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The Art and Science of Water: An Interview with Wyeth Tracy of Empex Water Toys

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor




Climb and slide toys are much like regular playground equipment. Kids love to climb and slide, so it was an obvious leap to come up with water slides and sprays. The enhanced play possibilities create yet another water event.
Photos courtesy of Empex Water Toys
Keystonewall.com

Water, water everywhere--and not a drop for drinking! This water is for squirting, spraying, dancing, dumping, spritzing, stamping, running, sliding and sharp shooting. Isn't that enough? Well, not if kids have anything to say about it. The creativity never stops when it comes to designing newer and more exciting interactive, educational water play devices.

There's also no end to all the places in the big wide world that water play equipment has already been installed: From Vladivostok to Australia, Hong Kong to Shanghai, Korea to Japan--even Fiji is on the list. There's also New Zealand, Brazil, Italy, France and Greece. Everybody wants one.






The clamshell Aquafountain provides a series of different weirs through which the water pours.


The History

Water parks have become increasingly popular since they began in the 1950s. The "Father of the Water Park" is considered to be George Millay, who came up with the idea of Sea World in 1964, which took the idea of sea-life parks to new levels. In 1977, he did the same to the amusement industry--changing it forever--when he opened the gates of Wet 'n' Wild in Orlando, Fla.

After 1977, other parks began springing up around the country. Huge, concrete slide structures were the norm back then. Soon, wave pools came from Europe, the leisure river and speed slide came from the Asia-Pacific region of the world and the waterslide came from California--among other remarkable innovations-- creating what is known today as the water park industry.

And what do water parks need the most? Water toys, of course. Wyeth Tracy of Empex Watertoys was an operator in water and theme parks for 20 years. As such, he was well versed in the maintenance and liability issues involved. He'd worked in a park that had a small water playground, one of the first built in the early 1970s. "Actually, it was the first recorded water playground before Wet 'n' Wild opened in Florida," says Tracy. "It was designed by a group of artists who put in a bunch of gizmos. Kids would go in the water wearing their clothes and get soaked. I have some old pictures, and everyone had bell bottoms on."






"You can combine interactive water toys, Aquatons, climb and slide structures and Aquajets to create ground level, low level and mid level water," says Tracy. "Put them all together and then everything is coming from all different directions and is at the same time intermitant as well as animated."


When he went back there 15 years later, the playground was still there, but the gizmos were gone. "No one could recreate them," Tracy goes on. "Even though I had old pictures, I couldn't find them anywhere." But he thought it was such a great idea, he started to develop the products himself.

Initially, Tracy had problems finding a suitable material that would work in water parks. Everything was metal or concrete. He needed to create water toys that would work in chlorinated water, not be corroded in high sun or get hot to the touch. Lightning was an issue with the metal structures, as well as rust. He decided to go the route of fiberglass and specialty plastics.

"It's interesting because fiberglass takes 20 years to cure into a solid," says Tracy. "It's a resin that behaves like glass, which is still a fluid. It's also much more flexible. It's very strong, lighter than metal and much easier to install. Metal structures are heavy so there's more foundation work required to prevent them from falling over."






The Aquaspiro has a spiraling jet that goes around the center pole. The sensation makes children dash around the pole so they can feel the spray on different parts of their bodies. A tickling spray starts at the feet and goes up legs, then up to the torso and finally to the head so the children have to close their eyes.


His first water play structures were made in his basement. "I measured my kid's arms and legs," says Tracy. "Our first project was in Japan and that's where it all started. People started buying them and we ended up making more and more of them."

Another issue for water play areas was finding the correct surfacing material. Asphalt surfacing was used in the 70s, but because of freeze thaw issues, they eventually went to concrete and put down EPDM rubber surfaces. EPDM surfaces were originally used on European running tracks and were adapted for use in water parks. Now they have versions that are very good in submersed situations.

"We tend to sub contract out installation of the surfacing material because it's important to use people who are specialists. They can focus on what needs doing," says Tracy. "It's always best to focus on what you're trying to do and do it well."






The Aquabow will create a rainbow through the mist which creates a prism effect. A series of nozzles in the bow give a soft spray that fills up the whole hoop.


Growing by Leaps and Bounds

Today, water parks are being built at an astounding rate all over the world. They come in a multitude of shapes and sizes, from small aquatics centers that have a few water park features--such as a waterslide or leisure river--to city-owned facilities that rival some of today's major parks,

The estimated attendance at North American water parks during the summer 2003 season (the most recent date for which figures are available) was 70-72 million. That number includes the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The number of water parks throughout the rest of the world is about 600. The average attendance growth rate per year for North America is 3 percent.






