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Water in the Desert
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Water in the Desert

Inspired by the unique relationship between the Arizona landscape and the water that shapes it, The Oasis waterpark in Phoenix is unusual for the fact that it was designed to blend in seamlessly with the desert that surrounds it as well as the luxurious resort of which it’s a part. As John Jennings and Jean Garbier explain, the challenge was linking a theme-park spirit to the resort’s desire for complete visual integration and high standards for aesthetics.

Inspired by the unique relationship between the Arizona landscape and the water that shapes it, The Oasis waterpark in Phoenix is unusual for the fact that it was designed to blend in seamlessly with the desert that surrounds it as well as the luxurious resort of which it's a part.  As John Jennings and Jean Garbier explain, the challenge was linking a theme-park spirit to the resort's desire for complete visual integration and high standards for aesthetics.

It’s striking and even awe-inspiring to observe the ways in which water can shape a desert. Probably the most spectacular example of this phenomenon to be found anywhere on the planet – and unquestionably the most prominent hydrological feature of Arizona’s landscape – is the winding course the Colorado River takes through the Grand Canyon it created.

The terrain surrounding Pointe South Mountain Resort in Phoenix is another special creation that draws much of its character and interest from the presence of water, both natural and artificial. In the former category are the spectacular system of cascades known as the Mongollon falls, along with the rivulets that come with summer monsoons and flash floods to form vast networks of arroyos, alluvial fans and flood plains. Among the man-made features are the ancient canal systems crafted by the Hohokam tribe and the modern region’s system of interconnected reservoirs and lakes.

These watercourses lend visual richness in and of themselves, but they also give Arizona’s deserts the ability to sustain natural flora and fauna right alongside the sprawl of modern civilization. From the standpoint of watershape design for a high-end resort property, the presence of this water in the desert has also provided a wonderful opportunity to tie recreational spaces into natural surroundings in unique and unusual ways.


That opportunity came with development of The Oasis waterpark as part of Pointe South Mountain Resort. The resort has been one of Arizona’s most popular business and vacation destinations, but its owners wanted to upgrade its property in a way that would set it apart from other facilities and greatly increase its family-oriented leisure business.

It was an ambitious plan, even for a facility that features 115,000 square feet of meeting and function space and offers one of the largest ballrooms in the state. Indeed, for all of its 15 years, the facility has been a popular resort, conference, golf and spa facility and has been listed as one of Fortune magazine’s preferred destinations.

The owners’ idea was to redefine the facility’s use of the land and reposition the property as a first-class, family-friendly destination. Setting their sights at that level required discarding the current model of themed resorts and, in this case, defining a unique attraction that would take its cue from the arid beauty all around.

To begin the process, Pointe South Mountain’s management turned to our firm, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin of Watertown, Mass. We were named project manager and quickly went to work assembling a design team that included the “aquatecture” consultants at EDSA Cloward & Associates, TenEyck Landscape Architects, Rock & Waterscape Systems and Synectic Design, among others. Together with the resort’s team and owners, we collaborated on visualizing, developing and drawing up a master plan for site redevelopment that would completely transform the property.


The project team started its work in an area that offered the wide-open canvas seen at left, and we eventually created a substantial waterpark at the heart of the resort. Within that large, active space, however, are areas that allow for more intimate experiences of local Arizona textures, cultures and colors.

What emerged from our creative interplay is a themed business and recreational resort that celebrates Arizona’s climate, culture and native landscapes. At the inspirational core of the redevelopment was the idea to build the refreshing, fun-filled, multi-use waterpark seen on these pages.

All told, The Oasis includes six acres of aquatic entertainment embodying the unique relationship between Arizona’s landscape and its water.

The waterpark replaced little-used parking areas with the desired “total resort experience” and provides a connection between the resort’s facilities and available recreational outlets. The new waterpark supports group functions with 24,500 feet of deck and function space, 8,700 feet of lawn/garden function space, The Oasis Bar & Grill, restroom facilities and retail space as well as service and utility facilities. In addition to being fully functional, it’s also great fun.

