ExperimentThe hazardous waterparks of two Berlins
We sent a writer to Berlin, Germany and then Berlin, New Jersey to scoop the scene and ride some waves. This is his story.
From Paris, Texas to St. Petersburg, Florida to Madrid, Iowa (noted mostly for its elevated biking trail), there are twin cities all across the US, each special for whatever reason. We sent James Hodges to Berlin, New Jersey to investigate.
It's a beautiful Sunday night in Berlin, and I'm in a humid warehouse, surrounded by shirtless tourists. There's a DJ playing dance music and some kind of liquid dripping from the ceiling. It's sort of like utopia, but depraved. Bodily fluids run like water behind heavily fortified security. You might think I'm describing Berghain, Germany's most infamous nightclub, but I'm actually at Sahara Sam's Oasis, an indoor waterpark in Berlin, New Jersey.
I recently visited two Berlins. First, the capital of Germany, the European Union's most robust economic power, and then, a little suburb outside of Philadelphia, likely named in homage to its early history of hosting German immigrants. What is small-town Berlin, NJ like today? Is it a car-culture wasteland of dead-end jobs, like the urban media would have us assume? I found that the Berlins are more alike than I expected, both full of regular people, eager to hang out on a beach and sip some beer -- which is slightly surprising, since they're also both land-locked, miles away from the nearest waterfront.
Berlin, NJ is 40 miles away from the Atlantic Ocean, but it's also home to Sahara Sam's Oasis, a 58,000 square-foot waterpark full of fake tropical plants, while Berlin, Germany is over 140 miles from the nearest seaside town. For Berliners that want to have an aquatic experience without leaving the city, there's a floating outdoor pool in the Spree river (the Badeschiff), along with various more traditional local pools.
Yet water alone does not create a beach experience. Savvy aquatic impresarios know that their consumers want waves. Sahara Sam's delivers with its FlowRider Wave Machine, a surfing simulator that uses massive water jets to create a perpetual four-foot wave. In Berlin, Germany, a publicly owned indoor-pool chain called Berliner Bäder offers endless waist-high swells in their Bad am Spreewaldplatz wave pool.
Berlin, New Jersey has been involved in waterfront recreation for over a hundred years. In the 19th century, overworked immigrants from Germany and Ireland had one day off a week, and they wanted to spend it like real Americans: getting drunk on a beach. Hundreds of blue-collar workers from Philadelphia would travel to the beaches of Atlantic City each week, ready to drop their modest paychecks on booze, sex, and gambling in the libertine Boardwalk Empire city. But a culture war raged behind the scenes. Deeply entrenched Puritan interests wanted to enforce their religious no-fun-allowed laws wherever they could.
In 1867, halfway between Philadelphia and the Atlantic Ocean, a train-station town called Long-a-Coming changed its name to Berlin. The official accounts of this change offer zero explanation, but it isn't hard to connect a few dots. On the strip of railway that leads to Atlantic City, calling your town “Berlin” tells passengers that they're in friendly territory. Beer awaits, freedom reigns, and the Puritan Fun Police are powerless to stop them.
The spirit of freedom is still alive and well in Berlin, New Jersey. Next to Sahara Sam's, a porno superstore and a pet cemetery ensure that the entire family finds something to enjoy. At the water park itself, bartenders sell large plastic fish bowls full of liquor and ice.
Berlin, New Jersey
Year of establishment/incorporation:
News out of Berlin:
A man caught stealing over 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel was charged with a host of crimes.
Year of establishment/incorporation:
News Out of Berlin:
Israeli man killed in Berlin.
Berlin might not be as trendy as it once was.
Getting wrecked on the FlowRider
This is all secondary to the main attraction, however: the FlowRider Wave Machine. These machines are often used for indoor surf training, but a series of injuries and legal actions have led Sahara Sam's to switch from upright surfing to less-extreme bodyboarding in their facility. At least, that's what the written signage says. Signs with messages like “NO EXTREME TRICKS” and “NO EXTREME JUMPING” adorn the entire FlowRider space, while news reports of recent injuries litter the Google results for “Sahara Sam's FlowRider.” But in America, rules are made to broken.
