Theme Park, Amusement Park and Attractions Industry News

June’s cover story: industry experts talk water rides

Why water rides? Park World explores the answer to this question with the help of Kelly Sall, general manager, water rides at WhiteWater; Dennis Speigel, founder & CEO of International Theme Park Services; Gerard Pascua, director of technical & safety at VinWonders; and Jonathan Smith, corporate vice president, rides & engineering at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.

Water rides hold a place in the hearts of theme park guests the world over – and they have done for a very long time. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; humans have a natural affinity for water. We flock to spend our leisure time near rivers, lakes or the ocean – whether we’re swimming, sailing or simply sunbathing near the shoreline. Meanwhile, the earliest evidence of surfing can be traced all the way back to 12th century Polynesia. Humans have always sought out ways to have fun with water. 

Indeed, the history of water rides themselves stretches back longer than you might expect, with the shoot the chute, tunnel of love and toboggan each making their first appearances in the 1890s. 

But it was during the 1960s that water rides really took off. Dennis Speigel, founder & CEO of International Theme Park Services, states: “One of the rides that really set the industry on its ear was the Arrow Dynamics log flume. This copied the logging industry, where they were quite literally riding moving logs down chutes, and someone had the idea of hollowing them out and using them in amusement parks. The first log flume ride was installed at Six Flags Texas back in 1963 by Arrow.”

Arrow Dynamics’ log flume opened the floodgates, and then came another noteworthy water ride, the themed Timber Mountain Log Ride which opened in 1969 at Knott’s Berry Farm in California. 

Speigel explains that things were fast-flowing from then onwards: “Built inside of a mountain, and all of us being young kids at the time, we all came over to see that ride and it was just amazing. If you look at the number of rides built as a result of that, it was in the hundreds. 

“After the log flumes came the river rapids rides. The first river rapids ride was introduced at Astroworld in Houston Texas in 1980. Intamin sold over 175 of these immediately.”

A theme park favourite

The course was set for water rides; they became a theme park favourite and remain so to this day. Many theme parks’ signature, best-loved attractions include water rides, and the fact that we now see dedicated water parks all over the world further speaks to their popularity. 

Kelly Sall, general manager, water rides at WhiteWater, elaborates: “Water rides are part of pop culture. Take Pirates of the Caribbean, for example. That was a ride [first opened at Disneyland in 1967] that inspired a movie that inspired a ride. Or what about Jurassic Park: The Ride? Everyone either knows the ride or the movie, or both.”

Water rides have become synonymous with storytelling. They can act as the perfect vehicle to tell a story and, as Gerard Pascua, director of technical and safety at VinWonders, acknowledges, the story element has huge appeal for guests. 

Pascua explains: “With Pirates of the Caribbean, every time a new movie came out these rides were packed because guests wanted to immerse themselves in the story… I think the evolution of the relationship between movies and water rides is historical and significant.”

He adds: “At VinWonders Phu Quoc we have a huge aquarium with a mermaid show, with our water ride adjacent to the aquarium. With the release of The Little Mermaid movie, guests now can’t wait to come and see the mermaid show.”

It seems that water rides not only speak to our innate affinity for water but also our love of storytelling and our desire for an immersive experience. They can therefore serve as key anchors within a park. 

Finding the balance

Of designing and building parks in the 1970s and 1980s, Speigel says: “We’d draw similarities to shopping centres with anchors at south, north, east and west and we would always put a coaster or water ride as our anchors. We knew people would go to these rides. Then we would fill the park with food and beverages, our other rides, our merchandise, so we maintained the balance of the park.” 

Beyond acting as an ‘anchor ride’, there are other ways in which water rides bring balance to a park. Jonathan Smith, corporate vice president, rides & engineering at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, says: “Water rides offer a unique experience that dry rides, roller coasters, flat rides or dark rides can’t offer… Parks need to have a balanced and dynamic attraction mix and, especially in the summer months, water rides really, really help to elevate the guest experience.”

Another benefit of water rides is their inclusivity. Unlike lots of roller coasters which are not suitable for many younger guests, water rides can deliver a more accessible experience for the whole family. Accessibility need not be an issue either. There are many options here, and when it comes to designing for ADA and accommodating all guests at SeaWorld, for example, Smith explains: “We have an ADA switch, which is effectively a lateral track switch, which houses our ride vehicle – be it a rapids ride boat or a flume boat – in a separate location, so guests don’t feel rushed. And it allows us to maintain our dispatch interval on our main ride centre line.”

Water rides are also a wonderful way to engage guests, offering opportunities for interactivity. Building on the idea of water rides as an anchor ride, Sall states: “There is this notion of passive capacity with water rides. People love to watch them, even without directly going on the ride if they don’t want to get wet. Water rides tend to be something of a gathering place within a park.”

“Our flume ride in Phu Quoc is an ‘instagrammable’ spot which guests have really sought out themselves. We’re now looking at water gun placement so visitors can get guests who are riding wet, and make those who don’t want to get wet more of a part of the experience”, adds Pascua. 

There is no denying the fact that guests love water rides. But operators can still be hesitant when it comes to putting them in parks, and indeed, from capital spending and planning, through to engineering, installation and operational standpoints, the requirements of water rides do differ from those of roller coasters or flat rides. But not so much that it should be prohibitive. 

Water rides are well worth it 

Smith states: “I can certainly understand why water rides might seem a little intimidating. But development time is not that different when we compare it to that of a medium-sized or large roller coaster.”

He adds that both roller coasters and, for example, flumes, require an equally comprehensive survey process. The steps within this process might be different, because you are building a different kind of ride, but it is no more or less detailed. “Pouring flumes or ride trough concrete is really not that different from anchor bolts on a pedestal [for a roller coaster],” concludes Smith. 

