A Fount of Possibilities

Florida Aquarium Splash Pad

Florida Aquarium Splash Pad

In the Beginning: Urban Fountains

Society has an interesting history with the concept of public fountains. Depending on current technology and culture, fountains have been designed as drinking water dispensers for urban populations, markers of courtly love locked in cloisters, elaborate Persian floating gardens, and elaborate works of lasting art and architectural prowess.

With the rise of accessible indoor plumbing, the need for potable public fountains diminished. Fountains with less historical importance were destroyed or replaced, while fountains that stood as pieces of art, landmarks, and important symbols of a community’s history remained. Unofficially and un-ideally: fountains also remained as places where children played.

With the summer season and the scorching heat, many socially acceptable options (other than the obvious bodies of water) included sprinkler systems, wading pools, water tables, and the aforementioned public fountains. (And to a horde of overheated children, fountains often were the best place to have a summer splash party in city centers.)  However, in 2010, ABC ran a story asking “Are Public Fountains Too Dirty to Play In?”(x) with the answer being an almost inevitable “yes." Public fountains were not designed to be splashed and played in because of the lack of water treatment and filtration systems. Hence, the rise of the modern splash pad and spray deck.

Enter the Modern Spray Park

The splash pad or spray deck is a zero-depth, water playground designed to be active and interactive. Essentially, it is the modern public fountain designed to be enjoyed by the public with water filtration and treatment standards in place.

Splash parks were not designed to replace swimming pools, which serve both a wider audience, and are necessary for teaching children and adults a life-saving skill. But as more cities adopted spray parks, it became clear that keeping an urban population cool by having a zero depth, water play area designed for interactive play, was hugely popular.

From a practical standpoint. Splash parks were and are a perfect solution for young kids who cannot swim, are not big enough to go on waterslides, and who quickly become bored with the limited offering of wading pools. Splash pads also became favored by parents who wanted an afternoon water stop that didn’t require floaties.

We’ve written at length about splash pads on this blog from a practical standpoint, but given the passing of the torch from public fountains to interactive fountains, what we want to address in this post is another perspective: interactive fountains as art.

Spray parks are interactive. You don't just look at them, you play in them. "Unlike traditional urban fountains, spray parks are interactive. You don't just look at them, you play in them. But unlike swimming pools, spray parks lack large expanses of standing water, and fit neatly into urban places. They're a flexible middle ground bridging the gap between public art and public recreation." writes Dan Malouff, the editorial director of Greater Greater Washington. In his work, he writes specifically about the DC. Area, and points out several spray parks and sprinkler plaza that invite both play, and public appreciation.

That’s a fascinating turn of phrase: “bridging the gap between public art and public recreation.”

In many cases, where art and recreation meet, it’s not with a great amount of ease. A public park may have a sculpture garden, but children are not invited to play on it. There may be a mural, a plaza or other installation, but while these art pieces exist in public space and for public appreciation, they’re not usually designed to be played with in the same way a carefully engineered playground is.

So, much like public fountains before them, landscape architects and designers have a unique opportunity to blend function with form and create playful spaces that highlight the strengths of an area in terms of artistry, while still giving kids the freedom to play, cool off, explore and experiment with water physics with the help of unique features developed by splash pad manufacturers.

The unique strength of spray grounds, as Malouff points out, is that they can be grounded nearly anywhere. Kids can walk from a spray ground directly to other amenities nearby, like the park playground or the city center.

And spray parks can be designed to fit thematically with any area of the city. Features can be designed to mimic local monuments or plantlife. Water can be directed to create urban waterfalls and playful streams in areas gridlocked by urban development. (Which ties into our post last week about the 10 Minute Walk To a Park campaign.)

Criticisms and Pushback

With the widespread and rapid adoption of splash grounds, it’s unsurprising the feature as a whole has had constructive criticism. There are concerns over water loss in flow-through systems, water sanitation (mostly around the potential to spread bacteria), and the other amenities splash pads replace (municipal pools are vital places for children to learn how to swim.) Because of these conversations, splash pad manufacturers have created and adapted systems to be more efficient and more effective.

