WhiteWater works hand in hand with operators to raise the bar and enhance the guest experience
by Rona Gindin and Martin Palicki
ABOVE: Perfect Day at CoCo Cay includes an extensive waterpark designed and built by WhiteWater, along with beaches, zip lines, a hot air balloon experience and more. Photo courtesy Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines
Docking at Royal Caribbean’s private island and the new “Perfect Day at CocoCay,” cruise ship guests are greeted by a colorful waterslide tower nearly as tall as the ship itself- rising above the palm trees and beaches below. It’s the waterpark version of Oz’s Emerald City, beckoning families to a day of both adventure and relaxation in the Bahamas.
CocoCay is cutting edge, a game changer for the cruise industry and a result of a collaboration between Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL) and waterpark innovator WhiteWater. Together, they designed and built a tropical island destination that balances artistry and engineering, all with an eye towards family fun.
Based in Vancouver, Canada, WhiteWater has been supplying waterparks since 1980 and is well known for waterslides, play structures, pools, surfing rides and other waterpark and theme park attractions. Increasingly, they are also being recognized as problem solvers and partners on some of the market’s most promising technologies and projects. From engineering feats to ride management and safety features, the company is living its motto, “Be Boundless.”
The last six months provide several examples. In addition to designing Perfect Day at CocoCay, WhiteWater recently opened its first integrated technology waterpark and built the world’s longest spinning rapids ride.
Building a Bahamian behemoth
Today’s cruise lines market themselves to multiple generations, including families and younger adults. Ships have been “plussed” with new amenities like ice rinks, waterparks and zip lines. As Gen Zers start to book more voyages, ships will cater to their tastes with even more new experiences, which is a Gen Z preference, according to the 2019 Cruise Trends & Industry Outlook study by the Cruise Lines International Association.
More recently, the quest to offer the most in terms of activities has spread from ship to land. Cruise lines are putting resources into their private islands to provide a broader range of appeal. For RCCL this meant taking its mostly undeveloped CocoCay and reimagining it into Perfect Day at CocoCay.
Taking RCCL’s vision as the starting point, WhiteWater sat down with Royal Caribbean’s marketing and development vision teams, a landscape architect and an aquatic designer to figure out how they could design a waterpark to meet the client’s needs. The conversation involved traffic patterns, relaxation opportunities, thrill and adventure areas, and a logical layout that flows seamlessly. As an upcharge attraction, Thrill Waterpark had to be designed to accommodate many of the 16,000 passengers who might arrive from two ships on any given day, yet not feel sparsely populated if only one ship was in port.
“Today, passengers disembark onto a beautiful pier, and they see this amazing tower with all of these waterslides surrounding it,” says Franceen Gonzales, WhiteWater’s executive vice president of business development for the Americas. That spire-like structure, Daredevil’s Tower, is a 148-foot-tall icon for the waterpark, Gonzales explains. “Royal Caribbean had a clear vision of a waterpark with a beacon at its center that cruise ship passengers would see as they approach land. It emerges to the sky.”
Daredevil’s Tower is a hub of swirling colors and houses seven slides, including Daredevil’s Peak, which at 135-feet is said to be the tallest waterslide in North America. Among its companion attractions are a wave pool, over-the-water cabanas, a separate slide tower, a zip line and the Adventure Pool – with a built-in obstacle course and rock climbing.
Daredevil’s Tower included its share of challenges for the design and engineering team. It not only needed to achieve its notable height, but also had to be iconic, withstand wind speeds of up to 180mph and built on a remote island to which supplies could only be delivered by barge. “Deliveries went to Miami or the Bahamas, then were put on a little barge and driven right up onto the sand to be unloaded,” Gonzales shares.
Most waterslide towers are basic steel, concrete or wooden staircases. But since RCCL wanted an eye-grabbing structure, WhiteWater’s structural engineering team opted to cover the tower in “super lightweight” aluminum cladding and bolt it on to the structure. “We made a special design for the panels and another custom design to affix the panels to the tower,” Gonzales explains. “It looks elegant and can withstand hurricanes. It had never been done before, and that’s kind of our sweet spot.”
All the innovating seems to have paid off. Since Thrill Waterpark opened in June 2019, Daredevil’s Tower has proven to be especially popular. “We’d wondered how many people were going to want to climb up 135 vertical feet worth of stairs,” Gonzales admits. “By golly, that ride has the longest line. People love it.”
