Thursday, September 1, 2011

Slip slidin' away...

  To those of you who thought that the title of this post was a Paul Simon reference, you are correct. To those that thought, or hoped, that this was going to be about a crazy weekend Mr. Simon spent in the City of Roses, smoking joints with locals, and streaking through the Galleria at 2:37 in the afternoon...I'm sorry it is not.

  It's about something even better. What could be better than shooting a human through a poorly build tube, filled with water, at a high rate of speed, inside a shopping mall? Nothing, that's what. Nothing could go wrong with that. It's solid. While I immediately retract the statement that nothing could be better, at the time, I blessed the engineers of the Hydrotube.

  While photos are few and far between, I managed to dig up quite a bit of information on the Hydrotubes and it's craze. The brand "Hydrotube" was first trademarked by Design Works, Incorporated on Friday, June 20, 1980. The company was based out of Salt Lake City, Utah and list "large diameter tubes in which water and people are passed" as the description for their endeavor under goods and services with the trademark department in which they registered. The fact that they snagged business anywhere, let alone a small shopping mall in SE Portland, surprises me less and less as the years go by. The slides were short lived here in Oregon, but I remember them fondly.

 It never occurred to me as a child, blasting through rickety tubes in the mall, that they wouldn't be around for long. In fact for some, they weren't even around long enough to garner even the faintest memory.

Indeed, a horrible photo. It's a clip from the Oregonian on Monday, September 23, 1982 depicting the opening of the Eastport Plaza Hydrotubes which had happened 2 days prior.
   Eastport Plaza had already been a very well known destination to my family by the time these aqua monoliths arrived. We lived really close to the mall and would frequent it because of the variety it had offered at one time. I vaguely remember the frenzy in the air on the day it opened. The warm aroma of chlorine and impatience as kids waited for their ride bracelets, which were $3.00 for 10 rides that lasted all of 34 seconds. They then scurried to the back of a line so long it would have made Walt Disney weep. Masses and masses of people staring into the glass from the outside, just trying to catch a glimpse of what they could expect after the walk up the red and teal stairs to the top of the platform.

   I'm not sure if we went in the tubes the opening weekend, although I am told that we did. We pretty much "insisted on it" even though I know my dad loved them. I remember my sister, cousin and I going on that thing so many times that summer. I think that 3/4 of that summer were spent either waiting in line or shooting out of the bottom of that turquoise wonder. That's the thing, all the times I went blurred together because most of the time for the first 6 to 8 months the place was pretty packed.

   Eastport was already moderately popular at the time. Now that it had the first indoor, year round  Hydrotube in the country, it had almost become a destination for some. It's pretty odd now that I think about it. Local businessmen and women, self-proclaimed entrepreneurs, and anyone with a vested interest seized whatever moment they could. Some would say seized may be the wrong word. Choked, in fact, might be better suited. Nevertheless, we had "the next big thing" on our hands and we were going for a ride.

Before we get into that though, let's find out a little more about what brought the Hydrotube and it's water slide cohorts to us. While we're at it let's find out exactly what the Hell they even were.

Yay! Let's go get some concussions and loose teeth!
    Sometimes described as a "water-cushioned roller coaster", the basic Hydrotube is a 350 foot long fiberglass tube, about 4 1/2 feet in diameter. They operated with 5 sand filters in which the water is recycled. The idea was that riders would ride on a 4 inch cushion of warm water through a series of drops, S-turns, swirls, loops and dips. At the Eastport location riders would climb the stairs a little over 40 feet above the Eastport mall where they would jump into one of the two tubes at the top platform. Due to the 8-10 second spacing in between riders, lines would often build up, taking as much as an hour or more on the weekends.

  The Hydrotubes developer and management at the time was Oregon Waterslides, Inc, owned by partners Gary Larsen and David Snow. In a little under 8 months the Eastport location had seen roughly 2 million riders. That is correct, 2 million. Estimated revenue for the Eastport slides alone after a year in business in September, 1983, were around $900,000. Again, how could this go wrong? Everyone, including the insurance companies, wanted a piece. There just wasn't as much to go around as originally thought. At one time, according to the Oregon Health Department records, there were 7 Hydrotubes operating in Oregon during the 1980's. There was another "Hydrotube" site in Vancouver called Sip'N Dippity's (East Fourth Plain) that operated from 1983 to 1985.
I use the quotes as a reminder that not all the tubes spawned were the brand Hydrotube, which didn't seem to matter after a while.

  After all, early investors in the Eastport Plaza location received %53 of their money back during the first six months of the opening. Others wouldn't fare as well, the Lancaster location in Salem is a perfect example. Despite heavy promotion and events it failed miserably before it even made back a third of it's construction costs.

