Reporter's Notebook: A not-so-lazy river journey at Wild Rivers

IRVINE — It only took three laps.

Three laps around the Safari River to witness the full gamut of humanity. Three laps to see at least three instances of rule-breaking, two acts of rudeness, and one act of heroism.

But first, the setup.

Earlier this summer, I spent $700 at a "discount" tire store to get free Wild Rivers tickets, as well as a host of other ticketed goodies.

I was quite excited to use my tickets, especially because Southern California's beloved waterpark is set to close because the Irvine Co. has decided the area hosting slippery slides and sunscreen-filled fun is better for apartments instead.

Memories of my youth at this Orange County destination flooded back to me as I drove toward the Irvine Center Drive exit.

I remembered how water splashed in your face while sliding down The Cobras, and how scary The Edge and The Ledge were (which is why I never went on them). Then there was Chaos — an infamously bad slide that got heavily promoted prior to its opening.

The street that pulls into Wild Rivers is called Lion Country. I surmised it was dutifully named because Lion Country Safari used to be there.

But in an equal act of reverence, will Lion Country be renamed Wild Rivers Road?

Only time will tell.

After waiting in line for tickets and a stroll through the semi-iconic, two-boned archway of an entrance, we were in.

In our first few hours, fun was had on many slides, like the darkness of The Abyss and the bumpy jolts of "being shot out of a cannon" at Bombay Blasters.

But our jokes of how employees here probably don't care anymore, considering the place is closing, seemed all too true — at least when it comes to maintenance.

There were the off-colored signs, enduring years of no touch ups and discoloring sunlight. The closed slides. The dated look.

Eventually we got to the finale of our Wild Rivers day: a relaxing trip down the Safari River.

Little did we know what would become the most chaotic episode of our journey down this not-so-lazy river.

Maybe it was because it was a Saturday. Maybe it was because the park was about to close, so everyone wanted their last hoorah there. Or maybe it was because so many others bought tires and earned free tickets.

Whatever the reason, that river was full. And as much as I wanted to relax and watch this fun corner of O.C. go by me, I was usually under some minor form of duress. My three laps were aboard a double inner tube, my body in one of the two holes, my butt halfway in the water, my two legs sticking awkwardly outward.

More than once did small children swim curiously under me in efforts to race by. More than once did I raise my legs above people's heads in a polite move to avoid hitting them. More than once did I sense the upcoming danger of hitting the side wall.

And more than once did our tube hit others who were unsuspecting of the torrents of passerby river folk coming at them.

Watching us all on our Safari River rides were the lifeguards, who I found curiously recruited from the same stock.

They were nearly all girls, blonde, weighing in at between 92 and 97 pounds, and looking 16 years old.

I found their capabilities to rescue distressed swimmers questionable.

I do know they didn't seem to care much for enforcing the rules. A couple of rowdy dads and their sons — the "three instances of rule-breaking" I mentioned earlier — were having a great time at the expense of the Don't Leave the River Unless at a Designated Exit rule.

The dads picked their sons out of the water, placed them at the concrete edge and let them merrily jump back in.

Innocent enough, I guess. Not the worst rule of the Safari River to break.

But onto the two acts of rudeness, one of them downright racist.

First, there was the hollering of the "bros" of the river.

Seeking attention, they tried to convince one of the 95-pound blonde lifeguards into jumping into their watery circle — but to no avail. They pushed through the water and around the innocent bystanders, who were like the grasses being trampled by these gazelles racing across the African plain.

One of them, who was floating upstream ahead of his pack, told me they were all from a high school football team. They had me fooled. Minutes earlier I could've swore they were frat boys.

They were the wildest animals I could see on this moving jungle safari. And definitely the rudest.

But not as rude as one woman. She splashed one of them, a muscular black teenager.

As if that weren't stupid enough, I could've sworn after the splashing she bragged to her friend the reason for doing it: "Black people don't like water."

I don't think the young man heard the bigoted remark. He was probably too concerned looking back at his friends. They were getting kicked out of the lazy river. Finally.

A "hero" — as much of one as I could find that day — with white marks on his face because he hadn't yet rubbed in his sunscreen was complaining to an alpha male lifeguard: "You gotta deal with those guys. They're being really rowdy. And there are 5- and 6-year-old kids around here!"

So Alpha blew his whistle and pointed to the pack. He was like a zookeeper scolding the misbehaving elephants.

"You guys: Out of the river!" he commanded.

Dazed and confused, the boys reluctantly left the wet sanctuary of the water on that hot Saturday afternoon — probably to go make trouble elsewhere.

Our third lap completed, we got out not long after.

At a proper exit.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot. He can be reached at bradley.zint@latimes.com.

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