The Wet Stuff
Jeff Henry, Verrückt, and the Men Who BuiltThe Great American Water Parkby Bryan Curtis / Photographs by Kevin Cooley / Illustrations by L-Dopa
Kansas City, April
Seventeen stories above Kansas — above cement rivers and man-made surf waves and cups of Dippin’ Dots: The Ice Cream of the Future; above America’s Potemkin beach, the water park — the ride designer was talking to the governor. They were standing atop Verrückt, the tallest waterslide in the world.
“Feel the shaking tower?” Jeff Henry, the designer, asked.
Sam Brownback, the governor, said, “I thought it felt like it was a little …”
“It wobbles,” Henry said.
The designer had a slightly wild look in his eyes. Without the slide, you might have thought Brownback was introducing an aggrieved rancher fighting the feds over grazing rights.
Travel Channel cameras were shadowing Henry for a documentary. “I’m not really a designer anymore,” he told Brownback. “I’m an actor.”
Before Brownback could reply, Henry added, “I’m not as good as you, though, governor.”
“Huh?” Brownback said.
“I don’t think I’m as good as you.”
Brownback let the jab land and laughed. “It’s going to be a great attraction,” he said.
“Gotta love it,” Henry said.
“Cowabunga,” Brownback said.
Waterslide designers compete in a parallel-universe version of The Right Stuff, vying for height and speed records because — this can be the only reason — it seems like a really awesome thing to do. Of these men, Jeff Henry is the most brilliant. He has the ability to make humans not only go down waterslides but up them, in the manner previously possible only on roller coasters. More than one of his employees compares him to Steve Jobs.
Henry relishes the role of the eccentric inventor. “You could call it manic-depressive,” said Tom Lochtefeld, a fellow ride designer, “but he’s always manic.” Even in the presence of Brownback and an official from Guinness World Records, Henry wore his typical work uniform: muddy boots and a fishing shirt. His sense of humor is rural Texas hipster. He now targeted Brownback with something more subversive than needling: an appeal to his civic virtue.
Henry knew that Kansas Speedway, which he could see from Verrückt’s summit, was trying to secure a night race. He told Brownback: “If we can get NASCAR to give us a night race — we want a night race — then we’ll have water, we’ll have lights, we’ll have sound, and we’ll have fireworks shooting off the top of this tower for ’em. All during their race. Give ’em some more excitement, more reasons to bring that race to Kansas City.”
“Absolutely,” Brownback said, with a knowing smile that indicated his talking points had been poached. “Oh, yeah. Wow, that would be a lot of attractions. Man.”
Henry kept on the pressure. “What’s really interesting about my family is, we don’t really work for the shareholders,” he said. “We actually work for the people who buy our tickets …”
“Absolutely,” Brownback repeated. “If you’re not workin’ for the voters …”
Upon that wobbling platform, the governor and the ride designer stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Behind them, the mouth of Verrückt opened to the Kansas plains.
“Jeff,” Brownback ventured after a time, “you thought about politics or anything?”
Somewhere at his core, Henry was both flattered and deeply horrified by the prospect. He turned to Brownback and said, “I got a history — especially with my multiple ex-wives.”
“Oh,” Brownback said. “OK. Ha-ha-ha!”
After Brownback had gone, Henry sat at a picnic table in the shade. There are two Jeff Henrys known to the world. Henry the Salesman appears for public ceremonies. More elusive is Henry the Inventor: a brooding artist, a man who has attached more deep thought to a waterslide than a thousand Disney Imagineers ever did to It’s a Small World. I asked Henry if a waterslide could be seen as art.
“The whole park is art to me,” he said.
Do you think of Verrückt as beautiful?
“This is an erotic piece of art, yes.”
Is Verrückt erotic because it’s scary, or erotic because it’s erotic?
“It’s gorgeous,” Henry said. “It’s just a beautiful shape. It’s grander curves, grander valances, steeper drops. Everything is just really, really, really sexy.”
Henry works in a family business. His brother, Gary, is the CEO of Schlitterbahn, which has five water parks scattered across the country; his sister, Jana, handles the retail side. They work as safety valves on Jeff’s untamed creativity. “If Jeff says, ‘I can build this waterslide for $1 million,’ Gary puts it in the budget for $2 million,” said Gary Slade, editor of the trade publication Amusement Today.
When I read Slade’s quote to Gary Henry, he said gently, “Over time, over budget — sometimes those are just modifications of scope.”
On this day in April, Jeff Henry was happily behind schedule. Verrückt wasn’t running; despite a planned Memorial Day opening, the slide wouldn’t open for a further six weeks. Henry was also building a new Schlitterbahn park in Corpus Christi, Texas. It, too, was facing lengthy delays.
The industry viewed the unveiling of Verrückt (German for “insane”) as a coup for Henry the Salesman. Its 168-foot drop and subsequent 55-foot uphill rise made it easily tweetable. Within a few months, YouTube clips of Verrückt riders littered the Web. Few noted that the former world champ, a 135-foot Brazilian slide called Insano (Portuguese for “insane”), had also been built by Jeff Henry.
Henry the Inventor waved away praise. “This particular ride and the way that it looks to me is like about one-tenth of what I want,” he said. “I had always planned just to hook some more ride to it and go a couple of thousand feet long. I like long rides. I don’t like quick, short things like this. People like this.”
Middle Americans are a beachless people. Their ocean is the water park, places like Schlitterbahn and Wet ’n Wild and Action Park and Water Zoo. But the water park has never acquired the cultivated mythology of a Disneyland nor a resident genius like Uncle Walt.
That’s an oversight I intend to correct. For two men created the American water park as we know it. One is Jeff Henry. The other is George Millay. Neither man would find the pairing flattering. By beginning with Millay’s Wet ’n Wild, which opened in 1977, we can wind our way forward, in the style of a corkscrew slide, to Verrückt. And then being 17 stories above Kansas will make a demented kind of sense.
I asked Henry what he thought of Millay.
Henry acknowledged Millay’s brilliance and then said, “He was mean. He was the meanest man I ever met.”
Let’s start there.