The entertainment experience starts in the 10,000-square-foot, zero-depth-entry wave pool and continues with a children’s pool and a hot tub that holds 25 bathers. For the more adventurous, there’s a triple-slide tower (one of the tallest in the country) featuring a pair of thrill-drop speed slides and a mellower but equally satisfying serpentine slide. There’s also a 950-foot river course complete with bubbling rapids and an active river. Finally, more traditional games of basketball and volleyball are accommodated in a large recreational pool.


The resort is situated at the foot of the 16,000-acre South Mountain Desert Preserve and is silhouetted against the mountain backdrop. All in all, it is the perfect setting for a water park that would be rich in visuals, forms, textures, colors and experiences – something special that hadn’t been attempted in Phoenix before.

Typical of Arizona resorts, Pointe South Mountain previously featured its swimming pools, six in all, located within various residential courtyards in a traditional fashion. In a decided change from this pattern, the waterpark functions as a central recreational gathering place for guests. But where some other resorts feature water slides, our charge was to ramp up the experience by creating an attractive, watergarden atmosphere.


The children’s pool is separated from the rowdier play spaces and offers little ones a place to cool off and enjoy the water in a (relatively) peaceful setting.

The design team saw a need to synchronize three basic components: water recreation in an integrated, themed environment; flexible resort-function space; and reliable operations. EDSA Cloward & Associates led the way in defining the core components of the waterpark, including technical and engineering details required to meet the vision and make it work. For their parts, Rock & Waterscape Systems and TenEyck Landscape Architects focused on aesthetics and in making certain the framing features would interface effectively with the aquatic engineering.

Treated and Filtered

Out of view of anyone playing in the water at The Oasis, custom-designed digital-control panels show the whole interconnected water system at a glance and keep track of functionality so that the operational log is accessible at all times.

Stark high-end sand filters are used on all four of the water park’s separate systems, with circulation driven by ITT Marlow’s pumps. Chemtrol provided the chemical controllers that manage all 662,000 gallons of water that move through the six-acre waterpark.

— J.J.

Vegetation is zoned throughout the six-acre environment to reflect the state’s various biomes. Rock formations are based on geological replications of the Lake Powell region and have been color-washed to exemplify the rich, red rock colors of Sedona.

In addition – and reflecting a practice seen throughout the resort – the space provides touchstone educational experiences commemorating the Native American traditions that influence life in the region. For example, a “spiral garden” reminiscent of those created by many tribes is centrally situated on an island in the midst of the waterways and is accessible by a rock footbridge to accommodate casual functions.

The resort itself is in a Spanish Colonial/Mediterranean style, with village-like suites connected by covered open-air walkways and outdoor paths to convention facilities, restaurants and recreation areas set around the property. Stone pavers and landscape plantings are scattered throughout and are carried into common spaces to provide a sense of continuity and to enhance awareness of the resort’s surroundings.


The Oasis is designed to accommodate up to 2,900 people at a time, with spaces flowing from one water-recreation modality to the next and linked by interconnected water events, outdoor lounging areas, planted oases and meeting areas. Our aim was to create a facility that feels like it was naturally all part of the same water system, with each feature flowing into the next – even though the four main systems are, in fact, primarily functionally separate.

The slide towers are located at the highest elevation in the water park and appear to feed into the river, which in turn connects to the main Oasis pool area. The main pool area features the most open and spacious deck space. The rockwork between the river and the pool makes it seem as though the water comes through the rocks; functionally speaking, however, the rockwork’s main duty is to retain the rolling water in the wave pool.

Other waterfeature highlights include:

[ ] Slide Canyon: The highest slide tower in Arizona at 83 feet high, the structure houses three water slides. The 225-foot Free Fall and the 220-foot Roadrunner slides are of the quick-drop variety; the third, the 300-foot Sidewinder slide, offers a twisting drop at a more gradual angle – a slower, longer ride.


The wave pool is the main gathering place in the waterpark, with generous decks for supervising parents and plenty of play space for those who want to play in the waves as well as those who want to swim or play volleyball or basketball. Above the waterfall is the resort’s spa, patterned on a desert hot spring.