From a design perspective not every architect views the sudden and explosive rise in splash pads as an ultimate good. In his article “Splash Pad Urbanism” and 2017’s other notable developments in landscape architecture”  Charles A. Birnbaum President & CEO, The Cultural Landscape Foundation had this to say about the boom:

“[T]he crowd-pleasing splash pads that have seemingly become the must-have, one-size-fits-all park amenity in many cities (a successor, of sorts, to the wooden parcourse exercise stations that were plopped down in hundreds of U.S. parks in the 1970s and 1980s). The increased reliance on them raises the question: are we becoming lazy?—or just willing to accept a little mediocrity in exchange for a planning board’s easy approval (and public buy-in)?”

Here Birnbaum is resisting what he views as the homogeneity of our current splash grounds market. But we’d like to argue that it is the landscape architects’ job to marry architecture with the surrounding landscape. Just as with public fountains, the fountains that stood the test of time and were worth renovating were the fountains that complimented and enhanced their surroundings, especially and often as artwork.

He goes on to say: “Of course, not all splash pads are created equal, and, when intelligently sited and designed, as at Chicago’s Navy Pier by James Corner Field Operations, they can succeed.”

Overcoming Objections

We disagree with the perspective that splash pads lack the capacity to provide a unique design. Spray park manufacturers are continually innovating and delivering new design features each season, especially with individual flair.

With the demand for splash pads rising, there are definitely opportunities to incorporate features that complement and resonate with natural surroundings. Cities can even choose to utilize sites that are important to the community by adding spray fountains and splash features to plazas, around monuments, or as part of a new park design. These options are, however, somewhat limiting as it restricts both where a splash pad can go (which defeats the purpose), and requires a more extensive budget.

We propose a somewhat more universally accessible option to create community-driven spaces with spray parks. An option that complements the existing site, resonates with the community and supports the idea of creating an experience.

Let’s look at public fountains again. Necessity can be combined with artistry to create lasting impact.  A spray deck, by necessity, must have a surface for kids to run, play and splash on. For many communities, this is a canvas that is often left blank. Taken as a whole, one concrete circle, (or kidney bean) looks very similar to another, and here is where we find another opportunity for differentiation for designers.  

Architects can incorporate surfacing into unique spray park designs. With the right design, the splash pad could stand out and become the centerpiece of a park by itself. In fact, we’ve worked with architects who utilized a surface design chosen by members of the community. Surfacing can also mirror local murals, incorporate local animal footprints, and have playful pathways that guide children to each splash feature. A multiple-colored mosaic pattern can mimic the paver stones of the city plaza. Chosen together, splash features and surfacing can create a fully themed and unique spray park.

We love the accessibility and universality of spray parks and how they have solved a long-held problem for urban communities. We love the unique perspective many communities have for incorporating interactive fountains with existing areas and parks. But mostly we believe that artistry and functionality are far from mutually exclusive: in order for something to continue to function as needed, it should have elements that endear it to the people who use it, outside of its basic function.

We believe and know there is an opportunity to grow, develop and create something lasting with each splash park project, and we’re excited to see how the aquatics industry steps up to this challenge.

10 Minute Walk To A Park

Cedarcrest Park in Bloomington, MN

Cedarcrest Park in Bloomington, MN

One of the great joys of living in Minnesota (Life Floor headquarters are located in Minneapolis, MN, which at the time of writing this, is a balmy -4F) is the emphasis on parks, green spaces and natural landscapes. We’re a land of 10,000 lakes, and just about every single one of our lakes has a park attached, usually with a playground, a well-maintained trail, and (our favorite) splash pads. As people who have grown up with beautiful parks, and who are raising our children to enjoy these parks, we cannot be more thankful that we live in a part of the country that treasures park and recreation programs.

But not every part of the country is as fortunate as Minnesotans. 1-in-3 Americans do not have readily available access to public parks. The Trust for Public Land’s 10 Minute Walk To a Park is a campaign founded on the idea that no child in America should grow up more than 10 minutes away from a local park, green space, or preserved open area. Since its founding in 1972, The Trust for Public Land has helped over 7 million people by creating 4,900 parks nationwide and protecting 3,544,000 acres of public land. Their main focus is to create green spaces in urban areas where a lack of parks leaves children with limited options for play.

The public demand for parks is supported by a solid base of research. A study by the Trust for Public Land has shown that bond measures involving the acquisition of parks or conserving open space have had voter support exceeding 75%. This is an amazing majority of the public that views parks as a vital part of government spending.  Beyond the economic, environmental and health benefits of having accessible parks (which are many) neighborhood parks become a centerpiece of the social atmosphere of a community. They are often the spaces where people socialize, where communities gather together to volunteer, learn, vote, celebrate, mourn and interact without barriers to entry.

