Wet, White and Blue
Sunday, July 4, 2004
Deep in the heart of landlocked Texas Hill Country, I ride a major wave. For about 30 seconds, before wiping out and being whipsawed head over heels into a churning maelstrom, I briefly understand the glorious rush of surfing.
I also, at the insistence of my 11-year-old, confront my fear of heights and plunge headfirst down a three-story chute at Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort. That gives me the courage to allow myself to be shot out of the Master Blaster by water jets that catapult our rubber raft six stories into the air, then drop us like a sack of cement flowing off the edge of Niagara Falls.
Ten years ago the best water parks offered little more than a few twisty slides and a faux log sliding down a chute. But four major companies and a dozen or more smaller ones have been on an innovation binge in the past decade.
The parks have all kept the little slides and sprinklers and pools that occupy the toddlers, the grandmas and the generally timid. But across the country, they're increasingly adding attractions on testosterone. Water rides that are roller coasters in disguise. Machines that create waves out of water blasting from pipes at the rate of up to 100,000 gallons a minute. Rides that suck you down dark serpentine tubes and shoot you through white-water rapids.
We've chosen to test the water at Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Tex. Sitting nearly smack in the middle between San Antonio and Austin, and less than an hour's drive from either city, Schlitterbahn is arguably the world's largest water park, and is nearly universally considered the best.
More than 40 rides and attractions are spread over 65 acres in two sections of park connected by a tram. A river runs through it, and clumps of shade trees offer relief from the heat. Between rides, you can cool off by standing under showers of water that drop in gentle sprinkles or beat down your back in great pulsating bursts.
The biggest surprise for me is the hill country surrounding the park. My previous Texas experience had been confined to Dallas and Houston, and I didn't get why Texans took such pride in their state. The hill country, with its flowing rivers and historic towns, made me understand.
German immigrants settled New Braunfels and the neighboring town of Gruene in the 1800s. Much of what they built remains, including homes of old German fechwerk -- half timber, half masonry. The small-town charm is heightened by the sight of people carrying black inner tubes around the streets.
The spring-fed Comal River meanders through New Braunfels, and lazing on the river on a summer's day is a major pastime. Those with an adventurous streak that hasn't been fully satiated at the water park head to Gruene, where the rushing Guadalupe River provides white-water adventure.
In the early 1970s, Bob and Billye Henry (Billye was the wife) purchased a small hotel on the Comal River in New Braunfels. In 1979, they built a 60-foot structure intended to look like the Solms Castle in Braunfels, Germany -- home of the original settlers. They attached to the sides of their faux castle four slides, pumped in water from the river and called their family-made creation Schlitterbahn ("slippery road" in German).
Thus was created the world's fourth water park, a concept quickly copied throughout North America.
Today, associations count more than 1,000 water parks in North America. But even when traveling abroad, you're likely to be near one of the 600 or so water parks overseas. They're currently the rage in Eastern Europe and Asia, says Rick Root, president of the World Waterpark Association, and in the past decade, growth overseas has outpaced even the fast development in the States.