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“WaterTheme Parks”: Are Waterparks Set for an Evolutionary Leap?


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In theme parks, branding and story telling are increasingly the way forward, with Harry Potter setting a new standard for the creation of an immersive experience around IP.  Yet waterparks are generally behind the curve, with theming often limited to the appearance of the slides and no overall coherent storyline.  Is this because of the relative youth of the waterpark, the numbers not adding up, the constraints of working with water or a lack of customer demand?  Do the LEGOLAND, Nickelodeon and Yas Island waterparks herald a new age in waterpark development?

We asked key waterpark professionals whether they thought waterparks lag behind in terms of theming, and asked: "How do you see waterparks developing in terms of technology, story telling and what impact will IP have on the industry?”

mike oswald yas island waterpark managerMike Oswald, Park Manager, Waterpark on Yas Island

 “I believe that the future of waterparks lies in their ability to engross the public in their storylines, moving closer to becoming true ‘theme parks’.  For that to be realized, the design process must start with a storyline which will then dictate all aspects of the development from the park layout, ride selection and theming to character development.
“In our project on Yas Island, we started with the story of ‘The Lost Pearl’ (see image top), which follows the adventures of a young Emirati girl in search for an exquisite pearl which brought prosperity to the pearl diving people of her village.  The main storyline has shaped the design of the park from day one, and the story is constantly being updated to fit what is happening during the construction phase to achieve the best possible flow in storytelling.
“With regard to technology, most waterparks have a way to go before they could compare with most successful theme parks.  Incorporating interactive attractions and entertainment, special effects, and integration with social media is commonplace in theme parks and will become the next ‘must have’ features in waterparks.”

geoff chutter ceo whitewater west Geoff Chutter, President & CEO of WhiteWater West Industries Ltd.

"In contrast to the amusement park sector, waterparks are relatively young. The first true park is generally credited to Wet n’ Wild in Orlando, which opened the late 1970s. The 80s saw a flood of aquatic parks, many of which would be more correctly described as water slide parks not waterparks. Generally, the four spokes of a waterpark comprise of a wave pool, a wave river, a host of waterslides and interactive wet play for the young kids. From the beginning, the latter component has been themed as seen with the TreeHouse, introduced by SCS Interactive at Silver Dollar City’s WhiteWater waterpark in Branson, Missouri.

Today, waterparks such as HersheyPark in Pennsylvania and Atlantis in the Bahamas, carry on this design practice. However, many parks have simply tried to recreate the holiday beach-like setting with luswaterpark typhoon lagoonh landscaping amid modest Hawaiian, Caribbean or Polynesian themes. Only where the operating season can be extended by either year round warm weather or indoor facilities have operators been able to justify the cost of theming. Just like with the amusement park sector, Disney was the first to break on the market with Typhoon Lagoon (left) and later, Blizzard Beach in Orlando.

More recently, Atlantis on Palm Island, Dubai and the Bahamas, as well as SeaWorld’s Aquatica in Orlando, have continued to set the standard in theming. Samsung Everland’s Caribbean Bay, with its Spanish Caribbean circa 1500 theme, is an excellent example of entering a waterpark and being immediately lost in bygone era.

LEGOLAND recently opened its first serious waterpark in California, fully themed with its corporate wares. Currently under construction is the giant Yas Island Waterpark which focuses the entire design around the story of a little girl who saved her village after her quest to find a giant pearl.  This story uses pearl diving as its theme, which was the economic driver of Dubai and Abu Dhabi a hundred years ago.

Similar to amusement parks and theme parks co-existing generally at a different ticketing price point, waterparks will also continue to co-exist with the more imaginative and creative themed waterparks. As the variety of entertainment in waterparks continues to expand and thus extend the length of stay, operators will continue the drift towards fully themed waterparks."

phil taylor md team leisure dubaiPhil Taylor, Managing Director, Team Leisure, Dubai

"Storytelling is at the core of the theme park proposition. Waterparks, on the other hand, are about making it fun to go swimming. With such different origins its, perhaps, not surprising that the offers are so different in their use of storytelling.
Waterparks tend to have more in common with amusement parks than theme parks but everyone loves a good story and what works for theme parks certainly works for waterparks. The best evidence for this comes from resort waterparks, with Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon being two well-known examples.