[ ] The Zuni Active River: This re-circulating watercourse invites guests to drift throughout the Oasis in inner-tubed leisure as they pass canyons walls. With ample and varied river widths, rafters can ride side-by-side along the 950 feet of moving water, which mimics a river-rafting experience with churning rapids, stretches of slow-moving currents, arching water jets, mist and a back eddy.

[ ] The Wave Pool: This watershape features a zero-depth entry point that offers a friendly beach environment for smaller children as well as easy access to a five-foot deep, 10,000-square-foot wave pool that operates on an easy, ten-minute cycle. Divided by a peninsula, the big pool doubles as a recreational pool for water sports and lap swimming. At one end, atop a cascading waterfall, sits a large hot tub designed to resemble a desert hot spring.

[ ] Wildcat Springs: This 800-square-foot watershape is designed as a place where children can cool off as well as frolic among the many water jets that spray the adjacent deck area.

[ ] The Spiral Garden: This 10,000-square-foot island features traditional plantings as well as a large flagstone patio, a fire pit surrounded by red rocks and views of the Zuni Active River. The intention here was to provide a function space for the resort that had as much flexibility as possible.


As might be expected, making this elaborate vision into a working reality meant we had to cross a number of technical hurdles. The need for synchronization and coordination was particularly great in the slide tower’s construction, where the team needed to mesh technical specifications with the architectural design and site plan – not something any of us are normally required to do with such precision in a waterpark project.

The river also offered its share of challenges, mostly having to do with our desire to make it long and wide enough to feel as though there was something to discover at every turn. Accordingly, we manipulated the design to vary its dimensions and have it bow and curve where a river naturally would. The circulation was metered and the height of the rock outcroppings varied so that inner tubers couldn’t see everything all at once and would feel more secluded than they actually are from the surrounding deck and garden areas.


The river system loops around the waterpark through a variety of typical Arizona scenery. We also spiced things up in a few places – in one area adding water jets to cool off bathers, in another borrowing air power from the wave pool to create a whitewater effect.

Five pumps keep the 270,000-gallon river flowing at a speed of 3.5 feet per second (2 mph). Five large bottom drains, each measuring four by 12 feet, let water fall into a big sump from which the water is pumped back into the river through multiple four-inch jets mounted at 30-degree downstream angles to mimic the flow of an authentic river. With widths ranging from 12 to 20 feet, the 12,000-square-foot river is the widest in the Valley and easily accommodates side-by-side floaters.

Additional river features include arching Polaris mini-jets, misting systems and flows designed to seem like smaller streams joining up with the big river. There are also many points of entry and exit from the river, with wider access at slower parts of the flow. Where the river leaves the rock canyon and sweeps past the three big slides, there’s a narrow opening that lets guests move directly into the river from the splash pools.

Another challenging feature was the wave pool. The wave generator consists of four large air chambers that let the water in and out at 10-minute intervals. In those intervals, we wanted to “borrow” the power of the generator to infuse the river’s rapids with air via bubblers we set up in the floor of the river. This adds a nice visual touch to the sensations of speed and excitement created in this “whitewater” passage. (The wave interval of 10 minutes, by the way, is a matter of county code and is intended to give bathers predictable relief from the choppy waters.)


A prime view of Arizona’s tallest slide tower fits the structure within a grander setting, while views from closer angles are eased by generous use of trees, landscape contours and artificial rockwork. The enclosure at the tower’s peak integrates it with the architecture of the rest of the resort.

The four-chamber wave generator is contained within a large concrete bunker hidden behind the waterfall at the far end of the pool. As air moves into these pressurized water chambers, two at a time, it forces the water out and into the pool and causes wave-like motions in the main body of water. The air is then released, and water flows back into the chambers. The system is capable of generating five-foot waves, but it’s normally set to kick up a two-foot surf.

Designed with a zero-depth entry for family fun, the 256,000-gallon main pool also features a play area designed for bigger kids that’s separate from the kids’ pool and areas set aside for guests who crave a less-active entertainment area. The large peninsula dividing the two pool areas created an integrated solution – the same body of water used for different functions, with the wave pool for family fun and the recreational pool for sporting activities.