The formative moment of the American water park was a grand heist. Maybe that’s too strong a term. Maybe “appropriation” is better. Or “enlightened borrowing.” But if you knew George Millay, you knew he wasn’t one for euphemism.
In 1974, Millay, then 45 years old, found himself standing before a swimming pool in Decatur, Alabama. It was 9 p.m. Millay was a large man — “big-boned,” a former colleague said. He had the thick, belly-less form of 1970s NFL linemen and flame-red hair. When he got angry, which was inevitable, his cheeks flushed until they matched it in color.
He had come to Decatur, more than 300 miles away from the Gulf of Mexico, to see the waves. There, Point Mallard Park was using German technology to manufacture 4-foot swells. Visitors were bobbing up and down just as they would in the Gulf. As Millay stood there, he realized that for the landlocked, this wave pool was their Gulf. Why, a man could make a fortune building simulacrums of beaches across America. Years later, Millay recalled to a reporter the words that crept through his head: We’ve got it …
It was the first of many such heists. Millay went to Canada and saw a children’s water playground designed by Eric McMillan. He would need his own version of that, too. On a family road trip through Placerville, California, Millay happened to pass a waterslide, a fast concrete flume that sent kids feetfirst into a pool of dirty water. My god, Millay thought, what a concept this is …
By 1974, the United States was saturated with roller coaster theme parks; various surveys put the number at more than 500. Millay envisioned an alternative — a water park. The set of rides that made up the first Wet ’n Wild were already extant. Millay’s insight was to create a new kind of park by putting them in one place and charging a single admission price. As one magazine would later note, “For most of us, Wet ’n Wild is to waterparks what Disney is to theme parks.”
At first glance, George Millay was an unlikely man to invent a slacker’s paradise. He was ex-Navy, a staunch conservative, a reactionary. “A lot of us thought of him as our General Patton,” said Dick Evans, who worked on an early feasibility study for Wet ’n Wild. Millay kept a carving of Attila the Hun behind his desk. In letters to friends, Millay referred to the Japanese as “Japs” and the Cold War as the “World Bolshevik Expansion.” His birthday was the Fourth of July.
Millay hated long hair. It was the badge of the nitwits who wanted America to lose in Vietnam, a generation that was taking the country straight to hell. In 1974, Millay asked for a meeting with Rolly Crump, the famed Disney Imagineer. “I went over to his condo,” Crump remembered. “It was my beatnik period, and I had a beard and wore a bandanna and had rings all over my fingers. I was walking down the hall. George comes out of the door with a cup of coffee. The first thing he said was, ‘We don’t allow beards in this building.’”
“I said, ‘I’m Rolly Crump.’”
“He said, ‘Oh, god. OK. Get in here!’”
Another time, Millay walked into a bar, sat down, and told the man next to him: “You have a beard. You don’t belong in this restaurant.” The man ignored him. Millay stood up. He warned the man he had been a boxer at UCLA. The man rose, coldcocked Millay, and walked out of the bar. That was George Millay: a man who’d offer to fight on behalf of civility.
Millay could yell. Boy, could he yell. When an employee dared to tell Millay he couldn’t do something, Millay’s cheeks went red and his sonorous voice began to boom. But to reduce Millay to his outbursts was to sell him short. Millay had considerable charm and was known for his enormous generosity among pals and employees. Hours after a tirade, Millay could be found in a bar drinking vodka with the object of his scorn. He believed that the most essential thing two men could do together — other than argue — was to get drunk.
In 1976, Millay was diagnosed with skin cancer. The resulting surgeries chipped away at his face. A doctor removed part of his right ear. The nerves on the right side of Millay’s face were severed, causing his mouth to sag. Another time, a divot was taken from his temple. “It looked like someone had taken an ice cream scoop to the side of his head,” said Gary Zuercher, who sold Millay the technology to build the wave pool. “It would have killed a normal man,” said Fred Brooks, who worked with Millay on the planning of Wet ’n Wild. Yet Millay was only embarrassed by having to grow out his hair and beard to cover the scars. “He was just a bull, just god-awful tough,” added Brooks.
The night Millay spotted the Alabama wave pool became a turning point in his career. In the 1950s, Millay had made a smallish fortune with a harborside restaurant in Southern California. A decade later, he struck it rich when he took the age-old concept of the oceanarium, added showbiz flair, and created the park we know as SeaWorld. Under Millay’s tutelage, Shamu the killer whale became a mononymous international star. But in 1974, Millay lost a power struggle with SeaWorld’s board and angrily left the company. Wet ’n Wild would be his comeback.
Millay had gotten the idea for a water park one summer at SeaWorld, when he realized he had brought visitors to the water but not into the water. He explained to a reporter years later, “All you have to do is spend some time in Central Florida in the summertime — it’s hot and muggy — and ask what does a person want to do in his spare time. The answer is either sex, booze, or go swimming, right?”
Millay’s gamble was that people would pay to swim. Bankers thought he was nuts. “When they heard us say we were charging money for people to go swimming, they held the door for us as they chuckled,” said John Shawen, Wet ’n Wild’s first general manager. But Millay managed to raise more than $3 million.
For a site, Millay selected Orlando. It was beachless. It had legions of existing tourists. Initially, the water park was not a go-to attraction; it was an add-on for families who had turned over their wallets to Disney. The 15-acre tract Millay leased on International Drive sat at a spot former Universal Orlando president Bob Gault called the city’s “50-yard line” — right where the airport expressway met Interstate 4, the road to the Magic Kingdom.
Naming the park proved simple. Rolly Crump remembered, “One day, at a meeting, George said, ‘We got to come up with a name. It’s got to be wet and it’s got to be wild.’
“I said, ‘Well, George, that’s it. Call it Wet ’n Wild.’” Later, the name would be as soothingly generic as the chains on International Drive: the Red Carpet Inn, the Western Sizzlin’ steak house. Yet for the men standing on the threshold of a great invention, Wet ’n Wild almost sounded dangerous. They made sure the opening round of ads emphasized that the park was safe.
About that: A few days before Wet ’n Wild opened, in March 1977, Millay invited the Orlando hotelier Harris Rosen to watch the first teenager test the Whitewater Slideways. These were the concrete slides Millay had seen in Placerville, California, now rebranded and lengthened. (They measured 400 feet.) The teen folded his arms across his chest, slid down the flume, skipped right across the surface of the splash pool, and landed in a heap on the concrete.
