KANSAS CITY, Kan. — I'm 168 feet, 7 inches above the ground in a rubber raft, but it might as well be 168 miles above the earth. Strapped in with two other riders, I take in the cliff-like scene before me. We're higher up than Niagara Falls and the Statue of Liberty, from toes to torch, and will be the first non-employees to plummet down the Verrückt, the world's tallest water slide at Schlitterbahn Waterparks & Resorts here.
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Lying back in our raft, we're instructed not to lean forward or raise our arms under any circumstance, as the center of gravity offset could cause the raft to lift off the slide. This, and the fact that the ride's public opening has been delayed three times since Memorial Day because of test rafts and sandbags launching into the air and other technical problems, help me fully understand the expression cold feet. But strapped into my raft, I'd never forgive myself if I chickened out. Today, the Verrückt –- which means "insane" in German -– is being tested on the media, and if all goes well, it will open to the general public July 10. I'm thrilled to be a guinea pig on the very first ride.
USA TODAY takes the plunge down the world's tallest water slide. See how the long-awaited opening unfolded.
The swinging open of the safety gate reminds me of a bull riding chute, and I cinch my hands around the ropes that line the inside of the raft. We slowly roll toward nothing but blue sky straight ahead. Suddenly, my stomach feels as if its in my throat as we drop 17 stories in 4 seconds before swooping up a 22-degree dip that takes us from feeling 5 Gs to weightlessness. It's a feeling of free-fall as the ground rushes to meet us. Hitting the water at the bottom of the slide, our 50 mph raft slows a bit before a blast of water propels us over the 55-foot arc. We plummet five stories until skidding to a halt in a splash zone. The entire ride takes about 18 seconds, but each second feels like a minute in this rush of senses. Probably the hardest part is climbing the 264 stairs to the top; everything else is just falling.
I can't wait to go again.
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"We had many issues on the engineering side," says Schlitterbahn Waterparks & Resorts co-owner Jeff Henry, who created Verrückt with Schlitterbahn senior designer John Schooley. "Our correction coefficients were all off. Models didn't show air and water friction. A lot of our math was based on roller coasters at first, and that didn't translate to a water slide like this. No one had ever done anything like this before."
The slide's specifications will thrill or terrify. Riders travel the equivalent of two football fields in 18 seconds, Henry says. It takes a spiral climb by foot of 264 steps to reach the top of the tower, which is built from recycled railroad tankers. "Code 528" is what employees call people who change their minds about the fast way down and take the stairs again.
Three riders are weighted together on a scale, and combined must be between 400 and 550 lbs. Riders must be at least 54-inches tall and 14 years old. The 607-foot-long water slide starts as the "Drop," a 60-degree, 17-story near free-fall before swooping back up the 55-foot-tall "Hill" where riders go from 5 Gs to weightlessness before descending to a stop in a splash zone. Velcro seat belts lash riders to the raft, and netting encloses the chute to retain the raft in the unlikely event it goes flying. During early testing, rafts did just that. Test video shows rafts and sandbags ramping off the Hill and in some cases hitting and damaging the slide below. Rumors of test riders going airborne circulated on social media, but only sandbags were sacrificed. After three opening delays, the number of riders per raft was cut from four to three people, and it was determined that the total distributed weight can't exceed the 550 lbs. to prevent liftoff.
After the Guinness Book of World Records certified Verrückt as the world's tallest water slide on April 25, Henry tore down half of it to make corrections, delaying the planned Memorial Day opening and costing an additional $1 million. Additionally, permitting was delayed as Verrückt is twice as high as Kansas City code officials normally allow for structures. Testing was conducted after dark to avoid media helicopters that had been buzzing the park after hours.
The Hill was originally five stories, but early tests saw rafts and sandbag occupants launch off the slide at this point. To prevent this, the slope of the bottom of the Drop was mellowed from 45 degrees to 22 degrees to decrease speed, and an extra 5 feet was added to the height of the Hill. In order to ensure the raft makes it over the Hill now, a patented "Master Blaster" water cannon propels the raft over the top, which is the equivalent of jumping 21 semitrailers parked side by side, Henry says. Incidentally, the Hill is the tallest uphill water coaster in the world.
"It's dangerous, but it's a safe dangerous now," Henry says. "Schlitterbahn is a family water park, but this isn't a family ride. It's for the thrill seekers of the world, people into extreme adventure."
Henry, whose nicknames include the Wizard of Wet and Lord of the Slides, says that as a proud Texan, he wanted the world's tallest slide to be in the United States.
"The world's largest slide had been in Brazil, and we couldn't have that," he says. "I'm from Texas, it was a matter of pride."
Verrückt joins a long list of industry accomplishments for Henry. He was named Inventor of the Year at the annual Austin Intellectual Property Law Association's 2012 Judges' Dinner, and his designs have revolutionized the water park industry. He holds more than 60 patents for water park technology, and his inventions such as lazy rivers for tubers and waves that allow the landlocked to surf are seen in water parks and cruise ships worldwide. At his Texas headquarters, a 31-acre lot is filled with metal scrap, railroad cars, and other "junk" that Henry uses in building his water attractions and to get ideas for new projects.
Bob and Billye Henry opened their first water park in New Braunfels, Texas, in 1966. Wanting to honor the German heritage of Texas Hill Country, they named their park Schlitterbahn, a word they made up that translates to "slippery road" in German. Jeff dropped out of school at 14 to help with his parents' business. Today the family operates an additional three parks in South Padre Island, Galveston and Kansas City; a fifth park is slated to open in Corpus Cristi later this year. While the Texas locations will get scaled-down Verrückt rides as well, none will be as tall as the Kansas City world record holder.
Verrückt is scheduled to open to the public at 10 a.m., July 10; check the website for updates. Tickets start at $36 and include access to all attractions including the Verrückt. Visit schlitterbahn.com/kc for more information and ticket discounts.