From the classic blue fiberglass slides of the '60s and '70s to the composite materials and dynamic variety of today's models, waterslides have without doubt come a long way. Yet for all of the imaginative design and clever engineering used to create contemporary waterslides, the visceral thrills of the descent and splashdown remain the same.

It may sound strange at first, but when you stop and think about it, waterslides have a great deal in common with rollercoasters. How so? Both provide the exhilaration of a wild ride while in complete safety and relative comfort. They appeal to kids of all ages and both are the charismatic centerpieces for massive theme parks. Waterslides are, in effect, the aquatic cousins of land-based thrill rides and are enjoyed for mostly the same reasons.

Besides the obvious wet vs. dry distinction, the other big difference between rollercoasters and waterslides is that a vast majority of homeowners cannot afford their own at-home coaster. Even for those aggressively pursuing the stay-at-home vacation and doing so with ample resources, amusement park rides are a bridge too far. When it comes to waterslides, however, it's a very different story. Almost anyone with a swimming pool can find a slide to suit their family's needs and budget.

In other words, waterslides are a thrill most people can afford. They come in a broad range of sizes and designs; some are perfect for small children while larger, speedier versions are suitable for teens. They can be integrated into landscape elements or stand alone on the pool deck. There are custom made slides that can cost tens of thousands of dollars and far more affordable models that cost a fraction of that.

Although waterslides don't tend to grab as much attention as other more recent aquatic features — such as leaping-jet splash pads, lazy rivers or water cannons, to name a few — slides nonetheless provide a timeless and almost universally appreciated brand of fun.

THE GRANDCHILD MAGNET

As is true of other enduring aquatic inventions, such as the diving board or even the rope swing, waterslides are beautiful in their timeless simplicity. There's no mystery as to how they work. Yet, the experience slides provide is surprisingly multi-faceted and endlessly repeatable.

Anticipation grows as the rider ascends the steps to the slide's entry. Once at the top, they experience an elevated view of the scene below. They assume the riding position and then it's into the flume where gravity, water and the slide's contours take over, whisking the rider through the course and toward the crescendo. Finally, splashdown with its momentary chaos of turbulent immersion. And when the thrill is over, it's back up again for another ride!

"It's amazing watching the way kids will go up and down the slide over and over again. They'll do it for hours if you let them," says Margaret McGrath, vice president of marketing for S.R. Smith, a manufacturer that includes several models of slides among its long list of pool and spa accouterments. "Slides add a wonderful dimension to the pool experience," she says. "I had one grandmother tell me they consider the slide their 'grandchild magnet.'

"And," she adds, "slides keep the kids outdoors and active, a world away from the video screen."

Builder Jeff Smart of Fresno Clovis Pools (Fresno, Calif.) agrees that in today's world of endless media and constant distractions, slides add a component to pool environments that effectively compete with the digital realm: "Let's face it," he says, "kids today are accustomed to being entertained by more than just a body of water. It's not enough to splash around and stay cool in a pool. That's why I try to make the pools an adventure — something to spark their imaginations."

The presence of dynamic slides and other interactive features found in waterparks and other commercial settings is another factor driving sales, says Kathryn Varden, western regional sales manager for Inter-Fab, a manufacturer of slides and other pool components. "People get exposed to great slides at commercial waterparks," she explains. "When they learn that they can have something that delivers the same thrills, on a residential scale, that generates interest. And consumers know, if they provide a great experience at their backyard swimming pool, their kids and their friends will want to hang out at home.

Because slides have such an engrossing appeal for young and old, they have become a tight fit with today's trend toward the backyard resort, explains Connie Pressley, co-owner of Paradise Slides, a family-owned and operated slide manufacturer based in Cleveland, Ga. "Homeowners are doing amazing things with their backyards these days, and slides are perfect for the 'stay-cation.' You can control the water quality so there's less worry, and you don't have to pack up the car and drive to the nearest waterpark. You have that experience at home waiting for you at any time."

SLIDE SPECIES

As mentioned above, the waterslide market is flush with variations on the basic concept. In the broadest context, slides can be listed in one of two categories: stand-alone slides and landscape slides.

