The old waterslide is hidden among a thicket of cedars off the access road of Interstate 35. Draped across a hill above Boggy Creek, eight miles south of downtown Austin, the slide is covered in a tapestry of spray paint. A little longer than a football field—relatively short, compared to the structures of today’s water parks—the slide’s two parallel, concrete runs circle softly to the right, then veer more sharply left in a notorious turn. This steep bend occasionally left swimmers with concussions, and it’s still risky for the skateboarders and BMX bikers who sneak in to catch rides. Leaves and other debris—shoes, broken beer bottles, soggy pieces of carpet—intermittently cake the chutes that kids once swooshed down on foam pads. The pool at the bottom into which they splashed is now filled with soft silt, and the old pump house has been reduced to rubble. The path patrons trudged back up for another ride has long since returned to the woods, enveloped by a thicket of weeds and branches.
In the late 1970s, small, single-slide water parks like this one were novel, popping up across the country. Named Aqua Thrill Way, this slide opened in 1978 as part of a national chain with two other Texas locations, in Galveston and Corpus Christi. “It is a sport most Austinites have never heard of, much less tried,” wrote Joe Nick Patoski in an Austin American-Statesman story heralding the opening of Aqua Thrill Way and its two competitors: Wet Willie, off Ben White Boulevard, and Flowmotion, on South Congress. Patoski noted that “water-slides loom as the biggest man-made summertime activity since miniature golf.” The fad only lasted a few years, with all three slides closing by the early 1980s; larger parks like Schlitterbahn soon replaced them.
Aqua Thrill Way was and is still loved. Roughly four decades after the slide officially closed, it continues to draw visitors seeking cheap thrills (albeit illegal ones, since they’re breaking trespassing laws). The other two South Austin slides have been bulldozed, leaving Aqua Thrill Way as the last relic of its era—not just in Austin, but also likely statewide. Graffiti artists have made the slide and its surrounding structures their canvas. On a brick wall, a pink octopus appears tripped out. A salivating dachshund and a portrait of Homer Simpson adorn the inside of the slide. Across the top of a tall, square building, letters in a blue drop-shadow font read: I LOVE U!
For a time in the 2000s, an adult video store operated where the water park’s arcade and concession stand once stood. The employees of the porn store would try to shoo the skaters and bikers away, shouting at them through a speaker attached to the side of the building. Texans still come here, in the way children might be drawn to an abandoned mine shaft, to get a little scared. That same addictive cocktail of dopamine and adrenaline is what drove people to Aqua Thrill Way back in its heyday.
The week Aqua Thrill Way opened in June 1978, then-sixteen-year-old Steffen Saustrup arrived for his first day of work and saw a line of people stretching well beyond the entrance. The crowds didn’t abate all summer. “Everyone wanted to go there,” he says. “The place would be packed.” Working at the park was his first real job. Saustrup had just gotten his driver’s license and his first car, a lime-green Volkswagen Dasher. His boss was the water park’s manager, a jolly twentysomething named Larry Wilkins. “He was a little bit of a hippie, kind of a big, chubby guy,” Saustrup recalls. Like the king of a small fiefdom, Wilkins twirled a whistle on a long string as he walked the grounds in bare feet, singing aloud to the pop songs of the day. Each morning started with a meeting at which the staff got their assignments. Wilkins issued Saustrup his uniform: a bright yellow shirt and a pair of little blue shorts.
Saustrup often worked the concession stand in the arcade room, making foot-long chili dogs and partaking in foosball tournaments. Full of state-of-the-art pinball machines, the place echoed with clacking levers. On other days Saustrup was posted at the top of the slide, where an artificial eight-foot waterfall cascaded from a stone structure into a little pool. He would hand folks their foam mats and give them a push, making sure each rider went down feetfirst, “because no one wanted to follow the rules.” The concrete slide was coated with a slick blue paint, and it was common for troublemakers to try to stand up on their mats and then fall. Few left the water park without a scrape or bruise. But if you didn’t do anything you weren’t supposed to do, the place seemed pretty safe. Saustrup’s favorite place to work was at the bottom of the slide, where smiling faces whipped around that sharp turn and bathing suit–clad bodies flew into the pool below. In the pump house, large whirring motors sucked water back up the hill, and Saustrup would sometimes have to check the filters for personal items lost en route, like some poor kid’s retainer.
Aqua Thrill Way cost about five bucks for an hour of sliding, and kids begged their parents to take them. If you worked there or knew someone who did, you could slide for free at an after-hours party, at which the rules didn’t apply. Someone would make a beer run; someone else might light a joint. Teenagers would link up in long trains of sliders—“four, six, or eight people,” Saustrup says, “and you would go down a lot faster.” He was a small kid, barely five feet tall, and at the tight bend near the bottom, the older—but not much more mature—park employees would try to shoot him from the inside lane of the slide up and over the hump in the middle and onto the slide’s outer lane. The stunt became one of their favorite games, but it wasn’t without risk. One evening as the train barreled down the slide, Saustrup was in front with a bigger kid behind him. As they approached the turn, the rider behind pushed Saustrup forward with his legs, and he went airborne. He landed in the other lane and smacked his head, hard, on the concrete. He went limp, knocked out cold. When he came to, he couldn’t remember his name or where he was, and he didn’t fully regain his senses for more than a day.
