term should be to refer to the large commercial type revenue generating facilities with the capacity to attract and hold a large number of people from a destination of over 50 to 100 miles plus. Therefore, to really be a big “waterpark” you must a have many different slides, interactive water play features, lagoons, a long leisure river and even a wave pool so that you can and accommodate at lots of park users.
A New Public Sector “Gold Standard”
Many public sector pools were built from the 1950s to the 1980s using the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) standard of one pool for every 25,000 population. This criteria was developed when many homes did not have air conditioning, many pools were filled and emptied daily with no chemical sanitation and when aquatic recreation opportunities were limited. Admission costs for these pools were often $0.00 up to $1.00 and even to this day some public sector pool providers still offer these old fashioned pools for free or a heavily subsidized admission costs. (Cities sometimes end up spending $5.00 for every $1.00 received in admission.)
Public pool health scares beginning in the 1950s, coupled with more stringent safety standards, led to increased operating expenses, removal of diving boards and poolside waterslides, which in turn led to decreased attendance at public pools. Just as many of these public pools were closing in the 1970s, the first waterparks were being developed in the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s, innovative public sector pool operators started adding waterpark features (floatable toys, zero depth entries, small waterslides and water play features, shade furnishings and concessions) to revive attendance and help pay for operating expenses at public sector facilities. The most entrepreneurial public sector operators built large waterparks and were able to generate surplus revenue to help fund other recreation programming (I.e. Hyland Hills Water World in Colo. & NRH2O Family Water Park in Texas.)
At the same time, a new generation has grown up that demands the public sector to provide aquatic facilities for the entire family (tot, family and teen.) Therefore, public sector pools are becoming more like waterparks all across the country in order to attract users, recover operating expenses and contribute to the local quality of life.
According the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) over 80 percent of aquatic users are recreation and lesson users, 10% are competition users, and the remaining 10% are senior/wellness users. In many public sector communities, the most vocal and the most dedicated voters are the not the largest user group (family recreation and lesson users) but instead the organized swim team groups (competition users) and senior groups (wellness users.)
The facilities required by each of the three public sector groups require different pool configurations, different water depths and different temperatures. To compensate for this, many public sector providers have started building fewer traditional 1950s pools and more splash pads, water spray grounds, family aquatic centers and mega indoor recreation centers with indoor competition, wellness and recreation pools coupled with a large seasonal outdoor recreational pool that can generate most of the revenue to offset operating costs.
Therefore, in lieu of the old NRPA planning criteria of one pool for every 25,000, the new “Gold Standard” minimums for the Public Sector should include at least one of each of the following for every 50,000 to of one pool for every 500,000 in population:
Indoor Competition Pool – One 50M or 25YDx 25M Lap Pool constructed and funded by the source of the users. (City/county for city/county leagues, recreation districts for their leagues, school districts for school leagues and private swim teams for independent swim leagues or a combination thereof).
Indoor Wellness Pool - One 4-6-lane 25 YD Pool (with ramp and step entries with two or three minimum depth lap lanes, water aerobics area and a small deep-water cardio area to be constructed and funded by the source of the users. (Hospitals, senior centers, city/counties, recreation districts or a combination thereof).
Outdoor Family Aquatic Center or Waterpark – One new-style family aquatic center or waterpark sized to meet the needs of the community and available market constructed and funded by the source of the users. (City/counties, recreation districts or a combination thereof).
The Public Sector Design Process
The public sector most often has to build public consensus and City leadership support to do all their projects. If this is needed, the most effective way of gaining consensus is to develop a city-wide aquatics plan where a park planner and feasibility consultant educate the public on modern aquatic programming, costs, and options. The big advantage of this process is that the public and decision-makers are led through the process simultaneously, outdated facilities can be documented, myths can be de-bunked about revenue and expenses and the decisions are most often then based on current need and public support.
Additionally, the public sector is held to more stringent designer team and equipment processes than the private sector regulated by state and/or federal procurement rules. Most will select an A/E (Architect or Engineer) led design team that will include engineers (civil, structural, mechanical, electrical and pool), landscape architects and architects. In the public sector, it is most common that an architect leads an indoor pool project (not the pool designer). And for outdoor aquatic projects, it is typical for a park planner experienced in pool design to lead the project (landscape architect, architect or civil engineer with in-depth pool project experience).
With funding difficult to obtain for private waterpark development, there are many private sector waterpark developers partnering with public sector clients to develop waterparks. In most cases this partnership requires that the land, 80 percent or more of the development and infrastructure costs and undetermined future support for park improvements be provided and paid for the public sector partner.
Ultimately, this means the public sector has most of the “skin” in the game and is receiving only 10 percent or 15 percent of the net revenue. Such an arrangement can tie up public sector bonding capacity, create increased costs for the very public sector residents who paid to build it with their tax dollars and leave the public sector with poorly constructed facility that is expensive to tear down or fix up if the private sector partner bows out. That said, there are public sector client who prefer this arrangement since they do not have to plan, design, operate and continue to invest in the facility.