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How Waco, Texas, Became Surf Town, USA

Mar 09, 2024

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.

The colonial history of the U.S. was mostly one of westward expansion, but by the late nineteenth century there was no West left anymore. Some perpetually bored folk, Californians as they’re often called, picked up a Hawaiian pastime and tried to push the frontier a hundred or so feet into the Pacific. They popularized surfing and the drop-in. Others turned to drugs. They popularized dropping out. And when those two restless groups had a serendipitous crossover in the early seventies, they turned surfing from a youth culture and sport into a lifestyle.

You wouldn’t have found much of the lifestyle in Waco in those days. In 1966 a writer in the Baylor Lariat, explaining the new fad in California, reported that Baylor Bears could sand-surf the dunes of West Texas for an approximation of the real thing. By the nineties students had finally found the sport at home: a club sold screen-printed T-shirts depicting a surfing businessman with the caption “Entrepreneurship: the wave of the future.”

Then, in the late aughts, a Waco entrepreneur brought the literal wave of the future to town. Stuart Parsons, a commercial roofer who had spent decades patching buildings across town, had a vision to rapture the masses, like other infamous Wacoans before him, though his was decidedly less apocalyptic. He converted a portion of his ranch into a lake for waterskiing. An island in the middle of that lake would become home to six lemurs—Parsons wanted an attraction and, after a trial with blackbuck antelope went awry (they escaped), he googled animals that don’t swim. He later dug the world’s longest lazy river—at 5,197 feet, it’s just shy of a mile and takes roughly 45 minutes to navigate—and created a water park with slides crafted from roofing materials. He didn’t initially line the lazy river with concrete, so visitors had to grab on to the roots of nearby flora to climb out. In 2012, Parsons officially opened Barefoot Ski Ranch Cable Park, and it became known simply as BSR.

A few years later, Parsons befriended Tony Finn, a San Diegan wakeboard manufacturer who visited the park and got Parsons’s attention with a new idea. An upstart company in Southern California, American Wave Machines (AWM), had built a 24-by-4-foot contraption for the Long Beach Aquarium that produced two types of ocean waves. The company was eager to dramatically scale the technology upward for commercial use. Parsons didn’t hesitate to bring it to Waco. When the local energy company caught wind of the project, it raised concerns that it wouldn’t be able to power the machine at the proposed size. Parsons broke ground on a four-acre pool and trucked in ten thousand tons of sand. “They told me what an idiot I was,” he recounted, not taking pains to specify names because it seems, well, “they” was everyone.

Finn, who continued to help Parsons as a friend, also recalled the skepticism of locals. He told me that many asked if he and Parsons were on drugs. “No, we were not high,” he said, before correcting himself. “Well, maybe we were high, but that doesn’t mean that the pool wasn’t a good idea.” He explained Parsons’s mindset in taking on the project: “He’s a cowboy. He does what he wants. He doesn’t pay good attention to rules.”

That attitude rubbed off on Finn. A few months before the machine was set to debut to the public, he told a skeptical surf convention audience in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, that Waco would soon possess a perfect wave. He was met with jeers, to which he doubled down with a guarantee: everyone in the crowd would get a free hour-long session—he only later told Parsons of that promise—and then they’d be lining up to pay for more.

The audience doubted the project with reason. Since the sixties, when surf lineups first got crowded, entrepreneurs have sought to manufacture waves. Early attempts, according to Matt Warshaw, the author of The History of Surfing, focused on reconfiguring shorelines to create a better break. In the eighties wave pools of the sort you can find across America today caught on. They were a water park curiosity, but real surfers thought little of them—the machine-generated variety couldn’t mirror the power of an ocean wave.

In 2015 Slater debuted an artificial wave in a then-secret location in California on an invitation-only basis. It’s now used for various World Surf League events, and though it can create barrels—the pipe-shaped breaks that are one of the Holy Grails of surfing—it still doesn’t feel quite right to many pros. William Finnegan, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning surf memoir Barbarian Days, once described Slater’s wave as missing the heartbeat and rhythms of an ocean wave. Evan Gieselman, a pro from Florida, told me that “it feels like surfing behind a boat or on a conveyor belt.”