You can find links to videos of Aqua Thrill Way on Reddit forums. Facebook groups drip with nostalgia for the long-lost attraction. Perhaps most widely shared is a post on a local blog called Mixerr Reviews, which offers vague accounts of several serious injuries and “more than 3 deaths” at Aqua Thrill Way, along with a number of supposed lawsuits. I was unable to find any record of lawsuits against Aquatractions, the company that ran the park. When I asked Saustrup if he knew about anyone dying at Aqua Thrill Way, he told me about a rumor he’d heard as a teen. According to lore, someone had climbed over the gate into the pump house, gotten sucked into the massive pumps, and drowned—but Saustrup shrugged it off, saying, “That’s probably just legend.”
I scoured newspaper archives and court records, filed information requests with local law enforcement, and I found some truth to that story—actually, two stories. In August 1978, an eleven-year-old girl, Audrey Laurel, collapsed after three trips down the Austin slide and died after being rushed to Brackenridge Hospital. It’s unclear whether her death was preventable. According to an Austin American-Statesman story about the incident, Laurel had a history of hyperventilating; a sheriff’s report also mentioned that she took medication for an unnamed health condition that was exacerbated when she was excited. A doctor did an autopsy and initially ruled that the cause of death was drowning; after a later review, he changed his mind and said Laurel died from cardiac failure.
As for the pump house rumor, that one turned out to be partially true. A kid did get sucked underwater in the pump house, but it happened in Corpus Christi, not Austin, and he survived. As the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported, the incident took place as the slide was closing, around 10 p.m. on an August night in 1981. Alan Dawson, a teenager who worked at the local Aqua Thrill Way slide, wanted to play some arcade games after his shift. But he was out of change. He knew another coworker had used a diving mask to fish loose change out of a pool inside the pump house, where the water was filtered. So he grabbed the mask and headed into the pump house to get some change himself. It was dark, and as Dawson turned to come out of the pool, he got too close to the suction pump. He was pulled toward the intake with such force that the edge of the pipe shattered his collarbone. Pinned underwater by the suction, he was unable to breathe, move, or call for help.
Dawson’s best friend and high school basketball teammate, Tom Davidson, also worked at the Corpus park. According to the Caller-Times account, as Davidson prepared to shut the slide’s water off and go home, he noticed the water wasn’t flowing properly. Someone told Davidson that Dawson had been in the pump house—had been in there for a while. Davidson told his coworker to turn the pump off, rushed to the pump house, and dove into the pool’s chest-high water. He felt Dawson’s body at the bottom. The teenager’s neck was swollen, his face blue and his eyes shut. Davidson, who had learned CPR in a tenth-grade health class, began performing chest compressions on his friend. After a few minutes, Dawson started coughing and spat up blood. Dawson told the Caller-Times it took a couple days for his eyes to fully open. A doctor told him that had he been underwater for just thirty seconds longer, he likely would have suffered brain damage. But he made a full recovery. He even rejoined his team’s starting basketball lineup later that winter.
Injuries weren’t uncommon at water parks in the seventies and eighties. Six people died at an especially notorious New Jersey park, which was nicknamed “Class Action Park” after the numerous lawsuits it prompted. By the nineties, many smaller, fly-by-night companies had gone out of business. Wayne Pierce, a Washington, D.C.–based attorney who calls himself the “adventure lawyer,” says that litigation was only one factor in this evolution. He believes that negative press and the high cost of insurance played a more prominent role. “As the industry became professionalized and regulations and safety standards were adopted, smaller players who entered early and were looking to turn a quick profit often exited rather than adapt,” Pierce says. The South Austin slide is small and rickety by modern standards, at 415 feet long with 40 feet of vertical drop. Building it cost $350,000, or about $1.6 million in today’s dollars—a significant investment, but not a major one. The co-owner of Flowmotion, Aqua Thrill Way’s competitor, predicted in 1978 that its slides would be around for five to ten years at most. Aqua Thrill Way likely closed after the summer of 1981, the last time its name appears in newspaper archives.
Bigger facilities soon predominated. George Millay, who built the first Wet ’n Wild park in Orlando in 1977, is widely credited with developing the large-scale, amusement park experience around waterslides. Schlitterbahn opened its first location in New Braunfels in 1979, then quickly expanded. (The chain suffered its own horror in 2016, when a ten-year-old boy lost his life on the towering Verrückt slide in Kansas City.) By 1982, an industry organization called the World Waterpark Association began formalizing standards, including the modular fiberglass slides we know today. “A few of the old mom-and-pop slides are still around, but they’ve likely been modified,” says Aleatha Ezra, a spokesperson for the association. She draws a comparison to the car industry: when the first automobiles rolled off the line, Ezra says, “no one thought of using a seat belt.”
The other day my phone pinged with a message from a friend, Chris Tolley, who rides BMX bikes. He said the woods next to the slide had been cleared, and that he was worried the owner might bulldoze Aqua Thrill Way. (The company listed as the owner, New Video II, didn’t reply to messages from Texas Monthly.) So on a hot afternoon, he and his friends gathered for what might turn out to be their last session at the spot. They brought shovels and cleared the silt and other debris from the pool at the bottom of the slide—taking intermittent breaks to guzzle from cans of Lone Star. Someone used a broom to push the last bits of dirt from the pool. The sun started to go down.
Chris got on his bike and put on a helmet. He wore black pants and a sleeveless shirt that showed his midriff. Dropping into the empty pool at the top, he pushed hard with his legs on the pedals, using the cracked and graffitied concrete like a ramp. Gaining speed, he aimed for the end of the dry waterslide, where gleeful kids used to spill into the pool. To make the transition smoother, additional concrete had been poured where the pool sloped up into the chute. There, Chris used the slide like a jump—and went airborne.