“That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it, George?” Rosen said.
“Oh my god,” Millay said.
The centerpiece of Wet ’n Wild was the wave pool — now called the Surf Lagoon. Millay’s pool was nearly identical to the one he’d seen in Decatur: It held 570,000 gallons of water and measured 8 feet in the deep end. Millay placed it right inside the entry gates, so that as you walked into the park you saw waves rolling at you, just like at the beach.
When you turned left, you came upon the children’s play area. The name revealed its provenance: Canadian Water Caper. Wet ’n Wild’s footpaths were hot asphalt. An admission ticket cost $3.75 and you could rent a locker for 50 cents.
For Millay, Wet ’n Wild stood as a corrective to ’70s hedonism. According to his biographer, Tim O’Brien, Millay prohibited so much as a single piece of litter to hit the ground. The park’s lounge chairs were red, white, and blue.
In the first days of the American water park, Millay was known to glance out his office window and count the cars pulling into the lot. An employee would climb to the top of the highest structure at Wet ’n Wild, like a Navy man on a conning tower, and scan the horizon for rain clouds. Millay liked to say, “When they’re nipple-to-nipple and bun-to-bun, we know the turnstiles have really spun!”
New Braunfels, late 1960s
When he was still in his teens, Jeff Henry became an inventor. His family had moved from Houston to New Braunfels, Texas, a sleepy river town between Austin and San Antonio. The Henrys bought Camp Landa, a collection of 34 wood cabins that stretched along the Comal River. On Christmas Day, Jeff and Gary and Jana would open gifts, then put on wet suits and jump in the river.
Camp Landa was a refuge for Houstonians, who would come to New Braunfels to ride inner tubes. As an afterthought, the Henrys installed an old playground slide on the second story of the lodge building. The slide was very fast, and riders would often shoot off the bottom and go skipping across the grass. Jeff Henry had an idea. He put a dip into the bottom of the slide and filled it with water. Now, when the rider came down at high speed, he fell into the water and slowed down. This technology — known as a water brake — is still used in parks today. Jeff Henry had invented a waterslide.
Across America, late 1970s
George Millay lifted ideas so successfully that it wasn’t long before Wet ’n Wild became a target for larceny. The culprits were roller coaster people — the men who’d watched with raised eyebrows while Millay created a new kind of amusement park. Now they were coming to Orlando and looking the place over. Millay prohibited his employees from giving tours to potential competitors. It hardly mattered that his own staff’s tours of other parks had provided the inspiration for several rides at Wet ’n Wild.
Millay knew this was coming. He had planned to open Wet ’n Wild, make a killing, and then quickly build seven more water parks across the country, essentially claiming the territory as his own. Cities north of the Mason-Dixon Line didn’t interest him. Millay wanted hot, beachless places that could become mini-Orlandos. He considered Dallas–Fort Worth, St. Louis, Nashville, and Atlanta.
Problem was, the public was slow to embrace the Orlando park. “No one knew what we were,” said John Seeker, who handled Millay’s marketing. The park took a $400,000 loss in its first year. The following November, Millay wrote to his investors, “Who would be dumb enough to buy stock in Wet ’n Wild?” Millay began to wonder if the park would go the way of failed Orlando attractions like the replica Great Wall of China and Hurricane World. “George never ran out of ideas,” Shawen said. “We just ran out of money.”
A typical roller coaster guy was Pat Cartwright, who had worked at Busch Gardens and Opryland USA. Cartwright came to Orlando in 1981 with his wife and two children. At Disney World, he trudged from ride to ride with sweat pouring off his brow. Then he went to Wet ’n Wild. His kids played in the Canadian Water Caper while Cartwright and his wife sat in the shade and watched. “You didn’t see lounge chairs at Disney World or Six Flags or Busch Gardens,” Cartwright said. “But at a water park you could sit on a lounge chair for an hour.”
The water park’s role as a babysitter was central to Millay’s vision. “Our type of park is the one that the tourist will visit after he’s fought the crowds and heat at the other places,” he once remarked. In fact, an early problem Wet ’n Wild faced was that people were lying on its beach chairs for so long — sometimes 12 hours at a clip — that the chairs were bursting under the strain.
Millay’s idea had escaped. Cartwright went to Williamsburg, Virginia, and built a park called Water Country USA. More water parks opened in Oklahoma City and Branson, Missouri. Still more in Tampa and Silver Springs, Florida. That made Millay really angry — competitors right in his backyard. In 1983, just six years after Millay had created the genre, America was home to 29 large water parks and 38 wave pools, according to the World Waterpark Association.
Park owners didn’t just pillage Millay’s park design. They looted each other. Their brochures came to resemble a hydrodynamic Mad Libs, with a ride-naming lexicon ranging over — and nearly limited to — words like Water, Raging, White, Wild, Hole, Storm, Splash, Toboggan, ’Boggan, River, Typhoon, and Niagara. Disney’s River Country had a ride called White Water Rapids. Millay’s knockoff was Raging Rapids. Years later, Disney repaid the theft with a new attraction: Runoff Rapids.
The men who built the early water parks found they were managing things they did not understand. Climate permitting, a roller coaster park could operate year-round. The water park season ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day. You had 100 days to make your money. “In the first years, we tried being open weekends in September,” Cartwright said. “It didn’t do any good.” Even if hot weather persisted into the fall, the customers had moved on to diversions like football or the homecoming dance.
Rain was a constant threat. A wet summer could wipe out 5 to 10 percent of profits. “Pray for good weather,” Millay once wrote to a friend. “If it is not forthcoming soon, all is lost.”
Water park visitors were just as baffled. It’s now possible to look at these pilgrims as we would a jerky silent film of men test-driving a Ford Model T. In the early days, beachless people who’d never shared a body of water with hundreds of others showed up at water parks. They quickly discovered that their bathing suits were too tight, too old. Women who wore bikinis found that their tops flew off when they came down a speed slide. “The gift shops were big bucks,” Shawen said. “We sold a phenomenal amount of bathing suits.”
