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Schlitterbahn Water Park on South Padre Island in Texas.
Schlitterbahn Water Park on South Padre Island in Texas.

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The River Master

Meet the man who has dedicated his life creating never-ending waterways in East Texas

As more rooftops start to double as farms and towers become artificial forests, it's clear that hybrid objects, those that are part manmade and part natural, are a hallmark of 21st century design. Engineered Nature, a five-part series by Karrie Jacobs, explores the emergence of this new hybrid world, from a sensor-packed hill in the New York Harbor to manmade rivers in East Texas.

Unless you’re a water-park enthusiast from East Texas, the name Jeff Henry probably doesn’t mean much to you. Or it wouldn’t have until early August, when a Kansas City water slide he designed with the all-too-accurate name Verruckt (German for insane), the world’s tallest at 168 feet, took the life of a 10-year-old boy.

An in-depth Kansas City Star report on the accident asked whether the ride had been "too much, too fast." A reasonable question. Reportedly, Henry cooked up the giant slide on the spot at an event to impress the producers of a Travel Channel show called Xtreme Waterparks.

Personally, I think it’s a shame that this is the ride that’s introduced the man to the general public, because Verruckt and all the other jumbo slides and water coasters that are now an intensely hyped feature of the water park landscape are a diversion from Henry’s true calling. He’s not a builder of thrill rides, but a builder of rivers.

Now 61, Henry has spent most of his life constructing artificial rivers, primarily for the pleasure of the two million annual visitors to his family’s chain of water parks, Schlitterbahn (pidgin German for "slippery road").

When I spoke with him in July—several weeks before the accident happened—he ended an hour-long interview with a sustained rant about how the manufacturers of waterslides had corrupted the water park industry: "I’m angry with the industry, making everybody do waterslide, waterslide, waterslide. It should have been rivers, rivers, rivers!"

(Verruckt, it should be noted, was not a product of the waterslide industry but of Henry’s own impulsive nature. Some TV producers wanted the "biggest, tallest, fastest," so he boasted that that’s exactly what he was working on. Then he felt obligated to to actually design it and build it.)

I first came across Henry about a decade ago, when a travel magazine sent me to Atlantis, a mega-resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, to write about a newly built water park there.

It was not exactly my kind of place, or even the magazine’s—the editors preferred stories about Tuscany and Provence—but they’d been sold on an intriguing premise by the park’s owner: the water park builders of today are the equivalent of the Baroque era geniuses—known as fontanieri or fountaineers—who built extravagant gravity-driven water features at estates like Versailles or Villa d’Este. My job was to check out the new water park, called Aquaventure, and find the responsible fontanieri.

I spent much of my time at Atlantis test-driving The Current, a mile-long circular manmade river with dirt-colored concrete banks that flowed at a leisurely pace past little sandy coves where one could stop for a pina colada and sped up for a series of bracing but harmless rapids. Still firmly in my tube, I floated down a side channel to the Power Tower, a weird neo-gothic structure accessed by riding a slow-moving rubberized conveyor belt to the top.

There, I could flow directly to the two less dramatic waterslides, the Falls and the Drop, or carry my tube up a set of steps to the scariest one, the Surge. I chose the gentlest slide, the Falls, and even that was too much for me. I didn’t mind the initial downhill rush, but hated the sections where I traveled within a large, fully enclosed duct. I’d spin around in the dark feeling disoriented and helpless, not a sensation I enjoy.

You don’t have to get out when the ride is over, because it’s never over. The infinite ride is the signal virtue of the manmade river.

Mostly I preferred the main river, just riding the circuit again and again. It compared favorably to my one real tubing experience, a hot drunken day spent on the Salt River in Arizona, repeatedly bruising my butt on underwater rocks. There were no rocks in the Current.

The Atlantis public relations people set me up with the water park’s general manager, a man whose resume included management roles at a half-dozen other water parks. He gave me a tour that included a lot of information about things like gallons per minute: "It’s 80,000 gallons at the rapids." But he didn’t have much to say about the poetics of the thing. He was not, I decided, one of the fontanieri.