The Aquadome is small and invites younger children and toddlers to put their feet over the jets. They all get on the different nozzles, covering them until one starts shooting really high. Their friends can help, too. Not only are they learning the value of social skills, they're also learning about hydraulics and pressure.


Keeping Up With Themselves

When they first started, the company created interactive water toys such as water cannons and teeter totters. They also created a water bike, which was pedaled to make it squirt. "Children love to make the things work," says Tracy. "That's when we moved on to products that are created with motion. When you start to work with the concept of anticipating when a bucket is going to tip and in which direction, it gets even more interesting." From there they saw a need for toys to put in larger parks and came up with architectural and artistic presentations of water. "I always wonder why it took so long. In the 1980s, I said to myself, 'why isn't anybody making these?' We were probably one of the first off the mark doing this."

The next step was to work with longevity, color and form. Much more interesting shapes are possible when using fiberglass molds and even better, there are no pipe sizes or welding issues. Their first concepts started a whole industry. "The industry soon realized it was a good idea to have shallow pools with no standing water," says Tracy. "They didn't need life guards, and the parents get to relax while the kids are burning up all kinds of energy. They didn't have to worry that their kids would suddenly disappear in the deep water."

When they developed Aquatons(TM) with self-contained pumps and no need for a piped in water feed, they were creating all new architectural forms that didn't exist before. "We came up with a whole series of architectural forms using the same motions, but with a different array of water," says Tracy. "Then we added color so it would look like a candy shop for kids and attract them just like bees are attracted to flowers." Aquatons are a mainstay of their parks and are designed in varying pipe sizes so they're all different. At the same time, Tracy is always thinking of the maintenance and safety issues when he designs architectural presentations of water.

Adding on to Aquatons are the Aquadek series that are climb and slide toys. Every one of the toys gives children a different visual and sensual spray experience.

The Aquaspiro has a spiraling jet that goes around the center pole. The sensation makes children dash around the pole so they can feel the spray on different parts of their bodies. A tickling spray starts at the feet and goes up legs, then up to the torso and finally to the head so the children have to close their eyes.






Aquatot and Aquastart are bollards with an automation system which starts a control manifold which then animates a number of different features that come on and go off. The manifold can also power ground jets that shoot up. Children put their hands on the bollard, it reads the pressure and starts the sequence.


A lot of the toys have a simple activity without needing moving parts. Kids can interact with the water to get a sensation that's visual as well as sensual. They're also doing a huge amount of activity what with running into the path of the jets, escaping and then dodging back in for more.

Aquatot and Aquastart are bollards with an automation system which starts a control manifold which then animates a number of different features that come on and go off. The manifold can also power ground jets that shoot up. They put their hand on the bollard, it reads the pressure and starts the sequence. Kids actually make the thing start to spray. The only complaint is that they want the sequence to stop so they can start it up all over again.

The Aquasphere adds another spray arm and water array. The play involves stopping the jet with your hand so it will spray out another nozzle. The obvious next step is to call over your friends to help. The group tries to get as many of the nozzles covered as they can so the jet shoots farther, and then shoot someone who is really far away--like your father who is peacefully reading a book in a lounge chair. Now is that fun, or what?

The Aquadome is smaller and invites younger children and toddlers to put their feet over the jets. They all get on the different nozzles, covering them until one starts shooting really high. Their friends can help, too. Not only are they learning the value of social skills, they're also learning about hydraulics and pressure. It's educational as well as fun, and cools you off on a hot day to boot.

The Aquabrella is based on laminar flow. A large volume of water comes up over the top and as it cascades down, it holds its maniscus tension in a curtain. You can stand inside the curtain, which feels like being in a castle or behind a waterfall. But, the water completely surrounds and encloses the area, allowing kids to invent and create a magical space. They can also see through the water and notice how a water curtain changes their visual perceptions.

The Aquabow creates a rainbow through the mist, a prism effect. The clamshell aquafountain provides a series of different weirs through which the water pours.

In addition, there is the further surprise factor that can be found in the Tippin Toucans, the Flashin Tree Frog, the Butterfly Splash and the Rain Forest, which is a series of creatures such as monkeys, toucans, bees, mosquitoes, butterflies and bugs. The idea is the critters show up with water and they slowly tip over and dump water all over the children. The anticipation factor is at work here, since the children never know when a bucket of water will dump or where it will land.