Water park creators began to lay out the parks to help visitors understand them. They put their tall rides at far corners of the park to disperse the crowds that congregated around the wave pool. Concession stands required another fix. “You almost had to put anything that required money within a certain distance of the lockers,” said Chip Cleary, who opened Long Island’s Splish Splash in 1991. “Because people in bathing suits can’t carry money around easily. That became the mother of invention, and out came the water wallet.” It was a little plastic pocket you hung around your neck. When you got off a slide, you could walk over to the concessionaire while you were still dripping wet and buy a Coke.
“I wasn’t impressed,” Millay told O’Brien, “with most of the junk being built by dentists and real estate promoters and guys who thought they could run a waterpark.” That didn’t mean, however, that Millay was above stealing an idea he admired. He went to Cartwright’s Water Country USA and fell in love with the park’s corkscrew ride.
Millay took the basic design of the ride, combined it with that of another from Tampa’s Adventure Island, and added a fog-and–strobe light–filled “mystery tunnel” at the end. The newly christened Corkscrew belonged to Millay. “He told me he was going to copy it,” Cartwright said. “As he said, everybody copied him, so that was only fair.”
Jeff Henry visited Wet ’n Wild shortly after it opened. He brought a girlfriend. “She was cute,” he told me. “Her name was Mary. I married her and had two children with her. We met in my bar in San Marcos, Texas. She was a coed and I snuck her off. A little Dallas girl. I was a little old country boy from New Braunfels. Those little Dallas girls, they were something. They shined up awful purdy.”
Henry rode Millay’s Whitewater Slideways and paddled in the Surf Lagoon. But something nagged at him. If Henry is right that water parks are art, then his was an aesthetic objection: that Wet ’n Wild was a concrete playground, a “parking lot water park,” as one of his employees would later put it.
“Wet ’n Wild, I considered to be an abomination,” Henry said. “I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like the wave pool and I didn’t like the concrete rides. I thought I could do it better.”
By the late ’70s, Wet ’n Wild had finally become profitable. “We seem to be out of the ‘poor house,’” Millay wrote to investors. He set his sights, finally, on expansion. Dallas–Fort Worth was the best beachless market not yet conquered by his competitors. But another developer, the Herschend family of Missouri, was also eyeing the area. The Herschends sent a message through Rick Faber, the new general manager of Wet ’n Wild Orlando.
“George, they’re coming,” Faber told Millay.
Millay growled. “We’ll build the park bigger!”
Millay was spurred to innovate by a mixture of genius and fear. “Scripture tells us, ‘Fear of the Lord is the first step towards wisdom,’” he once noted in a speech. “But in Orlando, fear of the Mouse is the first step towards financial well-being.” Millay’s next two rides would push the water park to new heights and establish him as its undisputed king.
Every few years, Millay liked to travel around the world to search for inspiration. In 1974, while riding a cab in Tokyo, he had spotted a tall waterslide called the Heiwajima Slide. The slide had fallen into disuse, but in its sheer size Millay saw potential. A slide like that could tower over a beachless city, waving in every visitor who laid eyes on it. My god …
Waterslide makers would come to call this kind of slide a “skyline.” The term had been used by roller coaster parks for decades. The “skyline” is often built along interstate highways or major roads for easy visibility. It needs no marketing. It is marketing. It can be described in a single word: Ahhhhh!
Millay built a fiberglass prototype, in 1979, in Orlando. The introduction of fiberglass changed the course of slide-making. In the old days, to build a slide you had to first build a small berm and allow the concrete flume to trace its slope. Fiberglass was lighter and allowed you to build slides straight up into the air.
Millay reserved the naming of slides for himself, and he had a name picked out for his new one: the Kamikaze. His staff cringed. It wasn’t just that the name was offensive. According to O’Brien, 12-year-old George Millay had been living at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He watched Japanese bombers attack the USS Arizona, and he slept that night with a loaded BB gun. But to tell Millay the name Kamikaze was un-PC would be to risk a tantrum. The slide opened in February 1979. Soon, American kids were leaving Wet ’n Wild with buttons that bragged, “I Rode the Kamikazeee.”
I rode the Kamikaze as a kid. The slide rose six stories — twice as high as any existing slide, Millay boasted — and I reached it by climbing stairs covered in wet carpet. At the top of the ride, I lay on my back and put my hands behind my head as if I were relaxing on one of Millay’s lounge chairs. I got a this-thing-is-moving-faster-than-my-adolescent-brain-can-process feeling. I remember a lot of water in my face, and then landing in a pool 300 feet away.
The Anatomyof a Water Park
The drawing power of a “skyline” was enormous. Forty thousand people rode the Kamikaze in its first four months of operation, Millay estimated. He would later credit the slide with boosting his Orlando attendance by 25 percent. But Millay also realized that not everyone had the stomach for such a ride; today, “skyline” slides typically attract only about 10 or 20 percent of park visitors. Millay knew he needed a relaxing alternative. A ride that would attract not just teenagers but the people who brought the teenagers — the people with money.
Millay’s next great theft came in Jakarta, Indonesia. He and Zuercher were walking through a theme park called Ancol Dreamland when they noticed something odd. “There was a circular canal with people in it,” Zuercher said, “a bunch of women dressed modestly in Muslim garb.” The river’s jets were broken — Millay found the manager drinking a beer and watching TV — and the water was disgusting. But none of the women seemed to care. My god …
Millay got his hands on an aerial photograph of the river and brought it back to Wet ’n Wild. “It was like the Ganges,” Seeker said. “It was so full you couldn’t see the water.” Millay insisted that was the ride’s genius. This river would take people out of the endless lines; it would save them from walking up six stories on wet carpet.
Build me a river, Millay commanded his engineers. The engineers scratched their heads and said, Sure, George. People will make one loop, get out, then reenter…
Millay wouldn’t have it. He wanted a ride that was continuous. As a kid, the Lazy River was notable for its lack of screams. You didn’t even have to swim. You could walk into the river and be tugged at low speed around the circumference of the wave pool, a distance of about one-third of a mile. It gave you that people mover–at-the-airport feeling.
