Engineering a waterpark

This weekend my family went to Schlitterbahn, a waterpark in New Braunfels, Texas. (The German-sounding name of the park and the city are evidence of the large number of Germans that settled in this part of Texas.) I thought about several engineering questions while we were there.

Most of the rides involve sitting in an inner tube and floating down a course with rapids, waterfalls, swells, etc. At many points there are back currents. You could be headed toward a fall but then find yourself reversing direction. It’s surprising to have to work to make yourself go downhill. At most if not all these points there are employees standing in the water to grab hold of rafts and pull people in the right direction who need a little help.

One question I had is what causes the back currents. Ultimately you could solve Navier-Stokes equations, but it would be nice to understand at a more rule-of-thumb level how these currents work. It would also be interesting to see whether a park could reduce the number of guides while keeping the rides as fun. The guides also serve as lifeguards, so the park may need to position people in all the same spots even if they didn’t need as many guides.

The slowest person in the family was consistently yours truly. I’d start out in front and inevitably end up bringing up the rear. I was curious how I could be so inept at a mostly passive activity.

I was also curious how they designed the rapids to be so safe. You’re repeatedly tossed straight toward rocks — perfectly smooth artificial rocks, but still not things you want to hit your head on — at a fairly high speed, and yet you never hit one. It has something to do with how they position jets to push you away from the rocks, but that would be interesting to understand in more detail.

Another thing I was curious about is what the park does with its water in the off-season. Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels is actually two parks, an older park that uses untreated water from the Comal river, and a newer park that uses treated water. When the parks close for the season, the older park must just let its water return to the river. (At least one of the rides ends in the river, so they’re already returning water to the river.)

The question of what to do with the treated water in the new park is more interesting. I assume they cannot just dump a huge volume of chlorinated water into the river. Aside from ecological consequences, I wonder whether they’d even want to dump the water. Is it economical to store the water somewhere when the park closes for the year? If not, do they store it anyway because they have no way to dispose of it, or do they treat it so that they can dispose it? I suppose they could circulate the water occasionally while the park is closed, though that seems expensive. I wonder whether different waterparks solve this problem different ways.

If I could propose a new ride for Schiltterbahn, it would be a video presentation about how the park was designed followed by Q&A with a couple engineers. This would be a terrible business decision, but a few visitors would love it.

4 thoughts on “Engineering a waterpark

  1. Chlorine breaks down pretty quickly in sunlight. Most pool has almost no chlorine around 3:00 pm in the afternoon, so I would bet the water would be safe to dump.

  2. Head over to The American in Glendale, CA, or The Farmer’s Market in LA. They use midi tracks to drive pumps on fountains. These pumps can get the water up four stories. Or, try the Six Flags water park there in Houston. We held our river rescue clinic there decades ago. But, that river is totally controlled. Turn it on and it goes. Turn it off and it’s still. The chute in Comal Park has a great hydraulic. Flipped my canoe there one January. Beware of any dam hydraulics.

  3. No Q&A with live engineers, but Disney World (well, back in 1983 or so) had an automated theater with a mixed-media presentation about the park’s construction and the automated systems that kept various bits of it working. And of course those of a certain age recall the detailed construction documentaries for (Original) Disneyland on TV. So more than a few folks are apparently interested. I certainly was.

  4. My favorite part of visiting the arch in St Louis was the video presentation on its construction–they have a whole theatre in the basement below the arch. Just amazing to see the thing come together!

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