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A Guard's-Eye View

Waterpark design is typically about delivering the fun, comfort, safety and excitement guests have come to expect from these expansive aquatic playgrounds.  Here, veteran theme-park lifeguard Brett Herman offers his deck-level perspective on key factors to be considered in making these environments work not only for the paying public, but also for the young people charged with the practicalities of managing these busy spaces.

Waterpark design is typically about delivering the fun, comfort, safety and excitement guests have come to expect from these expansive aquatic playgrounds.  Here, veteran theme-park lifeguard Brett Herman offers his deck-level perspective on key factors to be considered in making these environments work not only for the paying public, but also for the young people charged with the practicalities of managing these busy spaces.

By Brett Herman

On any given day in some spot around the globe, a waterpark will add some new feature or other or opens its doors for the very first time, and the design focus is always about developing systems and mechanisms that will lead to a strong popular response and increasing financial success.  

If there’s a fly in the ointment here, it’s that these facilities are very often managed at deck level by young, inexperienced employees – a fact that places a special burden of responsibility on designers of a waterpark’s individual features as well as its overall layout.

As lifeguards who interact constantly with both water and guests in these settings, my colleagues and I see a different side of waterparks than do those who design these unique facilities.  We all want happy, informed and (above all) safe guests, but what few designers experience directly is the reality that people in waterparks can be anxious, overstimulated, embarrassed, tired, confused, annoyed and angry – sometimes all at once – and that our lives can be made simpler on those occasions with a few distinctive design details.  

Indeed, how well a park is designed has everything to do with how effectively we can deal with these guests and keep them coming back for more.  If waterparks are well designed and carefully thought out with respect to the multiple “behaviors” they inspire, we can work smoothly and efficiently.  By contrast, when basic issues of traffic and lifeguards’ needs are not considered at the design stage, our work becomes nearly impossible – and the waterpark ultimately will suffer as a result.

IN THE MOMENT

Customer service is a lifeguard’s basic, minute-to-minute job, but safety and accident prevention are his or her principle responsibilities.  No lifeguard team can be everywhere at once to enforce every rule, however, which means guests are left to pursue their own courses.  

In smaller facilities, managing guests of any temperament can be accomplished with relative ease, but in mega-parks in which up to 10,000 visitors might gather on a summer’s day, lifeguards must rely on physical layout and ride selection to keep things under control.   

With large crowds, it’s all about throughput:  Most guests come for the rides, and when they show up in droves, it helps immeasurably if the park has a range of high-capacity, quick-turnover attractions waiting for them.  On crowded days, a slide that can be used by five or eight people every minute is much more conducive to fun and contentment than one that handles just two people in the same amount of time.

This is, in fact, the key to the entire waterpark experience, and designers should have park capacity and peak traffic in mind in selecting which rides to include and which to omit.  The biggest frustration we see in guests results not from long lines, but from lines that move too slowly.  This is why having multi-lane race slides or those that employ large tubes that fit several people at once are so important:  These lines move much more quickly than do one-guest-at-a-time rides, and these features should be centrally located for ready access by the greatest possible surge of visitors.

It’s also important that the facility has an effective system of rules that can be conveyed to guests quickly and clearly.  Excitement will distract many of them, of course, so the rules must be posted prominently and in multiple locations along the queue – and must be heard as well through a sound system – or through attendants who repeat the message as guests approach the ride.   

Another key with high-capacity attractions has to do with exiting the ride.  If several riders are dispatched at the same time with another group to follow, all must be able to see clearly how they are to exit the ride when it’s over.  Building this awareness starts at the top of the ride by using ropes and fences to define paths and by using a number system or on-deck dots for soon-to-be riders to stand on as they receive their instructions.  When guests are left to form their own lines, chaos is the inevitable result.  When there’s order up top, it’s much more likely it will carry through to the end of the ride and that riders will quickly clear the splash area.   

Whether it is arrows on the ground, assertive attendants or just plain good visual and physical design, guests who’ve completed a ride must quickly flow away from the splash area and exit the pool.  In my experience, however, guests take structures more seriously than lifeguards and are much more likely to get moving if it is a bright yellow arrow, for example, that is “telling” them where to go.

PLACES TO BE

Beyond effective management of lines, waterpark designers also must account for the fact that each guest in the park counts as a body – meaning there must be sufficient equipment, furniture and shade for all of them.

On rides such as lazy rivers and wave pools, for example, designers (and ultimately on-site managers) must ensure that there are enough tubes or other flotation devices to go around.  The difficulty here is that daily wear and tear causes a surprisingly high rate of tube attrition – and this can lead to problems even a few weeks into the season.   

 

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Lazy rivers are meant to be relaxing – and it’s probably safe to say they all work on that level – but when the need arises, they must also be adequate when it comes to a lifeguard’s ability to see riders without obstruction and gain access to any spot along the watercourse as needed to extract a waterpark user who has been injured.

