Historically seen as a great ‘add-on’ amusement, outdoor play equipment has grown to such a level that today it is considered a strong source of business in its own right. With the increased interest in physical, adrenalin rush-inducing attractions such as high ropes courses, climbing walls and zip lines, Beth Whittaker takes a look at how the sector has developed while retaining a high level of safety for its guests.

When we talk about outdoor play equipment, it can refer to a number of areas within the amusement industry – from playground equipment for young children to adventure play such as climbing frames and tree houses, to outdoor water-based equipment and high-energy adrenalin amusements such as high ropes courses and climbing walls.

While the look and intensity of the equipment and guest experience may differ depending on the target audience, there are a few themes that run throughout the whole sector, irrelevant of the target age group. As we know, engaging with guests is key, as is the importance of maintaining a high level of safety, particularly when dealing with amusements that require guests to get more active and involved, but how do operators and suppliers of adventure play equipment draw their clientele in and convince them to put their mobile phones and tablets down for more than five minutes?

While technology has continued to progress and change the way children interact and ‘play,’ there are some things that remain the same. Deep down, children still love to climb, run, crawl and jump, but the difference today – compared with say, 30 years ago – is that they have to be coaxed into doing these activities.

According to Matt Rehnstrom, vice-president of sales at Extreme Engineering in the US, supplier of mobile climbing walls and zip lines, providing something that is visually stimulating and that peaks the interest of one child will see the rest follow suit. “It’s true, technology isn’t the same as it was 30 years ago,” says Rehnstrom, “but neither is outdoor play. If you asked a child what rock climbing was back then they would have no idea. Now, climbing has become a mainstay at every major public event or entertainment centre.”

For Soaring Eagle, also based in the US and supplier of zip line style rides, it is about embracing the technology that children are ‘hooked on’ and so the manufacturer incorporates aspects such as social media and photo and video sales into its adventure experiences.

“The outdoor play and activity sector has changed massively in the past 10 years,” says Cody Davis. “The larger, high thrill type rides and amusements are becoming much more commonplace. I believe that being healthy is ‘cool’ and so providing fun, outdoor activities does create a big draw. I believe people want to be entertained more and more in life and if you can do this by being active and outdoors then it will sell.”

The other key in getting guests to engage in outdoor play is providing interactive experiences – something that Canadian company WhiteWater West is passionate about. More widely known for its expertise in the waterpark attractions business, since its acquisition of Prime Interactives (formerly known as Prime Play) and Hopkins Rides, WhiteWater Attractions was created to serve the dry side of the industry.

According to WhiteWater Attractions’ vice-president and general manager Doug Smith, by creating interactive experiences, guests have no choice but to put their phones down to participate. Once they’re involved in the attraction, they don’t need to think about their phone again because they’re engrossed in the activities taking place around them.

“We’re also embracing technology in our attractions and using it as a tool to elevate our products to a new level,” says Smith. “The direction the industry is taking is interactive play over passive. Guests are engaged by attractions that offer a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience, over an attraction that requires no thinking and is a one-way path.”

Going back to Rehnstrom’s point that, inherently, all children like to be active, UK-based Innovative Leisure tells InterPark that it works hard to keep the youth of today interested in its products by offering them a chance to show their competitive and athletic sides.

“What teenager doesn’t like to impress their friends or parents by showing their climbing skills or their iron nerve for heights,” says Innovative Leisure’s managing director Phil Pickersgill. “Although technology has undoubtedly altered the thought process of teenagers, our product range appeals to a person’s inherent will to succeed and to better themselves. We don’t ever envisage a time where our products won’t appeal to people of all ages, including teens.”

When we are looking at trends within the outdoor play sector, it is clear that it has gone on to mean so much more than just park play equipment and play frames. A huge part of the sector is now dedicated to the products that create a perceived sense of danger, challenging the guests to leave their comfort zones while remaining safe. This trend has caught on massively in the past decade, as customers strive for something different and challenging – aside from their usual play equipment.

According to Boris Duhamel, founder of Adventreez Concept in Hong Kong, the adventure play sector has evolved and diversified massively over the past 10 years in Asia, mirroring changes in lifestyle. The essence of Adventreez is to design and build tree top parks and zip lines that provide thrilling experiences for their guests. With a love of trees, Adventreez Concept designs courses that blend seamlessly into nature while providing the adrenaline rush guests demand.

“The outdoor, natural set up has become an opportunity to bring families back together – regardless of age – in an environment that breaks from the daily routine,” Duhamel tells InterPark. “The personal challenges and physical activity are additional assets. Natural environment attractions have also grown in suburban and resort areas and our outdoor Adventreez and SkyZip parks are designed to maintain guests’ focus.”

So how do operators make sure they get it right – providing just the right amount of adrenaline to satisfy guests (and make them want to come back) but in a safe environment? For Innovative Leisure, it is important that suppliers and operators work closely together, working to supply them with products that will give their customers a new experience.

“Our focus is always on families and our entire range has a broad target age spectrum for its participants,” says Pickersgill. “No attraction is more perfect for us than one a child can share with its parents or even grandparents. Our products are often commercial versions of activities that are usually more difficult to arrange participation in.”

