Designing a Winning Indoor Waterpark

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Zehnder's Splash Village Waterpark Phase 1 Retractable Roof

There are no shortage of indoor waterparks in North America. And, this might create the impression that planning and building a popular, thrilling but safe aquatic park is an easy thing to do, the design of a really great waterpark requires careful balancing of a few key factors. This article is intended for individuals or companies who either intend to start a new waterpark from scratch or are planning a major extension or upgrade to an existing one. Drawing from established best practices in the world of waterpark design, it outlines the key considerations in the preliminary design phase, their importance to the waterpark designer, and how best to resolve or execute them in the final layout.

OpenAire's retractable roof over The Pump House Waterpark at Jay Peak Resorts in Jay Peak, Vermont.

Location Location Location

As with all real estate development projects, it’s all about the location. Factors like population, site accessibility, local demographics, adjacent towns, cities, competition and more impact your potential audience. Guests are willing to drive 3-5 hours to get to a waterpark, but is there a big enough population in that radius to bring people in. Secondly, what size is your waterpark and what size of park is your competition? Will your project be enough of a draw when they arrive and have enough amenities? Most new indoor water parks are combined with an onsite hotel and other amenities like arcades, party rooms, sports complexes, etc… to ensure that they are attractive to their potential audience and that, of course, the investors ROI goals can be achieved. Generally a project starts with a feasibility study and business planning to make sure the intended investor goals can be met.


Once you have a location and have determined a project is feasible, you need to look at the specifics of the site. 

While any shape of lot works longer and narrow or bent “L” shapes can create difficulties in the placement main project program elements (hotel, waterpark, parking etc) all of which in a project like this are large. A typical indoor waterpark is about 50,000 square feet, although they can range from 20,000 to over 200,000. 

Adjacencies in planning are critical, so for example locating the water park next to the hotel allows them to share some facilities. This may include laundry, office space, admin, food service, loading, IT and storage, reducing construction costs and, some adjacencies, like attaching to a hotel, may be a critical component of achieving your ROI targets. In addition to the shape of the site you need to look at the sites topography, as changes in elevation need to be taken into account when deciding what goes where. 

If you are adding to an existing property, where is the ideal location to grow to service your existing and new potential audience? What works best with your existing park? Or, if it is a renovation, how can the design have the least impact on your existing operations while under construction. Are you reconfiguring existing elements or adding to them?

Site wide circulation and parking for visitors, back of house, services and fire protection are amongst the other items that require careful planning.. Access to and from the site is also a critical component, and once on the site, the ability to move through it seamlessly can seriously impact visitor experience. For example parking that is hard to find, car lines ups for turning, service roads that intersect pedestrian walkways etc can cause guests to become frustrated.

Lastly it is also necessary to review what site wide utilities are already on site or are easily added to the site (meaning power, water etc). If none exist on the site how far do you need to go to add them and at what cost. On a more technical level planners must lastly review whether the site has any development restrictions, like protected lands, any unusual soil conditions or any other environmental threats that might cause construction time or budget challenges. 

epic water parkWaterpark Program 

With the general land layout having been established, and site wide circulation generally defined, it is time to look at what you want in your waterpark. First you need to define the key attractions in your waterpark, owner “must haves”, and what meets the demographic of your audience. Are all your clients teens needing thrill rides, what about the moms dads and grandparents, are you getting corporate groups, or are you focused on families with young tots? A waterpark designer can help recommend an appropriate mix of attractions to meet the needs of your clientele and accommodate the wishes (and budget) of the investors/owners/operators. That program will align to your business plans and enable you to host the audience you need to support the returns you want.

Waterpark Layout

Once you know the key attractions you want to include in the water park, a concept layout is developed where you start to see how visitors will move through the park, their passage from one attraction to another and from entrances to exits, and so on. 

There are three basic categories of visitor circulation and basic planning styles. The one you choose will depend upon the adjacencies of other items like hotels and dry play areas or outdoor zones.  This will then help guide you in your positioning of rides, pools, food and drink stalls, seating areas, loud zones versus quite, age appropriate adjacencies and the like. These three categories are as follows:

  • Spine: 

This consists of a single, wide main path running roughly through the center of the park that connects all the main attractions in a more or less straight line on either side of the path. There are peripheral paths branching off, but the majority of the big facilities lie on the main, central artery.

  • Radial: 

This is a wheel-like layout with a central core and several paths branching off towards the perimeter. This enables a multi-directional flow and crossovers in circulation.

  • Loop: 

Like the spine layout, this type consists of a single path. But, in this case, the path forms a loop or circuit that ultimately brings visitors back to the point where they started.

With each of these types of basic planning, the location of attractions and the order of what goes where, are strategically plotted, both to aid the movement of patrons and to best serve their requirements. As an example putting a teens thrill ride or activity pool beside the small tots splash pad, might require reconsideration. 

Once you decide on the layout, you have a basic framework on which to plot and place your attractions, as well as entrances, checkpoints, and support infrastructure.


OpenAire's retractable roof over the waterpark at Kalahari Resorts in Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania.

OpenAire's retractable roof over the waterpark at Kalahari Resorts in Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania.

Next, with your basic plan drawn up, you can bring your theming or storyline into play. This is where you bring in your design team to put their creativity to work and start piecing together your park within the general framework established with the preliminary plan. This is also when the designers can overlay onto that plan a thematic story should this be part of your goal. Is this an underwater oasis? A tropical beach front, sophisticated scandinavian clean minimalism, or an animal kingdom style experience? Not all parks are heavily “themed” but those that choose to pursue this avenue, do so in every aspect of the park from the physical space to the food selections to the retail merchandise.

