The special guest for this I'M4FUN podcast is Franceen Gonzales, Chief Experience Officer with WhiteWater West Industries. Franceen’s background in senior roles with Great Wolf Resorts and Six Flags, coupled with her 7+ years with WhiteWater, has catapulted her to be twice named to Blooloop’s Top 50 theme park influencer list. Franceen is known throughout the industry as a significant advocate of safety for the amusement industry. She was named Chairwoman of ASTM’s F-24 Committee, the first woman to hold that position. At WhiteWater, Franceen works tirelessly to oversee project development in a way that ensures the customer journey is the highest priority. Join Dennis as he and Franceen have a frank and honest discussion about not only the waterpark sector, but our industry as a whole in terms of product changes, consumer expectations, and safety.
About Franceen Gonzales
Franceen Gonzales, builder of teams, strategic visionary, and advocate for the industry, has outstanding credentials as a former park operator, an experienced business developer, and recipient of multiple industry awards. As WhiteWater’s Chief Experience Officer (CXO), Franceen is working to deliver an exceptional experience for clients, partners, and team members across the enterprise. She formerly served as EVP in the Americas, helping her team and clients develop successful parks incorporating safety, effective operations, and innovative high-quality products. Previously, Franceen held top management positions at Great Wolf Resorts, Six Flags Great Adventure, Golfland Entertainment Centers Inc., and Wet ’N’ Wild Waterworld. Building winning teams and her strategies in risk-management, operations, sales, and business modeling have defined her success over the years. As a prolific volunteer, Franceen focuses her free time on safety and the continued growth of the industry.
Thank you to Franceen Gonzales for answering some additional questions from the live podcast that were not able to be answered due to time. These questions (and Franceen’s answers) can be found below.
A lot of people wonder how to keep the balance between thrilling rides and attractions, and ones that are safe. What would be your response?
All rides that comply with the recognized industry standards would be considered safe, whether they are thrilling or not. And we need to keep in mind that “thrilling” is relative. What might seem like a tame ride for a thrill-seeking adult might be thrilling for a child. Regardless, rides and attractions should be designed to comply with the standards which allows rides/attractions to be innovative and thrilling and still safe. For instance, there are g-force limits in the industry standards and any of those thrilling coasters we see in parks comply with the limits.
What would you say are the main differences in operating an indoor waterpark versus an outdoor waterpark, especially in terms of choosing products and approach to safety?
I would have to say that the indoor environment is a challenging one, but if you pick your equipment and design the park well, most of these challenges can be overcome. Humidity is usually in the 85%+ range, so that can lead to corrosion for steel. Coatings and the use of composites helps with that. Humidity can also allow bacteria and algae to grow, so keeping things clean and periodically disinfected helps a great deal. The water and air are warm and constant temperature so staff and guests need to stay hydrated. Because it is a comfortable temperature, there is often a 365 day operating year. That can be a challenge for staffing year-round and for organizing shifts with extended operating hours. I can go on and on, but I will say, one extremely important area is water quality. There is not the same kind of UV exposure from the sun, so indoors may not require keeping chlorine levels high, like one may do in an outdoor setting. But this also means carefully monitoring pH. There is also a lot of aeration relative to the water volume, so alkalinity is affected which also affects pH volatility. A well maintained water quality system benefits everyone from guests and staff, to the equipment, to the operator’s bottom line.
With regard to waterpark operations, where would you say parks should be investing in the future in terms of products and amenities?
Of course I’m happy when parks invest in new attractions but as guests are increasingly more discerning and want a unique experience, the park needs to look beautiful and be comfortable. There was a time when waterparks were a flat piece of land dotted with slide complexes and some pools. Today and into the future, those attractions need to be “selfie-worthy” not just in their unique design or color scheme, but in all the surrounding landscape. The whole scene needs to be interesting to the viewer. As for comfort, I see a future of more resort-like settings with cabanas and amenities at one’s fingertips like VIP service, online ordering, dedicated lockers at seating areas, etc. Guests want convenience and want to feel special, all while they are in a visually stunning place with attractions they can get only there.
How can waterpark operators add something fresh without a lot of capital expense?
When I was an operator, my go-to upgrade was landscaping, flooring, elbow grease, and paint. Creating a planter with layered foliage and color can really upgrade a space. Flooring may seem like something no one notices, but as soon as you see a poor-looking floor, you’ll know that flooring does make a difference. It usually takes up a large part of the visual field and definitely impacts how guests perceive the quality of a park. Just taking a section and updating the flooring can make a huge difference. Elbow grease and paint go a long way. Cleaning and buffing slides as well as a fresh coat of paint on buildings can make a park look new. It’s like a DIY show… focus on the visual field. And that includes your water. Keeping water clean and clear is the easiest and least expensive investment you can make.