So essential are parks to a thriving community that, according to the National Recreation and Park Association, “there are no communities that pride themselves on their quality of life, promote themselves as a desirable location for businesses to relocate, or maintain that they are environmental stewards of their natural resources, without such communities having a robust, active system of parks and recreation programs for public use and enjoyment.” (x)

The 10-minute Walk To A Park campaign helps Americans of all ages, but there’s no question that children are hugely impacted by the condition of our public parks. The importance of play (x) has been well documented in terms of childhood development. Green spaces, playgrounds and splash pads are safe, unique and engaging ways to encourage experimentation and imagination.  Access to parks, as well as other recreation opportunities, have been strongly linked with reductions in crime and juvenile delinquency, which is a benefit to everyone.

The more innovations that go into making parks a boon to every member of the community, the more vital it is that every American has access to them. Whether that’s turning empty lots into playgrounds, industrial riversides into river walking trails, or revitalizing space that already exists and needs to be protected, there exists a way to create space that’s safe, green and accessible to everyone.

We strongly believe in creating places of play that are safe to play in, as energetically as kids want to, without the risk of serious injury, and look forward to partnering with municipalities around the country to support their aquatic play areas.

2018 Trends: Accessibility

Legoland Zero Depth entry 1.jpg

In writing this 2018 Trends series, we noticed an overarching theme: water parks are designing, renovating, and building their attractions to reach larger and more diverse audiences. This week we're discussing how both established parks and new parks are also focusing on making parks accessible to accommodate guests of all abilities.

In her interview with inPark magazine,  Aleatha Ezra, WWA Association Director of Park Member Development, says, “Waterpark operators are trying to address the needs of more guests, and they are spending more time implementing procedures that accommodate guests with various physical and cognitive disabilities.” Let's take a look at how parks are integrating accessible spaces and designing attractions with guest needs in mind:

Attractions For Everyone

In the summer of 2017, Morgan’s Inspiration Island opened its doors as the world’s first water park specifically designed for guests with disabilities. The park is fully wheelchair accessible (the park provides air-powered waterproof wheelchairs) and the list of wheelchair-accessible attractions includes a River Boat Adventure ride as well as multiple splash pads. The park's splash pads cater to variety of preferences, needs, and sensitivities: having warm water options for people with neurological or sensory needs, quiet spaces for people to decompress, limited park attendance to ensure a quieter overall experience (with online tickets available so guests aren’t turned away due to audience restriction), and continuously filtered water which is treated and recirculated so guests with immune sensitivities can play safely.

J.T. Grommet Island Park is also specifically designed with diverse guest abilities in mind. The park opened in 2010 and features 15,000 sq.ft. of ramps for easy maneuverability, as well as soft play sculptures, accessible play equipment, and cushioned play surfaces for a well-rounded recreational experience. The park also has special beach wheelchairs for guests who wish to go into the sand. (x)

For a list of parks with accessibility features, 101 Mobility lists the top 6 wheelchair friendly theme parks (including, but not limited to: Sesame Place, all Cedar Fair Entertainment properties, Six Flags, and all Disney properties) and provides downloadable maps that guide guests towards the best experience.

The Curb-Cut Effect

As they say, one good turn deserves another. To explain, let’s return to wheelchairs and the curb-cut effect. 

A quick recap on the history of the term curb-cut effect: In 1968 the Architectural Barriers act was passed, requiring all government buildings to be wheelchair accessible. However, roads were still extremely difficult for anyone in a wheelchair to access because of the curb height. In 1972 there was a rise in curb cuts across the country, but not a full adoption. It only became a fully realized national movement in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. And what we experienced as a nation was easier access for not only wheelchair users, but also parents with strollers, workers with heavy carts, bicyclists on sidewalks, runners, and skateboarders. Essentially, the curb-cut effect has become an argument for better design in that if you design well for disabilities, you design well for everyone else. You design universally. 

A great example of the curb-cut effect in the aquatics industry is the zero depth entry application. Adding low-decline ramps, for example, makes entering pools easier for limited mobility guests, and also keeps families together at facilities by having a single, multi-depth aquatic attraction instead of separate pools and splash pad features. 

We're looking forward to watching the designs and new builds unfold in 2018. And especially keeping an eye out for how aquatic facilities serve guests of all abilities with fun and safety in mind.