American Wave Machines dreamed up a new approach to wave creation. Broadly speaking, there are two types of surfable waves: tsunami and ocean swell. Picture a piece of flotsam on the open ocean: a tsunami wave, such as Slater’s, which is caused by a displacement of water, will carry it to the shore; a swell, caused by wind and interference with the seafloor, will cause the object to bob in place. Though the former is a thrill sought by some—there are surfers who famously wait near Alaskan glaciers to ride the waves created by icebergs breaking off from the shelves—typical swells allow for much more control and offer the peaks and troughs pros like to carve. AWM employs a complex system of air chambers that are programmed to release at precise times to create waves that mimic those ocean swells. The company brought a colossal machine to Waco, with multiple parts that stretch across a 240-foot wall, as well as some fifty other patents, including the pool shape and the technological dashboard used by on-site “wave DJs” to control the creation of swells. The grand wave machine experiment was on.

Against expectations, the first waves were gnarly: videos of a barrel quickly went viral, and pros soon lined up to come. The wave largely sold itself, but Parsons was also a skillful promoter. To lure crowds to the beach, he brought in Metallica and the Christian surf band Switchfoot. Matthew McConaughey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville gave the wave pool a whirl. In short order, Parsons even attracted the holy trinity of board-sports stars: Slater on surf, Tony Hawk on skate, and Shaun White on snow. The town was star-crushed, Waco realtor Kim Galvan told me. “Who would have thought Tony Hawk would end up here?”

A confession: before moving to Texas, I lived for two and a half years in Santa Barbara, California. The city is just twenty minutes northwest of Rincon Beach, one of the premier surf spots in the world. I never dared explore it. For one, I wasn’t good enough on a board. But there was something else: from what I’d heard, Rincon was almost too beautiful to visit. I knew I’d never want to leave.

Waco Surf, by contrast, presents no such conundrum. It offers all the promise of surfing without any risk of separation anxiety. So early this spring, I signed up for a beginner group session. Before I got on the water, Schwaab, the general manager, promised me that I’d pop up onto the board—something I’d managed to accomplish only a few times on the Pacific. It was the type of blithe assurance about my athletic abilities that I’d only ever heard from myself, typically right after I walked up to the plate in a youth baseball game and right before I struck out.

After paddling out, I waited near the wall with a dozen or so others for a swell the park website says mimics a “gentle day at the Point in Malibu.” I had no frame of reference, but a woman from Los Angeles told me she had come here to escape the chill of the Pacific and was peeved that she’d arrived to find conditions that felt familiarly cold. (The surf pool isn’t heated; it was 67 degrees.) Others in my session had come from elsewhere in Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, and Greece. Only one lived in Waco: he told me he didn’t even know about the park until a surfer friend from Houston came to visit.

We all lined up to catch waves, as a surf pro from Galveston named Reef—I kept calling him Reed, not believing anyone in Texas would have such a name—gave us pointers. Sixties stoner rock and “Cowboy” by Kid Rock blared from speakers near the booth where the wave DJ selected for us the swell equivalent of a slow song. Every minute, the machine grumbled like an upset stomach as it wound up and then belched out a set of three waves. Schwaab, it turned out, was right. During my session I rode a handful of them. I didn’t exactly feel at one with nature, but surfing the Pacific had never produced such a feeling either—it made me terrifyingly aware that I was at the mercy of my environment, not in cahoots with it. Standing on the board and being propelled forward in the wave pool, however wobbly my balance, gave me a surprisingly spirited adrenaline rush. I signed up for three more sessions.

