Film showcases shuttered Palm Springs Wet 'n' Wild as 'skateboarder's dream'
For a pro skateboarder like Chris Gregson, it was a temptation too great to pass up: Palm Springs' Wet 'n' Wild water park had shut down. Its technicolor-hued water slides and lazy river were bone dry.
Always on the lookout for new places and obstacles to skate, Gregson and some compatriots hopped the barbed-wire fence in January and began rolling around the park on Gene Autry Trail — it was the perfect playground to explore on wheels.
Twenty minutes into their adventure, a man confronted them, yelling.
"Instant first thought is, 'I'm going to jail,'" said Gregson, 28, of San Diego — who did not wind up in the slammer.
What did happen, though, added a new facet to the Coachella Valley's significant place in the history of California's homegrown sport.
The yelling man turned out to be an investor from Pono Acquisition Partners, which purchased the water park in order to transform it into a surf park, the Palm Springs Surf Club.
The investor contacted another investor, surfer Cheyne Magnusson, a star of the MTV reality show “Maui Fever” and the son of professional skateboarder Tony Magnusson. When Cheyne Magnusson learned who was on the property and they were professionals, Magnusson invited them back — if legalities could be worked out.
“Chris hit us back and said, ‘We don’t just want to come back, but we want this to be a full feature" in Thrasher Magazine, a skateboarding publication, Cheyne Magnusson said.
"We talked to them for awhile and they made sure it was all good to let us skate," Gregson said. "They said, 'Ok, you have one week here, let's make it happen.' We and two of the filmmakers stayed (in Palm Springs) and had different groups of skaters come in each day."
The result? A nine-minute video, shot in June, featuring pro skateboarders Gregson, Omar Hassan, Tony Hawk and others blunt siding and nose grinding the rails of the slides and railings in the park, landing manuals into the wave pool, and doing loops in the Pacific Spin slide.
"It's every skateboarder's dream to skateboard in a water park, if you've ever been to one," Gregson said.
The video, titled "High 'N' Dry," captures many of the skaters, including Hawk and his son Riley, skateboarding inside the six-story pink and yellow funnel that used to be part of the Pacific Spin.
Jamo Willis of Pono Acquisition Partners said he considered it a historic moment for the property.
“It’s the first time anyone skated in that funnel and watching the skaters being so excited to be there is something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” Willis said.
The 18-acre Wet 'n' Wild opened in 1986 as the Oasis Water Park. Over its 30-plus year history, it had 20 attractions, and more than 200,000 guests went to the park during the summer season.
In 2001, it was acquired by Cedar Fair and became Knott's Soak City. In 2013, CNL Lifestyle Properties acquired it and renamed it Wet 'n Wild. It closed after the 2018 season and was bought by Pono.
The Pacific Spin was made by ProSlide, a Canadian manufacturer of water rides. There are almost 100 installed around the world.
Hawk is shown at the beginning of the video attempting to go upside down in the funnel's loop and falling into the bottom, but he succeeds in another attempt.
"I've seen videos of people skating in that same kind of water slide, and I was always intrigued by it. It looks so unique," Hawk told The Desert Sun. "That whole concept of doing loops and going upside down takes a lot less effort than you think; it's just holding the right position."
The Palm Springs Surf Club won't include the Pacific Spin when it opens in 2020.
Magnusson and Willis said they don't know what will happen with it once it's removed from the property. "We heard a rumor that a guy wants to buy it and throw it up somewhere just for people to skateboard in," Magnusson said.
Plans call for the surf club to include a large wave pool, restaurants, bars, a yoga studio and spa facilities.
Skateboarding grew out of the California surfer culture in the 1960s, and by the end of the Carter administration had captured the imagination of desert youth.
In the late 1970s, there was a toy store on Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs called The Fun Factory that had a small section for skateboarding equipment. But teens wanted more.
Myke Bates, a student at Palm Springs High School at the time, said that the only real retailers for skateboarding equipment were in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and San Diego. In 1978, he opened Bates Skates near Palm Canyon and Alejo Road, with the help of his parents.
“Back in those days, they had something called ‘work experience’ and working or having a business could be counted towards school credits,” Bates said. “I would leave school and open the store right before school was out.”
Skateboarders weren't the only ones moving along downtown sidewalks.