When it comes to water rides, the problem of corrosion is worth mentioning. It can be particularly bothersome in regions of the world where there is frequent rain and high humidity, such as South East Asia, and operators do need to bear the issue in mind. Pascua explains: “Staying on top of maintenance is essential with water rides but it is well worth it. At VinWonders, refurbishment is done in phases so as not to impact peak season.” 

Some operators might have concerns over the seasonality aspect as well. In countries where the weather is cooler outside of the summer months, will guests be less inclined to go on a water ride? This is where the power of strong theming and storytelling comes in. 

“Focus on the experience. People want to experience something they can’t at home and they want to be immersed and connected emotionally. The better you can create great theming and a story the easier it will be to get good capacity during cooler months”, says Smith. 

Operators of parks in temperate climates will also want to consider that when the warmer weather does arrive, water rides are going to be exactly what their guests will want. 

Other areas of potential concern are cost and sustainability. Water rides might have enjoyed immense and sustained popularity since the 1960s, but it also took a great deal of power to generate these rides, which meant parks faced considerable electricity costs. 

However, things have changed thanks to today’s advances in technology. Variable frequency drives are one example of new technology making for massive energy savings.

Sall adds: “Modern technology in pumps has helped us to become much more energy efficient in these types of rides. At WhiteWater we also consider lost water – we try to manage splash out and make sure our rides are operating as energy efficiently as possible.”

We are seeing advancements in ride control systems too, says Smith: “Safety PLC systems are now being provided for all sorts of water rides, plus blocking systems with safety-rated sensors that control the blocks. At SeaWorld we’ve replaced ride control systems and are running safety PLC systems and variable frequency drives. We’ve retrofitted all rides for longevity.” 

Longevity really is the key word here, not only from a maintenance and ride lifespan perspective (which is, of course, relevant for any amusement ride), but in regard to popularity and demand. Water rides will always have huge appeal and this is what makes them a worthy investment for operators. 

Fresh ideas for the future

While lots of parks have long-standing water rides that remain as well-loved as always, the water rides of the future are set to be more immersive and thrilling than ever before. VR, AR and AI are set to bring about exciting changes, and video projection will be taking these rides to a new level. As Pascua comments: “New technology is going to get our rides to where they need to be in terms of guest experience.”

Smith offers some sage parting advice to operators: “It’s always a challenge to stay ahead of the curve and it’s important to stay in tune with our trusted vendors and develop a sense of transparency. If you’re that kind of operator to the manufacturer, then you’re going to start seeing those fresh new ideas sooner than later.”

Why water rides work for many parks

Water rides offer the ability to scale desired theoretical hourly ride capacity (THRC) to footprint, budget, or experience. Log Flumes or Spinning Rapids Rides are typically under 1000 rph, while large 20+ person boats, in some cases, can do 3,000 rph (such as Pirates of the Caribbean). Different ride classes fill different needs in terms of experience, from a fairly tame slow boat ride (such as It’s a Small World) to a very thrilling shoot the chute ride (Jurassic Park: The Ride). Timing to show scenes is also a consideration when determining THRC.

VinWonders Phu Quoc

VinWonders Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s biggest theme park. Spread across 50 hectares of lush land, it has been designed to take guests out of the everyday and into six zones with 12 themes. And to the delight of guests visiting in constant 30°c, it features two water rides, the River Raft Ride and a Super Flume, both from WhiteWater. 

The rides are situated next to one of the park’s headline attractions, the striking, state-of-the-art Sea Shell Aquarium – among the world’s biggest – housed underneath a stadium-sized turtle.

VinWonders River Raft Ride

Inside ‘Land of the Vikings’ is a 400-metre water ride that takes guests past rockwork, through wild rapids, to be immersed in Nordic warrior themes. An adventure aptly called ‘Viking River Rapids Ride’, guests in circular eight-person rafts travel down the ‘Angry River’ and through a village, with Viking characters and Viking boats sitting in the lakes beside the river. The river isn’t always angry, though. There are rushing sections up to 4 m/s, and there are slower moments at 1 m/s for the guests to catch their breath and discover the numerous hidden secrets of the ancient Viking tribes. During this almost five-minute ride, guests will survive exhilarating bumps and spins, two barrel blasts, one geyser, as well as amused spectators on the viewing bridge, who will surely be laughing with (or at?) the riders as the boats get refreshingly wet along the journey.

Speaking of the boats, these are designed with safety and guest comfort in mind. Each rider has their own J-shaped grab bar instead of having to hunch over to hold on to a common one in the middle. Also, there are eight entry and exit points for quick loads and unloads. The large diameter of the floatation collar allows for maximum stability during the ride while still giving all the bumps and splashes that makes the River Raft Ride fun.

VinWonders Super Flume

Meanwhile, in the South American forest at VinWonders Phu Quoc, a volcano towers over 30 metres, and courageous guests of all ages can venture through it on the Super Flume ride. Each of the 13 vehicles on this ride is nicely themed with a lava motif, taking guests 500 metres past volcano rockwork, misters, smoke effects, and through a dark cave with lighted crystals. During the 6+ minute ride, guests will experience uphill climbs, slow, medium, and fast river sections, a camelback drop, and a turntable that takes them to the finale – a 16.5-metre, 35-degree drop that will have them screaming down at 17 m/s, into the welcoming splash of water.

Of course, cameras are at the ready for the plunge. First, a ride camera strategically placed just off the top of the drop captures the riders’ bewildered looks as they experience the stomach tickling sensation heading down. Second, spectators on the viewing bridge will be pointing their phones at the iconic volcano to time the shot with the drop to get that perfect picture of the big splash – and beaming faces of the riders.

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