Before built-in pools, there was the good, old garden hose. Hooked up to a sprinkler that moved around the lawn in a desperate attempt to keep grass green, the system also served to cool hot kids.
While the technology has changed, the sentiment remains: playing in water is fun! A treasured memory for many of us; it's the thriving business of some dynamic Okanagan women.
PLAY is their PASSION
Waterplay Solutions Corp.—a Kelowna-based company—dreams, designs and delivers water parks. With thousands of installations around the world, including Canada, USA, Singapore, Australia, South Africa, United Kingdom and the Netherlands, they build everything from small community parks to big destination attractions.
"Our goal is to have Waterplay products within a 100-kilometre radius of any child. Everywhere but Antarctica," President, Jill White, says with a chuckle. “Play is our passion.”
Vernon born, White grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Business ran in her blood, but it did not sit on her doorstep.
"I'd always wanted to run my own business and I would send our accountant, the late Jim Mills, ideas and he would make fun of me, saying, 'Come on, Jill! That'll never make money!'” Until one day her mentor presented White with a unique opportunity.
"I still remember Jim and I came out of a board meeting and he handed me this catalogue and said they were looking for investors or to sell… I flipped through and right there, I saw the potential! The brochure was showing parks and rec installations and immediately I thought, hotels, resort, campgrounds… It was endless where it could go.”
Before White acquired the business and moved it to Kelowna in 2004, the original owners ran an irrigation business and sold playground equipment out of Penticton. Visiting Expo ’86 in Vancouver, they noted the UFO station with ground spray and thought, what if we ran water through our playground equipment? And whoosh! The splash pad industry was born.
Their first park, installed a year later in Whistler, is still running – albeit with tens of layers of paint and glacier-fed water. "It's literally the coldest park in the world! Kids’ lips turn blue," White says, grinning.
Fast forward to 2017 and Waterplay is celebrating its thirty-year anniversary and displaying distinguished awards. In 2016, the company was named one of Canada's top 100 businesses led by female entrepreneurs. The rankings, published by PROFITguide.com and Canadian Business Magazine, are based on size, growth rate and profitability.
White is justly proud, but she's quick to point out she grew up surrounded by brothers. "I don't see gender," she admits. "All of our employees are here because they offer a specific skill set we need and they're all valuable."
A champion Alpine ski racer in her youth, she still remembers a coach who told her not to measure herself against the girls but to ask herself, who is the fastest? Period.
Of the 55 people Waterplay employs in Kelowna, more than a third are women. They fill every kind of role including fabricators, engineers, product designers, administration and support staff, sales, marketing and finance.
BALANCING FUN with all that Other Stuff
Managing director, Lisa Neilson, says, “You can design and position product in a way that is attractive to say a landscape architect or a designer, but at the end of the day, is that really adding to the play experience for kids? We keep that in the forefront of our minds – not getting caught up in what will sell but what will engage kids… An exceptional experience for the ones using it, not the ones forking out the money. It's a balancing act."
Indeed, lots of balance is required in a business like Waterplay, including carefree-fun versus risk of injury, water conservation and changing technology. The company spent last year revamping their entire offering. Things like remote monitoring and access to control systems and the linking of multiple parks to be controlled through one interface, as well as different options for design and layout allowing for retrofitting into existing parks.
What about the kid who breaks his arm on the slide?
“At the risk of putting myself out there, I think a kid needs to learn how to fall,” White says. “When we grew up, if you fell out of the tree, you learned… We should support play advocates – not be reckless – but let kids be kids.”
That said, the company takes the safety of their play equipment seriously. “There are very set safety regulations for wet playgrounds that have evolved over time,” Neilson says. “You can fall in love with a great concept, give it to the engineers to draw out and build, bring in the manufacturability and safety aspect – they give it back and you wonder what happened to our exciting idea? Someone could get caught on this or climb on that and sometimes you have to shelve it.”
As for conservation, specialized systems ensure water is recirculated and treated in various forms.
CHANGING the WORLD One Park at a time:
Waterplay implements 250 projects a year around the world but when pressed, White and Neilson agree, their favourite is close to home.
“It's the story behind it,” White says. “It literally transformed a neighbourhood.”
Once a forgotten greenspace in the heart of downtown Winnipeg, Central Park now unites a multicultural area, employs people and helps keep a lid on crime thanks to a massive revitalization plan. Waterplay features prominently with a wading pool and aquatic play pad covering some 8, 600 square feet of the park.
The project presented many challenges but two separate water treatment systems allow the wading pool to draw from recirculated water while the spray park operates as an independent drain-away, thus avoiding cross-contamination. A gorgeous glass structure catches sunlight and reflects water while it safely houses washrooms, lockers, and the mechanical room.
"I grew up in Winnipeg,” Neilson says, and this once-drug ridden park now draws families. It's a source of pride."
Other notable projects include memorial parks, like Ava’s Splash Pad in Tennessee, named after the two-year-old who died unexpectedly following complications from routine surgery. With custom airbrushed strawberry and blueberry graphics, monkey and bumblebee water cannons, rainbow arches and colourful dumping buckets, Ava lives on in the laughter of the children who visit the park.
Water even goes to the dogs. The Rex Dog Hotel in Vancouver features a waterpark designed for furry friends, fetching much amusement with water-ball launchers, pop-its and geysers.
A project for penguins is part of the company’s portfolio, too! Although, when the call first came from a zoo that wanted squirting features and ground spray coming through the rocks—all in a treated system—there was some consternation.
“We were stressed,” White says, sharing a knowing look with Neilson. “We were scared we were going to kill the penguins!”
No surprise, a sense of humor—or least a sense of fun—is a prerequisite to employment at Waterplay. “You don't need to be young to work here, although we were young when we started,” White quips. “You just need to be young at heart.”
For more information, visit waterplay.com or call (250) 712-3393. And By The Way, the penguins are still happily playing.