What do you think the impact of raw materials availability and cost increases might have on the industry?
Other related industries are definitely seeing a slowdown in receiving raw materials and components. This is leading to long lead times. I think operators won’t realize this increase in lead times and they will order only to find critical items may not arrive until after the season start. This might leave them with rides down. It is really critical to talk to all your vendors to get an idea of what they are experiencing. Freight companies around the world are seeing slowdowns and increases in their pricing. Everyone may be affected by this especially as prices fluctuate. I foresee some companies will prioritize what they need to buy to get open and if it isn’t critical, they may forego it. My hope is that everyone thinks about safety items first!
Everyone says that, after opening a waterpark, they underestimated the amount of seating they would need. How have these kinds of design factors changed in recent years for waterparks in terms of entertainment capacity, seating and shade, and other support facilities and amenities?
I think developers often make the mistake of using the bare minimum required by the code for public seating, bathrooms, showers, etc. They want to put all the investment in the fun stuff like rides and theming. But the reality is, you have to think about the experience of the customer. What do they want? They don’t want to be crammed into a changing room, they don’t want other people encroaching on their space, they want a space that is comfortable. If they have a nice experience while in the park they will stay longer. The draw of the attractions got them there, but now you have to keep them there. Both are important. I can’t say that the design factors themselves have changed, but rather mentality about an immersive, enjoyable experience has changed. The model is no longer strictly about volume, but about value for the entire experience. In my opinion, this has been changing since the waterpark resort came into popularity and it has evolved even more since then.
You have been a great role model in our industry, not just an advocate for safety, but a trailblazer among women. What would your advice be to a young teenager who wanted to make the amusement industry their career?
Do it because you love it and find meaning in what you love about it. There is a Japanese concept called Ikigai which means, “reason for being”. It is the intersection of “what you love” with “what you are good at” with “what the world needs” and “what you can be paid for”. This is a place where your own sense of mission meets your passion and your profession. When your job gives you joy and a sense of reason, you will have a fulfilling career, no matter what industry you pursue. Of course, we want amazing people in the amusement industry so I hope you can find your Ikigai in our industry. Mine was a love for teamwork, learning, travel, science, making people happy, and making the world a better place. I found my Ikigai in the companies I have worked for, in my industry volunteerism, my world travel, and in the people I connect with (especially my husband, who is also in the industry).
Do you feel we are going to see more or less government involvement in our industry in the future?
I think it depends on the region. A baseline of government regulation can help with supporting quality and safety for those enjoying and working in attractions. Over-regulation can hinder industry development such as heavy importation duties, country-specific requirements for rides that makes them more expensive or unavailable, or barriers for international exchange of staff. I think it is a balance of making sure parks are safe and offer a good experience balanced with allowing for innovation and growth without too many barriers to development and consistent operation. Working with IAAPA and local associations, we can make sure our voices are heard to achieve that balance.
Do you feel we are seeing water attractions in the USA continuing to expand? How does the US growth market compare to development in other countries?
I haven’t seen a slowdown in demand for water attractions in general. In light of COVID, we will likely see a dip in growth from one year to the next in the US but it is more of a delay than anything. Water attractions are popular and with the pandemic, people feel more comfortable doing outdoor activities and water is a big draw. If I had to look at related industries, you will see that residential swimming pools are booming. Camping and outdoor recreation is also booming. Doing a fun activity outdoors like going to a waterpark will continue to be popular. I would state, however, that new developments are happening elsewhere. I am not seeing a lot of new full park developments coming online in the US, but we are seeing expansions of existing parks (pre-COVID). Yet hotel/resorts will continue to be built and in general, pools and water attractions are at the top of the list of desired amenities.
Our industry has experienced a trend towards increased integration of the guest into the experience through hands-on and immersive attractions. Do you see this approach continuing as it relates to product development for waterparks?
Yes, for sure. Waterpark attractions already have an immersive experience since it is a very visceral experience. You feel the thrill of the ride/attraction but also have the element of water literally immersing you in unique sound, feel, sight, smell, and sometimes even taste. 😊 Taking the same elements that make a water attraction interesting and amping those elements up, will continue to happen. Layering additional technologies makes a lot of sense too. Water is everywhere in our world and it is a great inspiration for developing products to put into waterparks.
International Theme Park Services, Inc.
2195 Victory Parkway
Cincinnati, Ohio 45206
United States of America