Why Schlitterbahn doesn’t live up to its reputation

I came to New Braunfels, just outside San Antonio, TX, expecting to absolutely love Schlitterbahn. I’m a fan of waterparks in general, and like many who have ever seen a Travel Channel special on water parks, viewed this German-themed water playground as a mecca of sorts. It lands at the top spot on such lists all the time, after all, and the privately-owned park is not shy about this ranking in its publications and website. In short, the pump was primed for awesomeness.

It started out swimmingly. Parking is not only free, it was just across a two-lane residential street if you arrive 15 minutes before opening (we came on a midweek summer day). The fact that it was “residential” seemed a bit weird. House, house, 30-year old strip mall, house, house…water park? This is the internationally acclaimed “best water park in the world”? The observation turned out to be prophetic.

We had bought our $55 tickets online months before and brought along printouts, but it turns out you still have to stand in line at a ticket booth to exchange it for a wristband. Lines were short so it was no big deal, but this too was a sign of things to come. Do the owners not know that the rest of the amusement world uses “print at home” tickets to mean “go straight to turnstile”? As we will see, there is a lot they don’t think through.

Not that there was a turnstile. As we passed through the gift shop on the way in, in theory workers were checking that we had wristbands. In practice they were looking through everyone’s coolers and ignored us since we had none. That was when I noticed that everyone around me had hard-sided coolers packed with food and drinks. OK, I realized, almost everyone here is a local. They were all busy claiming picnic tables using their coolers and towels, so we did the same, spreading out our towels on a table well under cover, since we knew there was a 30% chance of rain in mid-afternoon.

We noticed the slides in this front area had some brown, muddy water in them. It took but a quick conversation to realize two things. First, last night’s storm meant there was silt in all these slides near the front entrance, since they are fed by river water, and it would take 90 minutes to clean them out. In the meantime, we could tram over to the “other” side of Schlitterbahn.

Rides that close after it rains.

Rides that close after it rains.

It’s helpful to think of Schlitterbahn as two water parks, actually, one old and one new. Turns out we had parked at the old one, so we had to tram over to the new. Bah, our bad luck. Our advantage in arriving early was quickly dissipating. Once we arrived, we headed straight for the tall castle-themed tower that held three big slides, including the iconic and first-ever water coaster, the Master Blaster. Once at the top of the tower, we realized the line started forming next to a sign that said there was a two-hour wait. Uh, why was this not noted at the bottom? Very customer unfriendly. We switched lines to the family raft ride on the same tower, and it turned out to be an hour. The wait was made longer by the FASTPASS-style “Blast Pass” people who had paid to skip lines. It was aggravating to realize there was a line-skipping system we could have bought, but this was ultimately our fault for not looking it up sooner. The ride turned out to be seriously a snooze, which was even more depressing.

With the tram, picnic table, and wait for the slide eating into our “morning advantage”, we switched to The Falls, which can be thought of as a lazy river on steroids. First, it lasts forever. Second, it has rapids, drops, and a belt-driven upramp that you remain in your tube for. Sounded wonderful, but with the old water park closed, everyone was over here. We figured we would follow the signs to the tube pickup instead of fighting crowds at the many “exits” to the lazy river–where everyone was trying to get ahold of a tube. Once to the supposed pick up spot, we met a disorganized crowd of people also trying to get tubes. Being polite would mean an extended wait of twenty-plus minutes, as others pushed past you more aggressively. Disgusted, I gave the tubes we had so far to my family so they could go, and walked out. What they needed here is an organized line, and they really should just make the other exits of the lazy river “exit only” so that tubes float empty to the one central pickup place. Operationally, this park was turning into a disaster.

By walking to the clear other end, I found a spot where few people tried to get tubes, yet several were exiting, so I grabbed a tube and waited for my family to drift over, irritated at the system. We joined up and raced down the rapids (admittedly, this was inventive and quite good)… and that’s when the thunder boomed and everyone was ordered out of the water. Walking back to the tram stop, we were drenched by a downpour. It was now 2:00. We had been here for three hours and had been on one lame slide and one lazy river…and we are frankly theme park experts who usually know how to diagnose a touring plan for a park. All rides at this point were closed.

I entertained the thought of visiting Guest Relations, but when I got to the booth I saw many signs pointing out the chance of rain today, the need to close slides when it rains, and the lack of refunds or rainchecks. The signs did their job; I turned around instead of talking to anyone.

I’m no newcomer to water parks. When it rains in place like California, you just keep going on rides, since you are wet anyway. When it rains in summer in Florida, where I live, it usually means lightning, so the slides are closed. I expect that. What I do not expect is that slides stay closed when the lightning and rain are gone. It turns out those river-fed slides on the old side of the waterpark were now, by mid-afternoon, determined by management to be unfixable that day, and we were told they would not re-open. Many of these are the iconic rides you see on the Travel Channel shows, so that was another disappointment.

