Halfway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, off a desolate stretch of Interstate 15, rows of palm trees, peach stucco buildings and ’50s-themed billboards rise from the Mojave Desert. On the hill behind them are scattered staircases that lead to nowhere and a water tower painted like a Coca-Cola can, to attract a sponsor that never came.
With three names and four owners over the last 50 years, this water park in the middle of nowhere has been plagued by bankruptcies, allegations of embezzlement and a tragedy that left a former employee paralyzed.
Tomas MuscionicoA hillside once filled with water slides now sits abandoned at the former site of Lake Dolores.
But Lake Dolores, as it was originally named, also holds fond memories for countless people now meeting up on Facebook to reminisce about the fun they had at what was arguably the first water park in America.
“Mr. Byers was way ahead of his time,” says Rue Blackwood, who grew up going to the park as a close friend of John “Bob” Byers’ granddaughter Penny. “Without him creating Lake Dolores … Raging Waters [the largest water park in California] would have never been what it is today—or any water-slide park for that matter.”
Byers and his wife, Dolores, started adding slides and a rope swing to the lake on their Newberry Springs, Calif., ranch just east of Barstow in the ’50s, opening a public campground on the property in 1962.
“I don’t think you can compare it with the water parks of today,” says Rick Jaeger, a Big Bear, Calif., resident who took his children camping at Lake Dolores some 25 years ago after passing the resort a dozen times on the way to Las Vegas.
With a stand-up steel slide few could master and a zip line that carried riders high above the desert before finally reaching the water, Jaeger says he surprisingly never saw anyone get hurt.
“My kids loved it,” he says. “They had a ball.”
But, as family-friendly Vegas flourished and Wet ’n Wild opened on the Strip in 1985, business declined and the Byers family shut down Lake Dolores in 1988. Then, in 1990, along came Terry Christensen, a former Marine and general contractor who’d built four water parks for other people and decided it was time for his own.
“He wanted to develop it into a more modern water park,” says Spike Lynch, who helped Christensen reinvent the park and has become its unofficial caretaker.
After eight years of planning and struggling to put together funding, Christensen opened Rock-A-Hoola in the summer of 1998, with a commercial touting “the refreshing oasis that is the all-new Lake Dolores resort and Rock-A-Hoola water park.”
In June 1999 the park hosted the Electric Daisy Carnival, which was expected to attract 5,000 people but ended up welcoming an estimated 10,000.
A month later, promoters hoped to follow in EDC’s footsteps and hold the Nocturnal Wonderland concert at Rock-A-Hoola. Organizers were counting on 20,000 people when San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors denied their permit.
That same year tragedy struck Rock-A-Hoola when 23-year-old employee Jimmy Mason was paralyzed after riding a slide during off-hours without letting enough water flow to the pool below. Christensen also lost a high-profile lawsuit in 1999, charging a former local news anchor with fraud in an investment deal. But after being open for just two fairly busy seasons, Christensen, who died in January 2009, was forced to close the park.
Crossing a bridge that spanned his friend’s lazy river—now littered with broken plastic chairs and decaying palm fronds—Lynch remembers how Christensen would let local seniors get some free exercise walking in the river before the park opened.
“The problem is that the park was never designed to be a stand-alone water park,” he says.
Christensen’s vision was a 1,000-space RV park adjacent to Rock-A-Hoola with a motocross track, tennis courts and driving range. But Christensen, having accumulated a reported $3 million in debt trying to make that vision happen, filed bankruptcy and the property went back to Dolores Byers in 2001.
A few months later, Byers sold the property to a City of Industry couple, with Christensen staying on as manager. The park reopened in 2002 as Discovery Water Park, closing for good in 2004.
There’s been no shortage of grandiose plans to revive Lake Dolores, with one investor plotting indoor ski slopes, and former Olympic gold medalist and Los Angeles Rams receiver Ron Brown once hoping to build a camp for foster youth.
A Nevada LLC and two Los Angeles developers purchased the property in January 2008, but the group filed bankruptcy in February 2009. Then in October, the group received a desist and refrain order from the state of California for illegally selling investment contracts for Newberry Springs Estates, a 1,400-lot senior housing community that was Christensen’s last vision for the park.
The park’s new owners had already sealed a deal to sell its slides and stave off foreclosure long before MTV’s Rob and Big stopped by. The story line for the reality show had skateboarder Rob Dyrdek and his pals sneaking into the park on their way to Vegas, but Lynch says the show’s team called ahead and verified insurance coverage before Dyrdek slid his board along the ridge of the Big Bopper slide.
“They got lucky, because two weeks later the slides came out,” Lynch says.
“We took half of that water park,” says Paul Larson, manager of Cultus Lake Waterpark in British Columbia.
The park’s appearance does make it a prime backdrop for apocalyptic-loving Hollywood. In early June, film students shot a zombie flick there. And when producers wanted a “spooky” theme for an upcoming episode of Holly’s World, they “crashed” the park on their way to a haunted Vegas hotel. Lynch played his part, telling star Holly Madison a tale about the park being built on a cursed Indian burial ground.
It was curiosity that drew Los Angeles-based filmmaker Dawn Fields to investigate Lake Dolores, but it was people such as the Byers and Christensen who made it the subject of her next documentary, Slippin’ and Slidin’: A Water Park’s Tale, which is tentatively scheduled for release later this year.
“There are people who put blood, sweat, heart and soul into this property,” Fields says. “People who’ve told me about losing their virginity there, growing up there, getting banged up there. …”
Fields aims to have her project finished in the next few months, but is looking for fans to share memories of the park at waterparkmovie.com.
“To me it’s just tragic that the property didn’t work,” Fields says, “because I think that the intention was good to give people a place to stay cool, get wet, get some relief from the heat and have some fun.”