I learned that much of the system at Atlantis had been been imported from Texas and it was designed and built by Schlitterbahn, a chain of water parks headquartered in New Braunfels, on the Comal River, between San Antonio and Austin. A few phone calls lead me to a man named John Schooley, a water park designer for a Schlitterbahn-affiliated company called Henry, Schooley & Associates.

Schooley was very succinct about what I’d experienced at Atlantis. "Pretty much the entire park is designed as one ride," he said. Schooley went on to tell me that Aquaventure was an example of a concept called Transportainment. The word made me wince. But Schooley also explained it in a way that made me appreciate this approach to water park design.

He pointed out that Transportainment wasn’t about generating a few seconds worth of adrenaline, it was about offering a sustained experience. "It’s about creating a park that families can participate in as families."

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He mentioned his collaborator, Jeff Henry, with whom Schooley holds multiple patents with titles like "conveyor system and method for water amusement park." Transportainment itself is delineated in a 2003 patent for a "continuous water ride" that reads like a manifesto against standing in lines for hours to experience a rush that only lasts for seconds. At the time, I didn’t look up the patents or have the patience for another interview.

But in the years since my trip to Atlantis, I’ve grown more interested in manmade rivers. I’ve spent time exploring the Los Angeles River, which never had banks of its own until it was encased in concrete in the 1930s by the Army Corps of Engineers. And I read some of John McPhee’s stories about the Army Corps’ less successful efforts to contain the Mississippi River.

And as my interest in manmade rivers grew, I noticed the latest amenity for apartment complexes, especially in college towns like Gainesville or Tempe, is not a swimming pool but a Lazy River, a gently flowing circular channel more conducive to bobbing along like a cork than to swimming. I became convinced that these manmade riffs on nature’s conduits were a convenience product, an easy-to-use form of recreation that demanded none of the logistical skill or legwork that a real river expedition requires.

I was pretty sure that Transportainment was a reworking of nature well-suited for a generation raised on electronically enabled instant gratification—and that sooner or later, I’d have to talk with Jeff Henry.

Henry is not an easy guy to find. Schlitterbahn’s corporate PR person didn’t respond to my initial inquiries and finally told me that Henry doesn’t do interviews. I made more phone calls and located his assistant, who obligingly gave me his email address and cell phone number but cautioned that he was busy lately climbing around on old oil rigs.

I felt as though I were tracking not a theme park designer but a rock star who’d taken up a mysterious new pursuit. Eventually, Henry did call me back.

We arranged to meet on South Padre Island, in the southeasternmost corner of Texas, where he lives, and where the first "Transportainment" style park opened in 2001. I arrived after a long day of traveling and spent my afternoon blissfully floating in circles under the hot Texas sun, surrounded by a vast armada of parents and children.

We weren’t scheduled to meet until the next day, but at 10 o’clock that night Henry asked—more accurately, he insisted—that I go bar hopping with him and Schlitterbahn’s beverage manager from Corpus Christi, a woman named Ali. He wanted to show her what a real bar looked like, because apparently, the ones at the Corpus Christi park were not up to his standards.

I climbed into his oversized pickup truck with Ali and one of her colleagues. Henry, at the wheel, delivered a monologue about life in South Padre: the police, the local developers, his desire to ban spring break.

We hit three bars, ending with a pickup joint on the top floor of a hotel where an aging soul band played Lady Marmalade. Ali was wonderfully cool, and as puzzled by the excursion as I was. I drank vodka and tried asking the occasional question of Henry but got nothing salient in response.

Journalistically, the night would have been a total loss—the sort of episode that Hunter S. Thompson would squeeze a whole book out of—except that at one point Henry appropriated my notebook and used two pages to diagram his current obsession, a concept called "Triple Canopy." It’s a resort idea (I think) involving a water park, tree houses instead of conventional cottages, and "a rope course and other roof ideas."