In those days, roller skating was also popular and Bates Skates rented roller skates to tourists and locals who wanted to skate up and down Palm Canyon.
The Palm Springs City Council and other business owners voiced complaints. And, according to Bates, skateboarders soon began having regular interactions with Palm Springs police.
“They would give tickets, or if you were underage and out skateboarding after curfew, you were getting arrested,” Bates said. “We felt picked on. Everybody was able to ride their bikes, push their strollers, and clog up the street with foot traffic. If we rolled down the street on a skateboard, they didn’t like it.”
Bates Skates also had an influence on the local music scene. Paul Mitchell, of the defunct local desert rock band Target 13, said that it was a place to discover new music and meet other musicians.
“All the punk rockers from the Coachella Valley hung out at Bates Skates. (Myke) played all the new records from Los Angeles you couldn’t get out here, like Dead Kennedys and Plasmatics,” Mitchell said. “If you wanted your tartan gear or punk rock clothing, that was the spot. It was a cool place to hang out.”
By 1982, the popularity of skateboarding was declining and Bates closed the shop, leaving Palm Springs for Orange County to attend college. He now works in the film industry as a property master.
“I closed it down because there wasn’t anyone to pass it on to," Bates said. "Everybody stopped skateboarding and became musicians."
Bates Skates isn't the only touchstone in desert skateboard history. At the site of the former Desert Gardens Ranch nudist colony at the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains in Desert Hot Springs, there’s an empty pool known as the Nude Bowl.
After Desert Gardens Ranch shuttered in 1980, pro skateboarder Eddie "El Gato" Elguera of Palm Desert heard about the pool from a friend who lived in Beaumont, who found out about it from friends who rode motorcycles.
The pool was full of old motorcycle frames, palm tree stumps and water. He and his friends cleared it out to skate in it, and made an unnerving discovery.
“There was an abandoned clubhouse above the pool, and people were going up there to shoot guns and shot down at the pool and there were bullet holes in it,” Elguera recalled.
Other skateboarders heard about the pool and tried to keep the location secret, but more skateboarders, punk rockers, and misfits made their way to the Nude Bowl after it appeared in photos in skateboarding magazines and videos. In the 1990s, desert rock bands were playing generator parties there.
After events like a fire in 1990s that originated near the Nude Bowl threatened homes in Desert Hot Springs, and a party in 1999 that ended with a man stabbing four people, Desert Hot Springs sent a bulldozer to fill in the pool.
In 2015, professional skateboarder and Palm Springs resident Jeremiah Risk visited the location with a shovel and discovered the pool had not been entirely lost. He rented a backhoe and was surprised when all the dirt was removed.
"It was pristine," Risk said. "It looked the same as it did 15 years earlier."
The Nude Bowl has not been filled back in, and skaters make pilgrimages to skate it. Risk said that the popularity of the Nude Bowl is greater around the world than in the Coachella Valley and he has met skateboarders from as far away as Japan who have been there.
A replica of the Nude Bowl was incorporated into the Palm Springs Skate Park, which opened in 2003.
From 2015 to 2018, Elguera, who is still a pro skateboarder at 56, hosted the El Gato Classic at the Palm Springs Skate Park. Among those who participated in the January event were legends including Hawk, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill, Steve Olson and Lance Mountain many of whom are in their 40s and 50s.
Elguera said he took a year off in 2019 and hopes to revive the event at the upcoming X Park in La Quinta, a new 40,000 square-foot skate park expected to open in 2020.
"People from all over the world ask me, 'Are you going to have it again? I want to go to it.' I met this guy in Sweden who wrote about it for a paper there," Elguera said.
The legends could be seen at the El Gato skating in the Nude Bowl replica. Hawk brought a vertical ramp where legends did a demo.
The slogan of the event was "Honoring the Past, Championing the Future." Elguera said he wanted to honor the pioneers of the sport and inspire younger skateboarders who have opportunities in a sport that's now a multi-billion dollar industry and will make its debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
"In a time of history when it was grassroots and breaking ground, there wasn't a lot of recognition," Elguera said. "I wanted to honor these guys. Today, you see what these young guys are doing, how much money they're making, traveling the world, and if it wasn't for these older guys, it started with this era and this group of people."
Desert Sun reporter Brian Blueskye covers arts and entertainment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (760) 778-4617.