06/13/2013 05:30 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2013

What My Father Taught Me About Family Vacations

If traditional family summer vacations do anything, they allow you to revisit your childhood through the eyes of your children. But they also give you a greater appreciation of your own parents, who gamely endured the same experience with you 30 or so years earlier.

Each family has its own version. For some, it's Disneyland. For others, it's a tried-and-true camping ground. For many Texans such as myself, it's a gigantic water park called Schlitterbahn that was founded in 1978. If you were born in the state, you may have visited the Alamo, but you have most definitely been to Schlitterbahn.

My first trip there was in the early '80s, back when the original park (there are now four) was less like something from Kevin Costner's Waterworld and just a regular collection of water slides located near Austin in the small town of New Braunfels, Texas. My father took me when I was almost 10, around the same age my daughter is today. An avid scuba diver, my father adored anything water-related, and Schlitterbahn was no exception. Divorced at the time, he was unburdened by a pleading wife who would be vigilant with applications of sunscreen and common sense. Now, he was free to practice his own brand of parenting, equal parts Clark Griswold and Evil Knievel. In fact, we drove through historic hurricane Alicia in order to get to the park that year. I remember watching flood waters rise and glass shatter on sky scrapers from I-10 in downtown Houston, debris flying by our car, and my dad yelling over the howling winds to us cowering in the back seat, "This going to be great, kids!" While the traffic was at a standstill, before we could stop him, he exited the car to approach a police officer directing the mass evacuation to ask "the best way to get to Schlitterbahn." Ignoring the pleas, my father leaned into the gusting winds, his paper map flapping against his body. From the window, we saw the policeman's arms waving wildly as we lip-read his directive: "Go! Back! To! Your! Car!" With deliberate, staggering steps, my dad headed toward us, fought the car door closed and now completely drenched, cheerily announced, "He said stick to I-10..."

Eight wind-blown hours later, we made it. And for my father, Schlitterbahn did not disappoint. With its sky-high slides, offering twists and turns at break-neck speeds, this was the place that put blueprints to his life-defying philosophies. Although built within the Germanic Hill Country, Schlitterbahn was his Paris. Running ahead of his brood, tube around his waist, he yelled over his shoulder, "See you on the other side!" his pale, 40-something legs the last thing we saw before he disappeared down the nearest shoot.

Thirty years later, the park remains but has exploded. Specifically, if you've ever dreamed of shooting yourself out of a water cannon at 80 miles per hour while entrusting your well-being to someone born in 1994, Schlitterbahn now has no fewer than 100 variations in which to do so.

Unlike my father, Schlitterbahn is my Tehran. As an adult, I don't care for heights, accidentally exposing myself nor being soaked to the bone. But I go along with it for the sake of my kid. Today, visiting as a parent, it's the same park, but with a totally new perspective. Essentially, I started my day in the equivalent of a sun burqa with a pretty sure sense of who I was and what I stood for. By afternoon, I was down to a tattered two-piece, wearing $10 sunglasses with a neon strap, topped off with a temporary glitter tattoo of a Chihuahua that sort of resembled my dog. (My daughter got the matching paw prints.) Brandishing a turkey leg and slurping a drink from a novelty straw that needed two zip codes, I bet the 16-year-old resident glitter artist that mine was the first Chihuahua ever requested out of the book. "I've done seven today alone," she said, blowing away the excess glitter.

Of course she had.

The good news was, I figured if anyone ran into me, I'd be totally unrecognizable. Could it be? they'd wonder. Then noting the resort-emblazoned sarong and matching plastic visor, they'd think better of it--as I probably should have while visiting the seaside-themed gift shop, yet no ocean around for miles.

But this is Schlitterbahn. You must suspend belief along with any sense of what it means to be naked in public. In fact, as the day progressed, I realized that nudity really is all about context. By afternoon, I had to check to see if I was even still wearing bottoms. Had I lost them, my unintentional flashing would have probably been met with shrugs or the helpful offer of a Schlitterbahn-branded beach towel.

To the park's credit, there is a lifeguard planted every five feet. They're a young, affable bunch, often inquiring if you're having fun as they dangle your tube over the precipice of a man-made water fall, your descending screams the standard acceptable response. If force equals mass times velocity, the Schiltterbahn variation would be "force equals mass times how small your bathing suit."

And it's a total egalitarian experience, a melting pot of chlorine, if you will. Busloads of Baptists stand alongside punk teens waiting for the 180 foot drop of the Sky Coaster, both groups invoking the name of Jesus Christ, if just for very different reasons.

On a summer Saturday, the crowds are of Tokyo proportions. You would think such a human traffic jam would make people cranky but with this communal bath seems to come communal understanding: I just spent hours in a car with a bunch of kids. So did you. Here's a tube. And say, where did you get that turkey leg? Lines are just part of the deal, and people expect nothing less. So they make conversation while dreading or anticipating what immediate water fate awaits them. When one kid would float away on a rushing ride, another family would grab them and wait at the faux river bank. Because you knew it was going to happen to your child later that day, too. At Schlitterbahn, it takes a water village.

In fact, on another current tube ride, I felt like Sissy Spacek in The River as families, including our own, were temporarily split apart by diverging paths of rushing water. But after having lost my daughter, then having her resurface on various rapids-like loops throughout the day, I went from "Wilson!" volleyball mode to "Eh, someone will grab her." And someone always did. Often, we traded their intact but soggy kid for ours.

And at the end of the day, as the last tube was shuttered, back at our cabin, popping popcorn for my utterly drenched and sun-soaked child, I marveled at my father's energy so many years ago. I wondered how many other then-kid, now-parent visitors were experiencing similar revelations -- probably around the same time they realized soap and water were no match for glitter tattoos.

And clearly, as an adult, I was no match for my dad's daring brand of fun and zeal. But he was inspiration as a parent to keep trying, keep driving, come hell or high water. As it would turn out, that would be my last summer to visit to the park with my father. He died of lymphoma just a few years later. Rounding the same bends as I did as a kid, my daughter's tube inevitably slips from my reach, and I tell her with all the assurance of 30 years before, "I'll see you on the other side."