Go Big or Go Home?
“The water park industry has adopted ‘bigger is better’ as their go-to strategy,” says David Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors (H&LA), a national hospitality consulting firm. “Around the world, we are seeing slides, rides, and attractions becoming more impressive, with municipal and private parks seeking to attract more people with large numbers of rides, attractions, and amenities.”
However, just because many water parks are “going bigger,” it doesn’t mean this is a smart move for all parks. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Mike Gerton, aquatics supervisor at Barefoot Bay Family Aquatic Center in Mundelein, Illinois. “With the bigger slides and amenities come bigger crowds and all the problems that are associated with managing them, along with the loss of the friendly small water park environment that many guests actually prefer.”
‘Going Bigger’ in Action
At the highest level, “going bigger” successfully requires a water park to manage large crowds effectively and efficiently in all aspects of its operation. Bigger rides are just the beginning: The grounds need to be spacious, the entrance gates have to handle many lines of paying customers quickly, and there needs to be sufficient washrooms on the grounds to accommodate the guests.
Kalahari Resorts and Conventions, based in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, is a prime example of putting “going bigger” in action. The company operates large combined resort/water park facilities in Wisconsin Dells; Sandusky, Ohio; and its newest location in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. (A fourth Kalahari Resort is coming soon to Round Rock, Texas.)
“For Kalahari—which is home to America’s largest indoor water parks—bigger is better because of what our size allows us to offer our guests,” says Travis Nelson, company spokesperson and son of Kalahari president and founder Todd Nelson. “Our newest and third resort in the Pocono Mountains is now the largest indoor water park in America, with 220,000 square feet of true attraction space, premium dining options, a wealth of entertainment both in and out of the water, and nearly 1,000 guest rooms in varying styles.” (Before expanding its Poconos indoor water park to 220,000 square feet, Kalahari’s Sandusky location was the largest indoor water park in America at 173,000 square feet.)
Quebec’s Valcartier Vacation Village is another example of “going bigger,” due to the company’s ambitious expansion of its summer water park and winter snow-tubing facility into a true four-season property. To accomplish this, Calypso Valcartier Group (the company also owns the 100-acre Calypso facility in Limoges, Ontario) recently spent $65 million to build a four-star, 153-room hotel at Valcartier, plus a 102,000-square-foot Polynesian-themed indoor water park with 14 slides, a family pool, a multi-activity adventure river, wave pool, and wave simulator.
“For us, ‘bigger is better’ is all about higher throughput capacity,” says Sylvain Lauzon, Calypso Valcartier Group’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. “Having larger rides and facilities means that we can serve more paying guests more quickly at any given time, while the guests we serve are happy because they’re playing rather than waiting.”
Ramayana Water Park in Pattaya, Thailand, is a third example of “going bigger.” “With 21 water rides, Ramayana is Thailand’s biggest water park, and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia,” says Operations Manager Martin Côté. “Our guests have normally been to other water parks and are looking for something new, something that will ‘wow’ them. By having the biggest and longest slides or pool at Ramayana, we deliver that wow factor they’re looking for.”
Where Less Is More
Given the water park industry’s current trend of expansion and growth, it is easy to find advocates for “going bigger.” But there are also those who think staying small is beautiful—and the best strategy for their businesses.
Barefoot Bay in Illinois is one such small water park. Operated by the Mundelein Park & Recreation District, Barefoot Bay is a 6-acre outdoor site that features a zero-depth entry pool, three water slides, a diving well with diving board and climbing wall, and a lazy river.
“Families come to Barefoot Bay for a relaxing, fun time with no lines, no large noisy crowds, and low admission prices,” says Gerton. “You shouldn’t be stressed out when you go to a water park. Dealing with lots of people moving around you can be very hard on the nerves. People come to Barefoot Bay to relax.
“People have limited time to spare these days,” Gerton continues. “Do they really want to spend 20 minutes trying to find an empty chair—let alone line up for rides—when they can come here and start having fun immediately?”
Gerton also believes there’s a market for facilities with perceived low ticket prices: “Higher prices can mean that fewer people can afford to come in. We don’t see that as being good for business or our community.”
The Pros and Cons of Going Bigger
Industry trends notwithstanding, there are pros and cons to water parks “going bigger.”
Let’s start with the positive reasons. For Kalahari, “going bigger” enables the company to provide a superior all-under-one-roof experience to its guests. Calypso Valcartier Group finds this strategy allows it to serve more customers quicker while making them happier. “Happy customers are repeat customers, who also say nice things about your park to their family and friends,” notes H&LA’s Sangree. “This translates into more attendance at your facility, which is why investing in going bigger can deliver bigger revenues to you.” And for Ramayana, this philosophy delivers a competitive edge over the water park’s entertainment rivals.
In addition, “going bigger” allows water parks to offer additional services built on having high guest throughput, large-scale food and beverage capacity, and extensive park infrastructure.
“By having a bigger water park at Ramayana, we can welcome big group outings and corporate events with more than 2,500 people,” says Côté.
Leaving lots of room between attractions also helps “in having other kinds of activities, such as water games, funfair games, or even extra food and beverage outlets,” he says. “Taking a ‘bigger is better’ approach to grounds layout provides more space to make money: You just then need to use the space.”
That said, the “going bigger” approach does come with its own set of challenges.
For instance, building bigger rides obviously comes with higher price tags, while a bigger water park’s utility expenses (electricity, natural gas, water), operational costs, and employee payroll are definitely larger than those managed by a smaller park.
Updating larger parks is also comparatively expensive. “Trends are always changing, and that can be challenging to keep up with,” says Kalahari’s Nelson. “We are fortunate that we have a team that’s dedicated to being one step ahead of the changing trends.”
Then there’s the question of paying for expansion: “Sometimes it can be tough to convince investors to go along,” Sangree says.
Even if the money does come through, it behooves water park operators not to expand beyond their ability to pay for these major investments and then some.
“Return on investment is very important,” says Patrick Patoka, director of Avalanche Bay Indoor Waterpark at Boyne Mountain Resort in Boyne Falls, Michigan. “These larger rides—or any addition for that matter—are very expensive, and being able to recover the investment as soon as possible allows us to plan for more additions later on.”
At 88,000 square feet, Avalanche Bay is Michigan’s largest indoor water park. Patoka adds that new attractions must convince existing guests to keep coming back, while expanding the water park’s demographic target and offering experiences not easily found within its immediate market area. “If we successfully find the right ride to maximize our attendance and guest satisfaction, budgeting and fiscal planning become much easier,” he says. “Conversely, if our new rides aren’t a success, that can have a very negative effect on our budget and future fiscal plans.”
Finally, not everyone actually wants to go to a massive water park complex. For instance, a lot of people like Barefoot Bay precisely because it is small (by industry standards) and offers an affordable, low-stress way for the entire family to cool off and play in the summer heat. “Being small doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to do here at Barefoot Bay, because there is,” says Gerton. “We’re a fun place to be just as we are.”
The moral: “Going bigger” is an option for water parks, not a panacea. Whether it is right for your facility depends on what your guests want from your water park—and don’t want.
James Careless covers the water park industry for Funworld.