Returning to Your Favorite Waterpark: Nostalgic or Bittersweet?

Waterparks rainbow slide

Common wisdom says that amusement parks are best visited early in the season, in March and April, or late, in September and October. This is ideal for avoiding loud crowds and long lines. The exception to the rule is waterparks: always go in August, the hottest month of the year and therefore the best time to get wet and wild. I duly went to Water Safari with fellow Metiza writer Alena Zhang a few weeks ago. She’d begged to go for days for her birthday, and though I was no waterpark fan there was still a vague remnant of an expectation – towering slides that had terrified my younger self, a toilet bowl ride none of us had been brave enough to try. The last time we’d visited had been over five years ago, but how much could it have changed?

As we rode towards our fateful destination, the memory of an emerald slide twisted and rose up out of my imagination, a snakelike thing supported by spindly legs the width of toothpicks. I’d seen it many times on the side of cafeteria milk cartons with the Water Safari slogan printed in bold letters:

A GREAT ESCAPE AND A GREAT ADVENTURE

It was the first thing you saw even before reaching the park, a green patron saint that humbled all its visitors. We pulled into the parking lot and bounded out, eager to stretch our legs after a two-hour ride. We paid for our tickets and walked in, trying to play it cool but secretly excited to revisit the giant of our childhoods.

We paid for our tickets and walked in, trying to play it cool but secretly excited to revisit the giant of our childhoods.

What greeted us, however, was a modest slide of decent height – fun enough to ride on, but nothing especially thrilling. It definitely wasn’t a plastic Jack’s beanstalk, reaching high enough to pierce the heavens. It was just a slide. Twisting, turning, and eventually reaching the ground.

We had a good time that day, yelling and making our own fun in the way unsupervised teenagers will do. But there was something missing, that element of wonder that had seized us so early in our youth. I remembered their slogan and laughed. So much for a great adventure. It’s amazing how diminished things become with distance, whether time or space. I remember when a trip to the zoo was a momentous occasion and filling a cavity was worse than death. Younger Me perceived the world as larger than life, maybe because I was smaller or maybe because I hadn’t seen as much of it. It was both frightening and wondrous, the way Water Safari was frightening and wondrous until it wasn’t.

Our trip stuck with me for days afterwards, clinging to my brain like the pervasive sticky warmth of summer. I took a piece of paper and tried to make sense of it. Why did Water Safari overtake our minds? There was really no reason for us to go to that particular park instead of a more commonly visited one. What was it that stirred our craving for a place we had gone to only once, years before? I thought, and thought again, and came to this conclusion: it was August. August was the heart of this story, where it began and where it ended.

August is a strange month, the mark of the end of vacation and summer in general. It offers a chance to revel in the last throes of our careless glory. Days proceed at an offbeat tempo, fluctuating between too fast and so achingly slow that time flows like molasses. Their aimlessness takes on a surreal haze, an August Rush fairy tale. The start of school is like waking from a summer-long dream. You return to reality and find it’s not like you remembered: the giant is a man, the beanstalk a slide.

August, after all, is the month to dream big and go out with a bang.

I’ve already passed August in the Water Safari era of my life – I’m probably heading towards older, colder November at this point. I guess some might call this the time to become old and bitter, a shriveled sack who will never experience the euphoric terror of a water slide again. But I’ve always had quiet optimism govern the rhythm of my days, a steady beat soldiering on. Water Safari may have lost its magic, but the memory of magic remains and spurs me forward. Each year I seek higher heights, more wondrous wonders, striving for that elusive great escape. August, after all, is the month to dream big and go out with a bang.

So, if I’m to wrap this up in a nice neat English-class metaphor, life is that long car ride of remembrance and anticipation; waterparks’ disappointment and ecstasy. Soon August will end and the year will begin again. Until then, I’m speeding down the highway on my eternal search for Water Safari, past countless neon signs that promise great escapes and great adventures.