It started, like most of my bad ideas, with a YouTube video.
Posted last December by Schlitterbahn, a chain of water parks, the promo shows a soon-to-be-opened water slide from a terrifying POV—the front of the raft. Menacingly dramatic music plays in the background. The camera scans up the twisting staircase leading to the launch platform, and then viewers go over the edge and down an impossibly steep drop.
This is Verruckt, the world’s tallest water slide, located in Kansas City. At 168 feet, 6 inches, it stands taller than Niagara Falls, and I needed to ride it. My wife and a friend agreed to come along as thrill-ride Guinea pigs. We picked a weekend, scheduling the trip to Kansas City so as to maximize our rib intake (after the ride, of course).
But before I embarked, I wanted to talk to Jeff Henry, co-creator of the slide and co-owner of the parks. Jeff is the son of Bob and Billye Henry, who founded the first Schlitterbahn park in New Braunfels, Texas, in 1966. (In German, Schlitterbahn means “slippery road”; Verruckt means “insane.”) Jeff is the Willy Wonka of water parks, with dozens of patents for wacky rides. He’s invented lazy rivers with waves and rapids, water coasters that propel you up hills with conveyor belts and water cannons, and continuous-wave surfing machines.
I reached Jeff by phone the day before I was to ride Verruckt, while he was eating breakfast and complaining about his investors. “My shareholders are typical money-grubbing monsters,” he said. “They don’t care about the purity of the water slide.”
He described the trial and error that went into Verruckt. First, he says, the park wasted half a million dollars on designers and engineers. The first build-out failed miserably—every raft they sent down flying out of the flume. “We probably crashed, I don’t know how many thousands of boats,” he says.
Eventually, after months of failed tests, Henry tore down much of the structure and started fresh. They used his own hand-drawn sketch as the blueprint. To avoid media snoops, Henry ordered work done at night. “I think we rebuilt that thing secretly 10 times,” he says. When the slide was finally deemed ready, after roughly 30 months and $3.6 million, Henry and senior designer John Schooley volunteered to be the first ones down. As Henry climbed to the platform, visions of exploding test dummies flashed in his head. He considered the possibility of “breaching,” the raft leaving the slide, turning upside down, then slamming its passengers face-first back into the fiberglass chute.
As they loaded into their raft, Henry said his goodbyes. “Well man, if I don’t ever see you again, it’s been fun,” he told Schooley. Henry wore cowboy boots. “If I was going to break my feet, it was going to be with my boots on."
He and his feet both survived. “It truly is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done,” he said. I asked about the speed of the ride, which had been estimated, wrongly, at 65 or 70 miles per hour. He answered with a question of his own: how fast did I really want to go? I said fast, but not so fast that it could kill me. “Bill,” he said, “what fun will it be if there is not a good chance of dying?”
We arrived at the park around 7:30 a.m. on a dreary, unseasonably cool Sunday, two and a half hours before opening. People were already in line outside, ready for a mad dash to Verruckt’s reservation desk. (Those who miss out on getting a scheduled time must wait in the standby line, which takes two hours or more.)
Before getting on the ride, we had to weigh in. The three of us climbed on a scale. We came in at 541 pounds, just below the limit of 550. Then we nodded along as an employee read a script about the various risks of riding, including death. I took the 264 steps two-by-two at a jog. Signs along the way cautioned to stop if you start to feel dizzy. But I wasn’t concerned—until I noticed certain less-than-state-of-the-art aspects of the ride. The stairs seemed too rickety for being so new. An air compressor at the top was rusty. The rafts were inflated inconsistently. Some of the Velcro straps that secure riders had been repaired with duct tape.
Standing on the top platform, my knees began to shake. I’m afflicted with something the French call l’appel du vide, the call of the void. My mother is afraid of heights. My father is a skydiver. I’m only afraid of high places in that I feel an urge to hurl myself from them. That thought occurred to me at the top of Verruckt.
We climbed into our raft, with me up front. The summer-job kids wheeled us out onto a metal table. Then a gate swung open, and suddenly, there was nothing between us and downtown Kansas City but a partly cloudy sky. They let us sit there for either 30 seconds or an hour before the table tipped forward, dumping our raft onto the flume. For a moment, the raft seemed to stall. I craned over the side, but couldn’t see the slide. A split second later, the raft tilted forward and we burst down the 60-degree drop. The spray made it difficult to keep my eyes open, and our boat seemed to lift off the flume as the feeling of weightlessness hit us. We torpedoed to the bottom, then rocketed up and back down the second hill, propelled by a water cannon. In all, the ride lasted only 15 incredible seconds. One muscled rider came down after us and said, “Holy shit. That was crazy.” It was. Which is why we turned around, walked back up to the top, and did it again.