Planning Tips

Your big idea will depend on a number of factors, such as the location of the park as well as the offerings of competitors in the vicinity. You might also be looking to build the biggest, longest or fastest of a particular kind of ride. Or be the first in an area to offer an indoor outdoor experience. All of these considerations will affect the way you use and layout your space. Here are some of the issues you should keep in mind as you move forward with your creative design:

  • Age specific attractions may want to be separate or together depending on the audience. Can parents keep an eye on both a tot and a teen? Will a tot be “run over” (accidentally) by a group of kids playing right beside them? Visibility through the space is critical for both guests and staff. Careful park planning will ensure that staffing is optimized and all site lines for safety personnel are unobstructed.
  • Guest rest and/or seating areas should be kept away from the main crowded entrances and oriented around the larger, pools and rivers and play spaces. There should be both ample general seating and private cabanas available. Should there be walk up food service, consider tables near this so food spillage is kept to a minimum. 
  • Leave room for growth. Always think about the future. Right at the start consider attractions or amenities you may want to add down the road. While you don’t need to do a detailed design at this stage, planning for its eventual addition is wise.  Leaving space between attractions where additional features can be added later or demarcating an area that could act as an opening for a second phase of the park is a smart plan for those planning to grow.
  • Grade changes in the park, while these may be necessary for site lines and attraction layouts, they may also impact visitor safety. Keeping changes in floor levels to a reduced number can eliminate spills and falls. 
  • Safety should always be at the top of your priority list as well as your designers. You can organize your feature layout in a way that makes guard positioning most efficient. Attraction selection and layout will impact the number of guards you need to operate the park. For example lots of bends and tunnels in a lazy river simply require more staff. A slide that ends in a pool has more staff than one with a run out. 
  • The program and selection of attractions should meet the needs of your target audience on your busiest day, but also the needs of your guests on a more typical slower day. Be careful not to overcrowd the park with attractions, more is not always better. A variety of types and styles of activity will ensure that guests spread across the park and don’t all crowd around or on one attraction. Some attractions can hold a larger capacity of people, so you need some variety. A lazy river, for example can fit hundreds of guests, while a surf machine might fit two. 
  • You haven’t started building yet, so now is the time to brainstorm and try out designs and ideas. In these very early stages of design, a good designer can develop several options, move things around, and discuss the pros and cons. 

Operational Planning

OpenAire's retractable roof over Pirate's Cay Waterpark at Silverleaf Resorts in Sheridan, Illinois.

OpenAire's retractable roof over Pirate's Cay Waterpark at Silverleaf Resorts in Sheridan, Illinois.

Your design team should not be working in a vacuum. They should have input from the operations team about your plans for staffing, food service, life guards, party rooms, maintenance, co-marketing opportunities and other adjacent amenities. 

It may not be time to hire staff yet, but that doesn’t mean staffing won’t impact your design. For both lifeguarding staff and service/admin staff, a good design will allow you to operate the park with minimal personnel when it’s slow and easily staff up during peak periods.

Understanding how the park will be used and marketed will also help, for example if its to host corporate events at night then lighting and sound will play a role. 

Construction Methodology

The last and (almost) most important aspect to consider is how you want to build your indoor water park. Being naturally corrosive environments, the building itself is a serious operational and financial consideration. Non corrosive materials are easily incorporated so that you spend your time open to the public, not closed due to maintenance and repairs. 

Traditionally waterparks were essentially housed in concrete or glulam warehouse style spaces. However, with new advancements in construction methods there are now other options. Aluminum is one such non corrosive structural material. If you have the option of never closing down refinish (aka paint) the metal in your park, you can opt for that. 

You may want an enclosure with a retractable roof so that your indoor waterpark can convert to an outdoor waterpark at the push of a button. Waterparks were traditionally seen as outdoor only, summer attractions. These days, however, more and more of them are now open all year thanks to transparent enclosures that keep even the coldest weather at bay. Eliminating weather as a factor that impacts your guests experience is key to positive reviews.

OpenAire's retractable roof over Big Splash Waterpark in French Lick, Indiana.

OpenAire's retractable roof over Big Splash Waterpark in French Lick, Indiana.

Good waterpark design is not simply a creative exercise. Careful planning for your park will not only make it more attractive to the public, but will also make the facilities easier to use and ensure that your target returns can be met. Size, scale, scope, demographics, location and more are all factors. As is your competition and what you do to stand apart from the rest. A good innovative design with the latest rides attractions and construction methods, will ensure you spend less and make more. 

OpenAire specializes in the kind of aluminum enclosures – complete with retractable roof systems – that are needed to enclose a waterpark. We have built enclosures for many of the country’s finest waterparks, helping them be competitive and profitable year-round attractions. These include Epic Waters, Zehnder’s Splash Village, Pirate’s Cay, Cape Codder, and Water-Zoo Indoor Waterpark. Our work has even reached as far as Moscow, Russia, where we designed and constructed an enclosure for the Luzhniki Aquapark. 

OpenAire has helped clients from preliminary planning through to ride selection to final construction for their waterparks. OpenAire parks are located in all types of geography and climate. OpenAire projects are those cited by the industry as the latest and greatest in waterpark design and overall improved guest experience. The ability to spend the day at a park, with no impact from the weather, in a space filled with sunshine and fresh air makes both visitors and operators happy. 

Please take a look at our extensive waterpark portfolio to see all of our completed and in-progress projects. =

Contact Nancy Patterson, our Director of Design and Business Development to get started on your waterpark project today! 

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