Prepare to Plunge Into the Thrilling and Sometimes Deadly History of America’s First Waterparks

Prepare to Plunge Into the Thrilling and Sometimes Deadly History of America’s First Waterparks

Slippery When Wet and Chlorinated: A Shout Out to the Early Days of Water Parks.

CultureJuly 19, 2022

July is here and it’s hot as balls.  What better way to embrace global warming than slapping on a skimpy swimsuit, ugly water shoes and hurling yourself down a tube of chemicals, piss and water in one of America’s thousands of waterparks?  These summer staples began with the first documented water slide appearing in 1884 at Rock Island, Illinois and evolved into a billion dollar industry today.  Prepare to plunge into the thrilling and sometimes deadly history of America’s first waterparks.

In 1962, a spring-fed oasis opened to the public in the middle of the Mojave Desert between LA and Las Vegas. Known as Lake Dolores, it is often cited as the first true waterpark by H2O aficionados.  Featuring an enormous hill, covered with homemade slides that could only exist in a pre-safety litigation world, it was famous for its concussion-inducing stand-up slides. Despite a spotty safety record, the park flourished for 25 years until the 90’s where a tragic accident and closure left the site a sand-covered ghost park that is still visible from California Interstate 15 to this day. 

Meanwhile, in muggy Orlando Florida, SeaWorld founder George Millay decided to tap into the tourist market and constructed the first of many Wet 'n Wilds in 1977.  Inspired by a trip to Big Surf in Tempe, Arizona, home of America’s first wave pool, Wet 'n Wild was the first purpose-built waterpark and became the blueprint for modern parks across the world. While other parks came and went, Wet 'n Wild was the most-attended water park in the United States until 1999 and its success spawned the brand that still exists today.  

Rounding out the trifecta of tubular trailblazers was the notorious Action Park.  Located on a ski hill in Vernon, New Jersey it opened in 1978 as a way to drum up business during the summer months. Almost immediately, the Park earned a dangerous reputation. Poorly designed rides, under-trained staff and drunk guests eventually resulted in six deaths, many of which were attributed to drowning in the park’s wave pool, grimly coined the “Grave Pool.” Despite the body count and nicknames such as "Traction Park" and "Class Action Park," Action Park was a much-loved institution until its closure in 2014. 

Today, water parks are not the lawsuit-inducing death traps of their predecessors, so frolic with little fear. But before you wrangle your crew to Water World or brace yourself for the new Glacier Beach, slated to open west of Denver in 2024, remember to give a cavalier “Cowabunga” to the pioneers of the plastic pipe!