PHOTOS AND ESSAY by ANDY HEATWOLE
On the surface, the park’s attractions seemed almost random. Where else could you visit a replica Spanish mission, cruise the skies in a European-style gondola, play tic-tac-toe with a chicken, watch a pig swim and gaze upon the underwater beauty of Spring Lake in a glass bottom boat?
It worked somehow. It worked for many years.
At its peak, the park hosted more than 250,000 visitors annually and was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Texas. But times change and, starting in the 1980s, increasing competition from other theme parks contributed to a sharp decline in visitors. Aquarena — and its “renowned 1950s kitsch” — just couldn’t compete with roller coasters and killer whales.
In 1994, the park and adjacent properties were sold to Texas State University, then Southwest Texas State. In the two decades since, the university has worked to restore the park to a more natural state. Most of the old buildings have been removed concluding with removal of the submarine theater, the Sky Spiral and the last vestiges of the Sky Tram in 2012.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the first tourist attraction at Spring Lake is also the only one left. The Springlake Hotel, opened in 1928 by San Marcos furniture store and funeral home owner A.B. Rogers, is now headquarters for the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. And 86 years after the first one was launched, a fleet of glass-bottom boats operated by the university still offer visitors a glimpse of the lake’s aquatic wonder.
Walking along the peaceful, grassy shores of Spring Lake, it’s hard to image this was once a loud bustling theme park. Looking at the hill across the lake you can still see a few decaying structures. Conspicuously absent is the 220-foot-tall Sky Spiral tower, once a defining part of the San Marcos skyline. Hidden from view are crumbling sidewalks, fallen trees and the few decaying remnants of the park. On that hill are the ruins of Aquarena.
As a photographer, I’ve always been drawn to abandoned places. There’s often a palpable silence that hangs over them. That silence is present here too. Among the ruins and even along Spring Lake it seems oddly quiet. The stillness adds to the strange feeling you get when you’re here. Perhaps it’s just the memory of what it used to be juxtaposed with its current state. Still, there’s beauty here. It’s a humbling reminder that everything changes and I’m compelled to capture what remains before it passes completely into memory.
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