July 4th Targeted for Park Opening : Wild Rivers Makes First Splash as Guests Test Swirling Waters

Times Staff Writer

John Dagley, waving his arms and tossing in a mischievous grin for effect, hopped onto an inner tube and pushed off into the rapids that were swirling along at 6,000 gallons a minute. At that rate, it took only seconds to twist and turn down the 450 feet of water slide, landing in a shallow wading pool.

Within a minute, Dagley, a 19-year-old Villa Park electrician, had climbed up 58 feet of stairs for another ride on the Congo River Rapids. Builders of Wild Rivers, a new amusement park scheduled to open in Irvine this week, hope the rapids ride will be the park's most thrilling attraction.

"It's great. This is the best ride out here," Dagley said. "It's pretty exhilarating."

Dagley, who worked on construction of the new water-theme park beginning last December, was one of about 1,000 special guests who tested the water slides Sunday.

And he couldn't resist the alluring water slides. "After working on them for so long, it's nice to be among the first to ride them," he said.

Wild Rivers is constructed on a portion of Lion Country, the wild animal park that closed in late 1984. Four slides and a lazy river that flows through the new park still must be given final inspections, and if no hitches are found, Wild Rivers could open for business in time for the Fourth of July weekend, owner Phil Drainey said.

"We're using today as a test for the system and so far everything is working fine," he said. "We'd like to have it ready in time for next weekend, and I think it will be ready."

Drainey heads a group of 35 investors forming American Sportsworld Inc. and The Splash Inc. The operators had hoped to open the park earlier, but the Irvine Co., owners of the land on which Lion Country operated, insisted that additional insurance coverage be obtained.

With that issue resolved last week, Sunday was scheduled to give invited guests an opportunity to informally inaugurate the park, said General Manager Greg Briggs.

The guests included family and friends of the investors and hundreds of workers who helped construct the $6-million park.

The park features seven fast water slides. The Congo River Rapids, the longest of the water slide rides, was the most popular Sunday. People were climbing back up almost as fast they made the 450-foot ride down.

"It's made to simulate an actual (swirling) river trough," Briggs said.

Most of the water slides have names alluding to Africa, such as the Cobras, Nairobi Express and Bombay Blasters. The reason is that the operators want "to keep the African look" that Lion Country--once called Lion Country Safari--had until it was closed, Briggs said.

The Bombay Blasters is the fastest slide. It's like being shot out of a cannon at about 40 m.p.h. It takes the rider on a very fast ride to a pond that is seven feet deep. The Nairobi Express provides the rider with a very dark, five-second ride at 30 m.p.h. through a tube, dumping him quickly into a pond.

Although most of the water slides are quick, Briggs said, all are deemed very safe. Two-inch, soft foam covers the tubing and slides for protection.

"And we also have a full-time water safety consultant on staff," Briggs said.

All the big water slides, however, are duplicated on another portion of the park for small children. Although the children's water slides are shaped identically to the ones for older children and adults, they are smaller and move slowly onto shallow ponds where lifeguards stand watch.

Other small ponds offer toddlers a chance to waddle around on plastic inflatable animal floats.

Briggs said that all 7,000 season passes the park offered have been sold and that he expects between 3,000 and 5,000 people to visit the water slides daily. The park will remain open until Oct. 12 and beginning next year will operate from mid-May to the October date.

Wild Rivers is the second theme facility to open in the county this summer. Earlier this month, Medieval Times began operations in Buena Park. Medieval Times offers patrons dinner and drinks and a show depicting jousting by 11th-Century knights.

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