  Some people I spoke with during the research for this were investors. Most feel like if it wouldn't have moved past Eastport, they would have succeeded a little better. Who knows? A lot of the same people look at the Hydrotubes at Washington Square opening, with a theme like restaurant attached, as the beginning of the end for their investments. It makes sense to me now. The Eastport location was the main one I went to. It never occurred to me that there wasn't really a need for 2 water-slides in the Portland area, let alone seven in the region. It wasn't only the lawsuits and insurance liabilities, which we will touch on, that killed it. It was timing...and money...a lot of it...down the tubes. I apologize for the awful, awful pun.

Investment ads started popping up in the Oregonian. Like this one from Wednesday, December 14, 1983 soliciting opportunities.
   With the obvious success of the Eastport location, Oregon Waterslide partners Snow and Larsen entered into a business venture with the Old Trolley Car Pizza Co. restaurant at Washington Square. The venture would see a three-tube slide and restaurant open up in the mall in August, 1983. The Eastport location wouldn't be quite a year old before they would open another, bolder location. The partners were by all accounts pretty bright and seemed somewhat seasoned in business. Snow was a former history professor and computer company marketing executive, Larsen was a successful architect.

 In fact the two had also formed a tubular slide franchising company. The Washington Square "Hydrotube Restaurant" was to be a crowning achievement, something that was solid. Snow was even quoted as saying - "The idea will last, rather than going the way of the hula-hoops or skateboards. It is a family experience, more like roller skating or ice skating. It requires no special skills or equipment."
   Unlike the Eastport tubes, the Washington Square tubes would have a third tube with a different configuration than the other two.

The third one had a 360 degree turn, a bigger drop, and the dips seemed more dramatic than the Eastport tubes. It was "for the thrill seekers" remarked Larsen in an Oregonian article from 1983, outlining the new locations opening. The prices would remain somewhat the same. It would cost $3.00 for 10 rides on the weekdays, $4.00 for 10 rides on the weekends. A plastic bracelet with perforated numbers kept track of the number of rides that had been taken. An average of about 1,350 people per hour leaped into the tubes, at almost max capacity, for months.

  Eastport's slide had employed about 23 people, some were part-time and all were certified life-guards. I remember sometimes having to wear a life-jacket that fit like a weird shirt of some sort. I didn't usually get asked to put it on. I would like to think it's because they thought I looked like a strong swimmer, which I am, it was more likely they were paying attention to other things. The Washington Square location had the facade that it would be more responsible and maintained. It really wasn't.

  I remember the Eastport location having a deli type place alongside it so the people there and the ones strolling though the mall could watch the awkwardness and uncomfortable landings through plate glass. The Washington Square slides would wind through the family style restaurant, providing the diners with a translucent parade of people shooting through the tube and sometimes offering a gesture or even a bit of a bare skin as they passed by, not always by accident. The Washington Square Hydrotube endeavor would cost a little over $650,000 in 1983.

  The restaurant and tube area would incorporate more than 5,000 square feet of glass windows in Larsen's design for good viewing, and the total cost of the finished, total project is estimated at $1 million to $1.2 million. At the time no serious injuries had been reported from Eastport. "There have been some incidents of head bumping." Snow said. It occurred quite a bit due to people getting disoriented in the rushing dips and swirls. The success of the Eastport location, and now with the Washington Square opening looming, accompanied with the idea of expansion outside of Oregon, Snow and Larsen contemplated a public offering of securities. A week before the Washington Square opening, their attorney at the time, Bob Stout, declined further comment on plans in that direction, citing U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules limiting pre-publicity.

Larsen's mock-up rendering of the Washington Square Hydrotube Restaurant. It opened in August, 1983 to huge numbers and injuries.
    With the opening of the Washington Square location, and the Eastport location still showing profits, the frenzy was well underway. Before long Jantzen Beach Super Center would want a piece of this new trend. They weren't the last ones who would jump at the chance to erect these tubes in a profitable vicinity. That was kind of the problem though, right? A third water-slide in the Portland metro area? One of the rainiest places in the country, and we're throwing water-slides around in malls for $750,000 a pop like they're going out of style? Yes, yes we were, and yes, yes they were. It still didn't stop them from trying.

This help-wanted ad in the Oregonian from late July, 1983, offered people a chance to be part of "Team Hydrotube!"

Another excerpt from an article about summertime activities for kids...and parents. 