Millay built his first Lazy River at his new park in Arlington, Texas, right between Dallas and Fort Worth, in 1983. Crowds loved it. “Just lie back and enjoy getting a wonderful tan!” the brochures boasted. Now, when a Wet ’n Wild visitor walked through the park entrance and crossed the first bridge, she could see both waves rolling in her direction and happy people floating beneath her.
Millay’s pitchmen found the Lazy River to be almost inexplicable in television advertising. It hardly mattered. The Kamikaze was the ride that brought people into a water park; the Lazy River kept them there. Soon, Wet ’n Wild’s marketing photos had swimmers paddling in the river, gazing up at slides that towered above them like the beehive towers of Martian civilization.
Millay would invent more rides, like the six-story drop slide Der Stuka. He named it, with characteristic indelicacy, after a Luftwaffe bomber. But this was a comparatively minor innovation. For with the Kamikaze and Lazy River — along with the wave pool and children’s playland — Millay had laid down the template of the great American water park. “The George Millay formula was taking certain ideas and concepts that were out there and reconstituting them into something that was greater than the sum of its parts,” said his son, Pat Millay. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a water park in America that doesn’t have its own versions of these four rides.
By 1985, Millay was experiencing “that rapturous, transcendental feeling that tells you that you have a winner.” He bought the Herschends’ competing parks in Dallas–Fort Worth. He kept one in operation. The other he tore down. When no one was paying attention, Millay had concrete poured into the pipes and pools so nobody would compete with him in that muggy, beachless paradise again.
New Braunfels, June 2014
One hot day, I went to visit the Henrys’ original water park in New Braunfels, on the site of the old Camp Landa. Schlitterbahn is a collection of slides, tube chutes, and faux-Germanic castles scattered along the banks of the Comal River. Millay’s parks were arranged with fastidious care. Schlitterbahn was built in fits and starts, and the guiding principle seems to have been “Do we have any money left?” To travel from the west section of the park to the east, you take a shuttle bus that travels down city streets.
At first, the Henry family saw their waterslides as an enticement to get visitors to rent cabins at Camp Landa, the same way another lodge might offer horseback rides. After Jeff Henry’s visit to Orlando, they changed course: The cabins became an appendage of the slides. The Henrys named their water park Schlitterbahn, an invented German word that they claimed meant “slippery road.”
Henry was Millay’s opposite: a groovy product of the ’70s, the Sergeant Pepper to Millay’s General Patton. Millay’s color palette was John Birch revival. The children’s playland at Schlitterbahn is populated by giant mushrooms that look like they’ve been harvested from a Ziploc baggie.
Millay was turned on by fiberglass. After he built Kamikaze, the whole industry had thrown away its cement slides and converted. Henry disliked the material. “It’s ugly,” he told me. “It takes a lot of maintenance. It has very low capacity.” It also hurts. By the time you reached the bottom of Millay’s Der Stuka, you got that unlicensed-masseuse-goes-to-work-on-your-buttocks feeling.
In the mid-1980s, when he was in his thirties, Henry began playing with foam. He found it eased the impact of fiberglass slides, and he was able to sell foam to Millay. “George hated me,” said Henry, “and George didn’t want me there. But Rick Faber said, ‘I gotta have him, George. He’s the only one who can fix this stuff.’ They were breaking shoulders, arms. They were hurting people. And I was creating foam and soft technology and landing flaps and pads — methods of eliminating those accidents and those injuries.”
Henry would work for Millay in Orlando on weekends, then drive back to New Braunfels and plow his earnings into Schlitterbahn. “I’d take that money out of Orlando,” he said, “and bring it back to the old German people here in New Braunfels so we could brew more beer and have a bigger Wurstfest.”
Like Millay, Henry was on the lookout for new rides. In 1987, he met a surf fanatic named Tom Lochtefeld at a trade show. Lochtefeld had invented a machine called the FlowRider that produced a fast, thin sheet of water — it was like putting your thumb on a garden hose. Lochtefeld figured that if you shot that water over a sloping surface, you could create a kind of surfing wave. He had tried unsuccessfully to sell the idea to Millay.
Henry bought it for $50,000. “Jeff had the place, the time, and the desire,” said Terri Adams, Schlitterbahn’s COO. “Whether he had the money … I’m not sure, but he got that from his brother.” Henry called the ride the Boogie Bahn. Lochtefeld covered its surface with a scratch coat — the rough, second-to-last layer of construction concrete before a smooth coat is applied. Then he and Henry and Adams decided to put on wet suits and test it. The Boogie Bahn worked — they could surf — but when they finished, their wet suits were shredded. With a smoothing coat of concrete, the ride became one of the park’s biggest attractions.
But Henry’s great accomplishment was to do to Millay what Millay had done to others. He took an innovation and innovated further still. Take the Kamikaze slide, or “skyline.” By the mid-’90s, it was assumed you couldn’t do much more with a waterslide. To build a taller slide meant asking riders to climb more stairs.
Henry watched one day as Lochtefeld put an inner tube into the Boogie Bahn. The thin sheet of water lifted the tube up and over the sloping surface. What if a waterslide could do that? Henry thought. What if it could push a tube uphill like a roller coaster? That became the impetus for Henry’s new slide: the Master Blaster.
At Schlitterbahn, every new waterslide is put through a testing phase. Henry built a scale model of the Master Blaster in a cow pasture in New Braunfels. The model’s flumes were made of wood. Henry asked his subjects — a group of family members, conscripted park employees, and journalists — to test the ride.
Gary Slade of Amusement Today was an early guinea pig: “Jeff said, ‘The minute I push you into this trough, whatever you do, do not fall off this inner tube.’”
“I said, ‘I don’t plan on it.’”
“He said, ‘Gary, look me in the eye. I don’t have enough doctors in New Braunfels to pull the splinters out of your ass if you fall off this thing.’” Slade and his inner tube were blasted uphill over a rise, a strange sensation for water park junkies, and then blasted uphill again. Then they were thrown into the air. They landed in a small cattle pond. A staff member threw Slade a rope and fished him out.