For example, Innovative Leisure’s climbing walls with hydraulic auto belay give the experience of climbing without having to visit a climbing centre or natural rock face. The auto belay eliminates the need for manual belaying and removes the risk of injury by human error associated with many outdoor pursuits. In another example, its Sky Trail range of high ropes courses gives the same experience as a traditional ropes course, without the need for constant supervision. The continuous ‘track and slider’ system means a customer can choose their own path without having to rely on staff to direct them.

Over in the US, for Rehnstrom, when talking about trends and success in the outdoor play sector, more time has been spent in the last few years on theming. Immersion has been something that companies such as Disney and Universal have been doing for years and we can point directly to their success.

“To get the end user emotionally invested in the experience is paramount,” he says. “Whether this is achieved through experiencing the product or being surrounded in a captivating environment, the need for a memorable experience is very important. Our customers always tell us what they think they need and it is our job to decipher what that really means. The common denominator is always safety; we’ve built our company on safety and strictly follow all ASTM standards. We look at our products through the prism of our own families. If you design a product with this in mind, you will ultimately be very successful.

“We like to take the opinions from our core customer base and develop ideas that spark curiosity in the product. From this point, we cater a solution that will best meet their needs and the needs of the guests. Customers are now seeking a solution and not just a product.”

Expanding further on the safety aspect of the outdoor play sector, with bigger demands being put on both operators and suppliers to provide higher adrenaline inducing attractions, how is the guest’s safety ensured.

“There are more demands being put on suppliers to meet high safety standards,” says Davis. “I think these changes come from lawsuits now being common place (in the US). Safety is a great thing as long as requirements are reasonable, rather than ‘what if the sky falls in’ situations.

“It seems to me that more and more municipalities have taken on the responsibility of having their own ride inspection people and/or requirements. It would be easier if there was certain criteria nationwide that was acceptable but it doesn’t seem to be that easy. Some places require individual state engineer stamps and some don’t. Some places only require structural state stamps and others require both structural and mechanical. These are just some of the examples.”

Altus, founded in France in 1997 and developer of high wire ropes courses, was also part of the group involved in establishing the European standard EN 15567, which dictates the level required both for constructing and operating ropes courses. According to the company’s Dawn Comte, trends in the sector and changes in safety requirements have mainly come from customer demands over the years and as an operator of its own high wire ropes course, safety is something it has continuously worked on and a main concern.

“We innovate and develop new products that we test on our own course. Each course is unique as it is tailor-made to fit the environment and land available, meaning some of our clients have more than one course and their customers are happy to discover the different courses. We also pay particular attention to the environment and install courses which optimise the forest and natural surroundings.”

For German supplier Kunstlerische Holzgestaltung Bergmann (KHB) there has been a shift of focus in the outdoor play sector over the past 10 years in relation to what customers want to experience. For example, play constructions and playgrounds once followed the fad ‘tower, tower bridge and slide’ set-up. Today the expectations are higher and play constructions must help the entire development of children – physically and mentally. As well as this, KHB believes that the real change is that children of today compensate for a lack of sufficient play equipment with the electronic products you see them ‘hooked on,’ which in turn means their expectations in design is increased and is something that should be factored in.

“Playing has turned into a more serious matter in the past few years,” says KHB’s Ulrike Konrad. “It is not just for children anymore; adults also want to get involved in outdoor play bringing a new perspective to the sector.”

Back over to North America and at the younger end of the market, for WhiteWater, there have been major developments in terms of the look of playgrounds and play areas, with resorts opting for more authentic and natural looking play equipment and shying away from primary coloured plastic structures.

“Another trend is the ability to offer attractions that are inclusive of the whole family,” says Smith. “Interactive experiences are more important than they used to be; kids want a reaction to go along with their action nowadays and attractions like an interactive ball pit is a great way to integrate interactivity into a traditional playground environment.”

For the outdoor play sector, it would seem the potential for growth is most definitely there. With suppliers now working closely with operators and leveraging their innovation to give them the tools to compete within the marketplace, experiences that are more interactive, more innovative and can absorb more capacity are being created. This results in operators being able to offer their guests new experiences with shorter queue lines and higher satisfaction.

“In modern times, operators are realising that the engaging and gratifying experiences that outdoor play and adventure equipment provides is just as important to cater for as passive ride experiences,” says Pickersgill. “A good venue will have a mix of experiences people do not have to physically exert themselves to enjoy and ones where they most certainly do. This is seen in the increased popularity of high ropes courses and zip lines within theme parks.”

Any organisation with staying power takes every opportunity to give guests the memorable experience they’re looking for and for Rehnstrom, the outdoor play sector has even seen growth in the smaller eco-tourism markets such as pumpkin farms and corn mazes.

“These locations have very family friendly marketing programmes that really connect with their guests,” he says. “They’re turning small ‘mom and pop farms’ into seasonal businesses that generate enough revenue in six weeks to sustain them for the entire year.

“Many parks seek to have activities that have a known thrill, such as a zip line. This demand for existing product has the market asking for the next big thing and more innovation.”

Concluding, for Pickersgill it is the commercialisation of outdoor pursuits, brought about by the growth of companies such as Go Ape, that has no doubt contributed to the success of the outdoor play sector in the past decade. It has shown the popularity of outdoor adventures, which were previously con ned to outdoor pursuits centres, many of which were council owned (in the UK) for educational purposes.

“The work of companies like ours to design and introduce products which offer commercial capacity on adventure attractions has been most significant in shaping the outdoor play industry,” he notes.