Don’t Break the Bank - March 2017

How small water parks succeed while staying within budget

by James Careless

Small operating budgets are a fact of life for small water park operators. But the smart ones know how to get the most mileage out of their limited funds, while keeping their customers happy, satisfied, and coming back for more. Here’s how they do it.

Wherever Possible, Do It Yourself

Zoom Flume Water Park is a family-run operation based in East Durham, New York. “We’re two-and-a-half hours north of New York City and an hour south of Albany,” says Zoom Flume co-owner Denise Kerrigan, who runs the water park with her husband and brother.

Opened in 1981, Zoom Flume was initially paired with the family’s country resort. “But as we added more rides to Zoom Flume over the years, business became so good that we saw no reason to hold onto the resort—so we sold it,” Kerrigan says. Today, the water park has a wide range of slides, a lazy river, and the nearly 800-foot-long “Gravity Gorge” zipline that spans the entire park.

The secret to Zoom Flume’s financial success? “The way we make money is by saving money, by doing everything in-house,” says Kerrigan. “I handle administration and keep Zoom Flume running; my brother is a structural engineer and maintenance genius; and my husband is the sales expert who handles ticket sales and promotions.”

In its earliest days, Zoom Flume built its own attractions. But although it now shops around for manufactured attractions at industry trade shows, the water park still does as much of its own construction and maintenance as possible. “When we purchased the CannonBOWL 30 tubing bowl from ProSlide, we did bring in their engineer to help us set up the ride,” Kerrigan says. “This said, we still built as much of it as we could using our own people.”

Ways to Boost Attendance Through Cost-Effective Marketing

Although Kerrigan believes in do-it-yourself, she will also bring in outsiders to provide expertise her team lacks. This is why Zoom Flume hired H Two Marketing of Valdosta, Georgia, to come up with economical, attendance-building promotional ideas. “H Two Marketing has really raised our attendance to the next level,” Kerrigan said. “Even on our tight budget, this is money well spent.”

As a firm that caters to small and medium-sized water parks, H Two is constantly looking for ways to economically and effectively boost attendance to these operations. “One of the best ways to do this is through celebrity appearances by Disney Channel TV stars—the teenagers kids are watching after school at home,” says H Two owner Jimmy Holmes. “For about $10,000 an appearance, you get a one-day visit from a bona fide celebrity—as far as the kids and their parents are concerned—who is professionally trained to interact positively with the park’s guests. These high-impact events can be leveraged to drive season-pass sales, create a buzz in the community, and produce revenue on the day of the event. Photos and videos from the event can be linked to your park all season long.”

A less expensive option is to create a summer beach party, he adds: “Build the event around what you already do and repackage it as a special event. Add a DJ at the wave pool to play interactive games. A dance party led by your mascot can be a huge guest satisfier.” A third option is to hold a “Superhero Weekend” and offer local cosplayers (people who dress in costumes at their own expense) discounted tickets in exchange for turning up on site in character. You’ll get the promotional value, attention on social media, and likely even some free press from your local media if you promote the “cosplay discount” to them.

Meanwhile, The Ravine Waterpark in Paso Robles, California, has found a way to turn waste box cardboard into a crowd-pleasing, attention-grabbing event called the “Ya Gotta Regatta.” For the past six years, this small water park has invited teams to plunge into piles of scrap cardboard and duct tape to build their own cardboard boats. (The Ravine features a lineup of fast water slides, a lazy river, a wave pool, and a children’s water-play area with a wading pool and gentle slides.) Once built, the boats compete in racing heats on The Ravine’s wave pool. They start at the wave pool’s beach entry, with teams paddling against one another (oars are supplied) to the pool’s other end and back again. Prizes are awarded for those boats that win, that are the most creatively put together … and that don’t sink (remember, they’re made of cardboard!).

“The sheer fun and excitement that the boat-building, racing, and sinking creates every year is great for our customers, and our park, as well,” says Ravine owner Jay Walsh. “And all it costs us is some duct tape and prizes, while finding a use for our scrap box cardboard.”

Watch Costs Closely

Even with do-it-yourself construction and park maintenance, plus boosting attendance through economical marketing events, small water parks are always at the mercy of their budgets. This is why keeping a close eye on every penny matters—and why hands-on management that is constantly and consistently focused on cost control is a must.

For Mark Moore, general manager of Gulf Islands Waterpark in Gulfport, Mississippi, cost control starts with ticket sales. (Gulf Islands offers a range of exciting water slides, a wave pool, and a lazy river, plus lots of celebrity meet and greets and other special events.) 

“I like to follow the concert model of tiered ticket sales, where one-third of the park has lower-price tickets; one-third is mid-priced tickets; and the final third are full-priced tickets sold at the last minute,” Moore says. “In the case of water parks, the first third are low-priced season passes; the second third are group sales; and the third are full-priced sales at the front gate. Our goal is to first drive season passes to provide money for opening operations, and then earn revenues through advance group sales and day tickets at the gate to cover the rest of the season and make a profit.”

In following this approach, Mark Moore is always changing his pricing strategy in response to each season’s sales trends. “If the weekends are overcrowded and the weekdays are slow, then we’ll reduce weekday gate prices to bring in more traffic then,” he says. “If the weekend is hit with rainy weather, we’ll lower prices to keep people coming in.”

Moore is also constantly adjusting staffing levels in response to weather conditions and actual attendance. This means sending staff home as appropriate to reduce labor costs, “which are any water park’s number-one expense,” he says.

At the same time, Moore never compromises on the level of staffing for lifeguards and other safety-oriented positions: “Safety is critical to your brand. You always want to be viewed by customers as being a safe place to take their kids, and that means having enough properly trained safety staff on duty at all times.”

The bottom line: With hands-on operations and management, cost-effective promotions and marketing, and constant vigilance to pricing and staffing, small water parks can succeed while living within their budgets.