The Master Blaster now towers six stories over the east side of Schlitterbahn. Its drawing power is beyond what Millay could have ever dreamed. I climbed the stairs one morning a few minutes after the park opened. By the time I got to the top, there was a 30-minute wait. When I reached the front of the line, I sat in a green raft. An attendant said, “Ready, sir?” Within seconds, I felt water shooting up through the bottom of the inner tube and I was flying uphill, then down again. Then up, then down.
After it opened in 1996, the Master Blaster became the new “skyline” of the American water park. There are now about 200 Master Blasters scattered across the world. But the new “skyline” was enormously expensive. A Master Blaster can cost more than $1 million. Water parks responded by raising their admission fees. An adult ticket to Schlitterbahn New Braunfels now costs $51.99.
But that increase had an unforeseen benefit. Customers were staying at water parks all day to get their fifty bucks’ worth. In the process, they were spending more at the concession stands. “By itself, Master Blaster is not necessarily an economically viable piece of equipment,” said Geoff Chutter, CEO of WhiteWater West, which licensed the technology from Henry. “But add food and beverage around it and all of a sudden it does incredibly well as an addition to the bottom line.”
Henry saved his most brilliant innovation for the second part of Millay’s water park template, the Lazy River. Henry thought Lazy Rivers were a bore. “Nobody likes ’em,” said John Schooley, a Schlitterbahn designer. “It’s like going around in a circle with rubber duckies.”
Henry built rivers that were faster and meaner: They had rapids, eddies, small waterfalls. In 2011, he created The Falls, a ride that runs seven-tenths of a mile and now stands as the longest tubing ride in the world. I rode it one afternoon, starting in one of the shallow “beaches” that serve as entrances and exits. The river was filled with empty inner tubes — Schlitterbahn was among the first water parks that didn’t charge for rentals.
As my tube floated into the main stream, I got that merging-onto–Interstate 35 feeling. We all rode together. If Henry has a motto, it’s that the water park is where everyone removes his shirt. We are a flotilla of bad tats, appendectomy scars, love handles, and stretch marks. “You’re almost forced into a situation where you have one-on-one interactions with a number of different people,” Lochtefeld said. “And, of course, with girls. That’s what it really gets down to.”
The Falls runs parallel to the Comal and mimics its natural cousin. There were dead spots where my tube suddenly stopped and I had to push off a wall with my feet to catch the current. When we had made a complete circuit, which took a half-hour, a lifeguard pulled our tubes, without asking us to get off, and lugged us onto a giant conveyor belt, which carried us uphill to begin another loop.
At his park on South Padre Island, Henry took his riverine conceit a step further. By adding more conveyor belts, he was able to make it so visitors never have to leave the water. A rider floats in Henry’s river until she reaches a waterborne line for the Master Blaster. A conveyor belt carries her uphill to the ride. Then, after being shot uphill on a Master Blaster, the visitor is spat back out into the river. She makes another circuit. She never quite dries off. “The idea is to make a park into the ride,” Schooley said.
By the turn of the century, the water park map had changed greatly. Disney tried to capture the Orlando market, first with Typhoon Lagoon in 1989 and then Blizzard Beach in 1995. Thanks to Mouse-powered marketing, they quickly became the two most-visited water parks in the world. But Schlitterbahn New Braunfels remains more beloved. It has won Amusement Today’s “favorite waterpark” title for 16 consecutive years. Schlitterbahn’s staff measured visitors’ time at a water park with “entertainment minutes” — the minutes they spent riding rather than waiting in a line. At a typical park, visitors collectively piled up about 30,000 entertainment minutes in a day. With Schlitterbahn’s river system, that number was close to 300,000.
In New Braunfels, I wandered over to the Boogie Bahn — Henry and Lochtefeld’s surf machine — and met a teenager named Payton Purdy. He had short, blond hair and a Tab Hunter tan. “Yes, sir, I was born and raised in New Braunfels,” Purdy said. “My parents would drop me here most days for a couple of hours. It’s sad to say, but I’ll say it anyway: This place was like my babysitter. I didn’t like any rides but the Boogie Bahn, and then I guess I got good at it.”
What’s the hardest trick you can do on the Boogie Bahn? I asked.
“Well,” Purdy said, “there’s physically hard versus the trick is hard. I’m gonna go with physically hard. It’s called a Rodeo. You have to ride on a dropped knee. Then you take the board out from under you and rip it across your body, almost like a rainbow. Then you land back on it in the same drop-knee position. When you see it, you will understand why it’s called the Rodeo.
“I’d love to surf,” Purdy said, gazing out over his Potemkin beach. “I really would. I’ll take this, though.”
San Diego, 2006
Millay’s water park empire never quite stretched across the territory he envisioned. Nashville and St. Louis and Atlanta were gobbled up by other park builders. A Wet ’n Wild built on the Las Vegas Strip suffered from sluggish business.
There were also new headaches: the threat of competition from entertainment behemoths like Universal, and Wet ’n Wild’s increasingly poor lease terms in Orlando. Millay’s team began urging him to sell. Millay resisted. “That company was as much a child to him as me or my brothers or my sister,” said Pat Millay. George Millay was finally persuaded to reward the partners who’d stuck by him for 20 years. In 1995, he sold his Arlington, Texas, park to Six Flags for $29 million. In 1998, he forked over the remaining parks and assets to Universal for $41 million.
The sales marked a symbolic ending. The water park industry was no longer run by a pack of wildcatters. “I think, unfortunately, it’s out of the hands of the entrepreneurs and the creative guys …” Millay told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “[Water parks] have become ancillary to the ride park.” Though he did not mention it, Schlitterbahn remained a notable exception.
In 2003, Millay lost his right eye to basal cell cancer. He wore an eye patch, which lent him a piratical air. In his dotage, he remained a volcano of creativity. Millay briefly tried to sell an elevator that would take visitors underwater to view marine life. Every month or so, he would fly to Orlando to have lunch with Gault, the former Universal Orlando president. Millay would scribble out ecstatic visions on a napkin and ask, “Wouldn’t it be great?”
Millay died in 2006. He was 76 years old. Faber took a call from Millay near the end. “I just want one more deal!” Millay growled. “One more deal!”
