Wet ‘n’ Wacky
In a world awash with look-alike water parks, Texas’ offbeat Schlitterbahn has river water, tube runs, and plenty of thrills to chill out the sweltering masses.
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Screeeuuuunnnch! The sound of rubber against rubber filled my ears. Uh oh. Tube lock! A few seconds before, I had been floating along a foam-padded trough filled with rushing Comal River water with not a care in the world. But suddenly I was tube to tube and toe to toe with three complete strangers who, like me, were jammed together in their inner tubes, listening to that aggravating screech while a gaggle of fellow tubers began to stack up behind us. Then, in a wink, a teenage lifeguard sauntered up and freed my tube with a nudge of her knee, sending us merrily on our way toward a precipitous drop-off that made each and every one of us scream with delight. It could have been nowhere else but Schlitterbahn.
Summer in Texas means unbearably hot days, which inevitably prompt a large number of us to immerse ourselves in water. There are few better places to do that than New Braunfels, thirty miles north of San Antonio. Once upon a time, renting an inner tube to take a leisurely float down the Comal River or the nearby Guadalupe was reason enough to visit. For excitement, there was the city-owned tube chute below Landa Park and the rapids at Camp Warnecke on the Comal or along the Guadalupe. But that was before water slides and then entire water parks started to pop up in major Texas cities during the seventies and eighties.
Schlitterbahn (which loosely translates as Slippery Road) is New Braunfels’ answer to those high-tech-fun destinations. It opened twelve years ago as four water slides on a man-made hill, but it has grown piece by piece into the weirdest confluence of artificial and natural beauty ever created for tubers. Most water parks — like the Wet ‘n’ Wild chain, which includes parks in Arlington and Garland, and Houston’s Waterworld — emphasize steep, relatively short water slides and giant wave pools. Schlitterbahn has such attractions, but what sets it apart is its extensive network of river-water-fed inner-tube chutes. One tube run, the Raging River, takes 45 minutes to negotiate. Schlitterbahn also plays heavily on New Braunfels’ German heritage (down to the pseudo-Bavarian architecture and elaborate landscaping), and the park makes the most of its location on the tree-shaded banks of the Comal (many of the seventeen water slides and nine inner-tube chutes pump 70 degree water from the river and recycle it).
Those attributes have helped Schlitterbahn become the biggest water park in the state. As such, Schlitterbahn is about people and the fine art of accommodating lots of them. In theme-park-industry lingo, that translates into more “recreation minutes,” which means visitors spend less time waiting in lines and more time on the rides. Last year more than half a million people passed through its gates from April to September, making it the nation’s fourth most-popular water park, according to Amusement Business magazine. If the Austin-San Antonio corridor has become our state’s Orlando, Schlitterbahn is our Disney World. With the exception of tube lock in the trough and collisions on the walkways (no pavement is wide enough for two people going in opposite directions carrying inner tubes), I coexisted very well with so many Texans wearing next to nothing in the communal pursuit of heat relief.
My first visit to Schlitterbahn was in the company of my six-year-old son, Jake, his friend Will Haber, and Will’s father, Jim. Our initial anticipation was tempered by the thirty minutes it took to get from the car to the water. There was a five-minute wait for the gates to open at ten o’clock, so we lathered our exposed skin with sunscreen in the meantime. It took another ten minutes to queue up to the cash register to pay our admission fees ($16.97 for adults, $13.74 for children under twelve) and to buy $5 and $10 Splash Cash wristbands, Schlitterbahn’s waterproof currency. Jim bought a wrist wallet for $1.50, thinking it would keep his real money dry. “It won’t do that, but we take wet money all over the park,” the girl at the register assured him.
Once inside, we were directed to a barnlike building to pick up our gear and change. Schlitterbahn is not a bring-your-own-tube park, so we picked up child-size life vests and scaled-down tubes with handles and mesh covers for the boys, changed into our swimsuits in the dressing room, and rented two small lockers ($3 each) for our clothes. The locker keys were conveniently attached to elastic wristbands. By the time Jim and I got our own inner tubes, I had so many bands on my wrist that I felt like a patient in intensive care.
Schlitterbahn’s layout is similar to a downhill ski area. Each attraction is graded by degree of difficulty: A green square marks low-speed and shallow-water attractions; a yellow circle indicates moderate-thrill rides suitable for beginning swimmers; an orange triangle designates runs requiring rider control and strong swimming skills; and a red diamond signifies the equivalent of an expert run, with high thrills or deep water, and includes the warning “Can be stressful to those who fear heights, high speed, or enclosed places.”
My first red-diamond run was on one of the Soda Straw slides emanating from a plastic rendition of the World’s Largest Coke Float. In less than ten seconds, I was propelled by a whoosh of water through a twisting fiberglass tube while lying on my back with arms and ankles crossed. Der Bahn Speed Slide was another nanospeed adventure; the slide’s nearly straight vertical drop of forty feet was exciting, but way too quick to be savored. The inner-tube chutes were far more enjoyable. Inner tubes are easy to ride, they protect the back and the bottom, and they make all the other people sitting in them look ridiculous. Moreover, the cutes themselves are designed with twists, turns, and drop-offs interspersed with gentler stretches that give riders enough pause to anticipate the next harrowing precipice or to choose an alternate route whenever the chute splits into two channels. For overall thrills, I liked the progression of the small drops at Whitewater best. My other favorite chutes were the Cliffhanger for its climatic final drop and the Comal Express for the length of the ride (fifteen minutes), the variety of drops, and for scenic layout.