Calling a ride Manta or The Incredible Hulk doesn’t make it a better ride, that’s down to the skill of the designers and engineers, but it does personalize it and make it more memorable. In the UAE we see the same approach beking conbra waterslide from polin waterparksing extensively used in waterparks. Jumeirah Sceirah is a lot more exciting name for a big, scary slide than “speed slide” for example.

Wild Wadi in Dubai, where the Jumeirah Sceirah is located, is one of the best waterparks in the world. Its rich theming and use of storytelling doesn’t make the rides and slides any better but, like the nearby Atlantis themed Aquaventure, it really does create an enjoyable and immersive atmosphere.

Of course, theme park or waterpark, you always have to get the fundamentals right – the attraction mix, amenities, guest comfort, quality, safety etc, to create a park that people will enjoy. Storytelling, however, helps to take it to the next level and waterparks that use stories are among the best performing waterparks in the world.

The waterpark industry is also beginning to diversify the way it uses storytelling. Polin, for example, has developed a Cobra themed slide (right) that looks exciting and is instantly recognizable. Likewise, Kraftwerk is working with Polin to introduce splashcinema, a 4D theatre for waterparks.

Looking ahead why there shouldn’t there be a Harry Potter or Marvel waterpark if the price was reasonable? We can certainly all imagine it. May be cost, therefore, is the real reason why storytelling isn’t used as much in waterparks as it is in theme parks.

In this sense the numbers speak for themselves. The best performing theme parks in the world attract 10 – 17 million visitors p.a., the best performing waterparks only 1 – 2 million. The size of the prize is clearly very different.

The waterpark industry is an industry that is ripe for innovation. The basic difference in the two offers make it unlikely that the use of storytelling will ever reach the level seen in theme parks but there is a proven role for storytelling within waterparks. The indications are that it’s use will continue to grow."

bilge pakis polin waterparksBilge Pakis, Architect and Senior Designer at Polin Waterparks & Pool Systems

 "As a waterpark designer unfortunately I would agree with this comment.

Compared to Amusement Parks, waterparks are relatively something new for the entertainment / leisure industry. It has been over 400 years since "Dyrehavenbakken", the first amusement park in the world, was opened, while the history of the waterpark is just over 50 years old.  This difference has given a chance to the amusement parks to evolve into what they are today.  Even the very first amusement park had a "natural theme" since it was built on a natural scene. The first real themed amusement park was opened just after WWII and is older than any other waterpark. This evolution of amusement parks let them become a synonym to “Theme Parks”.
waterslides at legoland waterpark
When we look at the waterparks we see that this evolution has started only two decades ago and is still at the very early stage.  Theming in a waterpark means to have some artificial rocks to hide the industrial look of the supports and the start towers of the slides and rides –  so called landscaping. Today theming is not only a makeup or decorative element, it is or it should be the park itself.  People used to go to water parks for leisure but today water parks are more exciting, more thrilling and I would say they are more "amusement waterparks" than they were 10 years ago.

There are some waterparks developing as a story telling, edutainment parks and these projects will give ignition to the industry to have more and more of these kinds of parks. People do not just want to lay down on a sun bed or use the various slides, they want to be in an environment which is more attractive. 

With the 2000s a new era for waterparks has started with the help of the branding.  Parks with brands like LEGOLAND and Nickelodeon  bring waterparks to be more theme parks. Waterparks with simple landscaping and theming will evolve into waterparks with complete themed environments. This will definitely cause a pull effect together with the technology. Today we have themed products now rather than products decorated with theming, like themed interactive water playgrounds or even huge, iconic signature slides which has a built-in theme. Tomorrow, technology will be more involved in these water rides.

Branding or storytelling will definitely be an important milestone for the water parks on their evolution to “Water Theme Parks”.


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