Something in the Water
Getting wet, getting scared, and getting my family a little closer to Texas at Schlitterbahn.
I was born and raised in New York. My wife was born and raised in India. Because neither of us is a Texan by birth—which is to say we’re not Texans at all—we go out of our way to reinforce our son’s and daughter’s connection to their home state. For the most part, this means eating like a Texan: partaking of smoked brisket, breakfast tacos, and, at our favorite Austin coffee shop, the much-loved “bagel dog,” an Elgin-style sausage encased in a well-crusted bread product. (Given our children’s half-Jewish heritage, this is something of a twofer, roots-wise.)
It’s not all about eating out, though. Over the past few years there have been family trips to Pedernales Falls, Hamilton Pool, and Enchanted Rock, all of which feel like “ours” now. But for my nine-year-old daughter, nothing has ever topped our annual visit to the Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, a.k.a. “the world’s best waterpark,” according to a global survey of amusement park aficionados.
Our first father-daughter Schlitterbahn trip—my son, too young to brave the artificial rapids, stayed at home with his mom—took place in 2012, and it was love at first slide. My daughter had just gained her confidence as a swimmer, and over the course of that day’s lazy tube rides and high-speed descents, that confidence grew stronger as she shed the anxieties and neurotic inhibitions that are my ancestral gift to her. By the end of our second visit, we felt like old hands.
Now, each year, as summer approaches, my daughter drops subtle hints that we’re due for a visit, like “Going to Schlitterbahn is what makes the whole school year worthwhile” and “Schlitterbahn has long been the soul of my existence.” Prodded by this enthusiasm, my son, now five, recently began insisting that he’s old enough to go too. Like his sister, he loves the water and hates being left out of anything.
There was really no way for us to say no, though I had my concerns—he’s not the swimmer she was at that age, and I worried that premature exposure to the Bahnzai Pipeline might scare him off Schlitterbahn for years. More than that, I couldn’t help but wonder if my daughter and I had oversold Schlitterbahn. Stories tend to grow in the telling, especially when you need to justify spending more than $100 on a day’s entertainment for two. It seemed plausible that my boy, raised on a steady diet of eye-popping Pixar movies and Octonauts cartoons, would find the whole experience, with its slightly corny Bavarian architecture, vaguely disappointing.
But there was only one way to find out. And so in late April, on the official opening day of the 2016 season, our Jewish-Hindu-Yankee-South-Asian family hopped onto I-35 in hopes of growing a little more Texan.
Schlitterbahn (a mash-up of the German words for “slippery” and “road”) opened alongside the Comal River in 1979 with four slides and over the next decade grew steadily. Then, in 1989, the founders, Bob and Billye Henry, handed the company over to their children, who had bigger plans. They eventually opened new Schlitterbahns in South Padre, Galveston, and the landlocked locale of Kansas City, Kansas. But their first big move came in 1991, when the original park added a new wing, Schlitterbahn East, which included a couple of novel designs: the Boogie Bahn (the world’s first bodyboarding ride) and the Dragon Blaster (the world’s first uphill water coaster). More recently, it added two more rides that are my daughter’s favorites: the Master Blaster, which has been repeatedly named the country’s best waterpark ride, and the Falls. So we spend a lot of time at Schlitterbahn East, though it sorely lacks the arboreal charm of its older sibling.
Most theme parks are all-encompassing artificial environments—“total landscapes,” in the academic vernacular—not much different from a Vegas poker room with no windows and no clocks. The original Schlitterbahn site, by contrast, is happily embedded in the natural world. The Comal snakes along its length and provides the subtly green-tinted water that feeds most of the rides. (Schlitterbahn East uses chlorinated water.) The many trees, in addition to providing welcome shade on hot summer days, harbor all sorts of fauna.
Thanks largely to the influence of my wife, our kids are nature devotees—our son, in particular, is never happier than when he’s in our backyard finding rolly pollies beneath rocks. So both of them giddily wandered around Schlitterbahn, noticing a few turtles sunning themselves by the river, an anole lizard puffing out its pink throat to ward off an adversary or attract a mate, a Monarch caterpillar that hung from a rope fence in a distinct J shape and, an hour later, had transformed itself into a kelly green chrysalis.
