Monday, October 31, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Aquarena Springs

In honor of the Day of the Dead this week, I give homage not to a person I've lost this year, but to a place. I think now would be a good time to finally post something I've been meaning to for months now but haven't gotten around to it. I'm posting my goodbye to Aquarena Springs, the Texas landmark and nostalgic childhood memory that's being demolished this year to be made into a nature preserve.

Aquarena Springs was this funny little amusement park that opened in the 1940's at the headwaters of the San Marcos River. In the 1980's it became a staple of my childhood road trips. We didn't have a lot of money growing up, so this was pretty much the best we had for a "summer vacation" back then, a trip from the Dallas suburbs where I grew up, down to San Antonio, or maybe even the coast (Galveston or Corpus Christi), always stopping first in San Marcos for a day at Aquarena Springs. It was pure 50's kitsch, but as a little kid I didn't care. Little kids are really impressed by things like Ralph the Swimming Pig, the Submarine Theater with the Mermaid Shows, the Swiss Sky Ride, and the only thing that's surviving the demolition, the Glass-Bottomed Boats.

But by the 1990's the park was struggling, unable to compete with things like Fiesta Texas, so it was sold to Texas State University, and TSU decided to turn it into a nature center. (I'm tempted to say a little something here about how inconsistent that seems with the fact that they almost built a huge conference center and hotel over Spring Lake Preserve right behind there, but I'll skip that for now.) I've got mixed feelings about the whole thing. Of course I think nature preserves are great, and this is an ecologically important area. But I still wonder, do they really have to demolish everything? I found out this past summer that they're going to bulldoze all the old buildings left over from the amusement park (after leaving them to rot and decay since they acquired the property). I don't see how their presence harms the river or the wildlife, and would have preferred them to be kept as historical monuments, as something to show the history of the place. After all, when I moved to San Marcos in 2006 and told people where I was moving to, those who had even heard of San Marcos at all would say, "Oh yeah, that place with Aquarena Springs! Hey, do they still do those swimming pig shows?" and I'd have to tell them no, they went out of business a decade ago, but at least then we could still go to the place itself and see the old buildings, even if TSU didn't care about what it meant to us.

Really, that's the first thing a lot of people thought of when they thought of San Marcos. Not Texas State, not the Outlet Mall, not the things that the City of San Marcos or Texas State University seems to think is important about this town. No, the swimming pig was our real claim to fame, embarrassing as that may be to some people, and now almost every trace of the old amusement park is being taken away.

In July I got a chance to go down there and take photos of everything before it was destroyed. I'm glad I did that because I heard that now it's completely fenced off for the demolition.

Here's where you go in, where you used to pay your admission.

I was trying to get a shot of how the roof is rusting and has vines growing in it. I'm really not sure why TSU decided even this building isn't worth maintaining.

Here's a shot of their token posters and newspaper clippings acknowledging the history of the park that once was here. I used to have a plush Ralph that squeaked when I squeezed it. Wonder what happened to it.

Some of the Fanta bottles with nipples they'd use to lure Ralph into the water.

Sorry the picture has so much glare. These are pictures of the mermaid show. I remember one of the big tricks the mermaids would do is drink Coke underwater by keeping the bottle upside down.

Going in to the entrance building from the other side, with vines growing over it now.

A better shot of the vines growing over the adobe building. I thought these old buildings had some pretty cool architecture.

Further on that same building, with more vines growing over the pillars.

All around the park, TSU put up these weird signs, almost like at first they were thinking of leaving the buildings up, and these were going to be their interpretive markers. Each one says some stuff about what this place used to be and has a picture of how it looked before TSU allowed vines to grow over it and water damage to accumulate. "FUTURE CONSTRUCTION SITE" seems to rub salt in the wound further.

The restaurant as it is now. Everything is locked up and it looks like nobody's set foot in there in years.

Going further into the park, they still had the cables for the Alpine Sky Ride up, and the wind blowing through them made a VERY CREEPY sound. It was similar to the sound of the black obelisk from 2001: A Space Odessey. Very post-apocalyptic.

 More vines growing over buildings that were once bustling with activity.

Ah yes, the Submarine Theater, home of Ralph and the Mermaids. You would go out on this ramp into the the thing, which had seats in front of a big glass window (as you can sort of see in the picture on the left). Then the WHOLE THING would sink into the water, and you'd watch the water level slowly go up above your head. I thought it was so cool when I was a kid! It also helped that the theater was one of the coolest spots in the park, temperature-wise.

Here it is now. TSU allowed it to fill up with water and sink. That thing in the middle of the picture is the entrance, where you'd go down a staircase to the seating area. The door wasn't even locked, so we took a peek inside, and saw the now-rotting stairs leading into the turquoise water. Very creepy. I used to go down those stairs!

The Submarine Theater from another angle. It didn't show up in the picture, but I could see down into the water, through the windows in the front, and make out the submerged seats under there. Creepy!

Here's the shaded area where you'd wait in line for the next show, now rotting and overgrown.

People used to walk up this ramp to get on board, including me! It's amazing how fast nature can retake something like this.

Another shot of vegetation growing over the railings with the theater in the background.

The on-ramp facing the other way, with the restaurant in the back.

A sign for the Glass Bottom Boats, the only part of Aquarena Springs they're not getting rid of.

Looking across Spring Lake you see where the Alpine Sky Ride took you to, this platform where you could look at the other side of the lake. I wonder if they also got rid of the replica Spanish Mission over there (that I mistakenly thought was a "castle" when I was a little kid).

I never knew what this structure was over the path over here in the park, but it sure is pretty. It looks like an old fashioned covered bridge, but it's not. Could be a magical portal to another era.

