IRVINE — Steve Copeland of Canyon Lake had just gone over The Ledge, a 350-foot spiraling black tube ending in a sheer drop that feels like tumbling over a waterfall.
Pulling himself up, he struggled to his feet in the narrow trough of crystalline water, adjusted his trunks and stumbled uncertainly toward the exit.
"It's quick coming down; you don't even feel like you're touching," beamed Copeland, 17.
That thrill--and the desire to avoid mobbed beaches, undertows and hot sand--draws up to half a million Orange County residents each summer to Wild Rivers, the county's only major water park--and a place that almost didn't get built.
Going on 10 years ago, when Dale Dawes and a group of investors opened the park at the former site of Lion Country Safari near Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, the climate didn't seem entirely propitious for a new water-oriented attraction.
* In the midst of California's interminable drought, area residents were being told to forgo watering their lawns and to place bricks in their toilets to save water.
* The powerful Irvine Co., owner of the land, filed a lawsuit to block the park, saying the property should be used for a less-permanent attraction, such as a golf driving range.
* Critics predicted that the proposed park, like its wild animal-oriented predecessor, would never be able to compete with Disneyland.
All those bridges were eventually crossed. By recycling water, the park was able to demonstrate that it could survive on relatively little of the stuff. The lawsuit ultimately failed. And today, Wild Rivers attracts 400,000 to 500,000 visitors a year, many of whom consider it the ultimate summer water activity and an alternative to the ocean.
"We were confident that Wild Rivers would succeed," said Dawes, 58, who operated a miniature golf course in San Bernardino before entering the water park business. "People love water. . . . We give them a chance to put their feet in the water and have a thrill too."
Indeed, the exhilaration seems to be what it's all about for most park visitors.
Mitzi Gates, 17, of Irvine said she likes coming with her friends. "It's awesome," the teen-ager said of the 15-acre park that seems to exist solely as a monument to the pleasures of H2O. "I like the excitement and the rush."
Copeland said he loves the long water slides, despite the fact that they can "kind of scratch your back" on the way down.
And Adam Ray, holder of a summer pass whose parents had dropped him off for the day, said visits to the water park have become a regular part of his summer. "It's like the beach but less crowded," the 12-year-old said.
Beginning on Memorial Day, when the park officially opens for the season, crowds of parents also spend their days basking in the sun there, or, in some cases, accompanying their kids on high-speed rides through long dark tunnels, white-water inner tubes down the gurgling rapids of man-made mountains or in a large surfing pool equipped with a wave machine.
Visitors harboring unresolved Indiana Jones fantasies may opt to go over Sweitzer Falls, a ride that pulls them down a steep waterfall and eventually dumps them three feet over the water.
And those interested in special effects will probably experience Chaos, an inner-tube ride slated to open later this summer to take people down a 350-foot corkscrew tunnel complete with simulated lightning, thunder and the sounds of crashing timber.
Because the park, patrolled by lifeguards, is generally considered safer than the ocean, some parents choose to leave their preteen and teen-age children there unattended.
"You can come here with your friends and have a blast," said 15-year-old Irvine resident Nicole Turner, one of the hundreds of youngsters milling about the park in bathing suits on a recent holiday.
Other parents come along for the ride, spending much of their time reclining on blankets or at picnic tables watching the action from the shady sidelines.
Kathleen Goldberg, 33, of Laguna Hills said she prefers it to the beach.
"It's easier to play in the waves here," she said. "It's clean, well-supervised and you don't have to worry about needles washing up on shore."
And Ed Griffith, a retired Irvine insurance agent in the park with a Mormon youth group, said he likes the ambience.
"It's wholesome and healthy," he said. "It's good, clean entertainment for the young people; you don't have to work at being entertained."
That image of wholesomeness was fractured somewhat two years ago when local police shut the park down for several hours following an all-night "battle of the bands" sponsored by an outside group that erupted into a fracas in which a man was pistol-whipped and a van set afire.
Since then, park officials say, things have settled down, resulting in a safety record of which they are proud.
"We're very family-oriented," said Dawes, who comes up with the concepts for many of the rides himself, then hires outside firms to design and produce them. "I'm going to build family rides from now on; rides that people can go on together."
That's likely to be good news for some and bad news for others.
"It gave me a headache," Fullerton resident Rebecca Jones, 21, complained recently after exiting The Ledge, the fast tunnel ride generally favored by youngsters and avoided by elders.
"It's scary," she said. "I think that's it for me today."