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HIT THE ROAD

Inner Tube, Inner Child

Float to serenity at Schlitterbahn

At Schlitterbahn, where finding the perfect inner tube is conducive to finding your inner child, the only difference between an 8-year-old and a 48-year-old is obsessive worrying about swimwear. Consider the dialogue among four grown women en route to New Braunfels’ Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort on a sultry Monday morning in May:

Lori, 35: “I’m going to Schlitterbahn!! Owwwww!!”

Donna, 50: “We’re going to Schlitterbahn!! Wheeeee!!”

Kelly, 53: “I’m going to Schlitterbahn, and I’m so happy!!”

Camille, 48: “ARE WE THERE YET??”

Or, as Lori put it so eloquently before we departed Austin: “SCHLITTERBAAAAAAHN!!!!!”

But, excited chatter aside, there had been much consternation about what to wear. I, for one, had not bought a new swimming suit in years. Finally, after growing weary of the harsh, fluorescent-lit reality of retail dressing rooms, I opted for an old, tried-and-true, faded navy-blue, sort-of-comfortable suit.

Lori, Kelly and Donna, meanwhile, looked like wild, fresh-cut flowers in turquoise and royal blue, purple polka-dotted, and leopard/wave-print swimming attire. As we pulled into the Schlitterbahn parking lot, up sprang an old adolescent emotion: “Oh no … what if somebody SEES me?”

Horrors. But as we draped our towels over chaise lounge chairs, my senses took over: Ah, the smell of suntan lotion. The sound of crashing waves and the peals of laughter from The Torrent Wave River. I looked up, high above the swelling blue water, to the top of a six-story-tall tower. There it was. An uphill water coaster enthusiast’s fantasy: Master Blaster.

Lori wisely suggested that we ride it first before the line got long. The fourth Monday of May was shaping up to be a banner day: School was not yet out for summer, and at 10:30 a.m., the parking lot was almost empty—a virtual miracle at Schlitterbahn’s New Braunfels location, which the Travel Channel calls the world’s No. 1 water park. (Schlitterbahn also operates water parks in Galveston, South Padre Island and Kansas City, Kansas.)

Since opening in 1979, the original New Braunfels location has become a shrine of sorts: an inner-tubing mecca where millions of visitors have screamed down speed slides and wrapped their tongues around Schlitterbahn (SCHLIT-er-bon), which, loosely translated from German, means slippery road. But there’s nothing haphazard in its operations: Lifeguards are stationed on every ride, and life jackets are free (as are inner tubes and parking).

Schlitterbahn, as magical names go, ranks right up there with Santa Claus: Getting to go is a gift, and I felt that way even after learning that Schlitterbahn West, the section that incorporates the Comal River’s spring-fed headwaters on several rides, would be closed the day of our visit. (This season, the New Braunfels park is open weekends until September 18. The 2012 season is scheduled to start the last weekend of April.)

But Blastenhoff and Surfenburg, the other two sections, were open, with thrills aplenty on tunnel rides. We rode, in rapid succession from the top of the Blastenhoff Tower, Master Blaster, Black Knight (an inner-tube plunge into darkness) and Wolf Pack (a gentler descent in a raft).

Atop the tower, I pondered strangers’ feet, the absurdity of toes and the one-pieces, two-pieces, scars, rashes, pimples, varicose veins, sunburns, tans and tattoos decorating the bodies in line. I realized: Nobody here, except maybe teenagers preening for each other, cares how you look or what you wear. At Schlitterbahn, you’ve gotta have some skin in the game.

And it’s easy to get in the water and stay in the water. At The Torrent Wave River, simply wade in, grab an inner tube, climb aboard and get swept away by a current of gentle swells and waves. Or, ditch the tube and join the herd of humanity swimming, running and bodysurfing its way round and round.

I can’t wait to try what Schlitterbahn calls the world’s longest water ride: The Falls, a 3,600-foot-long whitewater river that opened this past summer in New Braunfels. It features the AquaVeyer, a conveyor belt that carries guests back to the ride’s beginning. You never have to get out. Except at closing time.

And Schlitterbahn has mercy on directionally challenged floaters with inner tubes that bear three words: “Right” and “Left” under the handles and “Forward,” with an arrow. You REALLY can’t mess this up. Unless you mimic four grown women who simultaneously tried to ride the same “floatable”: a blue, foam-filled alligator with a slippery, hard shell.

But we did stay aboard the Dragon’s Revenge, an uphill water coaster with a scary storyline: The dragon, as we see by a huge, broken chain, has escaped. Standing in line under water pouring off a wooden roof, we climb into our getaway craft: green, two-person inner tubes.

Such is the allure of Schlitterbahn: Hurry. Escape. Then … relax. Dreamily float a river. Come as you are.

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Camille Wheeler, associate editor