"You can have interactive water toys, Aquatons, climb and slide structures and Aquajets that create ground level, low level and mid level water," says Tracy. "Put them all together and then everything is coming from all different directions and are, at the same time is intermitant as well as animated."

The biggest challenge installing these is that everyone wants them at the same time. Fortunately they're very easily installed. Tracy recommends using local pool contractors because the technology is the same as building a pool. It's important to make sure the installation is done correctly. Also when the season is opening everyone wants their toys at the same time.

The biggest park they've ever done is a 10,000 square foot water park, which is now on the planning board for the Middle East. It's still in design, however, the general size is three thousand to 5,000 square feet. The smallest water park is about one thousand square feet. "Anything smaller than that really only has room for a garden hose, and that's actually what this all based on ... garden hoses and squirt guns," says Tracy. "When we were kids, we didn't have these things. But we did have hoses and squirt guns and those arcing sprinkler attachments, which created a tunnel you could run through. We've created that now with our Aquajets, which are ground jets."






The Aquasphere adds another spray arm and water array. The play involves stopping the jet with your hand so it will spray out another nozzle. The obvious next step is to call over your friends to help. The group tries to get as many of the nozzles covered as they can so the jet shoots even farther.


The Fun Never Stops

Wyeth Tracy got into the business back in 1980-81, and he says "There's nothing better in life than having a job where you make kids laugh and smile, and that was the biggest kick--making kids have fun."

Now they're starting on Aquanettic, which is very interactive and requires a lot more thought. They've created a way for children to make the elements move and have a much more exciting impact This toy is based on the educational value of cause and effect.

A child can turn a valve and create one spray event, then turn it again to make a wheel spin around, then turn another and make a spinner start flinging water, then turn it back and it all stops. Children can also turn a wheel to the left, making jets come out, then turn it right and zap your friend with one of the jets.

"Sometimes we can't help but get involved--and all wet--especially when we're fixing things or adjusting elements," says Tracy. "The kids shoot you in the back, but you can't get angry because you invented the stuff."






The Tippin Toucans, the Flashin Tree Frog, the Butterfly Splash and the Rain Forest are a series of creatures such as monkeys, toucans, bees, mosquitoes, butterflies and bugs. The idea is the critters show up with water and they slowly tip over and dump water all over the children. The anticipation factor is at work here, since the children never know when a bucket of water will dump or where it will land.


Installation Non-Issues

"I prefer standing water," says Tracy. "Parents can lie in shallow water and watch, be with their children, and stay cool."

If you run pipes to the spray features, the standing water becomes the reservoir, allowing you to chlorinate, filter and treat it, which is paramount. Water has to be filtered, but to a much higher degree than a standard swimming pool, because the chlorine gets burned off, however it's basically all the same technology.






It's also possible to design the EPDM base if the client wants it and create custom fiberglass products as well. All they have to do is put the essential machinery inside.


Designer's Delight

"I think one of the most important things with these features is they must be timeless," says Tracy. "They have to be in place for a long time and still be contemporary. The acid test is that whenever you see it, it's still fresh and that is the supreme challenge in industrial design."

Tracy works with an industrial designer and between the two of them, they develop all these items. "Simplicity creates longevity in design. When you create something that's simple, it lasts because people don't get tired of it," says Tracy. Then he pauses for a moment. "Actually, it's very complicated simplicity, intelligent simplicity, if you will."

They can create custom fiberglass products as well. All they have to do is put the essential machinery inside. "It all depends on what the client wants," says Tracy. "Being creative and flexible is also a big part of it. As they say, you can do anything with time and money--the two commodities nobody has enough of."






There are two different kinds of spraygrounds that are popular with municipalities. The beach entry variety has about 12 inches of water. The debate is, which is more fun, standing water or no standing water? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. No standing water makes insurance companies happy and no life guards are required. But standing water has more play value and slows the kids down. This lessens potential falling and kids play more with the water and the water features.


The Future of Fun

They've done a crazy, custom fountain in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. They're doing some elements for tallest building in the world in Dubai. They get requests from all over the world through the Internet. What's next?

"There's always something," says Wyeth Tracy. "There's always the next level and the variety inherent in the presentation of water is endless."



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December 8, 2019, 8:00 am PDT

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