After 40 years, a new chapter is on the horizon for Schlitterbahn
AT: Jeffrey Seifert
NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas — Forty years ago, the Henry family opened a small water park on the banks of the Comal river in New Braunfels, Texas, a German settlement northeast of San Antonio. That unassuming start birthed what was to become the world-famousSchlitterbahn Waterpark Resort. Over the years, the park has grown from a small four-slide attraction in a central Texas town few had heard of to a full-blown international phenomenon with a 22-year undefeated streak as the Golden Ticket Award recipient for Best Water Park in the world.
FoundersBob and Billye Henry moved their family of three young children,Gary,Jana andJeff, to New Braunfels, Texas, in 1966 to take overCamp Landa. Leafing through a newspaper, Billye spotted an ad for the property — a modest 13-acre campground that sat next to the spring-fed Comal River. Frame cabins along with century-old cedar, oak and cypress trees were scattered throughout the property. “This is paradise,” Bob said, and he struck a deal to buy the Landa property that day. At the time, the camp centered around activities on the river: a rope swing, paddleboats and canoes. The Henrys moved into a house on the property and renamed the campgroundLanda Resort.
In 1967, Henry built the resort’s first waterslide: a green, 80-foot long fiberglass flume that was a straight shot down into the river. In 1971, Bob Henry, with the help of his son, Jeff, built a 100-foot long concrete tube chute. The chute was dug out by hand and the Henrys mixed and poured the concrete themselves. At the time, neither thought they were building a water park — these were just enhancements to the resort to attract more customers.
Gary Henry, the eldest child eventually attended theUniversity of Texas and majored in accounting. Jana, the youngest, attended what was thenSouthwest Texas State University, graduating with a degree in fashion merchandising.
Jeff, the middle child, was not interested in a formal education. He knew early on in his life what he wanted to do and didn’t really see the need to attend college, but he did give it a try, lasting one week at Southwest Texas State University. Instead, he learned the basics from his father: accounting, engineering, design and construction. Having grown up on the river, he learned about water flow simply by watching it. He would stare at the river for hours coming up with ideas for new attractions at the resort.
In 1977, at the age of 22, Jeff Henry took a trip with a buddy to Orlando and visited two newly opened water parks:Wet’n’Wild andWalt Disney World’s River Country. Upon his return, he convinced the family to build a stand-alone water park to bring more attention to the resort. Bob acquired additional land next to the resort and built four fiberglass slides around a 60-foot-tall replica of the Bergfried Tower — the guard tower of the Solms Castle in Braunfels, Germany. In keeping with the German theme, the park was named Schlitterbahn, loosely translated as slippery road or slippery slopes. Schlitterbahn opened in 1979 and attracted 5,000 people that first year.
For the second season, Jeff Henry added Das Lagune, one of the largest pools in the state at more than 50,000 square feet. Feeding into the pool were a handful of small tube chutes as well as the Hillside Tube Chute, an innertube ride that, as the name implied, worked its way down a natural hillside.
Each year, the Henrys reinvested in the resort, adding accommodations, attractions and unique experiences. Jeff designed multiple tube chutes that spanned the property and behaved much like the river he had observed — offering light rapids, quick drops and backwater eddies. The longest tube chute, Raging River, could take up to 45 minutes to float from start to finish.
As the waterslide market continued to grow, the Henrys kept to what they knew best — tube chutes. To Jeff Henry, Schlitterbahn was not a waterslide park, it was a river park, and most of the attractions reflected that philosophy. The park did add fiberglass body slides and other slides, but the tube chutes were the mainstay of the park, and because it is a river park, the tubes have remained black, looking like the old tire innertubes that tubers have used on the Comal and nearby Guadalupe and San Marcos rivers for decades.
That original section of the park draws its water straight from the Comal River. All the tube chutes use the crystal-clear water which bubbles out of the ground at the Comal Springs just a mile or two upstream. The water temperature is a constant 72-degrees Fahrenheit year-round and it remains untreated, pumped directly into the chutes. Eventually the resort with its waterways winding around and through the lodging grew to 65 acres using all of the land that was available in the river section, but that didn’t keep Schlitterbahn from growing.
The Henrys acquired an additional 25 acres of land just a little farther down the river. The problem was thatPrince Solms Public Park sat between the two properties, and the city wasn’t giving up any of that land. Although the two nearest points of the two properties are just 1,500 feet from each other, getting from one park to the other involved a drive of about four blocks. The solution — trams, then later buses, and it continues to be that way today. Schlitterbahn owns a small fleet of transit buses to move guests between the two parks.
