Aquarena Center secures funding for major renovation plans

By Marc Speir
University News Service
July 27, 2007

The Aquarena Center and the Texas Rivers Institute at Texas State University-San Marcos will receive $300,000 towards drawing plans to transform the previous amusement park into a beacon of environmental awareness.

On July 17 the U.S. House of Representatives, under the recommendation of Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), approved by a vote of 312 to 112 an appropriations bill that would apply the money toward major renovation planning at the center.

The funding will draw architectural plans to improve the Aquarena Center by removing structures not in use anymore at Spring Lake, and restoring the habitat of the environmentally sensitive headwaters of the San Marcos River.

“The environmental restoration of this unique resource will be critical to the long-term health of the endangered species which inhabit the springs, in addition to the beauty and vitality of the river itself,” said Andy Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State.

The project is related to a larger community effort to restore and protect a corridor that will include 251 acres adjacent to the Aquarena Center and more than one mile of the San Marcos River.

“We want to make it to where there won’t be anything out here except a meadow with natural materials,” Sansom said. “It will look like it looked if you walked on the site in 1890.”

Once the oldest amusement park west of the Mississippi, Aquarena Springs entertained with such attractions as swimming pigs, mermaids and underwater theater shows. Students and residents were even married at the park, some in underwater ceremonies that guests could watch from a submerged theater, the “aqua-arena” that gave Aquarena Springs its name.

The park operated from 1946 until it was bought by Texas State in 1994 and renamed the Aquarena Center. The university decided to change the emphasis of the park from entertainment to education, a costly decision that required substantial changes to the 90-acre property.

“This is a very big deal for us and for the community--it’s a major milestone,” said Sansom. “We’ve been working on this for a long, long time.”

Sansom says converting the old Aquarena Springs Hotel into the new headquarters of the Texas Rivers Institute in 2006 completed the first phase of the long-term vision for the center.

Phase two involves the implementation of the newly awarded funds. This involves drawing plans and specifications to begin demolition at the site and putting those plans into action once money is available. Sansom estimates it will cost $2.7 million to complete the demolition of the Aquarena Center.

“This is necessary because it all floods here,” Sansom said. “Once we get the funding, we can put the plans into action.”

This includes restructuring of the grounds in and around the center by removing all remnants of the old amusement park.

“The submarine theater goes, the buildings go, the parking lots go, the overhead trolley goes,” Samson said. “All that stuff will be taken out.”

Sansom said a few additions would not be removed from the center, including glass-bottom boat tours, the wetlands floating walkway and other non-specific holdings that can provide educational opportunities.

All decisions concerning what will stay and go will be made when it is time to begin phase three, the post-demolition and re-building phase.

“We want to put in a new visitors center and we’re going to keep our (scientific and educational) scuba diving programs going,” Sansom said. “They will be in another place though, not where they are now.”