Stand-alone units are typically shipped ready for installation and almost always deck mounted on small piers or other common footings. The traditional straight or curved "playground" type of slide with a shallow tray-like flume, which have all but vanished, are examples of stand-alone slides.

Stand-alone units are not only much safer and more durable than they used to be, they also come in a wide variety of creative designs and colors. "The great thing about this type of slide is you can add it to a deck at anytime, which is why slides have become a strong aftermarket," explains McGrath. "As the life cycle of the pool progresses, many homeowners want to add features. When people realize, 'Hey, I can put that on my pool,' it reinvigorates the love of the pool."

However, Smart says, "Right now the trend is toward the 'custom' slide look that is integrated into the backyard landscaping. With stand-alone slides, everyone just wants to try to 'hide' or 'disguise' the slide so it's not the focal point of the backyard. Once I show them the custom slide that is often what they want."

Landscape slides are loosely defined as those that integrate with some type of landscape element, most commonly poolside rock structures. They are also commonly found on slopes, partially concealed by plant material, while some landscape slides are part of "themed" amusement park type elements. Generally speaking, landscape slides are larger than stand-alone systems which means riders will typically reach greater speeds.

"In the residential pool market, the landscape slide is a booming category," says Varden. "They blend in with rock waterfall features as well as the rest of the landscape backyard."

"Many of our larger slides are installed in the landscape," confirms Pressley, whose company manufactures modular sections of slides that can be pieced together to form an infinite number of configurations. "We're seeing slides that are much bigger than they used to be, some as large as those you'd see in a commercial property. That's especially true for slides installed on hillsides where the slope supports slides that are much longer than what you typically think of in the residential market."

The alternative to such pre-manufactured systems as these is the slide built from scratch using various combinations of gunite/shotcrete, artificial rock and poured-in-place concrete, a process that is far more expensive than using off-the-shelf products.

"We know builders are still building those, but I think they might be losing some of their popularity," observes Pressley. "We've had several calls where the homeowner wants to take out a concrete slide and put in one of our slides. The main reason I think is that there's a lot of maintenance in terms of having to refinish them or regularly reapply sealers."

For his part, Smart creates elaborate landscape slides using a manufactured modular system. "While most people are moving toward custom slides, in our case, the way we do it isn't really 100 percent custom," he says. "That's because we use the BYOS [Build Your Own Slide] modular custom slide system from Interfab. It's been terrific for us as it allows us to build small custom slides or really big custom resort-style slides, without the resort cost."

AFTER MARKETS

While many slides, be they stand-alone or landscape, are installed during initial construction, plenty more are easy additions to existing pools. For residential pools, as mentioned above, slides add fun and function to pools that in many situations are going largely unused.

"We're probably doing more business on the retrofit side," explains McGrath. "With the relatively small number of new pools being built compared to existing, the slide has really come on strong for owners of existing pools who want something more in the at-home aquatic experience. Likewise, slides have become a powerful selling tool builders can use to help generate aftermarket business and update previous clients' pool environments."

For commercial facilities that rely on turnstile revenues, the addition of a slide can be the difference between pools with sparse attendance and those that enjoy steady traffic. "When we talk to aquatic directors, we hear a lot about the need for programming," says McGrath. "They're often looking for ways to broaden their facilities' appeal. After all, when a commercial pool goes unused, the operating costs are still basically the same.

"Keep in mind," she adds, "we live in a time when many community pools are closing due to lack of revenue. Slides are one way they can attract more visitors and ultimately keep their doors open. That benefits not only the facility itself, but also the communities they serve, which is in turn great for the pool and spa industry. Everyone benefits."

Whether stand-alone or in the landscape, residential or commercial, large or small, it's clear the humble slide has much to offer the industry and its consumers in terms of the most important factor of all: fun.

"Slides provide the main thing our industry is ultimately selling — a fun and exciting experience," says McGrath. "It's like anything else, when you have something in your home or business that's being used, it becomes highly valued."

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail eric@aquamagazine.com.

Eric Herman is Senior Editor of AQUA Magazine.