No matter which chute you select, the biggest advantage of tubing in a water park instead of on the river is safety. With few exceptions, the depth never exceeds four feet, and wherever you look, there are lifeguards, many of them bilingual, whose numbers swell up to 150 during peak weekends, when daily attendance can exceed eight thousand visitors. Schlitterbahn has had only one drowning in its history, and that was eleven years ago. I was especially impressed by the lifeguards who unjam tube locks and rescue tubers stalled in back eddies. Their knee and ankle work was a marvel of efficiency, though I was worried about their getting carpel tunnel syndrome.
After sampling the Lagoon area’s million-gallon pool, swim-up hot-tub bar, and kiddie pool, Jim and I moved the boys to the Polywog Pond and the Tadpool, where they hopped on little slides and splashed through sprinklers. That gave me time to ponder such weighty matters as why the mushroom slides in the Polywog Pond were painted red with white spots to resemble the hallucinogenic variety. Jake and Will busied themselves until Jim and I coaxed them out of the water and into the shade with promises of pizza (although both boys seemed more interested in the family who had brought their own lunch of Ritz crackers topped with aerosol cheese spread). After a round of video games and another dousing of sunscreen, we went back to the water, this time to the Sandbar Hot Tub; the Congo River Ride, with big alligator floats to ride on; and the Beach family wave pool, which churned up waves big enough to amuse the kids but small enough to keep furrows of concern off the brows of fathers.
Although “Slitterbomb,” as Jake called I, is very much of a theme park, it has a decided mom-and-pop feel, a reflection of its family ownership. In marked contrast to the spend-it-all mentality that pervades Six Flags and Sea World, parking is free at Schlitterbahn and visitors can bring their own ice chests, food, and drinks (but no glass containers or alcohol). And for overnight stays, the park has 232 motel units, apartments, and condos — left over from when the grounds were part of Camp Landa and Camp Warnecke — scattered around the premises, nestled under stately pecans, willows, and oaks.
Bob Henry, a retired accountant, dreamed the whole thing up. His wife, Billye, runs the resort. Daughter Jana heads up marketing. Son Gary is the general manager. Son Jeff is the creative offspring who concocts the rides and details for the New Braunfels General Store, the Henrys’ company that manufactures attractions for Schlitterbahn and other water parks, including Wet ‘n Wild and Walt Disney World. The foam padding on the tube chutes, the landing flaps at the bottom of the slides, and the plastic palm trees that spill water from their coconuts are all General Store products.
Jeff’s newest baby is Surfenburg, the first phase of an expansion program made possible by the purchase of Camp Warnecke, three blocks away, which added 25 acres to Schlitterbahn’s existing 40 acres. Linked by a shuttle tram to the main park, Surfenburg includes the Squirt N Sliden, a state-of-the-art kiddie pool with a foam-padded fire engine and submarine, each with user-activated squirt effects. (With four lifeguards standing around the perimeter of the sub, I could actually look the other way for a few minutes while Jake played.) The pool is surrounded by the Kristal River, a 25-foot-wide tube run that simulates the swift current of a river on a level plane. The flow is generated by the adjacent Boogie Bahn, a perpetual wave big enough to hold tubes and boogie boards. Boogie Bahn’s standing-wave concept — in which water shoots up against a curved wall, curling back over into the pool — is the first major water-park innovation since tsunami wave pools became the rage ten years ago. Now that the Boogie Bahn is perfected, Jeff Henry is going back to the drawing board to finish a white-water course for kayaks and canoes.
Around two o’clock, Jim returned beaming from an ice cream stand. “This is a great place,” he declared. “The staff here is competent, by they’re real people. They don’t have that Disney-style cheery overkill. I asked for Twister pops, but the guy said they were out of them without apologizing at all! And the sunscreen they sell is competitively priced.”
I persuaded Jake to join me on the red-diamond Comal Express tube run, which began where the slow Congo River float ended. He was slightly intimidated by the white-water drop-off into a waterfall-shrouded tunnel but was engrossed by a stretch that paralleled the Comal, where he could observe turtles and minnows swimming around the underwater vegetation. Jake decided against trying the Hillslide Tube Chute, which winds through the customer-service building, when Will said he didn’t want to try it.
So we did what everyone else does and simply dropped our tubes on the spot (the staff spend a lot of time collecting abandoned tubes) and walked back to the Lagoon. It was so choked with humanity that it reminded me of one of those newspaper photos of a public pool in Tokyo during a heat wave. The boys had already passed up the miniature golf course and expressed not a whit of interest in taking a paddleboat on the river. They were happy scooting down the little slides in the Lagoon’s kiddie pool.
At four-thirty, when Jim and I announced that we had to pack up, Jake suddenly couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to go on the Hillside Tube Chute after all or buy a chicken fajita, a turkey leg, cotton candy, or a fruit drink. He finally decided on another frozen pop. I could tell he was getting tired and cranky. Five times that day he had pronounced “Slitterbomb” to be “awesome.” Will bestowed upon it equally effusive descriptions of “neat” and “cool.” Whatever it is, I concluded that Schlitterbahn was worth the trip when I glanced at the back seat after we had gotten on the interstate. Both boys were sound asleep. For that small pleasure, I would endure tube lock any day.