The next day, as planned, I rendezvoused with Henry. He was bearded and scruffy in a way that screamed Texas, dressed in cargo shorts, a short-sleeved turquoise Schlitterbahn shirt, and a brimmed Schlitterbahn cap. He handed his big pickup over to a man named Juan, longtime head of his construction crew, and clambered into my tiny rental car.

We drove toward Brownsville. Henry talked on his phone the whole way, conversations that were mostly about oil rigs, which I was beginning to realize were central to his plans for the future. Occasionally he’d give me directions or just point. We wound up at a small building on the outskirts of town surrounded by secondhand locomotives.

The company restores them and either sells them to Mexican railroads or junks them. The same company buys up decommissioned oil rigs from all over the world and has them towed to the nearby port, disassembling them and selling off the metal for scrap. Henry was working out the details of an arrangement with the company that would allow his river builders to scavenge the mothballed rigs for useful components. Paperwork was involved.

Eventually, we borrowed the owner’s office, with a conference table overlooking a shop of dismembered locomotives, and Henry worked his way through a bag of chips as he sometimes answered my questions but mainly digressed. It was a loopy, discursive narrative shaped like one of his rivers.

I did my best to coax the fontaniere out of Henry, to extract from him how he learned to build fake rivers that feel and behave a lot like real rivers. In the beginning, Henry says, his dad was focused on attracting guests to their riverfront cottages and was "constantly trying to figure out how to build things that would make it possible for us to rent those rooms. So Dad built rooms and I built the rivers. I said to Dad, ‘Where’s some plans for me to build something?’ He said, "You don’t need no damned plans.’ "

I was pretty sure that Transportainment was a reworking of nature well-suited for a generation raised on electronically enabled instant gratification.

When it’s coherent, Jeff Henry’s story has the mythic quality of a Hollywood movie. His parents, Bob and Billye, bought a small resort on the Comal River in New Braunfels in 1966 and moved there from Houston with their three children. Early on, Bob added a waterslide to make the cluster of 34 cottages more appealing.

"This was a fiberglass slide built that my father thought would be fun to ride down on your butt," Henry told me. "But it was too rough and you’d get hurt doing that, so we jumped on inner tubes as kids…Then I said, I can rent inner tubes, and I was in the inner tube business when I was 12 years old, 13 years old. I’d ride my bicycle and buy inner tubes for 25 cents at the gas station, patching them, airing them up and renting them out to people for a dollar."

One water slide led to another. Along the way, young Jeff Henry made some observations. "I deduced that there were no women and no kids on the real rivers and I wondered why. It was because they weren’t safe. So I said if I made a river that was safe, that put people on it, little kiddies, the mommies…Wow! I could charge for that. That was the beginning of Schlitterbahn. That’s how we began."

Schlitterbahn now owns and operates five parks, four of them in Texas. According to an annual survey by AECOM, the original, in New Braunfels, which today includes 25 acres of manmade water attractions in addition to the rides along the Comal, is North America’s fifth most popular water park with well over a million attendees a year. It’s the most visited water park outside of Orlando, where Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, with almost 2.3 million annual attendees, rules the roost.

Henry has worked for his family business his whole life—his older brother Gary controls the company purse strings—although he’s sold his skills and licensed his inventions to other water park operators. Currently, he and Schooley are plotting the Transportainment for a new Atlantis resort on the South China Sea.

"I wasn’t trying to simulate nature," he tells me. "I was trying to create an experience for the guest that would allow their mind and their body to enjoy and relax. I found that on rivers, nothing was ever the same. Nothing was ever straight. Everything was free flowing, like the water."

This, I guess, explains, the Schlitterbahn aesthetic: the rivers meander. The banks are made of concrete, but they’re lumpy and irregular in a way that alludes to natural banks. He remembers discovering the secret of river aesthetics: "Wow, this is easy. I don’t have to make it straight. I don’t have to make it level. I don’t have make it look like everyone else thinks it’s supposed to look."

How Henry engineered The Torrent—Schlitterbahn-speak for rapids that give you an exciting ride without slamming you into a wall—is a harder question to answer.

