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