  With Washington Square in full swing, Jantzen Beach set it's sights on a Hydrotube project as well. Not too soon after Jantzen Beach began it's slide, 3 more popped up. The Salem and Keizer projects were doomed from the get go. Setting any injury aside, there were not enough people constantly coming through the doors to keep them in business. They actually did only 1/6 of what Eastport did combined. It was an unbelievable craze. I loved every minute of it. I was still pretty young. Even though I had been to the Eastport location, a lot, and the Washington Square one a couple times, I thought of an over-chlorinated utopia. A place where poorly made deli food, Slush Puppies and images of brightly colored Gotcha, Generra or Vuarnet products danced in unity along the 82 degree waters in which you dropped into. It seemed like a great plan.

This article from an October, 1983, Oregonian details "the future of dining entertainment" in the Northwest.

   Like I said earlier, not all slides were official Hydrotubes. Jantzen Beach only used that moniker for the first couple months for reasons one could only speculate as trying to separate itself from the "injury plagued" official Hydrotubes. The one in Vancouver wasn't really affiliated with Hydrotube either. The Salem and Keizer tubes were manufactured under the same regulations, but used different components in construction. Again, it didn't really matter to us, the people paying money to get hurled through a fiberglass tube didn't care what brand it was. They were all "Hydrotubes" to us.

  Then there was "The Waterchute" hydrotube at the Holly Farm Mall, described by it's operators as the  granddaddy of them all. The Waterchute opened at Holly Farm Mall (16000 SE McLoughlin) on Saturday, May 26, 1984. "Before we started installing this one, we spent a lot of hours interviewing kids that spent time at hydrotubes at other shopping malls." said Bill W. Hartner, manager of the Waterchute.

  "We asked them what they liked and didn't like about the ones they are using and what additional features they would like to see. Then we built ours with safety and excitement as the key features." Hartner continued. The installation at The Waterchute included two 48 inch in diameter tubes. Riders began their decent into the water below from atop a 48 foot tower. The slide down itself was at a 16 percent grade, and a computer-controlled starting system required riders to wait the full 10 seconds in between starts.

  "What we have is the highest and fastest rides with more dips and turns." Hartner said of the $750,000 waterslide. "In addition to being a fun thing it will also be competitive." According to Hartner, there was a computerized timing system that would tell each user the elapsed time of when he or she shoots out of the 350 foot long tube as they splashed into the warm pool that awaited them. At the time of the opening and interview, Steve L. Stoelk, owner of The Waterchute operation, had planned on opening a location in Seaside and four in the Seattle area. None of these things came to fruition.

This photo from the Friday, May 25, 1984 Oregonian shows Bill Hartner inspecting a tube. 

  It was happening. The area was saturated with "large diameter tubes in which water and people are passed", and it was starting to become a bit more tedious for liability insurance companies to keep up with the phenomena. Water parks were most certainly nothing new, however, they were in a grey area when it came to liability in an indoor shopping mall. What was concerning to a lot of these insurance carriers was that this was not only a grey area in those terms, it was also new ground as to what the proprietors were indeed responsible for.

 Although insurance liabilities, injury and the like, were factors in the demise of the tubes, contrary to popular belief they were not the primary reason for the demise. To understand it a little better, I researched a man named Jack E. Deahl, a Milwaukie resident who according to papers was one of the first investors in the state for the Eastport location. He later invested in the Water Works in Salem as well. According to an interview given to Jim Hill of the Oregonian in 1987, Mr. Deahl simply said of the investments "We kind of went for the brass ring, and we missed it."

When questioned by various sources, Deahl, and several other people connected with the development,  regulation, operation or manufacturing of water slides agreed that a myriad of reasons and a combination of factors in fact killed the tubular slide business in Oregon. These factors included:
          • High operational costs, including rent, utilities, water-purification chemicals, personnel and particularly costly liability insurance, which held steady despite declines in business.
          • High-cost construction of totally enclosed slide operations, built on the premise that such slides would attract riders on a year-round basis in rainy Oregon.
          • Development of a pattern in which slide riders, consisting primarily of school-age kids, came in profitable numbers only during the summer months or when school had vacation periods, or allotted time off.
          • Periodic injuries, mostly minor, that may have discouraged some others from trying the slides but also generated some lawsuits and contributed to the rising cost and decreasing availability of liability insurance.
          • Lack of variety, leading to boredom among riders taking one ride after another at indoor slides that offered virtually no alternative forms of entertainment.

Deahl also stated that he got involved in 1982 when he was approached by David Snow, who had a plan from The Design Works in Salt Lake City for an indoor water tube operation. "Gee, it sounded like a good idea to me." he was quoted as saying in a 1987 interview. The next two photographs of articles from the Oregonian are just a tiny glimpse of some of the safety scares the slides dealt with, and the consumer worried about.


