Has Schlitterbahn Worn Out Their Welcome in Kansas City — Forever?
It’s a lone, hulking figure on the grassy plains, jutting aggressively 168 feet into the air. Try as you might, you can’t avoid seeing it as you drive down Interstate 435. The now defunct, 17-story Schlitterbahn Verruckt water slide looms on the landscape as if it’s giving Kansas City the middle finger. The structure is a ghastly reminder of the grisly death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab who died two years ago this month while on the slide. Verruckt could also turn out to be a magnus opus to when safety and hubris collide.
This past spring, in a scathing 47-page indictment, the Kansas attorney general is accusing Schlitterbahn, its owners and other entities associated with Verruckt with egregiously ignoring safety standards, burying injury records, misleading investigators and destroying key evidence.
Taylor Miles, the Schlitterbahn’s director of operations at the time of Schwab’s fatality, faces a total of 20 felony charges including child endangerment, interference with law enforcement and involuntary manslaughter. In a separate indictment, good friends and business partners, John Schooley, the lead designer of Verruckt and John Henry, a co-owner of Schlitterbahn, called the “visionary and designer of Verruckt,” were both charged with second-degree murder, aggravated battery and aggravated child endangerment. (All three men have pleaded not guilty.)
The first indictment is rife with internal communications that allege rider safety wasn’t the foremost concern when constructing Verruckt. Schooley is called out for “possessing no engineering credential relevant to amusement ride design or safety.” And Henry, who has no education past a high school diploma (It’s been reported that Henry didn’t graduate high school, but the New Braunfels Independent School District shows Henry received a diploma in 1979 — making him in his 20s when he graduated), is also void of any engineering education.
From the indictment: “Due to Henry and Schooley’s lack of expertise and a desire to rush the timeline, they skipped fundamental steps in the process.” The indictment also states that, “In place of mathematical and physics calculations, they rushed forward relying almost entirely on crude trial-and-error methods.”
The rush, it seems, was to impress the producers of the Travel Channel TV show, “Xtreme Waterparks.” In an email quoted in the indictment, Henry writes that Verruckt (a German word for insane) was a “design product for TV” and that he wanted a “floor a day” built. Besides TV glory, The Verruckt would also be beneficial for the Kansas Schlitterbahn which in 2014, needed a big nudge.
Seven years earlier, when ground was broken on the Schlitterbahn Vacation Village, it was ballyhooed as a “year-round destination” resplendent with a “world class” water park, 1,500 hotel rooms including a “Treehaus Resort,” 750,000 square feet of retail space, dining and entertainment venues all
connected via a “transportainment river system.” Almost a decade later, save for the water park, none of this had come to fruition. The lodging on the property now consists of cabanas you can rent for the day, shopping has been relegated to the gift store and dining options are limited to a Dipping Dots, Koana Ice and the Gator Grill.
With the ensuing P.R. blitz swirling around the opening of the Verruckt, the highest, fastest waterslide in the world, hopes were stratospheric that this could be the thing that would put the Kansas Schlitterbahn on the map. But there was trouble from the very beginning. Reports circulated that test dummies were going airborne, especially after hitting the “second hump.” Schlitterbahn denied this, although they did say the ride “wasn’t behaving properly” and testing of the ride began to be held at night.
When Verruckt opened in July 2014, two months behind schedule, (and with what the indictment refers to as “12 different examples of ride violating standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials”) it was to a juggernaut of fanfare. Journalists from all over the world descended on KCK to experience the sensation of dropping 168 feet in a rubber raft that exceeds speeds of 50 mph all while being held in place by gravity, the combined body weight of you and your two fellow passengers and Velcro straps.
The waterslide was a bona fide hit. Schlitterbahn was chocked full of people eager to experience Verruckt. To ensure your chance to ride the waterslide, you needed to arrive at the park early and be prepared to endure a very long line. I was one of those who rode Verruckt multiple times with my then middle-school aged daughter. It was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating and for this Texas girl, "so Schlitterbahn." I grew up on the water park in New Braunfels. It wasn’t truly summer if you didn’t go to the “bahn.” It was also a family tradition. My kids' first coaster was the Master Blaster and I still have Schlitterbahn beach towels from the 80s. In Texas, Schlitterbahn is an institution.
