Andrew Mellor assesses the rise of the indoor waterpark, one of the biggest growth sectors in the industry…

Indoor waterparks in their various guises have been around for many years and the industry has matured into a major entertainment sector entertaining millions of visitors each year.

Such facilities are now important parts of resorts and other venues worldwide, while standalone operations have also found their niche in the leisure market. And be it families looking for a fun day out, guests staying at a hotel resort or older visitors looking for “wellness” type facilities mixed with some gentle exercise, all age groups are catered for.

In Europe, indoor waterparks cover literally every requirement in this form of entertainment and according to Dr Klaus Batz, managing director of the European Waterpark Association, the different cultures found in the various European countries have shaped the type of facility and the industry generally in this part of the world.

“Europe is a conglomeration of national markets and different bathing cultures in each country,” he says. “In Germany, for example, family fun waterparks are tending to make venues larger with other, non-water based activities. Also, hotels are being built in various places (some with water based leisure activities on offer) while outdoor parks are adding indoor parks to add to the length of season and to counter bad weather.

“In Switzerland, Austria and Italy, for example, wellness facilities and spas are being built or added to existing venues. Many of our members focus on this market, which is not for families as such but for couples and older people who follow the big bathing culture we have in Europe. Many also have their own hotel resort. We see a trend that the industry is going in two directions – operators see that they can’t fulfil the expectations of all visitors, so they need a clear position in the market and a targeted offering.”

As far as numbers are concerned, the EWA has 177 member facilities, mostly in Germany (where the organisation was founded) and all of whom must reach certain standards of quality before membership is granted. And Batz notes that growth in the European indoor waterpark industry differs from country to country.

“In Germany there are about 400 indoor waterparks (or facilities that can be classed as such). There have been some recent openings but the peak for the industry was in the mid 1990s. There has been an increase in the number of thermal and bathing facilities in Austria and Switzerland, while Russia is a very strong market for these too. Sweden is also making existing facilities more attractive by adding more facilities.”

Aleatha Ezra, director of park membership development at the World Waterpark Association in the US, also picks up on industry trends, saying: “The dominant trend within the industry is to develop indoor waterparks alongside family-friendly resort amenities that provide an all-in-one vacation experience – family suites, fun theming, games rooms, teen and tween directed activities, crafts, etc.”

At major US developer and operator Kalahari Resorts, president and owner Todd Nelson notes that indoor waterparks are getting bigger and bigger.

“We’re currently home to the largest (125,000sq.ft) at Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. But, we will outdo ourselves when we open our 93,000sq.ft expansion of Kalahari Resort in Sandusky, Ohio, making it 173,000sq.ft. We have also seen an increase in indoor waterpark destination resorts (which is what Kalahari is) versus a hotel with a waterpark attached to it. An indoor waterpark destination resort is a place where people come to stay specifically for the waterpark.”

Wyeth Tracy at industry attraction supplier Empex Watertoys agrees that numerous hotels are adding wet playgrounds and water play areas to their standard pool offering, as they realise they need to do more for younger guests than simply having a pool, adding that places such as golf courses and other leisure outlets are also opening new water based areas.

“A water play area can double the length of stay in a zoo, for example, that doesn’t have a wet component,” he says.

At Van Egdom, another major supplier to the waterpark industry, Lars Lenders, points to the theming of indoor waterparks as a major current trend and creating an experience park, as opposed to guests feeling they are simply in a glass or steel building.

“In Europe this is seen as expensive but the added value has not been seen until more recently,” he says. “Clients would rather go to a themed facility than one with no theming.” He also points to attractions becoming increasingly extreme and the benefits of interactivity in helping to keep guests on site for longer periods of time as further noteworthy trends.

All our interviewees see the indoor waterpark industry continuing to grow with many developments taking place around the world. ProSlide’s Jeff Janovich notes: “Statistics show that if you go back eight years there were about 10 indoor parks in North America.

Now there are over 100 with many more in planning so it’s an ever-increasing market place, certainly in the US. We are also now doing more overseas, while in Europe indoor parks are being developed but with different amenities and environments, such as Center Parcs. In the US they do mostly rides and focus less on theming and environment.”

Controlling ‘the weather’

Indoor and outdoor waterparks inevitably have many similarities but there are some key differences when it comes to actual operation, how they are used by the public and other aspects.

“At outdoor parks, people are more used to lying in the sun and going in the water once in a while,” observes Lenders, “while indoor parks are more limited in size so their ground area is much less. They therefore have more water area (than dry area) so there is more use of this. There is also more cost to operate indoor parks with humidifiers, heating, etc.”

“In indoor parks you are guaranteed the ‘weather’,” notes Tracy, “so you can plan on attendances more accurately. The issue of the sun is also important these days. On the downside, being in an indoor park is not the same as sitting out in the sun. Indoor parks also have to look at the mechanical systems to control humidity. Their running costs are expensive, but then outdoor parks have to heat pools in colder weather too.”

Todd Nelson: “Contrary to what many think, the indoor and outdoor arenas have vast differences, though they are very similar in the same regards. Due to the nature of the seasonality of the outdoor facilities they are able to operate in a much more controlled environment compared to the 365 day indoor establishments. Training of staff is an ongoing challenge for indoor facilities while most outdoor facilities plan a large spring training.

“Furthermore, with 365 days of operation the indoor waterpark experiences three seasons of operation annually versus one season annually for an outdoor. An example of a simple difference can be seen in maintenance of a facility like a simple leak in a slide. For an outdoor waterpark the organisation usually looks at the leak as something they can fix in the off season, for an indoor that same leak is looked at from a couple of different perspectives. First, that water on the floor is a safety hazard. Second, that a leak is waste, which influences the company’s bottom line expenditures.”

