Jeff Henry was whipped. He was still two weeks away from the official opening of the new Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark at South Padre Island, and Murphy’s Law was kicking in big-time. A $300,000 conveyor belt from England designed to move customers along a perpetual river had snapped, requiring an emergency repair crew to be flown in from across the pond. The night before, Henry had cranked up the 82-foot Boogie Bahn, the largest artificial surfing wave ever built—large enough to accommodate three surfers at once—from the normal 40 percent flow intended for park customers all the way to 100 percent so he could personally test it out. The chamber that holds the water cracked in the process. The four Blaster uphill water coasters (all Henry originals) were still getting the bugs worked out. Landscapers were scurrying to finish planting the one thousand palms around the 26-acre park.
It’s all part of the territory for the 45-year-old Henry, who has been involved in dozens of water park openings like this one, with one huge difference. The other parks were someone else’s. Jeff Henry was either the ride designer, consultant, or equipment provider. But this one is his baby—the second Schlitterbahn owned and operated by his family. His father opened the original park, in New Braunfels, on the shady banks of the Comal River 22 years ago. Since then, the Henry’s park has evolved from two simple slides into one of the premier water parks in the world, in no small part because of Jeff, an aquatic Walt Disney. Along with San Diego attorney-surfer-inventor Tom Lochtefeld, he dreamed up an uphill water coaster (dubbed Master Blaster at Schlitterbahn). On his own, Henry has developed a foam-coated ride surface and the technology for wave rivers and kiddie water playscapes equipped with water cannons.
But he’s never done an entire park like the one at South Padre. No one has. Like its parent, Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark is built around a river, only this one is wholly man-made. The Rio Aventura, as it is known, is the half-a-mile-long centerpiece of a concept Henry dreamed up called “transportainment.” Parkgoers can float the river, which includes a stretch of rapids, before a conveyor belt carries them and their tubes up a short incline to the top of the river. Rio Aventura connects with most of the park’s rides and attractions, including four Blaster uphill coasters, which allow customers to float in their tubes up to the shaded queues without having to get out of their tubes or the water. The river circles what Henry describes as the “largest children’s play element ever built”—220 water features including telescopes, giant sand buckets filled with water that tump over on guests, water cannons, slides, and a 10,000-square-foot kiddie pool. Along with the mandatory hot tubs, three beach areas, and two swim-up bars, there’s also an ice pool with chilly water “for our German guests,” Henry says jokingly. “No way am I getting into that.”
For all the logistical loose ends and an endless string of eighteen-hour days, the guy in sandals and the floppy beach hat (“Everything I wear is designed to get wet,” Henry explains) is as cool as a cucumber. “I’ve been doing this thirty years. I love it. I have passion for it. I always aim higher than I can achieve. So if there are glitches, it’s part of the deal.”
One perk that helps offset all the quirks is the portion of the job that requires an early evening tasting of samples created by the Brazilian chef Henry had flown in to jazz up the park’s menu. The whole red snapper covered with garlic and tomatoes passes muster (it’s as good as any seafood dish I’ve tasted in a South Padre restaurant). So does the Brazilian fish salad served in a coconut shell and the blue crab in a buttery garlic broth. Brazilian architect Alberto Pinho designed the giant palm-covered palapas that cover the restaurant, the entrance, and most visitor service areas, which blend in with the sand and the sea far more harmoniously than the majority of condos and hotels that line the beachfront. Brazilian stone was imported for the walkways—”I wanted a soft feel,” says Henry. “This stone doesn’t glare.” The Brazilian concept was inspired by the rides Henry designed for the Beach Park resort near Fortaleza on the northeastern coast of Brazil. “It’s one of my favorite places to go,” he says. He has also installed rides and helped open water parks in China, Japan, and Dubai.
Sure the water park at the South Padre venture is the main attraction, but there are other amenities, including the Club at Rio Beach nightclub and bar, which will continue operating late into the night after the water park has shut down. Five stages with seating capacity for an audience of 2,500 have been constructed for live music. Henry envisions a free nightly water show, patterned after the one at Bellagio in Las Vegas, as well as evening surfing demonstrations featuring none other than Jeff Henry, the self-described “best 45-year-old Flow Rider surfer in the world.” Henry says he’s trying to create a more relaxed park. “It’s not the thrills of New Braunfels, but a family-oriented resort facility that complements the town of South Padre and the beach,” Henry adds, motioning to the waves breaking about three hundred yards from where he is sitting.
“We’re anticipating operating 170 days a year, maybe higher,” he says, compared with the 110-day season in New Braunfels. When he came to the coast, he envisioned investing four months of hard work to get the park up and running before returning to Central Texas. Now, he’s not so sure. “This is a dream come true for me. It’s something I’ve been working on for thirty years. You gotta remember why I put the park here. This is the best surfing spot in Texas. It’s the best beach. It’s got warm weather. Great fishing. And now it’s the best beach water park. I don’t think I’m going back,” he laughs. “I’m staying here.”