Thursday, July 8, 2010 | midnight
In the middle of Bat Country, somewhere between Barstow and Las Vegas, I made a split-second detour. Taking the often-passed, rarely thought-of Minneola Road exit to the equally shoddy Yermo Road, I steered my trusty three-hubcap Corolla parallel to the traffic on the I-15 North. The temperature was in the 100-degree range, nothing peculiar for this stretch of desert.
For years I’d driven past it on my trips to and from California, but never had the time to stop and explore: the Rock-A-Hoola water park, a lonely collection of abandoned buildings and slides next to an evaporated Lake Dolores in the middle of nowhere.
As I crossed a narrow overpass to Coyote Lake Road on June 7, I ran through all the possible scenarios of my exploration of the park, which reportedly last saw happy, smiling children splashing around in 2004, though I don’t remember ever seeing it open.
Would I have to crawl through a hole in a chain-link fence previously made by vandals? Perhaps a sleepy security guard would be on duty in an RV, and I could convince him to let me take snapshots of what was left. Perhaps “desert people” would be lurking, creating their own village from the park’s remnants, and would throw rocks at me for intruding.
Or zombies. There could definitely be daywalking zombies waiting behind a palm tree to eat my brains.
Driving past a burnt billboard that once reflected the classic Route 66 theme purveyed during the park’s last incarnation, I parked directly in front of the entrance.
Complete silence, save the south-bound traffic on the 15 in the distance. Oh, and what looked like crows circling above me. I hoped that wasn’t a bad sign.
I was surprised the main gate was wide open and likely had been for years, judging by the debris blown by the wind and holding it in place. Was that a “No Trespassing” sign? It was kinda faded and falling apart … I won’t be staying long, I told myself, especially since stopping at an abandoned water park all alone was as brilliant an idea as its existence in the first place.
Paint peeled off every building, from what used to be an arcade to what used to be a gift shop. Alas, no souvenirs were left, only a sleeve of drink container lids and broken window glass. In fact, there wasn’t a glass surface that hadn’t been demolished. A rolling office chair had found a new home in a dried-up splash pool.
The colorful slides were long gone, removed by the owners to avoid potential liabilities. Dismantling started several years ago, but was hastened in case others decided to imitate the brave/clinically insane antics of skaters Rob and Big as their crew made a pit stop and skated the massive slides on their self-titled MTV show. The biggest slides are now enjoying new homes in Canadian water parks.
After spending half an hour snapping photos, I decided to leave before my luck ran out. The idea of a place once filled with ’50s and ’60s rock music and laughter now filled only with harsh sunshine and dried foliage was really getting to me. I scurried to my car and blasted the air conditioning as I trekked back to Vegas, pleased I finally satisfied my curiosity without a single zombie encounter.
There are no plans for the defunct park except to sit in the sun, taunting curious motorists. However, extensive research is being done for an indie documentary about what may have been the first real water park in America when it evolved from a campground in the early 1960s. Dawn Fields and Peach Pit Films are hoping to complete Slippin’ And Slidin’: A Waterpark’s Tale by the end of the year.
As for me, I may stop by again, but I wouldn’t recommend it, especially alone. I swear I heard an undead voice calling out for my brains near the empty lockers. Or perhaps that was just the heat playing tricks on my mind.
Slippin' And Slidin': A Waterpark's Tale is the documentary currently in the works by Dawn Fields. The filmmaker chats with the Weekly about her interest, experiences and what she’s uncovered about Lake Dolores and the Rock-A-Hoola water park in the middle of the California desert.
How did you first become interested in the story of the water park?
Fields: I moved [to L.A.] from Atlanta about 10 years ago, so that’s the first time I ever started making the drive from Los Angeles to Vegas. I’m a poker player, also, so I’d drive to Vegas a lot. I guess when I first noticed it was about five or six years ago, maybe a little bit more. It looked like it was operational; the grounds were still up-kept, the lake was still pristine. It just seemed like it was never open. I thought, “Oh, maybe it’s their off-season or maybe they’re just closed today for some weird reason or whatever.”
There was a four-year stretch I didn’t really go to Vegas very much and I forgot about it. Then about a year and a half ago, I drove past and noticed the slides had been removed — it clearly had shut down. So I pulled over and stopped for the first time and looked for signage or some kind of information to tell me who owned it. That’s when I decided, “There’s a story here. Something happened to this park and this property.”
When I came home I did an Internet search and finally found some information online — which there had been none the years before... It still took me about five days of non-stop detective work to get anybody involved with the park on the phone... A year and a half ago, before the Wikipedia page was all filled out and before there was my website, there was very little information about the people behind the water park.
