Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sabrina Gets Schlitterbahned: Part 1

Those of you who follow us on Twitter already know that I spent last week in the hot and happening city of San Antonio, Texas. I don't suppose I need to tell you that this is not a bad place to visit if you're interested in doing some park hopping during your vacation! I had the opportunity to visit two of these fine establishments while in the area. This is the first in a series of posts recounting my adventures.

Editor's Note: This post is the first in a three-part series covering my recent visit to Schlitterbahn New Braunfels. Be sure to check out Part 2 and Part 3 as well!

During the course of my trip, one of the locals posed the following question to me: "What do you think of the weather down here?" It took me but a split second to formulate my highly scientific response: "It's hot." So what's an unadapted Yankee girl to do when faced with such a sweltering reality? Why, visit the world's #1 water park, of course!

No trip to San Antonio would be complete without a visit to the original Schlitterbahn, located in nearby New Braunfels. When we arrived at the park, we were greeted by Jeffrey Siebert, Director of Corporate Communications & Sales, who was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to give us an official tour and a proper introduction to "America's First Family of Waterparks".

The enthusiast, incensed by this concrete proof of her folly, shakes her fist angrily at her spouse.

But before we get to that, I must pause to teach you folks an itsy bitsy little lesson: Do not surrender full control of the trip itinerary to the non-enthusiast in your household when park visits are involved. EVER. He (or she) will inevitably schedule a visit to Schlitterbahn on a "Surf & Save" day when half the park is closed! ("The block was colored. That means it's open.") Grrrrr... Upon this revelation, I had some choice words for said non-enthusiast which are not suitable for print.

If Jeff was shocked and appalled that a so-called "enthusiast" would show up at Schlitterbahn on such a day, he did a good job of hiding it. In fact, he was nothing but gracious. He even took us on a tour of Schlitterbahn West, the aforementioned closed area.

Our adventure began at the landmark pictured above, a 60-foot tall replica of the Bergfried Tower at Solms Castle in Braunfels, Germany (home of the original settlers of New Braunfels). The four water slides which originally adorned this tower have since been replaced by a tubing river. (Pretend it's filled with water and smiling guests in this photo. Come on, work that imagination!)

"This is where it all began back in 1979," Jeff told us. "That was in a day and age where if you wanted to build water park rides and attractions, you couldn't flip through a catalog. You had to do just that: Build your own rides and attractions. And that's how, literally, Schlitterbahn became famous. We started pioneering our own technologies and it all snowballed from there to put us where we are today."

Indeed. Lest we forget, Schlitterbahn New Braunfels is not only the world's best water park resort, but also the world's first. Even more endearing is the fact that the entire Schlitterbahn chain is still family owned and operated. It's the three children of founders Bob and Billye Henry who are at the helm these days. As Jeff explained, Schlitterbahn Waterparks is essentially comprised of two companies.

"We have a company that does nothing but build parks, called the Schlitterbahn Development Group, and they're currently building our newest park in Kansas City. And then there's the company I work for which is called Waterpark Management, Inc., and we do just that: We manage and operate the existing water parks that the team has built. So there are two sides of the family. One builds, one operates."

We weren't very far into our tour of Schlitterbahn West when we arrived at one of its key highlights: Congo River Expedition! This brand new attraction, which opened to the public just a few short days before our visit, is a highly themed, multi-sensory family tubing adventure that transports guests along an "ancient river" featuring animatronic creatures, special effects, and underground waterfalls. The ride incorporates two previously existing attractions--Congo River Float and a nearby tube chute. According to Jeff, underutilization was the primary motivating factor for this facelift.

"We combined several different things to make it part of our Transportainment 'choose your own adventure' system. It was originally the Congo and we kept that theme. So we took that attraction, obviously elevated it, and made it a much more desirable experience because it was completely underutillized. Then we took another tube chute that was also underutilized, and to combine them we actually cut out a section of the river as you can see here to make it a navigable turnaround where then the adventure continues."

Jeff's excitement over this ride's debut was evident from the moment we stepped into the queue area. "This is the way the adventure begins as you work your way into the deepest, darkest parts of the Congo," he explained in dramatic fashion.

"Danger! SQUAWK Danger!"

Here's a fun fact about Congo River Expedition which involves...well, fun facts! In order to keep the line environment moving and interesting, the park has placed "Congo Fun Facts" in strategic locations throughout the queue area. Among other things, these signs will educate park guests about the various animals they may encounter while braving these waters.

Forget about Texas--Don't mess with this volcano. It shoots water more than 20 feet in the air!

"Lava-heated" hot tub. Now that's hot!

So how did this elaborate watery adventure become a reality? The concept itself came straight from the creative minds at Schlitterbahn. The park then put out a request for proposal to a variety of different companies in order to find the perfect candidates who could truly bring the attraction to life. Among others, Schlitterbahn tapped TBFX, Inc. to create the animatronic figures; MicroCool to produce all those uber cool fog effects; and Wax Music Sound & Design to produce the original musical score for the ride.

This creature looks docile enough, but don't be fooled. He'll spray you with water as you float past.

This abandoned mine shaft is chock full of surprises.

As impressive as Congo River Expedition looked on the day of our visit, Jeff was quick to point out that it was still operating in "technical rehearsal" mode, as there are still quite a few special touches and effects which are slated to be added to the ride. But rehearsal or not, this ride is already making waves (pun intended) at Schlitterbahn. Here's how Jeff described the reactions of the first riders: "It was great. It was very positive. The whole whimsical nature of the animatronics, along with the fog and other special effects and the audio portion of it--they really, really did seem to enjoy the overall experience. It's so different from anything that we've done before and it really complements the rest of the property."

Got bamboo? Well hold that thought, because more is coming!

To follow along as Congo River Expedition reaches its final state of maturity, be sure to check out Jeff's updates on the Schlitterblog. This post in particular includes some great photos of the ride in action. As for me, I guess I'll be living vicariously this time around.

One of Schlitterbahn New Braunfels' greatest assets--not to mention one of its most unique characteristics--is the manner in which the natural, spring-fed Comal River has been integrated into the attractions on the West side of the park. This beautiful body of water, which maintains a constant temperature of 72 degrees throughout the year, supplies the water for many of the attractions in this section of the park.

The value of such an asset cannot be underestimated in this dry Texas climate! "Because of the huge underground aquifer, the spring flow remains extremely consistent," Jeff told us. "In our 30 years, we have not had any challenges with the spring-fed river." He also stressed that Schlitterbahn does not actually "use" the water from this natural resource; they merely divert it. "We have a diversion permit that allows us to pull the water through our attractions and then right back into the river. So it's basically just that: We're diverting it, not using it."

What a beautiful cycle. With that zen-like thought, I shall wrap up Part 1 of my Schlitterbahn experience. Up next: We make our way over to Schlitterbahn East, where both flowing water and people were in abundance--I promise! Stay tuned...