The new section, dubbed Surfenburg, opened in 1991, but unlike the traditional side of the park, Surfenburg was to feature cutting-edge technology. It was here that Schlitterbahn debuted Boogie Bahn, the world’s firstFlowRider surfing simulator. Surfenberg opened late, about a month after the rest of the resort had opened for the season, but by season’s end, attendance had increased nearly 25%. According to Jeff Henry, the FlowRider had paid for itself and the rest of Surfenberg in that first season alone.
Boogie Bahn was the result of a collaborative effort involving the Henry Family andThomas Lochtefeld. In 1988, Lochtefeld had patented a device capable of forcing a stream of water over an inclined surface on which riders could surf. Lochtefeld needed a slick, soft foam coating for the ride surface so surfers would not be injured when they fell off the surfboard. Jeff Henry convinced the Henry family to help provide R&D for Lochtefeld’s idea. That first FlowRider introduced state-of-the-art water propulsion to the industry and changed water parks forever.
Using water propulsion once again, Lochtefeld and Jeff Henry incorporated the technology into a waterslide. A new patent for water injection technology was granted in 1993 and that same technology swept theInternational Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) best new products awards at the annual trade show, winning "Best New Major Ride," "Best New Technology" and "Best Water Ride." It was the first, and thus far, only new attraction to garner all three best new products awards. The water jets were capable of propelling tubes uphill, bringing an entirely new dimension to the tube chute. When Dragon Blaster, the world’s first uphill waterslide, made its debut 25 years ago, it give Schlitterbahn guests even more reason to shuttle over to the detached section of the park.
Two years later, an even larger slide was built in yet another new section of the resort to the southeast of Surfenburg. Master Blaster stands 65 feet tall and features several large drops and multiple uphill sections. Master Blaster was, and still is, the centerpiece of Blastenhoff. Surrounding the Master Blaster slide was yet another invention of Henry’s — a Torrent River. Adapting technology originally developed for wave pools, Henry added wave making capabilities to the typical lazy river. The result was anything but typical, with giant waves pushing tubes and guests through the river channel. The Torrent River remains one of the more popular attractions in Blastenhoff.
By 2006, attendance at Schlitterbahn surpassed every other seasonal water park in the nation, making it the most visited seasonal water park in the U.S., a claim it still boasts today.
Following more than 20 years of operating the hugely successful water park in New Braunfels, the Henry family decided it was time for Schlitterbahn to spread its wings. Property was acquired on the barrier island beach resort community at the southern tip of Texas, South Padre Island. The coastal area, known for its beautiful beaches and abundance of water recreation activities, attracts more than one million visitors each year.Schlitterbahn Beach opened as a fully planned 25-acre water park in 2001. Multiple master blaster slides and a lazy river were all integrated to form a continuous Transportainment River System designed to guest time in the water and eliminate lines. The 25-acre property eventually expanded to include a restaurant and 221-room resort.
Shortly after opening its second water park, the Henry family began looking at a third location, this time in Galveston. A massive, 50,000-square-foot airplane hangar, constructed in 1943 and located next to Scholes airport, was to become the location of the first Schlitterbahn water park to feature an indoor section. Unfortunately, during the planning stages, a devastating fire in 2004 destroyed the structure. Schlitterbahn continued with its plans to build a park in that location, but the design had to be drastically changed. Without the hangar building to provide cover, Schlitterbahn constructed a 70,000-square-foot greenhouse-like enclosure. However, instead of using glass, poly-carbonite panels comprised the sides and translucent fabric formed a retractable roof. During the summer, the panels can be lowered and the roof retracted, transforming an indoor water park into an outdoor water park.
Schlitterbahn Galveston Island opened to the public in 2006 as the world’s first convertible water park. A large outdoor section is open during the lengthy South Texas summer season, late April through mid-October. The indoor water park remains open through the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and starts up again for weekends in March and the full week during spring break.
By this time, developers from around the country were regularly approaching the Henry family with proposals to build a Schlitterbahn Waterpark. One that caught their attention came from a developer in Kansas City, and for the first time Schlitterbahn took its water park concept outside of Texas to createSchlitterbahn Vacation Village Waterpark Kansas City. Original plans called for a $750 million complex that included hotels and resort areas, retail outlets and residential homes.EPR Properties offered to loan the Henrys $174.3 million, and the State of Kansas agreed to add an estimated $200 million. However, the full plans never came to fruition. An economic downturn in 2008 forced Schlitterbahn to scale back plans. The investment in the Kansas City park was reduced to $180 million and did not include lodging, retail or residential areas.