The original Schlitterbahn (which means slippery road in German and was named as a nod to the Germanic roots of New Braunfels) opened in 1979 and what started out as a couple of slides that dumped you into the clear, cool, Comal river, grew into a water park mecca. In 2015 (before the Verruckt catastrophe), the Schlitterbahn water parks had more than 2 million visitors a year. A lot of this was due to John Henry, who Texas Monthly called a "self-taught savant of water park design.”
Henry (who looks like a combination of a Willie Nelson groupie and a wildcatter), is the second son of the Bob and Billye Henry. When he was in his teens, he began designing “water brakes” for the slides at his parent’s water park. These brakes would slow-down the speed with which people were hitting the water, minimizing the impact. He then went on to add foam bumpers to make the fiberglass slides less ouch- inducing and years later, helped refine the water coaster concept. Henry patented his designs (he holds more than 60) and his work can be found at water parks all over the world.
When his parents retired in 1989 and gave control of the company to John, his younger sister Jana and older brother Gary, the children began an expansion plan. In 1991 Schlitterbahn opened another location in New Braunfels and by 2001, Schlitterbahn had a South Padre Island location. After that, it was full speed ahead with parks debuting in Galveston in 2006, Kansas City in 2010 and in 2014, a park in Corpus Christi opened. By 2015, talks were underway about building a Schlitterbahn in Ft. Lauderdale.
But a lot of these expansions were like the river rides at the parks — very turbulent. Even before Schwab's death, the Kansas Schlitterbahn never lived up to its hype, the Corpus Christi park was plagued by cost over-runs, a lawsuit and finally foreclosure. It was recently purchased by the International Bank of Commerce.
Some in Henry’s hometown of New Braunfels speculate that “the kids got cocky.” Or as one longtime resident put it, “you started to wonder if they were becoming all hat and no cattle.” Not helping matters was the reported family infighting between the two brothers that worsened right before their father’s death in 2016. Even before the Verruckt tragedy, all was not right in the Schlitterbahn universe and now two years after Schwab’s death and less than six months after the searing indictments, it seems as if the Kansas Schlitterbahn is being shunned.
On a hot, sun-ravaged Sunday in July, the perfect weather for an afternoon at the water park, the Schlitterbahn in Kansas City has more rafts than people. The season pass parking lot has less than 40 cars. Except for employees, I’m the only person in a building that houses ticket sales, the gift shop and what seems to be an abandoned concession stand.
Inside the park, it’s not desolate but it’s not robust either. Rides that used to have massively long lines, like the Storm Blaster, were bereft of people. Empty rafts littered the waterways and rows of chairs that used to be coveted and saved with towels and flip-flops were vacant. Even the flower pots looked forgotten. The only place that had a line was the swim up bar.
Not even all the rides were operating; including some Schlitterbahn classics like the Wolfpack, King Kaw and Boogie Bahn. When I asked several different lifeguards why, they all told me it’s because of a “lack of staff.” But one week later, the Kansas City Star reported that an audit by regulators found that some of these rides “did not comply with the Kansas Amusement Ride Act.”
Park-goers who I talked with were amazed at the lack of crowds. One woman and her family from Omaha, who were in Kansas City for the Royals “Husker Night,” called it a “ghost town.” When she asked me if I knew why, I pointed to Verruckt. “Oh,” she asked, “is that the slide that killed the boy?” When I replied yes, she blurted out, “That creeps me out.”
Another group from “south of St. Louis,” said they had never been to Schlitterbahn and didn’t expect it to be “so eerie.” One woman shared that they would be leaving early and going to the Legends “because, well, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right.”
During my visit to Schlitterbahn, I only talked to one family from Kansas City. The mother told me that she was here only because she knew it wouldn’t be crowded. She added that she told her kids not to post anything on social media because she "didn’t want to deal with the backlash.”
“People get really angry if you say you went to Schlitterbahn.”
Verruckt will finally be dismantled after Labor Day. The judge presiding over the criminal case has given permission for it to be torn down. But, for some Kansas Citians, even without the hulking structure's tragic presence dominating every vista of the park, it still won’t change how they feel about Schlitterbahn. Not even a former ardent season pass holder.
“I’ll never go back. It’s like they didn’t care about us. I read the entire indictment and how can you go somewhere where you feel like they didn’t value your life? It doesn’t matter if that slide is up or down. I’ll never take my family there again.”