Of course, the most fascinating wildlife on view at Schlitterbahn is the animal that arrives here by car and truck, bearing coolers full of Dr Pepper. And these animals are legion. New Braunfels is located in the ninth-fastest-growing county in the country and situated between the boomtowns of Austin and San Antonio. Those are all very different places, demographically. But the near-universal love of water slides and tube rides is a great equalizer. Schlitterbahn is one of the few places where the burgeoning population of white, brown, and black Central Texans of every income bracket rub sunburned shoulders.
Those easeful collisions make for great people-watching, especially since most of us who show up at Schlitterbahn are half- (if not nine tenths–) naked. Barely a minute goes by that one’s eyes aren’t drawn to an impressively cut or curvy physique, or an especially large person in an especially tiny piece of swimwear, or a risqué tattoo that rarely sees the light of day. The result of this gawking isn’t so much arousal (though the patrons thirty or forty years my junior likely feel otherwise) as the satisfaction of a more generalized curiosity. Because we’re all exposed, none of us are exposed; crowded together, we feel a tacit permission to glimpse who everyone is beneath his or her daily uniform.
Until this visit, I hadn’t realized how important crowds are to the waterpark experience. I had imagined that opening day at Schlitterbahn would be a crazed affair; surely seven months’ worth of pent-up Schlitterlust would bring out the masses. But despite it being a beautiful, sunny Saturday, the park was half-empty. We never waited more than five minutes for a ride, which made the whole process more efficient than usual—and a bit less interesting. At one point, as I approached a very short line atop the Master Blaster, I found myself fondly recalling the hours I had spent on past visits waiting in much longer lines, when I would have plenty of time to cagily eye my fellow exhibitionists—and imagine that they were cagily eyeing me too.
Throughout our two-day stay (full disclosure: our lodging and day tickets were provided through Schlitterbahn’s media program), our daughter eagerly led her little brother around, pointing out her favorite rides and warning him off the ones she thought he was too young to attempt. It wasn’t clear if she was marking her big-kid territory or daring him to try something outside his comfort zone. Either way, he was paying attention.
As it turned out, he was more adventurous—which is to say, more Texan—than any of us expected. He gamely took his turn on the twisty, high-velocity Double Loop and did two rounds on the Der Bahn speed slide, experiencing the heady combination of terror and joy that we hope won’t lead him astray during his teenage years. But the big test was the turbulent Dragon’s Revenge, which would be his first ride on a roller coaster of any sort. Unfortunately, as we lined up, an acrid, burning smell emerged from the ride’s engine, and the ride was shut down for the rest of the day. When we woke up in our cabin on Sunday morning, though, virtually the first thing he said was that he was ready to try the Dragon’s Revenge again.
As we walked to the Dragon, we passed, on our left, the Kiddie Coast wading pool, the sort of place he would have spent his entire time had we brought him a year earlier. If he felt the siren call of the foam-covered pirate ship marooned in the pool’s shallow depths, though, he didn’t let on. He beelined toward the entrance to the Dragon, a ruin of a castle that, like a sinking frigate, has taken on six inches of water that customers are forced to trudge through to get to the ride itself. At the starting line, he showed a few signs of apprehension but raised no objections. Then, with a forceful shove from a Schlitterbahn employee to get us going, we were off.
Over the course of the next two minutes, as our raft shuddered and swooped up the open-top rails and down the darkened tubes and past some flagrantly fake flames and a fluorescent dragon’s head, he didn’t let out a peep. I, on the other hand, whooped and hollered nonstop. When we emerged from the ride, though, he was all excited jabber and one ringing conclusion: “The only thought in my head was that my bathing suit would be ripped off!”
That was pretty much the end of our trip, though we were not quite done with Texas’s favorite chain of waterparks yet. The newest Schlitterbahn, in Corpus Christi, opened a week after our visit to New Braunfels. And later this summer, Massiv (the world’s tallest water coaster) will open in Galveston. My kids, of course, are eager to try out both. Which is great, because their first trip to the Gulf Coast was the next item on our Texas bucket list.