And Ezra picks up on other issues. “There are two main differences and probably lots of little ones,” she says. “The first main difference is that although indoor waterparks are getting bigger and bigger, the footprint of an indoor waterpark is invariably smaller than that of an outdoor park. Hence, the design of the rides and the layout of the whole facility must be approached with different considerations in terms of special relationships, safety, staffing, etc.

“The second main difference is that indoor waterparks do have a unique issue to consider – air quality,” she continues. “The industry has continued to innovate new ways to control temperature, humidity, air quality, etc., in an indoor environment.”

Janovich feels the differences between the two are becoming less and less, offering that indoor parks could simply be considered as condensed versions of their outdoor counterparts.

“Some of the bigger rides have started to come indoors more often,” he adds, “but they are basically all the same facilities, only more compact in indoor parks.”

At Duinrell in The Netherlands, which as well as a major amusement park also operates the Tikibad indoor waterpark complex, Philip van Zuylen feels the differences between indoor and outdoor parks are very significant.

“For an indoor park,” he says, “the first investment you have to make in the building is immense, especially when you have big slides and have to ensure the correct climate. This is far more than the investments made in the tubes. There are acoustic issues too. It is totally different. The investment required is far more than double an outdoor park.”

Setting the theme    

The subject of theming, as already mentioned as a significant trend by Van Egdom’s Lars Lenders, is an important consideration for developers and operators, none more so than Kalahari Resorts where Nelson stresses it is a major aspect of his company’s facilities.

“We believe theming is very important,” he says. “We want to offer our guests an original and authentic experience which is why we put so much into theming. In fact, we send a team to Africa each year to continue to expand our collection of authentic art and décor throughout our resorts.”

The WWA’s Ezra agrees, noting: “Theming has been very important in the indoor waterpark market because they do not have the advantage of a natural environment to make the park appealing and memorable. Theming has also been a big part of this type of development since it began in the European market,” while Janovich also goes along with this way of thinking.

“It’s becoming much more important,” he states. “Every indoor waterpark has some form of theming. The bigger ones certainly try and carry a theme through all of their resorts, such as Kalahari, Great Wolf and Wilderness. It becomes a way of differentiating parks and some spend a lot of time and money on the theming aspect.”

Van Zuylen also feels theming is very important, commenting: “You have to do it in a way that will never be outdated, which is quite difficult. Also, an indoor pool will be smaller and more compact than an outdoor park so it’s important to make sure lifeguards can see everything despite the theming. This needs careful management and planning.”

Tracy believes it’s up to the operator how important theming is in his/her particular facility, saying of his own company’s range: “Our products aren’t particularly themed. We concentrate on making things child friendly so that they make their own fun in the play area.”

The bigger picture

It would appear that in the US/Canada in particular, the majority of indoor waterparks are linked to other facilities, be it a hotel, an amusement or theme park, a camp ground and other such venues, while the waterpark resort complex is also growing in popularity. In Europe, however, many indoor parks are standalone attractions, although according to Batz an increasing number of dry attractions are now adding indoor waterpark venues too.

“In Switzerland, for example,” he notes, “many large malls are opening and have waterparks attached to them too. Especially in family orientated markets, a waterpark is just part of the whole development.”

In relation to actual attractions operators should be looking to install in their indoor waterparks, the overwhelming view is that what’s on offer needs to appeal to the wide range of ages that will come through the door, as is the case with outdoor parks, although some of our interviewees do highlight some attractions as being particularly good to include.

“The big thing at the moment in indoor parks is slides going from inside the building to the outside and back in again,” says Lenders, “while a big trend is also tube sensations, i.e. special effects, sound, foggers, sprays and other items in the slides. A good mix of attractions is essential.”

Tracy points to a water playground as being a “must” for children up to 12 years old, adding that the attractions you choose will depend on the market a park is trying to attract, while van Zuylen believes a good combination of different attractions is important. The size of the venue is also relevant when it comes to a choice of attraction, points out Jeff Janovich.

Gaining momentum

So what’s in store in the future for the indoor waterpark market?

“This part of the industry does not show signs of slowing down much – it seems as if it is here to stay,” says Ezra.

Nelson observes: “We anticipate that indoor waterparks will continue to get bigger and continue to offer innovative rides. We also see the indoor waterpark resort concept continuing to gain momentum.”

Tracy agrees the industry’s development is not going to stop. “There’s a trend now for water playgrounds and municipal recreation centres are also now virtually indoor waterparks as they have facilities for all ages and demographics,” he states, while Janovich sees the industry as moving ahead “in a strong fashion” and doesn’t see this changing in the foreseeable future.

ProSlide, he reveals, is working on a number of expansions to many successful existing indoor parks, while it is seeing growth in urban markets closer to home which don’t rely on destination traffic, so it’s a new market opening up.

Lenders says the perception is still that indoor parks do better than outdoor venues, but feels this is not the case as operational costs are much higher. “But as long as the perception is still there people will still build them,” he adds, noting a tendency for developers to build adjoining indoor and outdoor facilities.

At Duinrell, van Zuylen says that in the future they will be looking to attract different customers in addition to those who already visit the park for holidays or a day or two stay, so therefore companies organising trips, new day visitors and others, as well as trying to maximise visitor numbers in the shoulder season.

The EWA’s Batz feels there is much to look forward to for the indoor waterpark industry. “There is strong potential for a dynamic market, not only in Europe but also in places such as the near and far east. There will also be an increasing market in Russia. Progress will be less dynamic in central Europe as the market is mature in this area, but for sure waterparks will continue to entertain people and will increase in numbers.”