By the 1960s, a decade after the park opened, thousands of visitors were pouring into what was now called Aquarena Springs. And who were they coming to see? Ralph the swimming pig, who by this time was even hamming it up on TV. In 1967, he appeared on Charles Kuralt’s segment of Walter Cronkite’s CBS “Evening News” show, and in the early 1980s, he performed his famous swine dive on the TV show “That’s Incredible.”
Ralph wasn’t always Ralph. In the mid-1950s, Aquarena introduced the swimming pig phenomenon, and early names included Missy, Magnolia and Little Mister. But by the mid-1960s, Ralph was an institution who, well, hogged the show.
As much as some people want to believe there was only one Ralph, it’s just not true: More than 700 pigs performed through the years, and the final Ralph delivered the final swine dive on February 25, 1996.
There were always three pigs in rotation at Aquarena Springs: Big Ralph, medium-sized Ralph and little Ralph, the innocent baby who, in the process of being weaned, was the most likely to dive in and swim across the lake, enticed by a bottle of milk held by a trainer or Aquamaid. The pigs began training when they were only a few weeks old and were performing at the age of 2 or 3 months.
But Spring Lake is cold—about 72 degrees year-round, which is chilly for anyone, including pigs. If Big Ralph didn’t want to swim, no one could make him, said Marvin Lee, who performed in The Show from 1973-75. “He ran amuck a lot,” said Lee, now a mechanical engineer in San Antonio who graduated from Southwest Texas State University (now TSU). Once Big Ralph was out of his pen and saw an escape route—such as the doors to the performers’ dressing rooms inside a fiberglass volcano—he’d take it at full gallop, Lee said, mowing down anybody in his way on the catwalk to avoid entering the cold water.
While Ralph was entertaining the masses, Aquarena Springs’ menagerie of animals, including an unbeatable tic-tac-toe playing chicken, never failed to impress. And the 24 alligators kept in Texana Village became part of theme park lore when a May 1970 flood washed them out of their enclosure and into Spring Lake and the San Marcos River. At the request of Aquarena Springs officials, reptile expert Tom Allen, a star on the TV show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” flew to San Marcos to help recapture the gators.
Allen, theme park President Don Russell and Scott McGehee, the park’s attractions supervisor, set out in a 12-foot aluminum jon boat to find the fugitive reptiles. After the search, McGehee was asked if all the gators were accounted for. “Yes,” he said. “Plus one.”
The 25 gators—McGehee’s best guess is there was an extra gator because someone bought one and then dumped it in Spring Lake when it got too big—were then moved to the theme park’s Hanging Gardens, high on the hill above the lake, to prevent another such escape.
The gators, McGehee wrote in an e-mail, were caught one at a time, with their mouths taped shut and legs tied behind their backs: “From there, it was a short truck ride and some serious hauling by hand.”