"There are hundreds of ways to change flow," he tells me. "There are thousands of ways. There are so many ways it’s unbelievable. The slope, the angle, the amount of water…everything. It’s the most complex engineering design there is."

He segues into a story about how he and John Schooley learned about the Manning formula, which calculates the velocity of liquid in a conduit. The upshot is that if you restrict the flow of water upstream you change its behavior downstream. As Schooley explained in a recent conversation, "Our thing is to perturb the water. You put a bump up here and what does it do down there….A lot of hydrology goes into that."

But how Henry and Schooley arrived at the concept of Transportainment is the key to this story. Henry says he’s studied Roman Aqueducts and poached ideas from the novels of Jules Verne and an ancient book of knowledge that might be Persian in origin, although he says he ordered it from someplace in Iraq. But his real education is the outgrowth of a very shadowy and complex relationship with The Walt Disney Company.

Henry talks a lot about stealing ideas from Disney ("They’re really good at building rocks. Trust me.") and doing off-the-books consulting work for The Mouse, including the design of a 19-mile water ride that would have connected all of Disney’s Orlando parks and resorts: the ultimate Transportainment system. Henry claims the company destroyed all record of it because the executives were afraid it would eat Florida’s Disney World alive.

It’s an impossible story to confirm. I tracked down Marty Sklar, the Disney executive, now retired, who guided the development of the company’s Orlando parks and asked whether Henry had a hand in fine-tuning Disney World’s water rides. He replied, " I believe he did."

I asked about the 19-mile ride, and he quickly referred me to the communications manager for the Imagineering division from whom I got boilerplate: "Normally, as a matter of corporate policy, we don’t confirm contractors and vendors by name on projects we’ve worked on with them." Schooley, however, substantiates Henry’s account.

According to the story Henry tells me, they were asked to research (off the books, unofficial, handshake deal) why Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon was not, when first built, as good as a Schlitterbahn. He and Schooley pondered the question until Henry had an epiphany: "Amusement parks use a ride formula. How many people per hour can you put through the ride." Generally speaking, a ride that handles more people per hour is the better more lucrative ride.

Henry’s epiphany was this: "The formula is not complete. It’s only half the formula. The other half is the amount of time people spend on the ride." In other words, the first half of the formula measures the profitability of a ride. The second half measures the quality of the experience.

This insight inspired them to build rivers that run in circles and use conveyor belts and water jets to move tube riders uphill when necessary to complete the loop. The end result is a ride that people can enter and exit at will. The Schlitterbahn river takes you everywhere you need to go within the park. You don’t have to get out when the ride is over, because it’s never over. The infinite ride is the signal virtue of the manmade river.

Here’s how landscape historian Elizabeth Barlow Rogers defined fontanieri: "Virtuosic hydraulic engineers with an understanding of metaphysics as well as physics, and a reputation akin to that of magicians because of the ingenuity of their creations."

Here’s how Henry talks about what he does: "It’s about flow. It’s the flow. I feel the flow. "

Jeff Henry may be 21st century America’s pre-eminent fontaniere, but that isn’t enough. He tells me that his family wants to stop building parks. They do not want to finance his dreams. But he intends to keep going.

"He’s a high level visionary," says Schooley of his long time collaborator, and adds that Henry has been trying draw him into the oil rig fantasia. Schooley, who’s 70, is resisting. "It’s a 15- or 20-year project, and I don’t have the time or the ability."

"I want to do Disney World, but I want to do it right," Henry tells me, and adds, "Disney World sucks!" Why? "Because standing in line is awful." He has a point. Disney World does not flow.

When I last saw Henry he was at the Port of Brownsville inspecting a decommissioned oil rig so massive that, if left intact, could be a resort all by itself. His plan, unless I’ve misunderstood it, is to use components of this rig and others to build his dream resort, this Triple Canopy place that exists only his imagination and, maybe, in The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne.

"Read the book," he tells me, "and you’ll know what I want to do."

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