Schlitterbahn Kansas City held a soft opening in 2009, with its first full season in 2010. The park included more than a mile of interconnected waterways, including a Torrent River, Kristal River, Storm Blaster master blaster and a raging river tube chute. To obtain the funds from EPR, the Henrys used both the original New Braunfels park and Schlitterbahn Galveston as collateral.
Looking to expand again, Schlitterbahn acquired property in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2012. Permit and construction delays pushed the opening of that park back to June 20, 2015. Once fully operational,Schlitterbahn Corpus Christi featured a full-service restaurant, Kristal river system and more than two miles of interconnected waterways and blaster waterslides. The construction delays were the start of financial problems for Schlitterbahn continued to exacerbate over the years. The family-owned company would never recover.
The Kansas City water park featured massive expanses of undeveloped areas. It needed something big in order to increase attendance and help it live up to the hype generated when the park was first announced. In 2011, the park added King Kaw Rapids. Designed to mimic the long tube chutes of the New Braunfels park, the chute wandered through acres of open, treeless land, which only served to highlight the lack of development. In October 2012, at IAAPA Expo in Orlando, Jeff Henry was being interviewed by theTravel Channel which asked if he had any major plans in the works. Much to the surprise of everyone — including the folks at Schlitterbahn — Henry suddenly announced that he would build the tallest and fastest waterslide in the world at the Kansas City park. Verrückt opened two years later in July 2014 and attracted national attention. Unfortunately, two years into operation, a young boy was killed on the ride in a freak accident. Everyone at Schlitterbahn was devasted, but none so much as Jeff Henry, who went into a deep depression. Schlitterbahn eventually settled with the family, but the State of Kansas continued to place the blame on Schlitterbahn personnel and Jeff Henry, going so far as to file criminal indictments, all of which were eventually dismissed. The court cases took their toll, however, and Schlitterbahn Kansas City did not operate for the 2019 season.
In 2017, Texas was hit by Hurricane Harvey and all four Schlitterbahn parks within the state were impacted in some way. Schlitterbahn Corpus Christi was the hardest hit and the two-year old park, already in financial distress, lost some of its attractions. Among them, the recently openedHopkins Rides Shoot the Chute ride that had been acquired fromAlabama Adventure and reinstalled at the park.
In December 2017, the financially troubled Corpus Christi park staved off foreclosure for at least two months, but in 2018International Bank of Commerce took possession of Schlitterbahn Corpus Christi at a foreclosure auction. The bank contracted with Schlitterbahn to operate the park, keeping the same name.
After 40 years it was time for a new chapter. Unable to recover from the mounds of building debt, the Henry family divided the properties among the children. Gary and Jana received the original Schlitterbahn New Braunfels Waterpark and Resort along with Schlitterbahn Galveston Island. The two made the decision to sell the parks toCedar Fair Entertainment Company in a $261 million deal. Part of the proceeds were immediately used to pay off the loans to EPR properties for the Schlitterbahn Kansas City park. Schlitterbahn Corpus Christi had already been lost to the bank and was rebranded asWaves Resort featuring Schlitterbahn Waterpark. Schlitterbahn Beach in South Padre park remains with Jeff Henry but will be changing its name for the 2020 season. (See story, page 64.) Cedar Fair had the option to purchase the Kansas City park by October 2019, but it did not exercise that option. The future of that park remains unknown.
Cedar Fair, which operates several world-class amusement parks and water parks, said in a statement that it remains committed to “retaining the valued hospitality, genuine spirit and heritage of the Schlitterbahn brand that guests have come to appreciate over the years.” Cedar Fair has announced plans to invest approximately $20 million in both Schlitterbahn properties.
For Texans, Schlitterbahn has become an icon. People come year after year for vacation. Many who grew up with Schlitterbahn are now returning with families of their own. Despite its innovation and growth, Schlitterbahn never lost sight of main focus: providing a unique recreational experience that families can share together. It has always maintained its family-friendly policies of allowing guests to bring their own food and coolers and providing plenty of shady space for families to relax, unwind and spend time together.
Former COOTerri Adams started 40 years ago as the first employee hired by the Henry family. She toldAT, “It’s been a lot of fun. I got to start in an industry that was brand new and got to work with a lot of great individuals and innovators within the industry. We worked on everything from safety to operation. It has been an amazing experience.”
In the 40 years since its founding, Schlitterbahn Waterparks & Resorts has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a four-waterslide attraction for guests at Camp Landa. Eventually reaching five properties in two states, including two resorts, two indoor water parks, and five outdoor water parks, the family-owned company brought to the industry innovation after innovation and became recognized globally for its creativity, daring and ingenuity.