Saturday, May 23, 2009

Do Pirhannas Dream of Diving Pigs? Remembering Aquarena Springs

Do you remember Aquarena Springs in San Marcos?

This was a laid-back theme park on the San Marcos River.  Attractions included:  A glass-bottom boat, a mermaid show, Ralph the diving pig, a skyride (every park had a skyride in those days), a "space needle" with a viewing room that went up and down, a hotel, a golf course, a "submarine theater", a midway with dancing chickens and other "carnival-style" animal abuse, and a gift shop.

In the seventies, my parents and I would drive up from San Antonio and meet our Austin relatives there for a picnic (near the golf course).  Later that decade, when I lived at Lake McQueeney, I remember a "casting call" for hot girls in bikinis.  This was for the low-budget "Pirhanna" which was shot at the park.  This girl Peggy, who I had a crush on in high school,  regaled us with tales of being on this Hollywood set and participating in "panic" scenes a la Jaws.  This involved screaming and running out of the swimming area with other scantily clad teenagers and beer belly locals.

Fast forward a couple of years and I actually was attending Southwest Texas State University (now sadly renamed Texas State University) and educumakatin' myself right near the park.  I took a couple of hikes back in the lush hill country behind the hotel but never really took in the attractions much.  Some twelve years or so after graduating I was doing some writing and decided to drive up from SA and stay at the hotel to do one of those "solitary retreat" things.  Little did I know, the park (which had been sold to the university years earlier and remade into an aquatic educational center) was going to close soon.  This retreat turned into "The Shining."  The old hotel had a moldy, mildewy smell.  The halls were vacant.  It was dark and grungy.  But cool, in a "Barton Fink" kind of way.  I would lay at the pool with my tablet.  Just me and the swans...I believe Ralph had retired by that time and was taking care of the abused chickens.

Two years ago, the wonderful Alamo Draftouse had an outdoor screening of "Pirhanna" at the park.  What a wonderful night.  The park was closed.  Most of the attractions were still there but ghostly and vacant.  The skyride launching pad, the submarine, the gift shop, the needle.  And in the distance, you could see "Old Main."  That was the university landmark:  a beautiful old castle-looking building that housed the journalism department.  The full moon, Old Main peeking out ominously from trees, the broken down carnival, and the reliving of killer fish where the blood originally flowed led to a surreal evening. The film was shown on a large screen right on the waterfront.  The director, Joe Dante ("Gremlins", "Twilight Zone", "The Howling", etc) was in attendance and couldn't have been more kind as I asked him if he remembered Peggy in the polka-dot bikini.  John Sayles, who wrote this script, was not there but he should have been.  I think he would have been inspired to do a character-driven piece on old amusement parks that end up closed down:

Thanks for being there.  They are eating the guests.


  1. Thanks for this lovely remembrance of Aquarena Springs. As a kid I loved Ralph the Swimming Pig. And my family so inspired by the abused chickens that we bought a toy piano, put chicken seed on the keys and set it out in our chicken pen at home, unsuccessfully trying to entice the chickens to play!

    Long live glass bottomed boats!

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