The pandemic has dealt a significant blow to waterparks, but it has also spurred new conversations and illustrated the love of the product.
In January, the waterparks space seemed ripe for another great year. Designers were getting plenty of projects. Indoor waterparks seemed to be particularly strong.“Everyone we talked to was saying, ‘I’ve got a lot of work; there are a lot of projects. It’s going to be a good year,’” says Ray Lauenstein, business development manager for Aquatic Development Group, in Cohoes, N.Y.
No doubt, those conversations will take place again, but unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over the conversation.
Not surprisingly, the pandemic has had a devastating financial effect on waterparks. Many outdoor properties had to delay their season openings, with some choosing to remain closed the remainder of the year, because it isn’t safe or capacity reductions make it impossible to generate enough revenue to operate. Indoor waterparks and resort waterparks had to close for at least a little while, with some of these remaining closed to this day as well.
Like any operation that’s open to the public, waterparks had to make many changes, fast, largely to facilitate social distancing. This included converting to exclusively online ticket sales and using online reservation systems to schedule and pace visitors, providing them a window of time in which they could arrive. Some would allow visitors to remain for specific periods of them, then require them to vacate so disinfection could take place.
The pandemic also impacted how revenue is generated and distributed. For instance, waterparks could no longer offer large group events, which were a big loss. However, larger group events involve discounts so, anecdotally, Lauenstein has seen that the amount spent per guest often increased this year as visitors paid full price.
Even before the pandemic, waterparks were seeing demand rise for cabanas and other personal spaces. This trend became even more intense this year, with some waterparks not able to provide enough. “People will pay to have their own space,” says Lauenstein. “Do you want to go and lay next to somebody in a pandemic? Cabanas have always been a home base.”
While it’s still very early to assess the long-term impact that this experience will have on waterparks and their design, some professionals are already beginning to see hints. For instance, in addition to rethinking the number of cabanas and private rentable spaces to offer, Lauenstein expects to see an increased emphasis on features where people have a little more freedom and room to space out.
This could include flat-water pools and lazy rivers, where people move in one direction. These provide a place to go between the higher-energy attractions that have longer lines and denser crowds, he says.
Another solid ray of hope for the future: People still love waterparks. While there can be no making up for the losses sustained through closures and reductions in capacities, attendance levels at open waterparks demonstrated that these experiences are still in demand.
This was also seen in waterparks that are set within amusement parks. Especially with the hot summer, crowds have gravitated toward the waterpark section. With the lower capacities, park staff would sometimes have to make visitors wait or send them back to the dry park, Lauenstein says. This speaks well for demand once restrictions and fears are lifted.