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JustAdd Water - February 2017

Water attractions can boost an FEC’s attendance, revenues—but is it the right move for you?

by James Careless

With roots that go back to 1952, Knights Action Park in Springfield, Illinois, has a long, illustrious history as a family entertainment center (FEC). “My folks got us started when they opened an archery range at my grandfather’s golf driving range, which he started in 1930,” says Knights Action Park General Manager Doug Knight. “Then they added custom-made go-karts, because at the time there weren’t any concession go-karts for FECs to use.”

In 1976, Knights Action Park moved to a more spacious location, and decided to add its first water-based attraction. “We put in a triple water slide to start,” says Knight. “Since then, we have added 12 more water slides, an action river, a 20,000-square-foot wave pool, and a children’s wet-activity area called Seal Bay. It’s gotten so big, that we call our FEC’s water attraction area Splash Kingdom to brand it separately from our main Knights Action Park FEC.” Knights Action Park charges general admission prices for guests to use Splash Kingdom, as opposed to individual ride and attraction prices at its FEC.

Mulligan Family Fun Centers operates three FECs in southern California. All three have similar FEC offerings such as mini-golf, arcades, laser tag, go-karts, a rock wall, snack bars, and party rooms; each one situated on a site measuring about 7 acres.

In 2011, the Mulligan Family Fun Center in Murrieta opened its first water attraction. “It is a five-slide play structure with interactive elements geared for children ages 4 to 11,” says Robert Thomas, the FEC’s president. “In 2015, we added several additional interactive features to the surrounding spray pad.”

Andy Alligator’s Fun Park in Norman, Oklahoma, is another FEC with its own water slides and rides. Owned and operated by the Allison family for many years, the popular FEC decided to build its own water park on the property in 2012. Today, that facility includes two slides (one tube, one four-lane mat racer), a children’s water-play area, a large interactive play structure, and an 800-foot-long lazy river.

“We had the land, and we were trying to decide what to add to expand the FEC,” says Russell Allison, owner of Andy Alligator’s Fun Park. “We eventually settled on a water park, because it seemed a natural way to complete what the FEC had to offer to guests.” Just like Knights Action Park and Mulligan Family Fun Centers, Andy Alligator’s charges a separate general admission to its water park attractions. All three of these FECs have taken the plunge into water parks, in a bid to drive attendance and grow revenues. Here’s what they have learned, and what wisdom they have to offer other FEC owners considering the same move.

Why Water Attractions?

Clearly, these FECs saw real value in adding water attractions to existing facilities—but the motivations for doing so vary from company to company.

For Knights Action Park, adding water attractions was the next logical way to diversify the family business. After all, this is something the Knight family has done since adding an archery range to their driving range in 1952.

“We wanted to grow the business in an effective way,” says Knight. “In the early 1980s, water slides were just starting to catch on with the public. They were the next big thing, which made a water slide a good choice for an FEC with a history of innovation and finding new ways to attract paying customers.”

With three FECs to date, Mulligan Family Fun Centers was looking for new ways to entice people, as well. Adding water attractions to the company’s Murrieta location seemed a natural way to do this: “The climate is perfect for water attractions,” says Thomas. “We also wanted to be the first to market in that region.”

In addition, Mulligan Family Fun Center Murrieta made the move because the company wanted to replace its traditional water-riding bumper boats with something more modern. They specifically chose the five-slide play structure because it fit inside the bumper boat ride’s physical footprint.

“We needed to keep it in the same area between mini-golf and go-karts, which are two of our best attractions,” Thomas says. “We also knew we wanted a six- to eight-year payback on our projected $1.2 million investment, so we created the budget based on our revenue projections. It took us quite a bit of time to select a vendor and contractor that could accommodate this budget.”

At Andy Alligator’s, adding a separate water park worked nicely within the existing FEC’s layout. “In fact, it effectively tied the two ends of our FEC together,” says Allison. “For $6 million and some readjusting of our parking layout, we ended up with an 8 acre FEC/water park that is a unified experience for our guests; something bigger and better than was there before.”