Where most waterparks fall short aesthetically has to do with the way the watershapes are surrounded and set into place. The reason for this is usually economic: Most waterparks focus on the bottom line rather than on a theme in any sort of authentic sense; as a consequence, the visuals often are “value engineered” right off the budget.

By contrast, the owners of Pointe South Mountain Resort were willing to invest $12.3 million in making The Oasis a standout attraction not only with respect to functionality and fun, but also in ways having to do with ambiance and details. (They had success using this integrated approach in previous projects at the resort, as is related in the sidebar below.)

Project Precursor

The transformation of Pointe South Mountain Resort’s central outdoor spaces and the creation of The Oasis all started with an earlier endeavor. Known as the Paseo project, it involved turning a utilitarian outdoor parking and service space into 53,000 square feet of landscaped outdoor terraces and courtyard facilities.

Lush garden pathways integrate the conference facility with surrounding guest suites and effectively blend interior and exterior environments with terraces, courtyards, fountains, flexible function spaces and botanical collections, all supported by state-of-the-art fiberoptic lighting and sound systems.

The owners’ experience with this high-toned project gave them the experience they needed to pursue The Oasis with an eye toward aesthetics as well as function.

— J. J.

So the Arizona landscape theme was with us always, and the landscape design and rockwork construction steadily carried that theme into the space. Where we often worked with historic traditions and flora drawn from Arizona’s key biomes, we also took cues from modern Arizona tastes, in one area planting stately (but non-native) date palms that add a luxurious tropical feel to the water recreation area and are found so often these days in the state’s developed areas.

More frequently, however, we kept with the classic natural look and feel, especially in rockwork designs that were intended initially to replicate the various geologies of Arizona, but for practical reasons took on a more generic look featuring desert shapes, textures, heights and colors that’s more of a blending of local geology – mostly formations found near Lake Powell and colors found near Sedona. The canyon area of the Zuni Active River, for example, was molded from rock formations to simulate the effect of floating into Glen Canyon at the base of the Hoover Dam.

Real rock was also used in the project, but other than the red native sandstone pavers, all the rock formations themselves are artificial. For durability, the formations are framed with #3 rebar hand-bent and shaped to match selected contours drawn from scale models and photographs. The frames are encased in two coats of shotcrete and have been finished with paint washes and stains. The rockwork adds particularly to the feel of the waterfall end of the wave pool and to the hot tub area.


Wanting the landscaping to be people-friendly, we avoided the typical thorny-desert-growth approach and focused instead on other indigenous desert plants such as sage and deer grass. We also focused on smooth transitions from native to non-native plantings. In the northeast corner of The Oasis, for example, we blurred borders by continuing a line of palm trees approaching the pool area into a space that featured lush plantings of native grasses and flowering plants.

The landscaping was designed to represent the various Arizona climates and biomes. There were, of course, some native trees we would have liked to have planted but couldn’t, including Aspens and Ponderosa pines. The resort is at too low an elevation, so we compromised by planting Aleppo pines that, although they are not native, capably represented the pine family. We also used Delbargia Sisso to offer the same feel as Aspens.

All of these plantings are sustained by an irrigation system that was designed into the system of rock formations – another instance where early and complete integration of project details was of paramount importance.

From the resort’s perspective, the most important of all project outcomes is and will continue to be guest response. So far, the results are positive, and respondents to hotel surveys credit the waterpark with making the difference. As Managing Director Ron Olstad puts it, there are a lot of water features in the Phoenix area, but those at The Oasis offer something truly special for vacationers and business guests as well as their families.

John Jennings leads the land-development group for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., an engineering, planning and applied-sciences firm based in Watertown, Mass. A registered landscape architect who specializes in planning and design services for resort, public and institutional clients, he has 32 years’ experience in leading multidisciplinary teams of designers, planners and engineers for everything from concept through implementation in projects for resort/entertainment facilities, campus master plans and Fortune 500 corporate facilities. Jean Garbier is a senior landscape architect for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin. A registered landscape architect, she has 20 years’ experience in landscape architecture and urban design, including project management, planning and design for resort/entertainment, institutional and public- and private-sector clients.

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