Years ago I tried looking up stuff out of curiosity and there was almost nothing.
Yeah, there was very little. Being a filmmaker it piqued my interest, and of course if I want to tell the story, I need to do it with film; that’s how I think. But I initially thought, “I’m just going to pull over, ask a few local people, find out who owns it and just get a quick little what’s-the-deal-with-this-place kind of thing.” Maybe have it be five minutes long, throw it up on YouTube. Who cares? Just to satisfy the curiosity of people like me. Then when I started talking to the people involved and realizing how long the park had been there and the different families that had owned it and everything the property had been through, I was just floored. How can this tiny little park in the middle of the desert have such a big history? I really just dove in full force at that point. ... I’m on a mission now to finish it before September.
What was it like the first time you stopped by? Were you by yourself?
The very first time I stopped, I only wrote down the name of the park.
I think you had told me [in a previous conversation] that it looked like it was blocked off and were kind of scared to go in.
I didn’t really want to trespass, and I didn’t know if there were dogs or police or security back there. So I just jotted down the stuff and went on. But after talking to some people and getting to know the situation of what was going on with it, and also hearing other people’s stories who had stopped by and visited, a lot of people at that time a year ago were breaking in anyway, and they were going in and taking their photos and their videos.
By the time I actually visited the park last July, I had actually contacted one of the persons who was a big part of the operations, and they took me on a tour. So I went with them the first time. But I’ve been back a couple time since just by myself and kind of walked though with the video camera. ... I never got visit it when the slides were there and it was fairly operational. Unfortunately, I missed that. But I do have lots of still and video and clips of that, and then I’ve been back over the last year on two different occasions where it’s gone from decay to really in ruins.
I don’t know if you know or not, but desert people are very resource-deprived so a lot of the locals had gone in and ripped out everything they could take — copper wiring, anything they could find and use they came in and took.
Right now I’m focusing and concentrating on the individual stories of the two different families over the years. There was the Byers family who started the park in the late ‘50s, and then the Christensen family who most recently owned it. Unfortunately, Terry Christensen passed away in February of 2009.
For me, the documentary is a combination of the history of the park, the timeline and what it went through, but it’s also really a human-interest story about the families that ran it and the people who patronized the park and what the park meant to them.
Are you going to release the film independently?
Yes, I’m looking at complete independent distribution, and the reason is I believe the target market for this film is fairly small. It’s really kind of a local piece, but I hope that the final product will be appealing enough and endearing enough that it’ll reach a slightly larger audience.
Rock-A-Hoola 1998 Commercial
Visually, what do you think are some of the key points of interest that have intrigued you most out of what’s left?
There’s nothing really intriguing about what’s left because to me the heart and soul of the park has been ripped out a long time ago. ..... What I find endearing and what I still find interesting and fascinating is how completely different the park was in its two different incarnations. When it was in its heyday of popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was kind of this hippie-driven, anything-goes, no-holds-barred, people letting loose out in the desert. Then when Terry Christensen came in in the late ‘90s and put millions of dollars turning it into a more modern-day water park with big fancy slides and bright colors and pumping in music and all that kind of stuff, it really became a whole different thing.
From the ‘90s when Terry Christensen rebuilt it, what strikes you is just the bold color. The big, huge bright red windy slide and the big colorful mushroom umbrellas, the Route 66 feel and the rockabilly, Elvis Presley ‘50s theme that he build into it.
But why do you think this was built in the middle of nowhere, though? What have you found? Is it from when it was back in the ‘50s because people couldn’t drive as far to LA as quickly in one trip?
Here’s the thing you have to understand about desert people: Desert people have to have water, and water’s a very valuable resource to them. So the Byers happened to have a man-made lake on their property. ... But he was also big into motorcycles. So what he decided to do was open it up to more people to come in and camp and hang out and stop on their various journeys on their little motocross rides. ... He wanted it to be a landing place, a pit stop, a place to just cool off and refresh. That started catching on, and the word got out and people started flocking to the water. Then he got the idea to start putting in slides and some rides and some trapezes and it just kept growing and growing. The next thing you know, he was putting in full-length metal water slides, zip lines, trapezes, and the people just loved it. By doing that, that’s what turned it into the first water park, because there’s no record going back of any official water park prior to that. So whether he knew it or not, he was really kind of inventing America’s first water park.
I think what was interesting about it in the ‘50s were the metal slides and the trapezes. There weren’t the regulations and safety codes back then that there are now. You couldn’t get away with that stuff now. The joke used to be, “If you didn’t come home with a bruise or a scrape from Lake Dolores, you didn’t have any fun.”