In that same vein, nothing is more difficult for waterpark staff than dealing with guests who come into conflict over shade or chairs.  Hot, tired people are understandably touchy, and these preventable altercations must be taken into account when designing and stocking a park.  While many facilities make some extra money by renting out chairs and lounges, it’s my sense that return guests spend more money than do those who rent a chair on their only visit.  Profitability must be maintained, but again, from a deck-level perspective, guest safety and happiness are the main concerns – and a relatively delicate balancing act.

Many slides, of course, require cycling of riding equipment that must to get back up to the top of the ride for repeat runs.  The best-case scenario here is to have an automatic retrieval system, usually in the form of a conveyer that moves directly from the splash area to the head of the slide.  (This is the only choice on rides with larger rafts:  These inflatables are just too heavy to be carried.)

If riders wait in a line at the bottom and are issued a raft to carry as they move up in line, extra precautions should be taken to prevent several issues such a system can spawn.  Ride attendants, for example, must make sure guests surrender rafts or mats once their rides are complete instead of letting them slide back into line – a sure cause of conflicts.  In addition, guests who have received their equipment should move into an active queue, otherwise a park will quickly find itself overrun with misplaced and abandoned equipment.  (This thins the number of rafts or mats available to other riders, creating additional frustration.)

Lazy rivers and wave pools benefit from the same sort of smart distribution and control of riding equipment.  As these guests do not have a strictly defined riding period (unlike slides), they are free to use the equipment as long as they like – a fact that can also lead to problems and gets even worse if tubes are in short supply or disrepair.  To keep guests happy, a reasonable number of tubes must be available at all times despite the fact that the demand is unpredictable.  

MEANDERING CURRENTS

Not all waterpark features are about thrills and excitement.  Indeed, the main draw of a lazy river is almost certainly its relaxing nature – and much of that feeling derives from the ride’s aesthetic appeal and the flora and decorative architecture that line the river’s path.

Unfortunately, however, these beautifying details can be a lifeguard’s worst enemy.  In an ideal world, there would be an easy way for lifeguards to add and subtract tubes from the water as needed – along with an open, accessible deck in which they might be stored when not in use.  More important, these features would be designed with emergency preparedness in mind.

While many lazy rivers are set up with these sorts of convenience, safety and response issues in mind, many are treated as low-risk rides and are designed that way.  Personally, I haven’t had to do anything more dramatic than evacuate one of these attractions over a water-quality issue, but that hasn’t kept me from worrying about what might happen in the event of an emergency in an inconvenient place on a river’s course.

In fact, due to the long, twisting nature of most rivers and the intensity of their visual trimmings, they are often the most lifeguard-intensive of all attractions in any given park, sometimes requiring up to a dozen of us working as a team to ensure safety.  These extra lifeguards can be a boon during an emergency, but not if the ride is working against them.

A simple point of design and safety management enters the picture here – and it applies to every attraction at every waterpark, lazy rivers most of all:  Rescuers must be able to extract victims from any point in the water.

It may be regrettable in visual terms, but aesthetics can never be allowed to outweigh safety considerations.  A hedge or rock formation may look great, but lifeguards won’t be able to get a backboard to a guest in trouble in such a spot if he or she has a neck injury.  In these cases, rescuers have no more than three minutes to extricate the victim from the water before shock sets in.  If half of that time is spent in just getting to an acceptable extraction point, the outcome will be grim indeed.  

In that same spirit, every ride must be reachable on foot.  Rescue personnel who wear and need to keep electronic-communications equipment on their persons will not be able to enter the water to help, so they must be able to reach the extraction point as quickly as the lifeguards can get the victim out.  Also, should the immediate evacuation of a ride be required, multiple exit paths are always appreciated by emergency-response teams.

AT HIGH SPEEDS

No designer, of course, would ever confuse a lazy river with a high-speed thrill slide when it comes to risk preparedness.  These rides can feature tube, mat or body-only transit and come with a huge range of variations, but from a lifeguard’s perspective, they all boil down to two types:  There are those that end in a splash pool and those that end in a shallow run-off.

With rides in the former category, zipping down a tube and shooting out into a big pool is one of the greatest experiences waterparks have to offer.  With the exception of wave pools, these are as close as a lifeguard gets to managing a substantial amount of water and typically offer the easiest rescues and emergency responses.  

2AThe most common injuries on these slides are to the spine, which means back-boarding equipment should be readily available at all times and the pool should be designed to allow for easy extraction.  A deck with an overhanging edge or cantilever – even if it’s just an inch – will make things difficult and may result in lifeguards having to carry a backboard over to and up the pool’s exit steps, which invariably takes more time than does moving the victim straight to the side and out of the water.

 

There are few experiences more thrilling than riding down a high-speed waterslide, especially when the ride involves the excitement of a race with another waterpark guest.  But speed of this sort can lead to injuries, so both crowd-control measures and the design of the splash pool or run-off areas are important to making these rides as safe as can be.

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One complicating factor here can be the currents created by the water flowing into the pool – even a large one.  This motion can easily injure a victim further, which is why emergency-stop systems should be readily accessible on deck.  In my experience, quicker-stopping rides facilitate quicker rescues; by contrast, slides with slow-responding “instant” termination systems increase risk in the event of accidents.

