CAN A TINY, EYELESS, translucent salamander replace a diving pig? That’s the question on everyone’s mind at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos as it continues its conversion of Aquarena Springs from an amusement park to an educational center. Modeled on Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, Aquarena was for many years one of Texas’ most popular roadside attractions, famous for its underwater shows, its glass-bottom-boat rides, its lush surroundings, and best of all, Ralph the swimming pig. In 1985, in fact, Aquarena drew 300,000 visitors—but by the early nineties it could only lure half that number, thanks largely to increased competition from regional rivals Sea World, Fiesta Texas (now run by Six Flags), and Schlitterbahn. In 1994 SWT bought the park and the surrounding springs for $7 million with the intention of keeping it going, but fourteen months and $1.4 million in operating losses later, the university’s regents voted for change.
It was then that Ralph was sent to his sty. After years of cheesy mascots—in addition to Ralph, there have been the underwater Aquamaids (typically SWT coeds), Glurpo the Clown, and the IQ Zoo (featuring a chicken that played tic-tac-toe)—Aquarena’s new director, Ron Coley, wanted to make the place more sophisticated. And for good reason: The complex of springs is the second largest west of the Mississippi, cranking out 150 million gallons a day; somehow, a swimming pig seemed inappropriate. “You had livestock that were fed, cleaned, and hosed down within fifteen feet of critical habitat harboring at least three endangered species,” Coley says. “It didn’t matter how concentrated the stuff was—there was runoff getting into the water.”
Ralph’s replacement is Sammy the Salamander, my proposed nickname for the pink lizardlike critter that rolls and tumbles in the pebbles in one of the endangered species tanks set up in the cavelike Edwards Aquifer exhibit. No more than a couple of inches in length, Sammy has spindly legs, bulges where his eyes should be, and his own distinctive swoosh (the dark fan-shaped, Creature From the Black Lagoon—like external gills and sensors that flare out from behind its head). Can such a thing ever be as lovable as a swimming pig? Yes, says Carole McCarley, the manager of the Aquarena Center Gift Shop, who reports that salamander merchandise is selling better than pig merchandise. Small wonder, since the hand-tinted color postcards of Ralph in mid-dive and the Ralph shot glasses are mostly gone. How are happy cartoon renderings of Ralph supposed to compete with plush salamander dolls?
And what of the real Ralphs (in truth, dozens of piglets played the character every season, until they grew too big to swim)? They’re living happily ever after on pig trainer Ada Davis’ farm west of San Marcos. “Smartest animal I know,” she says, standing beside a scavenged amusement-park sign that reads “Ralph’s Pig Palace.” The pigs still perform for visitors, she says, but only at her place, and only by appointment.