Tackling a tech-trendy waterpark
Orlando, Florida is a fiercely competitive market for waterparks. Not only are world-renowned Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and LEGOLAND resorts nearby, but they each include highly themed waterparks as well. In addition, many area resorts have smaller waterparks, lazy rivers and splash pads. So, when Horizon Waterpark, LLC began developing a property collaboration with Encore Capital Management and Innovative Attraction Management, its principals knew they had to include a waterpark that could achieve visibility in a crowded marketplace. The Island H2O Live! waterpark at the new Margaritaville Resort Orlando sought to differentiate itself with an integrated technology theme that capitalized on social media trends.
Waterparks are naturally shared experiences. Visitors swim in wave pools, float along lazy rivers and slide down flumes alongside friends, family and other guests. Sharing those experiences with others, however, can be a challenge, since people typically can’t bring smartphones in the pool. Island H2O Live! found other ways to use technology to connect guests with social media and lets them easily post about their time spent at the park. Attractions even have Instagrammable names like Hashtag Heights and Reply Racers.
The project was a timely fit for WhiteWater, which had recently developed the Vantage technology platform (since spun off as a separate entity called Vantage Technology Ltd.). From the guest perspective, Vantage is the transparent system behind a host of interactive tech features embedded in the park— all designed to enhance their experience. On the operator’s side, Vantage supplies snapshots of helpful information meant to help managers identify and fix immediate problems and forecast longterm solutions.
The Vantage experience can begin before the guest even arrives at the park by downloading the mobile app. Guests can complete profiles on an app or at an in-park kiosk, where they can fill out basic information such as what kind of music or colors they prefer.
Vantage pairs this information with an RFID wristband (Smart Band) the guest wears during their visit. Guests “tag in” to each ride by touching their wristband to an LCD screen near the start of each experience. Then, as they zoom down one of Island H2O Live!’s slides, the slide might illuminate with their favorite colors, or their favorite music may echo through the slide.
“We offer a new layer of experiences with the ability to personalize a guest’s day,” says Aaron Mendelson, director of customer success and product innovation at Vantage Technology Ltd. “That’s almost an expectation at theme parks, and now we’re bringing it to waterparks.”
Vantage was designed with an open architecture to take advantage of systems and products already available on the market, as well as ones not yet developed. In this way, Vantage functions as an agnostic platform, and can be programmed to work with virtually any product. “The future possibilities for integration are exciting,” says Mendelson. “Vantage is a creative catalyst that can bring functionality to designers’ concepts and ideas.”
At Island H2O Live!, Vantage also allows guests to earn Park Perks for activities, such as entering a ride or buying a hot dog, that they can trade in for rewards like food, merchandise or a secret song playlist. Vantage also sends guests photos taken by on-ride cameras and at selfie stations around the park, offering the chance to easily post those images on social media through the park app. Another bonus: Vantage lets parents see where their kids are at any time.
Vantage is focused as much on the operator as it is on the consumer, and Mendelson says the program offers features new to waterpark managers. Explains Mendelson, “Vantage tells the operator, for example, how many wristbands went down a ride in the last 10 minutes,” along with other information related to ride usage, throughput, management, staffing and maintenance. It uses graphics to show how many churros have been sold over the past month, along with customer demographics. Operators can also use Vantage to steer people to rides with shorter queues and balance out attendance around the park.
Long-term, Vantage statistics illustrate trends, as well as identify areas for growth. “If I see that toddlers are always only on the same two rides, that might tell me that I should add more for that age group so I can attract more families,” Mendelson adds.
Vantage is available both for new installations as well as retrofits. Its network of sensors can use Power over Ethernet or low voltage power to operate and connect via WiFi signal, meaning installation is simplified and easily scalable.
Building the future in Qatar
Thinking of themed entertainment venues in the Middle East, the UAE comes to mind. Dubai and Abu Dhabi both have invested heavily in the last decade to make tourism and entertainment a part of their larger economy. But they are not alone. Other players in the region are stepping up their plans to incorporate tourism and entertainment into their planning.
Qatar is a small country, a peninsula jutting off Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. It’s hosting the World Cup in 2022 and is at the tail end of a decade-long $200 billion building boom to prepare.
Officials in Qatar are aware of the potential tourism boost from the World Cup, as well as the competitive market for leisure dollars in the nearby UAE. To best take advantage of the influx of visitors, they have tasked WhiteWater with a remarkable challenge: to build one of the Middle East’s largest waterparks. Aquatar will be loaded with 48 water slides, wave pools and attractions. It has been described as the largest single investment in the waterpark industry’s history, according to Geoff Chutter, WhiteWater’s president and CEO.