Nearly every surfer I talked to, pro or novice, had a similar appreciation for the wave. Gieselman, the Florida pro, said Waco is “kind of the future.” In particular, the park’s “air section” is game-changing. It produces waves with the right geometry and power to allow surfers to propel off them into the sky. Such perfectly shaped waves are rare in the Pacific or Atlantic, and they don’t come back-to-back. Dinofa, the shortboarder, explained, “It’s like a skate park, and you can try over and over.” He’s able to practice new tricks with the kind of repetition necessary to land them, something he “couldn’t do in the ocean.” Meanwhile, newcomers in my session were thrilled not to have to fight for waves, as you often must on a beach where they are a finite resource guarded by territorial surfers. Instead, “we kind of all became friends on the water,” Cody Risner, the Waco resident, said later.

When designing waves for a new pool, AWM—which has since opened parks in East Rutherford, New Jersey; Porto Feliz, Brazil; and Makinohara, Japan—strives for realism more than thrills. The company enlists the Billabong-sponsored pro Rob Kelly as a guinea pig. An AWM engineer will program a test wave into the software, and Kelly will try to handle whatever surf is created and then offer feedback. He says sometimes it can take as many as thirty trials. I asked him if he could tell the difference between an AWM wave and an ocean wave if he were surfing with his eyes closed. Although he couldn’t answer with complete certainty—“I want to say no”—he stressed that no other type of wave pool feels anything like the open seas.

Not everyone is effusive about artificial waves, however. To some purists, they are to surfing what Tinder is to dating. You used to have to search out the object of your dreams. In Waco, no wave comes with a story. You might have a great ride, but there isn’t the joy of discovery. “Once you’ve created a perfect wave, you’ve ruined it,” Warshaw, the surf historian, told me. “All the bad choices we’ve made and good stories we have to tell come from chasing surf and spending your life hunting for a few good waves.”

John Milton had it wrong. Sure, it’s tough to be expelled from paradise, but try being its neighbor.

During the park’s early years, message boards lit up with locals complaining about the din and traffic. When “there’s a big event at BSR it’s just ridiculous with cars parked up and down the road then so much trash the next day that the BSR folks don’t bother to clean up,” one wrote. A former Waco resident told me the park brought chaos to the sleepy countryside. “Sometimes whenever things grow so fast, it’s hard to wrap your arms around it,” she said, adding that she knew back then to avoid the roads on summer Saturdays because many at the park would be drinking heavily.

Parsons says he organized trash cleanups and “did everything I could to make my neighbors happy,” but almost everyone I talked to for this story spoke about the old Wild West days at BSR. No one much wanted to get into the details—or perhaps couldn’t quite recall. “Stuart Parsons knows how to throw a good party,” Finn told me, adding coyly, “I would just keep it at that.”

Court records and news stories paint a fuller picture. Early in April 2020, a complaint was made against BSR for a possible violation of rules limiting crowd size that were put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and when the county sheriff investigated, Parsons decided to voluntarily close to avoid fines. Shortly after California governor Gavin Newsom shut down beaches in the Golden State, BSR became the first water park in the country to reopen. Southern California surfers flocked to Central Texas to shred.

There were other incidents, some of them far more serious. A few years earlier, in 2018, a New Jersey surfer died of a brain-eating amoeba infection two weeks after visiting the park. A subsequent Centers for Disease Control report found the bacteria present in the cable park section, but not in the surf pool. The surfer’s family sued and settled with Parsons, in 2022. Parsons told me “only God knows where he got the amoeba.”

Then, on Independence Day weekend in 2019, as a fireworks display commenced, one park visitor from Dallas dived into the wave pool and was overcome by the current. He was discovered minutes later by surfers, unconscious. He died two days later, and his family, too, filed suit, alleging negligence. Parsons declined to comment on the matter as litigation pends with a trial set for December.

Parsons began shopping the attraction. Though he spoke of the park wistfully, he wouldn’t say that he sold because of the lawsuits. “I had millions of reasons to sell,” he told me. “The Californians have come in and bought a lot of stuff, you know, in Texas.”