  Deahl, in the beginning, rounded up half a dozen investors, to finance the Eastport Plaza Hydrotubes. He states the Snow and Larsen did not invest, but as developers were to receive 50 percent of profits at Eastport and pay the original six investors 5 percent of profits from other slides that they had planned to build in Oregon. Deahl also recalled being optimistic and excited when investors received the 52 percent that had been invested back in the first six months. Like stated previously in this post, it looked promising.

  After the development and opening of the Washington Square location, Deahl's group spun off from the original developers to form Aqua Leisure Time Inc. to manufacture slide tubing. Remember the non-hydrotubes I mentioned? Deahl's group was one of the pioneering off-shoots. Anyway, the new firm built the tubing for and established the Salem Water Works slide at 3152 Lancaster Drive NE in Salem, they never found another customer.

  Deahl said that the Salem slide operated for 9-10 months in 1984, but made a profit only in June, despite "a million kinds of hapless promotions" including singing radio ads and special discount rates for school or church groups. Although someone sustained bumps and bruises about once a day, the insurance company at the Water Works "never paid a penny on a suit," Deahl said. When asked about his view in the whole venture, Deahl answered "We all lost... It just cost too much to run them indoors. Outdoors you don't have to heat the air."

  Charles Foulger, a Salem investor and former president of Hydrotube at Keizer, just North of Salem, said the venture had left "a nasty taste in my mouth." He said the slide opened in September of 1983 and did quite well as a "new attraction" until January, 1984. The slide did business for about 2 months in the summer of 1985. Like so many,  the slides in Eugene and the ones in Milwaukie saw a similar fate. Owners tried almost anything to promote their slides. The desperation was starting to sink the investors, as the customers started thinning.

Like the previous investment ads, this one might have worded itself wrong. Desperate investors with slide materials and man hours tried to keep at it. This ad is from November 1984, right at the decline.
  As the desperation turned to trying to find enough revenue to stay afloat, communities and charitable organizations took advantage of the savings and advertising they could get while it lasted. I remember there being coupons for Hydrotubes everywhere. Allen Video would give away ride passes with every video rental. Thriftway and Albertson's got in on it by giving away ride coupons and passes with purchases as well. It was madness, it was the end of the beginning of the end.

These 3 were all from the Oregonian, one day apart in late 1984.

An example of events that helped give the Hydrotubes a little push.
  Mary Alvey, who was the manger of the state drinking water monitoring and compliance program in 1987, was swimming pool specialist with the Health Division from 1983-1985. She had explained that because Oregon had no rules designated specifically for water slides, each operator was granted periodic conditional-use licenses requiring them to meet water-quality, sanitation and some safety standards.

  Alvey had stated that the slides began closing before the Health Department could formulate special rules for them. She said she believed declining business, not injuries, is what killed the slides. Mike Gage, who in 1987 was business manager for World Water Park Association in Prairie Village, Kansas, had said that he believed the outdoor, flume-type water slides were more common than the tube type. He said the water slide season seemed to run mainly from Memorial Day to Labor Day, regardless of weather or construction style, but could run all year long in exceptionally warm places like Florida or Arizona.

   Chris Koenemann, executive vice president of Lockton Insurance Agency of St. Louis in 1987, had said "the frequency and severity" of the injuries had created an insurance problem for the slide industry. At worst, he said, there had been broken necks and drownings. Which doesn't end up sounding like a good time to most people, believe it or not.

  In later months of 1986 a pooling program was established using foreign companies to meet the insurance needs of major U.S. water parks. In 1987 Koenemann correctly predicted that the year would see increased insurance availability, but the rates would remain heavy, running between 6 and 10 percent of gross receipts for liability only. Bruce Jacques, who was the president of Hydrotube Inc. in Salt Lake City at the time, told the Oregonian that his company had bought the manufacturing and marketing rights for the Hydrotube product from The Design Works in 1986.

  He had also noted that he was formerly involved with The Design Works, which had built the tubing for the Eastport, Washington Square, Keizer and Eugene slides in Oregon. Jantzen Beach almost prided itself from the separation of Hydrotube. Jacques had said that the tubular slides had failed in Oregon, because they were built as enclosed facilities at shopping malls at an investment cost of anywhere from $650,000 to upwards of a $1 million. It was just simply "impossible", according to Jacques, the generate the customer volume needed in the Salem and Eugene areas to pay off investment debts.

