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Chutes and tubes and a wave of fun

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Doug Warren
Globe Correspondent / June 8, 2008

NEW BRAUNFELS - "Forget the Alamo!"

That was the response from our 11-year-old son when I suggested a visit to the shrine of Texas independence as a possible destination for a fun family outing.

Such heresy might normally lead to quite a dust-up here in the Lone Star State. But the boy - a newly minted Texan - could be excused when you consider that he has already been to the Alamo numerous times on school trips and with relatives and other assorted out-of-town guests since we moved here 10 months ago.

OK, so enough of the heroic deeds of Travis, Bowie, and Crockett. Where would you like to go?

The response was a single word, given with a smile and without pause: "Schlitterbahn!"

For our kids - raised on Water Wizz, Water Country, and Canobie Lake Park, and their insanely catchy jingles - water parks are an essential part of the summer experience. And Schlitterbahn, located off Interstate 35 between Austin and San Antonio, is the Xanadu of water parks. A truly Texas-sized attraction, the park is all candy colors with water-gushing tubes and towers spread over 65 acres along the banks of the Comal River. Within its borders are more than 40 rides and family activities ranging from the meek to the wild.

"We want to offer a unique family experience that you can really enjoy together," said Jeffrey Siebert, Schlitterbahn's director of communications and sales. "It's all about having fun for all ages."

All that fun in the hot Texas sun has earned Schlitterbahn its ranking as the world's most popular water park 10 years in a row, according to Amusement Business magazine. It has 900,000 visitors annually, drawing from all 50 states and many foreign countries - particularly those in Asia, as well as the United Kingdom and Canada.

On our recent visit, the more stout-hearted family members climbed to the top of the six-story Master Blaster uphill water coaster and screamed to their hearts' content all the way up and down. Schlitterbahn developed the technology in the mid-1990s, using high pressure to move water, and riders, uphill. It revolutionized the industry.

"That was awesome!" opined our reluctant student of Texas history. "So fast and so fun! Let's get back in line."

The rest of our somewhat more sedate crowd enjoyed the Raging River - promoted as the "world's longest tube chute" - which took us on a fairly gentle, winding ride aboard inner tubes before depositing us in the Comal. We all agreed that The Torrent - a man-made river with its own built-in tidal wave - was the most fun. Many other people seemed to agree because The Torrent's concrete channel was always crowded with slippery, shrieking bodies.

Schlitterbahn, which is very loosely translated from the German as "slippery road," has been drawing crowds since it opened nearly 30 years ago. Founded by the Henry family out of Houston, the park started with four water slides built around a replica of the Bergfried Guard Tower at Solms Castle in Braunfels, Germany - the home of the original settlers of New Braunfels. The slides operated with water taken from the nearby Comal, which is spring-fed and maintains a 72-degree temperature year-round.

Since then, the park has expanded into two sections - east and west - separated by several city blocks with a tram service running between them. The original west side park still takes its water from the Comal, while Schlitterbahn East, which opened in 1991, relies on a recirculated water system.

Over the years, the Schlitterbahn empire has grown to include parks on Galveston and South Padre islands in Texas, with a Schlitterbahn Vacation Village set to open in Kansas City, Kan., next year.

"New" is the name of the game in water park attractions, and this season, Schlitterbahn is unveiling an elaborate ride called Dragon's Revenge. The nearly two-minute experience features eight uphill blasts, six creepy caverns, a surprise waterfall, and one angry dragon. It's very high-tech and all in good fun, of course. Also on tap is a new interactive area for younger children featuring Schatze, the park's dachshund pup mascot.

But it is the familiar that keeps many of Schlitterbahn's fans coming back year after year. Nicole Gremillion of Lafayette, La., drove seven hours with her husband, Tom, and daughter, Hannah, 5, for their third visit to the water park.

"We love going to San Antonio, to Sea World and the Riverwalk, but we always come to Schlitterbahn, no matter what," Gremillion said. "It's excellent as a family destination, and it even has free parking. That's incredible!"

Isabel Ramirez, 10, of San Marcos, is already a wily Schlitterbahn veteran. She was happy to share a few pointers while enjoying a lazy float down the "Congo River" inner-tube ride. "I like to get here early and I always stay away from the tour bus groups," she said. "I've been here a million times."

While allowing for some exaggeration, the youngster was sharing some sage advice. Schlitterbahn's popularity ensures large crowds during the peak summer months, with long lines almost always extending from the most popular rides. Plan your day accordingly.

We spent the rest of the afternoon moving between several of the park's whimsically named subdivisions. At the Blastenhoff in Schlitterbahn East, the Black Knight took riders on dual winding slides in total darkness. The Soda Straws in Das Lagune on the west side of the park proved to be twisting tubular body slides - and simply not for me.

Perhaps the most amazing spectacle was on display at the Boogie Bahn in the section known as Surfenburg. Here, 50,000 gallons of water a minute were expelled under high pressure to create a continuous curl that a constant stream of land-locked surfers rode on boogie boards with widely varying degrees of success.

Although we were only an hour from home, we decided to stay at the Resort at the Bahn, one of Schlitterbahn's two on-site resorts offering more than 230 accommodations. Our two-bedroom suite was very convenient and included a full kitchen and three bathrooms. Visitors wishing to enhance the park's fairly standard dining options - pizza, turkey legs, sausage-on-a-stick, etc. - are welcome to bring in their own picnic baskets. Families on an extended resort stay could save plenty by preparing their own meals.

For our dinner, we took Siebert's suggestion and headed to the nearby hamlet of Gruene (pronounced "Green"), which promotes itself as "gently resisting change since 1872." There we found iconic Gruene Hall, the oldest dance hall in Texas, where Lyle Lovett and George Strait started out, and the huge - and hugely popular - Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar. We ordered chicken-fried steaks and washed them down with Shiner Bock beer as we sat at tables high above the banks of the Guadalupe River.

Back at Schlitterbahn, we took advantage of the late-night children's gaming arcade and swimming pools available to overnight resort guests. As we floated peacefully, looking up at the starry sky, removed from the crowds and excitement of the day, our son had this assessment:

"Remember, we get to do it all again tomorrow."

Doug Warren can be reached at dwarren003@austin.rr.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in Sunday's Travel section about Schlitterbahn water park in Texas misstated its ranking, by attendance, among waterparks in the world. It is the top-ranked "seasonal" waterpark - open 100 days each year - but several other parks in the United States and Asia that are open yearround draw more visitors.

Schlitterbahn
Raging River has been called the "world's longest tube chute." (Pam Berry for The Boston Globe)

If You Go

Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort
381 East Austin St.

New Braunfels, Texas

830-625-2351

schlitterbahn.com

Daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. or 8 p.m. daily through Aug. 24; Aug. 30-Sept. 21, open Saturdays, Sundays, and Labor Day, Sept. 1. $37.99, adults, $29.99, ages 3-11, $57.98 two-day adults, $45.98 two-day ages 3-11.

Lodging: From $149 per night for a two-person motel room to $829 per night for a five-bedroom home. Price includes parking and a 20 percent discount for water park admission.

Planning ahead

– The high summer months are the busiest. Plan to visit on weekends in late April, early May, or September.

– Bring lunch. Picnic baskets are allowed (no glass or alcohol.) Swim-up bars at various locations serve alcoholic beverages.

– If you are dining or buying gifts at the park buy a Splash Cash stored on a waterproof wristband. Eliminates the need to carry soggy bills.

– A locker ($5 after $2 refund for turning in key) is vital for storing valuables.

– Consider staying at the resorts on the Schlitterbahn property. Guests receive a 20 percent discount on water park admission tickets.

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