Some of the best waves in the world are found at the Waco Surf water park, far away from any ocean.
By Ben Rowen, Texas Monthly, August 2023
Much like the devotees of the Magnolia lifestyle brand who descend on Waco in search of the American dream home, Donald Trump came to the Central Texas town in late March in need of a Fixer Upper. He announced his 2024 presidential bid at the city’s regional airport, as rumors swirled—correctly, it turns out—that he was about to be indicted on federal felony charges. Journalists who wondered why he’d chosen Waco, with no golden escalator in sight, to launch his candidacy speculated that Trump was trying to play footsie with anti–deep state right-wingers during the thirtieth anniversary of the deadly assault on the heavily armed Branch Davidian compound, on the outskirts of town. “Fake news,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said of that association, when he introduced the former president in front of a crowd of about 15,000. The real reason Trump had come? The people. “They represent the American values,” Patrick said, “and the Texas values, and the godly values of this country.”
Meanwhile, just two miles from the site of the 1993 standoff, the Waco Surf water park had recently opened for the season. By Memorial Day, the values on display there weren’t quite what Patrick had had in mind. On Friday morning of the holiday weekend, a bachelor party of twenty or so professional surfers, mostly from Florida, pulled into the nearly five-hundred-acre resort on a party bus, a set of laser lights dancing across the vehicle’s faux-gator seats. They stepped out wearing matching baseball caps emblazoned with “Skeeter Pan: Finally Leaving Neverland” (the groom-to-be’s nickname is Skeeter). One of them sported a T-shirt featuring an image of the bachelor passed out, another man dangling his family jewels over the guest of honor’s head.
They had traversed the surrounding bucolic roads, lined by copses of post oak and vast stretches of ranchland, eschewing Las Vegas strip clubs in search of a different sort of thrill. The park, originally called Barefoot Ski Ranch when it opened fifteen years ago, was mostly a local attraction until 2018. That year, the resort debuted a revolutionary new wave machine that pumps out perfectly smooth, seaweed-colored waves and went international. Now Waco has become an unlikely destination for surfing obsessives.
At the wave pool, which is lined with an artificial beach and ringed by cabanas and a small hotel, the Floridians ripped oceanlike swells for six hours before coming landside. They then congregated at the hotel’s mezzanine bar overlooking the waves to rip righteous tequila shots. “It’s nice to do something fun and then go out and drink,” one partyer told me, “rather than just drink.”
The road to blacking out in Waco, however, is paved with good intentions: McLennan County is dry, so the surfers first had to join the private club established by Waco Surf so that it could sell alcohol. “Parts of Texas are surprisingly bureaucratic,” the park’s general manager, Mike Schwaab, explained. “People think there are no rules here, but there definitely are for hippie surfers.”
These surfers—who weren’t all that hippie—were ready for a night without rules. Rather than stay at the resort’s hotel, cabins, or “surf houses,” they packed their surfboards back onto the bus, where they grabbed more drinks from the wet bar. Then they were off, headed to Austin, and soon, like the next wave in an incoming set, a big group of Californians stepped up to take the Floridians’ spots at the hotel’s bar.
If you go to Waco any day from now through mid-December, when the park closes for the year, you’ll have as good a chance of running into a California pro surfer as you might if you were wandering the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. The wave pool has become a word-of-mouth and Instagram sensation in the surf world. According to the new owners, a group of San Diegans who bought the facility, in 2021, 70 percent of guests who surf there are from out of state, while about 90 percent of those who partake in the other attractions, including three waterslides and a gargantuan lazy river, are Texan.
Professional surfers swear that Waco has the best, or at least the most dependably good, waves in the world. The facility can pump out dozens of types of swells, mostly modeled after famous ones in the oceans. In a one-hour session surfers are guaranteed to catch at least twelve of them, whereas they might go days or weeks waiting for waves of this quality on the Atlantic or Pacific. Owing to the waves’ consistency and oceanlike feel, the U.S. Olympic surfing team has trained in Waco, as have the Chinese and Australian teams. Kelly Slater, both the youngest and oldest World Surf League Champion, who spent decades and tens of millions creating his own artificial wave using a different technology, pops over to Texas for visits. Bethany Hamilton, a former child prodigy turned pro who famously lost an arm to a shark off the shores of Hawaii, swears by the pool. Cruz Dinofa, a thirteen-year-old shortboard phenom from New Jersey who speaks with the vocal fry of a learned surfer, told me, “I didn’t think I was ever going to go to Texas.” But now he visits Waco every year, in between trips to Hawaii and Southern California.
The surfers are just as surprised as anyone to be coming to Waco, and to hear them tell it, everything here feels a bit unnatural. At no other surf venue in the world can you see Longhorns grazing in a pasture forty yards from the break. Some have noted that the nearest off-resort restaurant offers target practice along with barbecue. One surf-magazine writer complained (incorrectly) that there’s no food in town that isn’t processed, before he found something suiting his delicate Californian sensibilities: Panera Bread.
To many Wacoans, the influx of surfers feels unnatural as well. Californians have long loomed as an existential threat in the Texas imagination: in 2021, one Golden State gubernatorial recall candidate even solicited donations from Wacoans by erecting a billboard in town promising that his election would “send Californians back to California.” Our own state leaders continue to admonish outsiders to not “California My Texas.” But here on the outskirts of Waco, they already have.