Corpus Christi, June 2014
I had an appointment to meet Jeff Henry at Schlitterbahn’s unfinished park in Corpus Christi, Texas, and plunge into his brain. Henry appeared one afternoon in his standard workingman’s outfit: a blue fishing shirt and muddy boots. He wore a hard hat. “What do you want to know?” he asked.
“Well …” I said.
“Well! That’s a deep subject. Especially here in oil country.” Henry’s eyes lit up with the voilà of a connection, and he led me to a metallic sculpture of an oil derrick that he had hung in the park’s lodge. He had found the sculpture in the back of an old barn. Henry loved salvage.
He walked quickly now, out of the lodge and onto the back patio, where he spoke in Spanish to a foreman who had just run out of orange construction netting. Henry then whirled to his left, walking past a lake bed of concrete that would become one of Schlitterbahn Corpus Christi’s two floating cocktail bars. He yelled instructions at the driver of a construction vehicle before finally taking a seat on the drain of the park’s Boogie Bahn. Henry crossed his legs. He indicated with his eyes that the interview could begin.
What are you doing here that’s new? I asked.
“I’m trying to break my late date and my overbudget date,” he said. The park’s opening had been delayed by more than a month.
Henry never finished high school and never formally learned to draw. All his knowledge came from his work along the river.
“The river was free,” Henry said. “I decided to build something that competed with it. That’s a scary thought: competing with a real river. It’s like building a surf ride and competing with a real wave.
“Well, you can’t compete with a river and you can’t compete with a wave,” he continued. “You can’t. Now, if there are no waves or the river’s dirty or polluted or flooded, you can get a lot of people coming to see you.” This pointed out the most profound difference between Henry and Millay. Millay sold us artificiality — a bigger, badder swimming pool; Henry was selling a slightly improved version of the natural world.
Henry often sleeps only a few hours a night. Ideas come to him in a waking dream state — that “weird space between his subconscious and what he’s seeing around him,” his assistant Steven Tyson explained. Recently, Tyson had talked to Henry about using some recycled telephone poles to make a shade structure. At Schlitterbahn, a “normal” shade structure consists of an old boat, rescued from salvage, that has been turned upside down and placed atop the poles. Henry stared at the poles, Tyson recalled, and suddenly announced a new idea: They would become the structural base of a tree house.
Henry doesn’t have Millay’s penchant for tantrums, but he can be a difficult boss. He likes to test his staff by introducing phony, off-the-wall ideas and gauging their reactions. “It’s amazing that people work with Jeff, because he’s so hard to work with,” Lochtefeld said. “But then again, that shows he’s got real charisma. He’s a real visionary, so people are willing to get through the rough spots to participate in the shining moments.”
In 1985, Henry went global. He opened a company called NBGS (New Braunfels General Store) and peddled his slides and tube rides to water parks around the world. Master Blasters now sit atop Disney cruise ships. But in 2006, Henry stopped selling slides and began to build more Schlitterbahn parks, claiming blank spots on the map as Millay had once attempted.
“I got bored,” Henry said. “You make money by building the same thing over and over and over again. I don’t like that. I don’t like building the same thing twice.”
He reflected on his boredom and said, “I guess that’s why I’ve been divorced so many times.”
Leaving the ride-selling business had a kind of moral component, too. Since Millay sold Wet ’n Wild, it has become increasingly rare — and expensive — for a park owner to sketch out a bitchin’ idea for a new ride and build it himself. Far more often, the owners turn to two Canadian firms, ProSlide and WhiteWater West, and ask what slides they know how to build. It’s like shopping for your water park in the Ikea catalogue. Henry thought the practice brought homogeneity to the industry, even if, as the designer of the best-selling Master Blaster, he had once been the guy hawking the catalogue.
“Rick Hunter, who owns ProSlide, is an egomaniac,” Henry told me. “And Geoff Chutter, who owns WhiteWater, is an egomaniac. Those guys, they’re not trying to create good parks. They’re just trying to outdo each other. And they need to quit doing that.
“They’re both friends of mine,” Henry added. “But I’m tired of it. I wish that they would stop. I wish they would work together and work with everybody and not be so competitive. You don’t have to have it all. Good lord.”
The cost of Henry’s one-of-a-kind marvels is that they’re unpredictable. Schlitterbahn Corpus Christi was nowhere near completion: The Master Blaster flumes lay in cross sections in the parking lot, like a dinosaur skeleton. Henry said he didn’t feel pressure, though Hawk Scott, the park’s director of operations, told me, “He feels he’s let people down, and he hates to do that.”
Verrückt is a very un-Henry idea. It’s a fiberglass monument — a George Millay kind of idea. It came to Henry at a trade show. “Some Travel Channel guys walked up to me,” he recalled, “and they said, ‘Hey, Jeff, we’re going to be doing this new show and we want to know what you’re doing new.’
“I said, ‘What is it that would get me to like no. 1 on your show?’
“They said, ‘Well, if it was the biggest, tallest, and fastest, that would do it.’
“I said, ‘I’m building the biggest, tallest, fastest.’
“And they said, ‘What?’
“I said, ‘It’s a speed blaster.’ Well, it didn’t exist. The concept didn’t exist. I just made it up on the spot. And then I came back and told my brother and sister. I said, ‘Mmmm, I just announced this major new ride.’”
It sounded like a typical Henry provocation. “I sort of waited to see if he really believed in it,” said Gary Henry. “When I saw that he did, I knew it’d be great.”
Verrückt was an undertaking beyond anything Jeff Henry had attempted. Its initial 168-foot plunge would be followed by a 55-foot rise, which required the construction of a new nozzle-drive system. A conveyor belt would carry rafts from the ground to the top of the ride. The raft was key to Henry’s vision: He thought Verrückt should not be ridden alone, like the Kamikaze or Insano, the previous world no. 1. “When you experience it with other people, you have something to talk about, you have a joint experience,” Henry said. “It’s much better.”
News of the construction leaked last November. Industry types were envious of the press coverage but skeptical that Verrückt would get much repeat business. “How many times are you going to walk up the Leaning Tower of Pisa?” said Chutter, the WhiteWater West CEO.