2018 Trends: Sensing A Theme

Wilderness Resort - Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wilderness Resort - Wisconsin Dells, WI

Franchising intellectual property is a huge trend across all forms of entertainment: movies are creating interconnected, cinematic universes, major video game franchises have had new or re-released games in the last few years, and TV shows are reviving nostalgic favorites.

Specifically, SeaWorld and Sesame Street are partnering to build a new park by 2021, their second after Sesame Place in Langhorne PA. They’ll also be rolling out Sesame Parades at other SeaWorld locations. At the last D23 Expo, Disney announced 23 new attractions to roll out over the next few years, including the much anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, as well as Toy Story Land. Carnival Cruise Lines is taking Dr. Seuss to Sea to another level with Carnival Horizon’s Seuss-themed water park. Universal has enjoyed success with it’s Harry Potter World.

How’d We Get Here?

Tourist destination theme parks evolved through several phases. The first phase occurred with trolley parks in the 19th and 20th century. These parks were built by trolley companies to entice people to use the railways on the weekend. Trolley parks had carousels and live entertainment for families.

In the 1950’s, Knotts Berry Farm added a Ghost Town to give guests an activity to do while waiting in line for Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. As the attraction grew, Walter Knott had the idea to open a "summer-long country fair."

From there, Walt Disney created the idea for Disneyland, an entirely themed experience, and started developing and funding his Wonderful World of Disney. This is one of the first instances where we see major park theming. For example, when it wasn’t possible to have a boat ride with visitors encountering real animals, WED Enterprises (Now Walt Disney Imagineering) created robotic animals.  Perhaps one of the most ingenious ideas out of this time period were the sponsorships: Disney believed that by equating a product with someone’s magical park experience, the guest would remember the product more fondly. At the time (and now) it was used to sell Coca Cola, Frito-Lay and Kodak. That same methodology is now used to sell the theme park as a whole.

How Big is A Story?

Let’s look at a case study where we see how a well-themed park with a dynamic, recognizable IP, boosts attendance as well as an impactful experience for guests.

Mall of America opened in Minnesota in 1992, managed by Triple Five Group and owned by the Ghermezian family. After their success with West Edmonton Mall in Canada (which is centered around Galaxyland) they wanted to try a massive, multi-entertainment venue mall in the states. They opened with Knott’s Camp Snoopy (or, colloquially, Camp Snoopy). Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was born in Minneapolis and grew up in St. Paul, so the connection made sense. However, the park was never aggressively themed towards Peanuts, but instead featured an outdoors, Northwoods theme with plenty of indoor foliage and huge skylights.

In 2006, negotiations between MOA and Cedar Fair ended the partnership, and while this distressed many guests and locals, the mall’s executive vice president noted in 2011 that she “thought there would be far more backlash than there was,” and “It’s a little bit of a lethargic brand. Like I Love Lucy or Happy Days. It’s a brand that could not be continuously renewed." (x) She added that many kids only knew about Peanuts because of the Mall and not the other way around.

When Nickelodeon Universe moved into the park at MOA, it revamped attractions like Li’ Shaver (now Back At The Barnyard Hayride) and the Timberland Twister (now Fairly Odd Coaster), as well as adding new attractions. The park grew to 8.5 million rides a year (in 2011), about 600,000 more than Camp Snoopy. Part of that correlates directly to the popularity of Nickelodeon Universe as the top cable kids network and the viable, top of mind brand recognition.

Design Is the Attraction

Strong theming allows for a more memorable connection to the park, a greater desire to explore and stay in the park, as well as greater in-park spending. And many parks are addressing this by effectively repeating messages. Having consistent branding throughout a park can reinforce guests’ memories of their experience, while also, as Walt Disney pointed out in the 50’s, allow guests to associate the brand they’re seeing with the activity they’re enjoying.

For many people, the brand and theme they’re seeing is part of the enjoyment. Walt Disney World is still the most visited theme park in the world and that’s not because every ride is cutting edge. It’s because Walt Disney World has invested deeply in creating stories guests want to interact with and thus designing a magical park experience.

Meanwhile, for other parks like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando, the draw centers on the brand of the story and very little with the parks few rides. We know this because the Harry Potter park saw a “respectable increase” (x) in ticket sales for 2017.

Up next in this series is our favorite trend: Accessibility and safety in water/theme parks.