Safe Wet Playgrounds And Water Parks

The safe operation of both indoor and outdoor wet playgrounds and water parks with zero to 4-foot-deep drop pools and lazy rivers depends on planning, protocols and diligent follow-through, according to industry experts.

Safe Wet Playgrounds

“Plan from the beginning to have it staffed,” says Bill Mowery, recreation general manager for Hamilton County Park District, which operates wet playgrounds at three of its parks in the Greater Cincinnati area. “The wet playground draws so many kids that operating it without appropriate staffing would result in a lot of injuries.”

All of the park district’s wet playgrounds are zero depth, which means the water pools less than a half-inch deep before it enters a drain. Since there is no standing water, the district employs attendants rather than lifeguards to monitor the activity. “We were the first to do anything like this,” says Mowery. “We didn’t have a model to follow. We started from scratch and learned a lot.”

The park district’s wet playgrounds are staffed with three or four attendants, depending on how busy the playgrounds are. One attendant works the entrance and exit gate at all times. “The kids do not enter or leave without an adult supervisor,” says Mowery. Attendants also curtail rambunctious children from running, shoving or climbing on top of the equipment.

“You need to have the rules posted and be physically there to enforce the rules,” says Mowery. The common rules of the several wet playgrounds and water parks include:

* Swim diapers for children who require them

* No running, shoving or climbing on top of equipment

* A maximum ratio of five children per adult supervisor

* Children under 16 years of age must be supervised by an adult

Safe Water Parks

For larger water parks, such as those with 4-foot-deep drop pools and lazy rivers, well-trained lifeguards are essential. Lifeguards are responsible for visually scanning the pool, listening to the concerns of participants, limiting running, shoving and jumping, and are in the water on a regular basis.

“We have the same number of lifeguards on duty each day at each location,” says Matt Lawrence, manager of the Great Wolf Lodge’s 40,000-square-foot water park in Sandusky, Ohio. “We staff the same way, no matter what the occupancy because you never know where an accident might happen.”

Great Wolf Lodge requires lifeguards to attend two full days of training, including CPR, and complete a physical and written test. Once the lifeguards are certified, they must also attend in-service training on a daily and weekly basis. To ensure lifeguards are performing their duties and exceeding set standards, external audits are conducted on a regular basis.

One of a lifeguard’s duties is to stop an accident before it happens. “It is essential that you hire the right staff and that you are qualifying potential employees,” advises Rob Bradley, manager of CaribbeanCoveIndoorWaterPark in Indianapolis, Ind. “The job is very active. The lifeguards walk, scan the bottom of the pools, enforce the rules, and maintain safety.”

Safety Systems

The lifeguard’s key to safety is to go through the chain-of-command and to know the protocols to follow, including what to do and whom to call if there is an emergency, such as a heart attack, asthma attack, fecal spill or blood spill.

“They need to know their area of responsibility, which includes the people and the rides in their area,” says Don Amblo, vice president of operations for American Leisure. Lifeguards must also be walking around their areas and speaking with people.

Lifeguards should know every aspect of the park, including other lifeguards’ responsibilities in order to have the big view. Plus, they must actively direct participants to ensure everyone has a safe visit.

Clean And Clear

Besides staffing, the proper selection and maintenance of the equipment are essential. Great Wolf Lodge is open every day of the year and sees approximately 250,000 visitors. “Clarity is extremely important in water safety in our field. We have a user-age range of under 12 years old. If they go under the water, we need to be able to see all the way to the bottom of our deepest pool,” says Lawrence. “If you don’t have the proper pool care, you are going to have the cloudy layers where you can’t see the bottom. That’s why it is so important to make sure you are properly maintaining the pool.”

Water parks and wet playgrounds typically have automatic testing and chemical feeder systems that maintain the proper chemical and pH balance in the water. Additionally, pool technicians perform multiple daily physical checks of the water to verify that equipment is working properly.

“We test the water frequently to make sure the chemicals are in the proper state-regulated ranges,” says Bradley. “The filtration system also helps keep the water clean, and we follow the guidelines from the manufacturer on how to clean the filters. Plus we are constantly vacuuming and sweeping the pools.”

“It is important to have a daily routine that is monitored and checked,” says Lawrence. “Diligent logs and accurate accounts of daily activities, including incidents, accidents and the back-of-house pool systems, are important to keeping a water park safe and operational.”

Going For A Ride

Rides at water parks range from smaller water features in toddler areas to the high-thrill fast slides for older kids. Experts agree that the water park or wet playground must be designed to fit the market, and that means careful attention to ride selection and safety.

At Great Wolf Lodge, foam landing crash pads are at the end of the slides to increase safety. The Great Wolf Lodge’s Mason, Ohio, location has fast thrill rides, which attract an older audience.

In contrast, wet playgrounds usually attract a younger audience. “We created separate areas for small kids versus larger kids,” says Mowery. “We have toddler areas with smaller water features and a controlled entrance and exit. School-aged children are not allowed to participate in this area.”

Mowery also advises that wet playground features be kept on the ground or as close to the ground as possible, and to avoid ladders, steps and slides because these areas have the highest level of injuries. In areas where there is a potential for a fall, install cushioned safety surfaces according to specifications.

Safety’s The Goal

The goal of wet playground and water park safety is for everyone to have an enjoyable time. With proper planning, maintenance, staff and protocols, this can happen.

“Make it fun for people, including the staff, management, guests, and parents and kids can relax and enjoy the place,” says Lawrence. “When employees enjoy working at the water park, the guests are going to have a really good time.”

Tammy York is the president of LandShark Communications LLC in Greater Cincinnati. She left her state public-relations position to pursue her passions of outdoor recreation and marketing. Her upcoming book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Cincinnati, is due out in spring 2009. You can reach her at

Bryan BuchkoComment