In particular, a group of six from San Diego, including Schwaab and longtime friend David Taylor, saw in Waco what many Californians see in the Lone Star State more generally: a chance to get in on the miracle and impose some order on it. In early 2021, the San Diegans came to Waco to meet financiers—Schwaab dyed his hair to hide his highlights to be taken more seriously. They closed a deal for an undisclosed amount.

The new owners updated a filtration system, improved the lodgings that had become run-down, and brought a new commitment to neighborliness. They worked with the sports commission to host town events and launched a TV campaign targeting locals. They also thought of a cleaner name: the park was now simply Waco Surf.

Part of Southern California’s appeal is that the seasons are subtle. Which might explain why no one there observes the passage of time, and everyone tries to look 25 forever. But there are surf seasons: the swells aren’t as great in June and July. This is yet another part of Waco’s draw. The summer isn’t endless here, but the surfing basically is.

On Memorial Day weekend, about a thousand park visitors a day hit the slides and lazy river, and hundreds packed the beach and wave-side cabanas. Young children built sandcastles; older kids built sand breasts atop the young children. Some adults set up charcoal grills to make fajitas, and partyers dragged coolers full of fruit and alcohol onto the sand. The unlucky ones had paraphernalia confiscated at the gate; Schwaab told me he’s learned that anyone who has a watermelon also has way too big a knife. The lucky few who made it to the park early enough snagged inner tubes exclusively for their cases of beer.

A group of forty or so Californians rented the surf pool for a 6 a.m.-to-11 p.m. session on Saturday. They got barreled and practiced aerial tricks off the pool’s biggest waves, roughly head high. Between runs, they relaxed in the surf lodge, which is bedecked with old boards and has a balcony overlooking the pool. Justin Boyd, from Marin County, just north of San Francisco, told me in between sips of a tiki drink: “It’s hard to believe. We live in California with some of the best surfing in the world but come to Waco to surf.”

Thomas Stewart, an energy analyst visiting from Houston, had grown up surfing in New York. A few days before coming to the park, he’d dialed a college friend in San Diego to try to set up an impromptu surf trip, and his pal told him a group was heading to Waco. How about they meet there instead? When we talked, Stewart was gleeful about his good fortune. He had just looked up the surf conditions that day in SoCal and discovered the trip would have been “skunked” by “s— waves.”

By midmorning, a mass of vacationers had gathered around the wave pool, lazing on reclining beach chairs. The beach in Waco, of course, does not offer the sweeping panoramas of the California coast, and while surfing is in session, you can’t venture beyond the “barrier reef,” a concreted lip of the pool about twenty feet from the shore. So I was at first befuddled as to why so many had settled on this for a weekend getaway. But then around noon I watched an elderly man from Fort Worth push his wife in a wheelchair to a cabana, which quickly became peppered with empties, and it clicked: Waco Surf has solved the beach like Silicon Valley experts have solved cab rides—with a more convenient, but also more expensive, product.

There are exactly two types of beachgoers. Those who like to lie around, and those who see the beach for what it is: an obstacle that must be crossed to access the real fun. On the sand there’s no air conditioning, there’s no good place to pee, and atrophy quickly sets in. Waco Surf’s innovation is, in part, embroidering the water with just the right amount of beach so that creature comforts are never far away. “It’s clean. It’s almost kind of better than the beach,” said Ashleigh Crossan, a teacher from Alvarado, who’d come down solo to scope out the park for a future trip with her friends.

I was a bit surprised to hear so many gushing over the technocrat’s vision of lounging in the sun. Crossan seemed slightly offended by my quizzical reaction, and she bashfully defended herself: “I would say it’s a beach experience—for what it is. I mean it’s as beach as you can get in Central Texas.”

Others reveled in having discovered the place ahead of the throngs. Laura Gallion Gooch, of Arlington, told me she had never been to Waco before and that one of the few things she knew about the city was that it was the site of the Branch Davidian siege. “I don’t wanna think about that,” she said. “Let’s have a little fun here.” She was glad she’d found a spot that wasn’t as crowded as the Texas coast. Nearby, a couple of friends, George and Ramón, who were grilling corn, told me they’d found Waco Surf because they were eager to get away from Dallas, where water parks, to borrow the parlance of surfers, had been packed by too many kooks.