We ate lunch, buying three meals for $39. I almost nodded with belated expectation when I saw that the all-day refill soda cup we had pre-purchased was a waste of money, since combo meals included sodas and if you wanted the sandwich-only, you saved perhaps a dollar. We opted to spend the dollar and get the included fries (and sodas). I felt like a chump. This was a version of bait-and-switch on tourists. Clearly, if I were a local I wouldn’t be fooled twice, but this one caught me by surprise. It was as if the owners never traveled to other amusement parks to see what was standard. Usually an all-day refill cup is a great idea because you make drinks super expensive and the combos don’t include drinks at a giveaway price. True, the standalone drinks were expensive, but the meals included them and there was little discount to not get the combo.

We found “our” picnic table now inhabited by a family with a cooler, who had spread out everywhere, while folding our towels into a small corner. They were apologetic, but I couldn’t help wondering if this happens everywhere. What’s the point of “holding” a table, as they all seemed to, if others were just going to co-opt it? I don’t blame the park or its management for this one, but it was another issue. Disney water parks don’t have this problem, but then again Disney water parks don’t encourage picnics by locals, whereas Schlitterbahn management does, right there on their website.

After lunch, we went on a mat-driven racer at the front of the old park that gave massive airtime–this was the best ride of the day, though each of us was slightly injured by it.

Smaller indignities, however, came back almost right away. We missed one tram back to the new water park by perhaps three seconds, only to see the bus behind it zoom off without picking up any passengers (the hostess in front of us apologized politely and didn’t know why her supervisor sent that one off to the other side so quickly). The wait was only ten minutes until the next bus, but it felt like forever, especially after everything else we had suffered through so far that day.

We went over intending to find the other water coaster, and followed a sign to a closed-off trail that was staff-only. Maybe the ride was closed? We later saw a line for this attraction coming from a different trail, though, so this was yet another moment of them not having their act together.

Back at the new side, we went on the lazy river that included wave surges (this was pretty fun, as was the water playground nearby). We went on a lazy river that was about as generic as they come, except that this one had the odd floating alligator you could climb on. That was a neat idea, actually, and I wish they had more than four of them in the water, since there was never a free one. What they should have done is populate this lazy river with nothing BUT alligator floats, to make it distinctive.

There are only four "big" slides. The river tubing isn't included (I think) so I'm not sure why it's pictured.

There are only four “big” slides. The river tubing isn’t included (I think) so I’m not sure why it’s pictured.

We looked at the map again, and realized there just aren’t that many slides at Schlitterbahn in the first place, and that is doubly true on a day when the river-fed slides are not open. We saw only one other thing on the map that looked like we might bother; the Congo lazy river. The map artwork made it look like another unthemed outdoor-only lazy river like the one we had just seen, so we opted to skip it. (Only when I got home did I stumble across an image of it; apparently it has theming we would have really enjoyed. Of course).

We could have gotten in line for the couple of thrill rides that were open, but each looked to be about an hour long, and the last hour-long wait had ended with a truly pedestrian slide. In fact, the more we looked back on that one slide, the more it was astounding how ordinary it was, and that rumination took our appetite away to stand in an hour-long line for either water coaster, especially given how defeated we felt by everything else that occurred operationally that day.

We had a bit of daylight left so we went downtown to San Antonio to show Riverwalk to the kids. They had an insane amount of fun reveling in the sheer cacophony of Pokemon and Pokestops there–I’m telling you, it was teeming–and the cost was restricted to parking. It made me reflect that the $250+ we had spent at Schlitterbahn was really not worth the money. Our kids had more fun at Riverwalk just for the price of parking.

I could see how people might go to Schlitterbahn and have a good time, especially if for some reason the place was not crowded that day. Certainly the locals find it a worthwhile endeavor! But that’s different from suggesting this park ought to be a mecca for water park fans worldwide. There aren’t that many slides, and I imagine there is a no-win scenario with crowds. If the weather is good, it will be crowded, and the value won’t be there. If the weather is bad, half the park will be closed, and even with weather keeping crowds down, they will all be at the same slides, so lines will be long. I just don’t see the value for the admission price. What they really need to do is convert the body slides to fresh water so as to be free from the river and its rain-based foibles.

Operationally I felt betrayed. I know to expect a delay when lightning comes, but I don’t normally expect slides to stay closed all day when it rains only in early afternoon. The REAL world-class water parks are not held ransom by the fact that it rained a few hours ago. If that’s going to be true, they should not have a zero-refund policy. In fact, they shouldn’t give us one-day-ticket-visitors the same wristbands that the locals have, so they could (later) identify which of us had paid to be there just for the day and thus enable refunds, even if partial refunds. Three hours in, we had done one slide and one lazy river, and all slides were closed around us, half of them staying closed even after the rain stopped, with longer lines on the remaining slides as the result. At that point we were ready to leave, and frankly I think a (partial) refund was warranted.

I haven’t even touched on the ways the park feels old, from the musty locker areas to the cheap wooden cabinets used to sell merchandise in the locker areas. If Disney water parks are world-class resorts, Schlitterbahn is a regional park with apparently an unstoppable marketing team that manages to convince the rest of the world that they belong at the top of the lists of water parks. They do have some inventive water experiences, but world-class it ain’t.

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