Splish-splashy summer fun

Who needs a pool to stay cool? Children - and cities - across the US are discovering the joys of spray parks.

On a hot summer day in Dallas, children frolic beneath water-spouting sea serpents. They giggle as they get sprayed by touch-sensitive fire hydrants. Even the adults find it hard to resist these giant glorified sprinklers shaped into metal loops and arches.

These water playgrounds - sometimes called spray parks or Splashpads - have caught on as low-budget, ground-level alternatives to excavated pools and family aquatic centers. And because their operation is automated and there is no standing water, they need no on-site supervision, which gives them a distinct advantage this time of year: They can remain open a little longer, even after children have gone back to school in late summer or early fall.

In Houston, for example, the public swimming pools and aquatic complexes will close Sept. 1 because the student-age lifeguards needed to staff these facilities are no longer available. But the city's water playgrounds stay open almost year-round. They close only in January and February, when temperatures are too cold for getting soaked to the skin.

Dallas installed spray parks several years ago to quell the uproar over the closure of roughly 40 neighborhood wading pools. Health concerns prompted the closings of the obsolete, concrete pools, which were unfiltered and had to be filled and drained each day.

Well-drained spray parks, which use water once or treat and recirculate it, cost about $350,000 each, installed. That's a bargain compared with popular full-size family aquatic centers, which offer a variety of water and play features but are far more expensive - often costing several million dollars.

The success of the water playgrounds in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods hasn't gone unnoticed. "City council members have been watching the spray parks in the [lower-income] southern part of the city and have seen how fantastically popular they've been," says Willis Winters of the Dallas Parks Department. "Now they want them in their neighborhoods." Four more parks are in the planning stages, including two in medium- to high-income areas.

A strategy used in Indianapolis, says parks planner Michael Krosschell, is to group sprinkler facilities with a picnic shelter, a playground, and maybe a ball field. "Kids love to go back and forth, all day, between the playground and the spray."

The sprayground concept was inspired by a large, child-friendly water feature at the 1986 World Expo in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Susan Baker of Waterplay Manufacturing says that 6- to 9-year-olds are the primary users of these parks, but all ages get into the act. Toddlers love the gentle, low-to-ground sprays and geysers; older children the water cannons; and parents and teens the refreshing atmosphere.

"Kids especially seem to enjoy running through a cloud of water coming from all directions," says Greg Garber, superintendent of parks and forestry for Cambridge, Mass. The city has several water-play installations and is considering more.

Park planners involved in such installations face a mounting number of equipment options. Vortex Aquatic Structures International Inc., a Montreal-based company, offers roughly 150 different spray, dumping, and gushing features, and it keeps developing new ones. To simplify the selection process, some buyers opt for themed packages, centered on such objects as a fire station or medieval castle.

The play features are becoming more interactive and entertaining all the time, such as a flagpole that challenges children to work together to divert ground sprays in order to raise the pole and create a plume of water.

Computer chips, with preprogrammed spray sequences, also add an element of surprise. "You've got two or three features going, and all of a sudden they will stop and a few more will spring to life," says Vortex's Scott Broady. "This heightens the sense of anticipation."

To keep spray parks from wasting water and becoming a nuisance in neighborhoods, timers control their operational hours.

If a dog contaminates a park's water supply, the treatment equipment is designed to detect this and shut down the sprinklers until the water is clean again.

In drought-conscious Dallas, spray parks recirculate water despite higher equipment maintenance costs. In Green Bay, Wis., where the city draws its water supply from Lake Michigan, runoff from six spray parks simply drains away. This is cheaper, but the water can be pretty cold.

The growing popularity of spraygrounds isn't limited to public parks. Resorts and day-care centers have installed them, as have housing developers. They are even featured in billboard advertisements.

No one, it seems, can resist the appeal of these water playgrounds.

After all, they require no swimming skills, just a willingness to splash around and get wet. The wetter the better, say children who eagerly wait for the next blast of the water cannon, which promises to leave no one dry.

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