In the Texas heat, and with my own Mexican import in hand, the concrete pool walls eventually dissolved in the distance as I watched the surfers. I felt like I could have been back in Santa Barbara on a lazy Saturday. It was only later that night that the mirage wore off. Standing outside my surf bungalow, a room sparsely furnished save for a bed, with a loft for an extra guest, I surveyed the pool. The machine had gone silent, and there was no lapping of waves on the beach—a sound that, in moments of pure bliss near the ocean, matches your breath and pairs you, like a Bluetooth speaker, with the universe. Under the floodlights, I could see the perfect geometric concrete squares at the bottom of the pool. It felt like, I imagined, seeing the inside of a robot that you’d thought was your one true love: its majestic ability to move you revealed to be nothing but the product of perfectly placed gears.

Politicians have long seen the utility in bashing Californians flocking to Texas. And surfers have exacted a particular psychic toll on our body politic. Late in April, as the Texas House and Senate battled over competing visions to reduce property taxes—which are skyrocketing in part because of the influx of Golden Staters—Dan Patrick felt compelled to insult the Speaker of the House. He landed on the nickname “California Dade” Phelan. Phelan leaned into the jab, tweeting out a picture of himself beside a surfboard, which coincidentally highlighted his six-pack abs. Patrick parried back with a photoshopped image of himself body surfing.

Meanwhile, most in Waco seem to welcome the visitors and newcomers. At a city meeting in 2021, an aviation advisory board member told Waco council members that the surf park “has ranked nationally and would be a great source to promote flights to Waco.” At least one county commissioner, Will Jones, whose teenage son goes to the park three times a week during the summer to surf and cable ski, effusively agreed. It’s an “asset to attract people to Waco,” he told me.

Waco historically has had a tough go of it in terms of enticing outsiders. Camille Johnson, a longtime realtor in McLennan County, has lived here her whole life. She told me that after the Waco siege she started telling folks she was from “near Dallas” when she traveled. “We were just known as wackos from Waco,” she said. Now, with all the attention Magnolia and other new venues have brought, she feels she no longer has to disguise where she’s from.

Nearly every surfer I met told me that before coming to the park, the only thing they knew about the town was the “cult.” Rob Payne, who was chaperoning the Ventura Makos, a youth surf club from Southern California, said the group even watched the recently released Netflix documentary on the Branch Davidians before coming. But the kids left town with a new point of reference. Payne said some of them liked surfing here better than their home break on the Pacific.

Many who surf in Waco do so without ever venturing beyond the confines of the resort. One Californian told me it was like every destination surf trip he goes on: you fly in, get bused to a beach, never step foot off it, then get bused back to the airport a few days later. But from what he’d seen, he thought Waco had a “real American” charm, what with the dirt roads leading to the park. Others do decide to poke their heads around town; one family of surfers in April was eager to try Buc-ee’s for the first time. A resident told me that “hoteliers here and the local restaurants, they know that this exists because they get these folks that look like they’re from California with bleached hair.”

In at least one other demonstrable way, those Californians are already changing Texas: the quality of the state’s surfers has spiked. The Gulf is a notoriously difficult place to train: the waves are “gravelly” and kinked, according to Gabriel Prusmack, who competed in the Gulf Surfing Association’s competition at Waco Surf on Memorial Day. Many of the best surfers leave Texas to chase more dependable swells. But some day, owing to the consistency of waves the park delivers, he thinks the world champion might come from here.

Indeed, the week after Patrick and Phelan’s back-and-forth, I watched an expert surf session, which brought out a few locals and out-of-towners alike. Looking from Californian to Texan, and from Texan to Californian, already it was impossible to say which was which.

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Wacowabunga!” Subscribe today.

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