While I await my turn, I watch a half-dozen pre-teen guests get totally wrecked on the FlowRider. One after another, their eighty-pound bodies crumple like rag dolls behind high-pressure water jets. After getting launched over the crest of the artificial wave, they all twist their faces like someone has irrigated their sinuses with a fire hose. I can't wait to try it.
One kid is a bit more skilled than the rest. He drops into the big fake wave and carves right to left before he tries to pop up in a standing surf position. He gets knocked over pretty soon afterwards and blasts out of the wave like a frisbee. None of the lifeguards seem to mind his flagrant rule-breaking.
Once this FlowRider champ-in-training finishes off his run, I try to ask a few questions. “Are you really allowed to stand up on that thing?”
“I don't know.” “Is it scary?” “No.” “Any tips I should hear before I try it?” “I don't know.”
American kids aren't really supposed to talk to strangers, I guess. Once I get to the front of the line, I take two 45-second rides on the never-ending wave, before a lifeguard tells me my time is up. It's a good bit more thrilling than the weak waves in German Berlin, though both experiences seem equally dangerous.
There are no signs discouraging “extreme tricks” at Berliner Bäder's Bad am Spreewaldplatz. There aren't many lifeguards telling guests how to behave safely, either. That's probably why my German host decides to ride their waterslide face-first, slice her nose open, and then go to the hospital. The waves are mushy and un-surfable, but the entire place is covered in slippery tiles. It just screams “head injury lawsuit” to my American sensibilities. Sahara Sam's, in comparison, has lifeguards watching every waterslide and lots of colorful signs reminding patrons to walk carefully. I can't begin to imagine how treacherous a FlowRider would be in Germany.
German and American ideas about safety and risk-taking are completely different in lots of ways. People in German Berlin treat jaywalking and buying Tylenol like intensely dangerous activities, while 18-year-old kids can legally smoke and drink beer in nightclubs that remain open past dawn. Teenagers in New Jersey have an easier time getting high on allergy medicine than buying a case of beer, but most of them seem to get their kicks guzzling energy drinks and performing “extreme tricks.”
American beaches have been an incubator for risky sports for decades, from Coney Island sideshows to big-wave California surfing. But beaches are a place where normal rules get suspended all around the world, not just in America. Where else can you publicly walk around in your underwear? Where else can you bury people neck-deep in sand?
Waterfront property is a liminal space where anything can happen, all the way back to the Mediterranean villas of ancient Rome. As consumer technologies and media spectacles grow ever more ubiquitous, our dreams of waterfront freedom loom larger as well. Who can endure a weekend of boredom when confronted with beautiful people sunbathing on television? Why wait to visit a real beach when there's a fake one much closer to home? The days of long journeys out to selective resorts are over. It's the 21st century, and convenience rules.
0.5 square miles
Year of establishment/icorporation:
News out of Havana:
Not a lot (read: anything)
281.2 square miles
(unconfirmed number from google.)
Year of establishment/incorporation:
News out of Athens:
Selling illegal cheese is tough business.
The great gamble
After riding waves in both Berlins, I start to ask new questions about American culture. Are we really a culture of fear? Do we spend too much energy worrying about lawsuits, accidents, and alcohol? Do we really need so many lifeguards? Sahara Sam's helped me to see the truth. We're a culture that loves both convenience and excitement, and we'll take some serious risks to combine the two. Just like everyone on the FlowRider Wave Machine is gambling with their personal safety, the waterpark's owners are constantly risking their financial future. Bankruptcy is never more than a few concussions away. But safety is nothing in the face of great thrills.
People get their kicks however they can, and it often involves a bit of controlled danger. America is the birthplace of modern extreme sports, and even a small town in New Jersey can lure visitors with the promise of some indoor surfing. Germany, for its part, is still enduring a long post-war hangover, characterized by strong allergic reactions to authority. Lifeguards at Spreewaldplatz don't yell at kids to stop running, and some of them don't even carry whistles. Still, despite their various differences, Sahara Sam's Oasis and Berliner Bäder Bad am Spreewaldplatz share two important traits. Visitors stand a pretty good chance of getting wrecked if they aren't careful and both pools are undoubtedly teeming with patrons' urine.
Photos: James Hodges