Here it is from one side. Nice stonework.

Here's the back side of what TSU turned into an aquarium. Not sure if they're keeping this either, and if not, why not. It has the look of an old log cabin from the wild west.

A couple of Eastern Phoebes looking over the lake. They're wildlife, and they don't seem to mind the old buildings.

There's a lamp post in there somewhere under all the Trumpet Vine.

The tunnel from the other side. Look at that beautiful huge cypress tree next to it. Does that cypress tree want the building torn down? It'll probably hurt his roots, actually.
The old cypress is practically merging with the building itself. It also has moss and ferns growing on the roof and is covered with spiderwebs. I think they should just leave it be.

 Just beautiful, in my opinion. Could be a post card, or a calendar.

This is painted on a window on the side of what they turned into an aquarium. "ENDENGERED SPECIES OF THE SAN MARCOS RIVER". I'm real tempted to make a comment here about the educational quality of Texas State University, but I will resist.

This is the aquarium from the front. The benches used to be where you'd wait for the next Glass Bottom Boat tour.

And now my favorite, the Swiss Sky Ride. You'd get in these gondola-like things and ride them over the lake to the other side. I loved being up high enough to see soooo far when I was a kid, and I remember seeing what I thought was a beaver swimming in the lake below, which got me all excited. Now I realize it was probably a nutria, but hey, that's still educational, right?
The thing that impressed me the most now as an adult are the weird, surreal, mushroom type things that were built to provide shade for the people waiting in line to get on the ride. It's like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Look how high I got to go!
Right in front of the launchpad was this fountain that used to be surrounded by neatly kept aquatic plants. Now it's kind of gone feral... and stagnant... and full of frogs. Are they going to rip it down with the frogs living in there?
I got a lot of pictures of the shade things because they're so cool, even in their peeling and rusted state.

Here's where you'd get launched. I guess the cars themselves are long gone, but the cables were still there making that creepy moaning noise.

 Here's where I'd get on all those years ago, now all overgrown like most things here.

It kind of reminds me of some sort of abandoned Southeast Asian temple out in the jungle somewhere.

One last look before we move on to Pirate's Cove.

This used to be a Pirate-themed gift shop, and I seem to remember them having some sort of parrot shows here too. Since then TSU's been using it as an office or something, and a place to launch their scuba divers.
I also wondered if they really had to tear this building down too. Seems like a perfectly good building, like the aquarium. I mean, do they really have to tear the old buildings down, rather than fixing them up and using them for something? Seems wasteful.

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron is another member of the wildlife community that doesn't seem to want the building torn down. He seems perfectly happy fishing around the cypress roots right beside it.

This turtle seems just fine swimming under the water here. I'm still not seeing why these buildings are incompatible with a wildlife preserve.

But judging on the state of decay of Pirate's Cove, I'm sure it's coming down too. It's like TSU didn't take care of these buildings at all. This window is about to fall out into the water.

Well, after getting pictures of all the old buildings set for demolition, we went out on the one good thing TSU added to this place, the boardwalk doing out into the wetland. Great place for wildlife viewing. Nice Green Heron, eh? I think that's a White-winged dove behind him.

Lots of happy birdies out there. Got some White Ibises (the juvenile ones are not white), some American coots, some Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and some Snowy and Great Egrets.

 We kept seeing these odd holes in the sand under the water near the walk.

Turns out they were dug by tilapia, one of the invasive species that live here along with the "endengered" ones. Yeah, the same African fish that have now become popular in frozen fillet form at the grocery store. Nice big fat ones in there too. Tilapia are a species of cichlid, so I guess like their cousins, they probably build nests and protect their eggs.

 I think this is a Western Kingbird. I'm surprised I got this good of a shot of him. He wouldn't stay still.

 Look at all that Elephant Ear and Water Hyacinth. There's something I wouldn't mind being torn down.

 It's been ages since I've seen Wood Ducks.

I noticed that the native Rio Grande Cichlids were also building holes, but they were in deeper water than the tilapias. I wonder if it was one of those situations where the shallow water is a better place for fish nests, so the larger tilapias had bulled the Rio Grande's away and took the best spots.

Speaking of invasive species, here's one of our cuter ones. Nutrias may be bad for the environment, but they're cute! They're like guinea pigs of the water. (Yes, I know a lot of people consider them "water rats", but I think they're actually taxonomically closer to guinea pigs. They are from South America, after all.)

I'm surprised how close it go to us. Hardly any fear. I wonder if people have been feeding him or something.

I also got this shot, looking out beyond the lake towards the huge golf course you literally have to go through to get to Aquarena. Oh yeah, a golf course right next to a nature preserve. Nothing weird or contradictory about that at all! Yeah, that totally sends the right message about environmental conservation.

Sarcasm aside, I heard a rumor that they actually want to expand this golf course. Ugh! I hope that's not true. In my opinion, Texas shouldn't even have any golf courses at all. Wherever golf was invented, they obviously had a lot more water there than we have here. I wonder how much water the golf course uses to keep their grass green compared to how much I use to grow my vegetable garden.

The sun was starting to go down and the birds were starting to roost for the night in the trees around the lake. This really is a good birding spot. I've even seen an osprey here before.

 I could still see silhouettes of a lot of birds on the lake as the sun went down.

Of course night herons are named that for a reason. He wasn't going to bed any time soon. They're cute, aren't they? I think they have a sort of comical look about them, like they're a cartoon bird instead of a real one.

Goodbye Aquarena Springs. A part of my childhood now lives only in my memory, and the memories of everyone else who stopped over there on childhood road trips for those 50 years.