so Grace and i went with her sister and brother-in-law this past weekend to take in a day of Texas summer heat at Houston's only waterpark that I know of that's still in operation, Splashtown USA (Six Flags' Waterworld having gone the way of the dodo when they ripped it down along with Astroworld).
Splashtown was part of some fairly fond memories of my high-school days in Houston, close enough to our suburbs to be a reasonable trip but far enough away to make it seem that I and my friends were really doing something with that particular summer vacation day.
hit the tube slides, cruise around on the lazy river for a while, back then it seemed easy to figure that the better part of a day could be spent there. in the mid-90s they'd just opened up a new ride, Space Rapids (tube'ing down totally enclosed pipes, your sudden change in direction or elevation only pointed out by tiny track lights), and through the haze of old memories it seems that endless fun was promised and delivered upon by the park.
so as with almost all re-visitations to things once known long ago my reunion with Splashtown eleven years later, while still exceeding government-mandated minimum fun levels, was a bit of a letdown.
right off the bat, the privilege of parking in their unpatrolled lot was $10 (can't recall what the price was in 1994/5 but i'm going to guess $5). as we forked out the cash, i had to wonder at what price point for parking would i just turn the car around and go home? the park knows we already have $80 worth of non-refundable tickets on hand, isn't the cost to temporarily place our vehice somewhere just a question of park executives doing some scientific testing of how high they can set the price before people start refusing on general principle?
think about it for a second:
at what price would you pay but be annoyed about it all day, to the point where you vow never to return?
at what price asked would you say 'no thank you sir' and leave, unused tickets in hand?
$15? $20? $25?
my side theory is that the max price point is much higher when you have a family and young'uns in tow (hmm, let's see, pay $30 for parking or leave and have my kids cry and hate me for a month for being so cruel as to bring them to the brink of water fun and then take it away abruptly...)
once we arrived in the park it was time to store all of our personal effects in a rental storage locker.
the last time i was at a park where i used a storage locker (probably 4 - 5 years ago), the process to rent was this: get two to four quarters out of your pocket, insert quarters in locker coin slot, open up locker, put your stuff in there, close door, take the key and fasten it to your swimsuit with the attached safety pin, and go.
my time away has seen the evolution of rental locker technology, as Splashtown apparently sunk its money into new electronically locked lockers. go to a locker kiosk screen, select a locker number , create an access code, and use the access code to get into your locker at any time throughout the day.
the good part? not having to worry about losing the key, being able to go back as often as needed to the locker.
the ridiculous part? being asked to pay $9 for the service.
it's sort of an escalating price trap scenario: first the park execs run you through the parking lot decision with the unused tickets in your hand. once you've sunk the cost of the tickets and parking and you're in the park ready to go, then they hit you with the storage locker costs. gotta store your stuff somewhere , right? it'd be a total drag to make someone hold onto the stuff and wait below each time someone wanted to ride, right? how then can you think that $9 is anything but a trifle for the luxurious convenience provided?
after our valuables were stored and we were collectively $9 poorer, our committee of four voted unanimously to avoid the third price trap, the only one that was really voluntary: tube rental.
for $6 you could rent your own single tube, or $12 for a double tube (which could only be used on about half the rides). we decided to be part of the cost-savvy masses that stand in line for the 'community tubes' available at each ride. it wasn't like this was Astroworld and we were facing 1 - 1 1/2 hour lines to get on the ride, we could sweat a few extra minutes in the tube queue.
all costs dispensed with, we took a survey of the park to begin our ride adventures and the thing i noticed first was that in the eleven years since my last visit the park had added only one ride (and from the looks of their website it appeared to be a recent development), the Tornado. apparently they blew their park infrastructure budget for the past decade on the high-tech lockers.
this wouldn't be so terribly bad if i hadn't recalled just how few rides they had to begin with. discounting the kiddie areas there were about five or six attractions to frequent and almost all (save the new one) were showing the early stages of neglect/disrepair. the environment had the look and feel of one of those old mini-golf courses that for years had been under the ownership of someone interested in milking as much out of it, with as little additional investment as possible, until the whole thing cratered. the faded paint, the small town square with unutilized stores, the palpable undercurrent of slow decay, it had it all.
the one ride mentioned earlier, Space Rapids, which was the new deal during my last go-around, seemed the worst for wear. the total-darkness 2001: A Tube Odyssey experience is ruined a bit when you fly past an unrepaired hole in the cloth ceiling, harsh sunlight pouring through and reminding you that you're basically just doing an impression of a hairball being washed down a sink drainpipe. furthermore, in my high school days i didn't remember the interior climate of the sealed tubes being comparable to that of the Amazonian jungle primeval. it was like being wrapped up in a fire blanket of thick, hot, muggy compressed air.
one of the attractions that wasn't much declined in quality from my old days was the good old death-wave pool. i have a hard time maintaining a favorable balance of fun-to-terror in there when the whole pool is packed like sardines and the waves really start going. in life at any one given moment you should really only have to worry about one of these things at a time: A) drowning, B) getting kicked in the groin. the death-wave pool does not afford such luxury.
so the rides were dilapidated and few; who cares, right? rides were never the integral part of the waterpark experience anyways.
now this is what people expect from a waterpark in decline:
-Bikiniwear exhibited by those least fit in terms of age and/or physical fitness
-Parenting of small children hovering somewhere between absenteeism and criminal negligence
and of course we weren't disappointed. on the latter item, the first case we saw was the most compelling.
we'd all wandered into the picnic table area near the center of the park, not really making our minds up all that quick about what to do next. to our right we saw a little white boy, maybe four years old, crying his eyes out. there were personal effects on the table that might have belonged to his parents, though in truth there was stuff on all the tables (seems some of the less theft-fearful patrons found a way to cheat the high-cost locker dilemma).
a quick scan around the area revealed no adults with an attentive eye on the bawling tyke. as our group mulled over whether we should, y'know, do something for him, the kid stopped crying a little, got up from the table and (with some admirable pluck and initiative) proceeded to haul ass away from the picnic area down one of the adjoining walkways. no passive actor subjugating himself to the hand of fate, by god, he had a plan.
he got about thirty feet away and, seeing no parent rush to reclaim him, we figured the parents were indeed A) MIA and B) worthless , so we chased after the little guy. i think at one point he turned around and picked up his pace when he saw two unfamiliar Asian women, Grace and her sister, in hot pursuit. he was about a hundred feet from the last location his parents probably could have thought him to be when we flagged down a Splashtown employee and informed him what we'd seen. to his credit he seemed concerned and caught up to the kid who, if unimpeded, seemingly would have trekked across the whole park. last we saw the employee was leading the boy by the hand to the lost/found office for him to wait away the time in a scary, non-watery, non-fun place until the effect of Budweiser on his parents' brains wore off and they actually started attending to their basic responsibilities.
despite all the complaining and witnessing of the erosion of society detailed above, we all did manage to enjoy a day out in the sun, a diversion from the usual routines. would i go back again? hell no.