Few sites are sadder, existentially so, than an abandoned amusement park. Once a place of fun and frivolity, magic moments and cherished memories, it gets reduced through time and neglect to a wind-swept shell of itself, a crumbling monument to the ethereality of youthful glee.
If you pull off Interstate 15 at the Hacienda Road exit, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the sight of what, decades ago, had been a thriving water park with slides and rides, popcorn and snow cones, pools and waterfalls to compete with the desert heat, is like observing a modern ghost town – all the more disheartening because it’s of our generation, not some distant Old West relic.
Even if you never visited the original Lake Dolores Water Park, a 273-acre man-made lake, in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, or its subsequent incarnations as the Discovery Waterpark and Rock-A-Hoola Water Park, here in the Mojave Desert, you cannot help but feel a tinge of nostalgia. After all, most of us frequented parks like this in our youth, maybe learned to swim and had our first kiss there, so to see it shuttered and strewn with concrete chunks and twisted metal and hollowed-out bowls collecting only dust, leaves and garbage is saddening beyond measure.
Of course, given my congenital melancholy, I had to stop and check the place out.
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Turns out, I was not the first to pay a visit. At first view, from the street, it’s almost post-apocalyptic, something out of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” There are beheaded palm trees, rusted water towers, and what had been stairways and paved paths cracked and sandblasted almost beyond recognition. Once you breach the “No Trespassing” sign, you’re greeted with graffiti, mostly mere “tagging” but some making attempts at rising to the level of art, on nearly every rock, storage bin and trash bin – and you haven’t even crossed the threshold into the park itself.
When you reach the walkway leading to the entrance, you see that the neon lights have been smashed on the banner sign proclaiming “WATERPARK.” The turnstiles have been stripped (metal being a precious re-sale item at scrap yards) and what little remains of the wrought-iron gate sways and creaks in the desert wind. The shuttered restrooms are now adorned with black skulls; the aquamarine-colored concession stands stripped of shelving and covered with spray-painted messages either sacred or profane; and the locker room still has its sign, “LOCKERS,” but taggers “420 VIP” and “Devil Gang 666” have claimed its respective corners.
It’s all mildly depressing, until you veer off to the left, closer to the street. The graffiti dwindles, replaced by two billboards. One shows a couple in a 1950s-style convertible, parked before an orange-hazed horizon, with belching smokestacks silhouetted. Framing the car’s back taillights in cursive: “Apokalyspe or Bust,” followed by a heart with an arrow shot through. Splayed across the top of the billboard is the decree: “THE FUTURE IS BLIGHT.” The other billboard is a drawing of a skeleton on a motorcycle zipping through a harsh urban milieu with signs saying “Just Buy” (instead of Best Buy), “Way * More” (instead of Wal * Mart) and “Stuff” (instead of Shell).
Elsewhere on the vast site, where water once flowed and childish screams and giggles filled the air, some elaborate murals with an apocalyptic theme – hollow-eyed women, skeletal men recalling Edvard Munch – remained unmarred by the tagging all around it.
This obviously took effort and coordination, some artistic vision and was not the mindless markings of rebels without a clue.
After I finished nosing around, I got back on I-15 determined to nose around on that other repository of so much blight – the Internet – to learn more about the water park-cum-artistic canvas.
Several stories from the Desert Dispatch of Barstow – see, newspapers are indispensable – popped up and shed light on the sad demise and the nascent efforts to revive the parched site and open it once more for a new generation to splash and soak. And, as I delved further down the Internet rabbit hole, I came across a Web page that relives the glory years of Lake Dolores, including some boffo photographs of 1970s swimsuit styles and every male’s attempts at a mustache.
The most recent news report, however, was from last spring. It reported that the park’s new owner, Om Garg, and a group called Oasis Theme Park were in negotiations to rebuild and reopen. But, when I made my visit in late fall, the site was hardly shovel-ready.
“We’re still working out the details,” Dan Lynch, the project superintendent, told me. “We’ve been waiting almost a year and a half for San Bernardino County to approve our permits. We still plan to redo the water park and bring it back. In this area, it’s more than just a water park; it’s a thousand jobs for people in the area, and that’s really needed. We see people stopping on their way (to Las Vegas) and a place for local kids to come and have fun.”
And Chris Jackiewicz, a Las Vegas businessman who heads Oasis Theme Park, is confident he can lure investors and hints that an “anonymous” donor is stepping forward. “Do I see a viable successful business opportunity? Without a doubt I say yes,” he replied via email. “Take a look at our advertising campaign, thanks to the Internet we’ve touched all 50 states, all the continents except Antarctica still waiting to hear from a research station there. Everyday we get requests for wedding parties, family reunions, scavenger hunts, comic conventions, science fiction conventions, fishing competitions and all this before the gates are even open.”
In addition to raising funds, Lynch and Jackiewicz are trying to keep the park from being further desecrated by taggers. This warning appears on Jackiewicz’s website: “To the people going out to the park. Security will now take pictures you may not see them they will see you. They can see you hiding behind or in the buildings or jumping in your car and taking off. Some pictures will be posted online. Just thought we would let you know.”
But what about the guerrilla artwork also gracing the site? Lynch solved the mystery. He said that before Garg bought the property, a previous owner had rented the space for an “art event,” which resulted in the blight-themed billboards and murals.
“For almost 10 years, the place sat untouched,” Lynch said. “Now, after that (event) went up on YouTube, kids started coming out and just spray-painting stuff. It makes the place look bad.”
It’s painful for Lynch to see, since he grew up in the area and frequented the park in its heyday.
“It was one of a kind,” he said, wistfully. “It was fabulous. We’re just waiting to bring it back.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis
ABANDONED SITE OF LAKE DOLORES WATER PARK
Directions: Hacienda Road off-ramp from Interstate 15 in Newberry Springs, 23 miles east of Barstow