Advice to FECs Seeking Water Attractions

Having gone the adding-water-attractions route, each of these three FECs have a lot of wisdom to pass on to other FECs considering the same strategy to grow their businesses. Here are the lessons they have to share:

Do Your Homework and Know Your Budget

All three FEC owners spent a considerable amount of time researching the kinds of water attractions they could add, and how such attractions could be integrated into their water park properties, before ever putting a shovel into dirt. “We must have visited 20 different water parks during our research phase,” says Allison. “We did our best to find out as much as we could about the realities and challenges of operating water attractions, in order to make the right decision for our FEC. We also made sure we found one that fit within our budget, which was vital to make sure we weren’t overstretched.”

Get to Know the Vendors

Whether at trade shows, like IAAPA Expos, or through direct visits with manufacturers and suppliers of water park equipment, it is vital to form strong, frank relationships with vendors. “When you do come down to selecting an equipment vendor for your water attraction, be sure to pick a company with good engineers, solid customer support, and a proven track record of successfully installing and supporting their products at other water parks,” says Knight. “You don’t want to spend millions of dollars on a vendor who can’t deliver what they promise, whose equipment is out of service more than it is in use, and who isn’t there to provide fast on-site support when you need it, because a closed attraction doesn’t make your FEC money.”

Don’t Procrastinate

Once you decide to add water attractions to your FEC, get going: Time spent procrastinating is time lost earning the extra money such attractions can bring in. “Start as early as you can because construction delays are inevitable,” says Thomas. “There are several regulatory agencies that will be involved, so be prepared and communicate with them often. Our first season at our Murrieta FEC, we were not able to open until the end of July, so we lost most of the summer.”

Keep It Separate

All three of the FECs interviewed for this article operate their water parks as stand-alone entities separate from their FECs. Doing so allows each water park to be an additional profit center for the FEC. At the same time, charging a general-admission price for water parks, rather than the per-attraction price typically used in FECs, provides customers with an enhanced sense of value, which may make them more comfortable with spending more in the FEC itself.

Challenges to Overcome

Adding a water park to an FEC means encountering and then surmounting numerous challenges.

The most obvious obstacle is designing and then building the water park facility. Unless the FEC is already an expert in this area, it makes sense to seek help from a professional builder. Other FECs with water parks are good places to ask for references, as are standalone water parks and water park equipment vendors. One caveat: Seek advice from people who have similarly-sized water parks to the one you want to build, and make sure whoever is chosen knows their way around water filtration and pumping systems.

Once you have a plan, it is time to get permits—and there are usually lots of authorities who have to be consulted and satisfied. “When we built the water park we had the city review and permitting, county health department review and permitting on the water park kitchen, and state health department approval and permitting on the pool and slides,” says Russell Allison of Andy Alligator’s Fun Park. The takeaway: Find out whose approval is needed at the outset, and then leave lots of time to get these approvals before the new facility’s scheduled opening.

The third challenge is ensuring the new water park is staffed with properly trained lifeguards. (The only exception to this rule are water parks who only have water rides and splash pads. “These areas are known as zero-depth facilities, and they don’t require lifeguards,” says Robert Thomas of Mulligan Family Fun Center.)

At Andy Alligator’s Fun Park, “We do group auditions [for lifeguards] and, once they are hired, we train them through the Ellis & Associates Lifeguard training program,” says Kyle Allison. Be aware that lifeguards require ongoing training once on the job: They just can’t be trained once and left alone afterwards.

Finally, managing a water park will require changes and enhancements to the FEC’s current management structure. “Aquatics is a different animal and requires a dedicated management team for training and supervision,” says Russell Allison. This said, “our operations team does cross train lifeguards on guest service values.”

The Bottom Line

Properly executed, adding a water park to an FEC can be a good way to boost attendance and grow revenues; both in the short-term and for years to come.

“We have been very happy with the revenue generated by our water attractions,” says Thomas. “The attendance increase was huge in the first two seasons, but it has since leveled off. Still, it is nice that—on extremely hot days—we are now a destination. That was not the case before adding the water play area.”

James Careless covers the water park industry for Funworld.