As for slides that terminate in run-offs, they offer different rescue challenges.  Although drowning is much less likely given the fact that these run-offs hold just a few inches of water, effective neck-injury treatment can be extremely difficult because the sides of the run-offs are generally not much wider than the average rider.  This can make getting a backboard under a victim a matter of great difficulty.

If the run-off is wide enough, an in-the-water, log-roll maneuver can be used to insert the backboard from the side – not a bad option by comparison to rides with narrow run-offs that force rescuers to insert the backboard either head or feet first and move it length-wise down or up the body.  It is very difficult to do this even in a few inches of water – and almost impossible during a real rescue situation.

If narrow run-offs are in place, park operators, emergency-response agencies and lifeguards must practice the skills involved in rescue operations.  There is no best choice between splash pools and run-offs, as both present their specific challenges.  The key is for designers to recognize the risks each approach offers and communicate appropriate safety information to waterpark management before an attraction is opened to the public.  

SURGING TIDES

The third component in the triad of major waterpark attractions is the wave pool – which is also most dynamic and potentially risky of all.

It’s no secret to lifeguards or staff that these systems are the locus for more injuries and even deaths than all other attractions – a fact that requires skilled and diligent lifeguards and effective guest instruction.  Much like the beaches they imitate, for example, all wave pools have a rip tide.  Lifeguards need to know where it is, and signage must inform guests about the specific risks.

Wave-pool configurations may differ, but in all cases staff will be confronted by guests who have a tendency to overestimate their swimming abilities.  Signage is a help in alerting guest to specific dangers associated with a specific pool, but no amount of red block lettering on the wall will do the whole job.  It can’t hurt, of course, but it’s no substitute for vigilance and, as necessary, direct intervention.

The sheer popularity of these attractions is a complicating factor:  More people in the water means a denser pool population, more distractions and less visibility.  It also means that filtration systems must be able to keep up with the demand placed on them so that adequate water quality and clarity can be maintained.

Having a system that ensures crystalline water just for the maximum capacity of the pool is, from my perspective, inadequate to the purpose.  A swimmer who has been in the pool for an hour does not contribute the same amount of murkiness-forming solids that they did upon first entering the water.  A pool whose bather population keeps changing presents a much larger challenge and requires upsizing if the filtering capacity is to keep pace with demand.  

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Wave pools imitate beaches in more ways than one – including the presence of rip currents than can bedevil inexperienced or exhausted swimmers.  Signage is a help, but these watershapes hold lots of guests, presenting special challenges to the lifeguard crew and requiring a filtration system adequate to providing a high level of water clarity

When the water gets too cloudy, the lifeguards must be quick to deploy a mobile barrier, preferably some kind of highly visible buoy line, upon instruction from their supervisors.

As is suggested at several points above, capping off the needs of these facilities is an absolute requirement for lifeguard and staff training.  Those designated as first-aid staff, for example, must be well trained and available and able to respond to emergencies.  

Ideally, a major first-aid station should be centrally located, visible and easily accessible for all guests, as walk-in injuries are far more common than are those in which responders must rush to the scene of an incident.  If first aid is not effectively stationed, lifeguards and their direct supervisors can find themselves alone for several minutes dealing with both critical injuries and substantial crowd-control issues.  

SAFETY BY DESIGN

This issue of first-aid stationing is an area in which designers of waterparks can be particularly helpful.  

Ideally, first-aid equipment should be available everywhere throughout the park, and every ride should have a complete stock of materials needed to deal with any injuries that might occur.  That’s a costly approach, however, so the usual decision is to place these stations at key spots throughout the park and develop systems to make certain they are fully stocked each day.

Along those same lines, waterpark designers also should consider the need for security services and personnel.  For a variety of reasons, fights often start among guests.  Lifeguards are also confronted on occasion by angry and even violent individuals and can’t be expected to break things up or resolve the issues themselves.  This is why security needs to be on patrol at all times:  Fights can escalate and may even become deadly, but lifeguards can’t be distracted from their primary duties to deal with such matters themselves.

If all of these factors have been considered and accommodated, a waterpark is truly ready to open its gates or expand its offerings to bring new excitement to the waterpark experience.  It’s all about careful planning, and it’s something that ideally should happen in the design studio before construction begins.  

In a perfect world, all waterparks would observe the principles outlined here, and everyone – facility managers, lifeguards and guests – would be better off.  The reality is somewhat less than perfect, but awareness of these issues is growing right along with the ability of designers to deliver on the promise of safe fun and excitement for waterpark visitors of all ages.

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Brett Herman is a lead lifeguard at Raging Waters in San Dimas, Calif., the largest waterpark in the state and one of the best-attended facilities of its kind in the entire United States.  He was a competitive swimmer and water polo player throughout his high school years, garnering several awards and honors for both athletic and academic excellence.  He has been passionate about aquatic sports his entire life, an interest that continues to this day.  Herman is the son of WaterShapes’ editor Eric Herman and is a junior at California State University Long Beach, where he’s studying English literature.

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