A cluster of bronzed young boys floated on bodyboards in Hurricane Harbor, eager for the lifeguard to activate the wave pool. Many of them had paid $23 and waited half an hour to spend just nine minutes riding the 2-foot mechanically generated crests at Irvine's Wild Rivers Waterpark.
Why a virtual beach when a real one is nearby?
"There are better waves at the beach, but it's more accessible here," said Chase Paddack, dripping and winded from the pool. Paddack lives five minutes away in Lake Forest and, at 14 and too young to drive, it is easier for his parents to drop him off at the water park than to find a ride to the ocean.
"You always know what kind of wave you're gonna get," said Kip Shipley, 32, who drove to the 15-acre park from Temecula. "It's the same over and over, so people [like me] that aren't as good on the Boogie boards, it's a lot easier." Besides, his wife, Michelle, 30, doesn't like sand.
G. Alexander Moore, chairman of USC's anthropology department, said water parks' popularity has a lot to do with location and convenience.
Yet, "people like Jean Baudrillard [the postmodern philosopher] claim that American life has been taken over by nonreality--that the nonreal has become real for Americans," Moore said.
"I think there's some truth to that, although he tends to exaggerate . . . that because people grew up with TV and grew up with multimedia, they find it difficult to differentiate between the authentic and the imitation."
Twenty years ago, water parks did not even exist. Now, there are more than 100 major ones, five in Southern California, and 48 million Americans, or 20% of the population, visited them last year.
Greg Briggs, Wild Rivers' general manager, wouldn't disclose park attendance but said the park often meets or nears its 8,000-visitor capacity.
By comparison, San Clemente beach, just 20 minutes away, has about 13,000 visitors on an average summer weekend day.
Diana Canty, 34, of Rancho Santa Margarita, said she takes her two sons to the beach about once every three weeks. But, she added, "it seems like such a chore to go. It's really hard to get there, find parking and then drag everything a million miles down the hill."
Canty recently purchased a $199 season pass for her family and plans to come to Wild Rivers at least once a week.
"They have food here. You don't have to pack a big ol' cooler."
And there are the rides. A pair of 9-year-old girls with matching pink bikinis and braces spent hours testing nearly every slide, floating through the Abyss and racing on the Bombay Blasters--a pair of tubular, underground slides that spat them out into a shallow pool.
Still, not everyone is a fan. Michelle Grover, 15, came to the park often as a child, but now that she's older and an employee, she'd rather be at the beach. The park uniform of khaki shorts and a blue polo "is not getting me a good tan," the Mission Viejo girl complained.
Besides, "there are hotter guys there," she added. "Most guys who come here are not 15 or 16. They're younger or else they're really old. Like 25."