If you grew up in Texas, you probably are familiar with Schlitterbahn, the water park on the banks of the Comal River in New Braunfels. Among many of my friends, “Schlitterbahn” was synonymous with floating the river, because the original portion of the park actually used river water for its rides. Park and river were, in many ways, one.
In my latest Texas Monthly column, I explain how Schlitterbahn went from four slides on the Comal to five locations in two states, and how its biggest growth push came during a time of drought and tight finances. It helps that the family that runs Schlitterbahn includes a water park savant whose designs have influenced water parks worldwide.
In the early eighties, a family rolling down Interstate 35 between Georgetown and San Antonio would have confronted a string of uniquely Texan tourist attractions. Over the years, Wonder World, Inner Space Cavern, the Snake Farm, and Ralph the Swimming Pig at Aquarena Springs probably pried millions of dollars from the hands of road-weary parents pestered by their carsick kids. Schlitterbahn, the German-themed water park overlooking the Comal River, in New Braunfels, seemed like just another attraction on this highway of homespun entertainment.
But over the past fifteen years, Schlitterbahn has left its fellow I-35 attractions in the dust. Today its parent company operates five parks, hosts 2 million annual visitors, employs 500 full-time and 4,500 seasonal workers, and holds more than sixty patents on ride designs and water park technology. In 2013 attendance at the top twenty water parks in the United States fell by 2.3 percent from the year before, according to Aecom Technology Corporation and the Themed Entertainment Association. During that same period, attendance at Schlitterbahn’s flagship park—which has the highest of any water park in the country outside Orlando, Florida—rose by 1 percent. “The brand is so strong that there’s probably not a week that goes by that we don’t receive a solicitation to open a new park,” says Gary Henry, the oldest of the three siblings who run the company.