But for Henry, being no. 1 in the world had symbolic value. It meant he would stand atop water parks as Millay once had. The superlatives laid upon Verrückt would be laid on him, too. “He wasn’t the tallest and he wasn’t the fastest, so he decided to make that happen,” Tyson said. “I think that’s where a lot of that started.”
To no one’s surprise, Henry missed the original opening date of Memorial Day weekend and a second opening on June 29. By June, Verrückt was being tested with sandbags in the raft in place of humans. When the rafts came to the top of the 55-foot rise, they lifted off the slide. Henry lessened the angle at the bottom of the initial drop to slow the ascent. Finally, Verrückt was ready for a human test.
The first test of an entirely new waterslide gives you that which-afterlife-should-I-believe-in? feeling. “If you see a couple of people do it, you say it’s survivable,” Schooley said. “But the first time you don’t know. You really don’t know.”
“I was afraid,” Henry said. He had sat in the front seat of a blue raft that was patched together with duct tape. Schooley was in the middle seat. Nick Tyson, the younger brother of Henry’s assistant, sat in the back. Henry was wearing boots and shorts.
The footage of the maiden ride was beamed across the Internet. That was a touch of Henry the Salesman. But in Corpus Christi, Henry waved away my attempts to think deeply about Verrückt’s sensations — to describe the achievement of Henry the Inventor. He simply said, “I think it’s probably the most terrifying ride ever built in a water park.”
Kansas City, July 2014
On the ground, before beginning the ascent to the top of Verrückt, you are weighed on a large scale. The slide can accommodate two or three riders, provided their combined weight is between 400 and 550 pounds. I was joined on the scale by Chris, a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. We fit snugly into the range. We kept our shirts on.
Next, a Schlitterbahn employee read a terrifying disclaimer: “You all understand that the activity bears a risk which may result in injury, death, illness, disease, or physical or mental damage to the participant …”
If you don’t die on the way down Verrückt, you die on the way up. There are 264 stairs. For anyone experiencing that Redd Foxx–clutches-his-chest feeling, panic buttons are located on the 25th, 105th, 145th, 185th, and 225th stairs. At the 75th, 145th, and 215th stairs, signs remind you not to spit on persons below. (This assumes you have any remaining saliva.) At the 245th stair, you are told you are at the same height as Niagara Falls. At the 264th step, a sign announces, “Wow! You made it!”
Seventeen stories above Kansas, Chris and I were weighed again, in case we’d lost 10 pounds between the ground and the summit. We were tended to by three Schlitterbahn workers. Nathan Sanderson — youngish, Schlitterbahn logo shirt — was at the controls of Verrückt. Tyler Miles — slightly older, logo shirt — was at the controls of Sanderson. Bert Ahlgren — Ted Nugent–aged, no logo shirt — was making sure the rafts moved easily from the conveyor belt to the primary tilt table. “The boats come up, we slide ’em over, and we send ’em,” Miles said.
They put us in a blue raft. I sat in the middle seat, Chris behind me. The front seat was vacant. A park worker secured a Velcro strap over my waist and another over my chest. We sat there in the hot sun, and I could hear the murmur of voices in the park below, like a television turned down low.
Earlier, I had found Jeff Henry on the ground, sitting under a cabana. Henry the Inventor had returned. “It’s anticlimactic,” he said. “The thrill and the scare of it is all over.”
“You look tired,” I said.
“I slept last night,” Henry said.
Henry the Salesman billed Verrückt as a world-changing event. But Henry the Inventor must have known that the slide’s development was more culmination than breakthrough, a product of the water park industry’s decades of larceny and innovation. Verrückt is a classic Millay “skyline,” only its beacon power stretches across the digital world rather than just up and down Interstate 70. Henry used a form of Master Blaster technology to power Verrückt’s five-story uphill rise. The seats are made with Henry’s trademark foam to prevent injury.
Just over Henry’s shoulder, I spotted three of Millay’s old fiberglass waterslides tucked in the corner of Schlitterbahn. Henry had bought them when Millay’s Las Vegas park closed in 2004. The rebranding commenced from there: Millay’s Black Hole was now Henry’s Whirlwind. “To have some of George’s stuff around, his old rides, to constantly remind me, it’s kind of funny,” Henry said. It was like putting a picture of an old adversary on the mantle.
“You ready?” Sanderson asked atop Verrückt. Ahead of the raft, a metal gate swung open. I got that cattle-led-to-the–bolt pistol feeling. The conveyor belt underneath us activated. The raft lurched forward. Its nose tipped over the side. On Millay’s old drop slides, like Der Stuka, you were blinded by the spray of water. But in a raft, we had a clear look at the chasm below.
The sensation of falling is short-lived. After a half-second, deceleration rails on either side of the slide slow you — Henry had installed them because he feared the rafts were going down Verrückt too quickly. For a tender half-second, I got that cradled-in-God’s-loving-arms feeling. Then the brakes released — that He-hath-forsaken-us feeling — and we covered the remaining distance at a speed somewhere between 40 and 45 mph.
The g-forces kicked in and the world became indistinct. The raft reached the bottom of the initial drop and Henry’s nozzle-drive system kicked in, launching us uphill five stories, higher than any Master Blaster had lifted a raft before. At the apex, the raft lifted off the slide a few inches. We slammed back into the flume, descended a final hill, and came to a stop in a water-filled runout — not unlike the first water brake Henry built at Camp Landa in the ’60s. The final sensation of Verrückt bolstered Henry’s claim that the slide was erotic. I got that postcoital, now-what-should-I-do? feeling. I unbuckled the straps and limped off through the runout. Then I heard the water tank inside Verrückt depressurize, and it was as if the whole slide had let out a magnificent sigh.
“This is a war,” Henry said. “It’s only just started.” He figured the Canadian slide companies would make their own bigger, better copies of Verrückt. The idea of being something other than the great inventor brought Henry the Salesman and Henry the Inventor into harmony.
“I don’t really care at all about the manufacturing side of the industry,” Henry said. “They’re a bunch of losers, anyways. My friends that run the parks, own the parks, and build the parks — they’re good guys and they matter.” He looked up at his slide and said, “This just gives ’em another reason to live.”