 He also made it very clear that it was his belief, like the many others, that the Eastport slides may have survived in the metro area had Washington Square's monstrosity not opened. Well, we will never know. It never even got a proper chance.

After it's split from Hydrotube, Jantzen Beach tried to market itself as the "safer, better, faster" alternative to the Hydrotube. They too found out, it didn't matter, it was over.

  During my research for this I came across a pretty crystal example of what not to do with a fledgling business, especially one that involves injuries and a town with a shorter attention span than a child in a room full of toys, patience. I'm not completely certain that it was even greed that put the tubes under as much as it was excitement. For those that remember, even slightly, the excitement that formed when you first saw those aqua filled tubes emerging from the top of Eastport Plaza. They looked like something from Blade Runner to me at the time, or some kind of travel device that Bradbury or Asimov would have described.

  I remember getting scrapes on them, a bump on the head or the shoulder every once in a while. My cousin was in the Eastport tubes when they shut it down for the night. The water pressure dropped and she had to scoot to the bottom pool, where she was greeted by a member of "Team Hydrotube" with a faint apology and passes for the weekend, which we absolutely used starting the following day.

It didn't really deter us. Of course we never had to make a trip to one of the 72 emergency rooms nationwide that reported 2,941 slide related injuries in 1983 alone. In some cases I think by the time people realized that they could be dangerous, they were already gone or close to. Eastport Plaza closed it's doors to the tubes in 1984, Washington Square folded very shortly after. All that was left were signs and boards or casing on windows that were once meant for viewing in, now cloaked an empty chasm of big ideas and wasted money.

  I guess I didn't really understand it because of my age. I had no idea what had happened at all, I just knew they were gone. Like the child in a candy store, I moved on.

I just never really thought about how it went from this:

To this:

Photo from the Oregonian, December, 1984.

  Water slides have come and gone everywhere. Obviously the ones that stay have injuries, they have lawsuits and insurance struggles, but the thing they have that saves them, is revenue. They have customers year round or close to it. I too have great memories of the Hydrotubes, in fact, I wish they still existed closer to us.

The Clackamas Water Park doesn't exude that cheap thrill that the Hydrotubes did. I have been to water parks that are way better in every sense, however, I still have yet to get that unknown feeling, that knot in your stomach as you waited for watery deployment from a top a rickety platform inside a mall. Maybe it was the newness of it, maybe it was the culture at the time, maybe it was the 80's? Maybe, and this is a big stretch here, maybe I was a kid.

As I watched Eastport Plaza morph into some weird, unrecognizable shell of it's former self, I always thought about my various memories of it. Memories that are a smorgasbord of discovery and boredom, a lot of which will be shared through here at some point. The Hydrotubes will forever be tied to those memories.

Is it me, or is Spongebob going for a slide?

Until next time, thanks!

Play Nice.


  1. I actually never went on one of these back in the day-- but did make the trip into Salem with a van load of friends intent on doing so once in 1984 or 1985. We pulled up at the Hydrotube (not Lancaster as I recall, but the other one) and were shocked to find it closed. I don't think it ever reopened. High in my mind is the image of the Lancaster tubes a few years later, when they had taken down most of the runs and crows were nesting in the tops of the towers. Spooky.

    Oddly enough though, there are indoor water parks all over the upper Midwest (MN/WI) and virtually every hotel with more than 100 rooms has a waterslide. Clearly the idea was good, even if the execution was off.

  2. I used to visit the one in Keizer all of the time. OSSD, The School for the Deaf was close by and all my deaf friends and I were there almost every weekend it was open, summer of 84/and 85 were the best there. The High School was close, there was a "Bob's" Hamburgers next door. I just sorta remember us all being "Over" the place pretty quick, and then it started keeping weird hours than closed. I think it's indeed gone now, been a while since I have been up there.
    -Ethan Tudor W.
    Actor/Host of The Neverhood Show

  3. I am working on an accurate exact drawing of deep time memory of the Washington Square Hydrotube. I can even remember the Holly Farm Hydrotube. Can I please post here with your consent when I get done? Thanks!!! Matt

    1. Absolutely, Matt! Sorry for the delayed response, I am currently in the middle of reformatting this and my other page.
      I look forward to it!


    2. Hi There, reply when you get a chance, I have found a real Hydrotube penny on ebay from the Keizer, OR. location. And I do believe the Round Table Pizza was the former Holly Farm Waterchute. The building is still there, and totally looks correct to be what that place was. I have brilliant HD color pictures here in 2013. It looks so much like Washington Square location, plus the building shape is so odd and steel covered in front of an 80s shopping complex on McGloughlin Blvd.