“Sheikh Nasser bin Abdulrahman Al Thani of Qetaifan Projects clearly wanted to make a statement,” Chutter observes. “He wants something that will become the global icon for leisure entertainment in Qatar while breaking records in waterpark construction. The industry has not seen a slide tower this tall, nor family raft slides at this height. His attitude was ‘Go bigger!’ and we did.”
Size and logistics are just the beginning of what makes building Aquatar one-of-a-kind. Qatar sits on the world’s third largest reserve of natural gas, and Qetaifan wants to embrace the nation’s resource as the theme of Aquatar. The signature element will be Icon Tower, an 80-meter (260-foot) slide tower rising on its own manmade island. The tower will resemble an oil derrick, including a natural gas flame burning day and night from the top.
Icon Tower’s 18 waterslides will include WhiteWater’s Abyss, which will be built an incredible 40 meters in the air featuring unparalleled views of the Gulf, and a half-kilometer long highspeed AquaTube body slide that will last more than a minute.
The engineering feat enabling Icon Tower to become a reality was a challenge that required WhiteWater to put aside all the parameters they typically deal with. Slides traditionally built close to the ground will weave in and out all 180 meters of the structure. The entire tower must be able to withstand both earthquakes and strong winds. Finally, the exceptional height will require that guests take elevators to reach the slide platforms.
In addition to Icon Tower, Aquatar is set to have the first SlideWheel in the Middle East, a wave pool, dueling Master Blasters and an AquaPlay multilevel play structure. Special effects using video, lights, projections and fiberglass veiling will add additional entertaining dimensions.
This Doha newcomer will not only be a huge undertaking, it will be a fast one. The plan is to complete the waterpark by the end of 2021 so it will be ready to greet World Cup crowds in November 2022.
Revving up spinning rapids rides
Like many of WhiteWater’s major projects, the construction of the world’s longest spinning rapids ride got underway with WhiteWater’s team meeting with a noted park design firm. The ride is a new twist on WhiteWater’s spinning rapids product that has been in the market for nearly 25 years. Lava Drifting at Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park in China represented another welcome challenge for WhiteWater’s designers and engineers.
Taylor Jeffs, president and chief creative officer of Legacy Entertainment, has always been a huge fan of the Spinning Rapids Ride since first riding L’oxygénarium at Parc Astérix in 2002, and wanted to use that inspiration as a point of departure for the Shanghai park his team was designing. He contacted WhiteWater and asked for the longest themed spinning rapids ride in the world, which at almost a kilometer long would meander through a great portion of the park.
“Legacy wanted a water ride that goes up a volcano, comes tumbling down and has extensive water rapids sections,” recalls Nathan Jones, WhiteWater’s president of park attractions, noting that Lava Drifting is for a theme park, not a waterpark, so guests ride in street clothes, not swimsuits.
The assignment was even more complex than expected. Legacy wanted multiple conveyor lifts, tunnels, drops and a giant Manta slide feature, which provides a fast drop and a zero-gravity moment. Plus, of course, the actual rapids.
The WhiteWater team got to work to address the design challenges using sophisticated R&D software. “We played with water flow, angles and different velocities as the raft moves through the course. We looked at how the vehicle reacted in the water,” Jones says. After computer testing proved concept feasibility, WhiteWater’s team conducted additional on-site testing for fine-tuning.
WhiteWater’s spinning rapids ride, Lava Drifting at Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park, includes a special Manta slide feature (pictured above in green). Photos courtesy Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park
The team also questioned whether guests would enjoy such a long ride. In the end, the answer was yes, specifically because of the variety of experiences during the adventure. “Guests like that there’s enough going on throughout the ride to capture their imagination,” Jones says. “They can’t see what’s coming around the corner, they’re constantly moving, they’re lifted up, they spin, they finish on the Manta. They remain engaged throughout.”
Creating Lava Drifting was like the other three projects highlighted here: they all built on current trends while raising the bar for the guest experience.
“When clients come to us with an idea or a request, we use our decades of experience to help develop a solution, whether it’s advanced technology, a bespoke waterslide or an entirely new park,” says Franceen Gonzales. “We do it all from the very beginning of planning through to the very end of construction, and beyond.” • • •
Journalist Rona Gindin (www.ronagindin.com) has been covering travel from various business and consumer angles for three decades, and today follows the attractions and travel industries from an Orlando, Florida base.