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Wet, White and Blue

My first two tries I'm taking great draughts of water up my nose before I've even had a chance to register that I've been somersaulted off the wave. By my third try, I'm getting the hang of it and wishing I could afford to install a FlowRider in my back yard.

But my daughter has spotted the six-story tower that is the starting point for the Wolfpack Family Raft Ride, the Black Knight Tunnel Ride and the Master Blaster Uphill Water Coaster. The Master Blaster has been voted best water ride in the United States five years in a row. It has the longest lines in the park -- on our weekday evening, the wait was about 20 minutes. (Amusement Business, an industry publication, estimates that the park gets close to a million visitors a year during its late-April to mid-September season.)

Ride the waves at Schlitterbahn, one of the world's biggest water parks. (Schlitterbahn)

_____Water Parks_____
A Ride at Schlitterbahn
7 Top U.S. Water Parks
Local Water Park-O-Matic (pdf file)

It's hard to argue that you're too scared to try when you're in line with kids just out of diapers. So we settle into a raft for two for the Master Blaster. First you fall six stories. Then jets of pulsating water push you back up a roller coaster-like path, only to drop you again in a series of thrills that last for more than 1,000 feet. I imagine it's a lot like being shot out of a water cannon at the circus, only it takes a lot longer. My favorite ride is the Torrent Wave River -- a long circular stretch of water rocked by waves of various sizes. You can ride the waves in a tube or simply be carried around bareback. It's something like playing in the ocean, only the "ocean" in this case endlessly continues circling, instead of washing into shore.

Four hours of climbing stairs and being pummeled with thousands of gallons of water leaves us ravenous, but we take the time to drive three miles to the town of Gruene, along the fast-flowing Guadalupe.

The entire town, settled in 1845, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and a gorgeous Victorian mansion here has been turned into a B&B. There are antiques and handicraft stores, a wine shop with Texas wines to taste and buy, and a General Store that hasn't changed anything but the merchandise in more than 150 years.

A band is playing in the oldest dance hall in Texas, and kids join parents and grandparents for square dancing. Next door, we eat along the river in an old cotton gin, aptly named the Grist Mill.

Two river outfitters are based in Gruene, and we're sorry we didn't allow more time to explore the town and raft a bit of real white water.

We have just one full day for Schlitterbahn, though, and are waiting in line when the doors open at 9:30 a.m. (Even though the park doesn't officially open until 10 a.m., workers come early and let you start riding immediately.) We spend the next eight hours wet. One unique feature at Schlitterbahn is that the park incorporates the river and its spring-fed water into the rides. Since the water doesn't need to be chlorinated, old-fashioned black tire tubes can be used, lending a yesteryear feel to some of the attractions.

We each pick a tire from a huge pile for what is billed as the "world's longest tube chute." This 45-minute ride carries you through about half the park and feeds you into a lazy river or a fast-moving tunnel, depending on which path you choose to take at a fork. The water of the Comal is a constant 70 degrees, so it provides a satisfyingly chilly reprieve from the beating Texas sun.

It turns out that there are dozens of ways to throw people down hillsides and towers. You can make them twist and careen through enclosed spaces and open spaces. You can have them lie down on their backs and race through a luge-like course feet-first. You can place them on thin strips of plastic and send them head first into a shallow or deep pool. You can isolate them in their own little tubes or speed them around in rubber rafts that hold a family.

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