Despite the night-owl hours, kids wouldn’t sleep in the brand-new waterpark, located on Katy-Fort Bend Road next to Katy Mills Mall. Instead, they would stay awake by floating in the lazy river that’s as long as five football fields, careening down one of the waterpark’s futuristic water slides or nodding their heads to live Christian hip-hop.
Can You Hear Me Now?, a third-party group that has organized drama-free Christian events for years, capped the attendance at 3,000 folks, and sold 2,700 presale tickets at $25 and $28 apiece, or for somewhere between $67,500 and $75,600 in total sales. Folks from all over the Houston area, College Station, Huntsville and San Antonio, and even a family from Kansas City, Missouri, gobbled up tickets.
On the night of the heavily promoted event, parents and church shuttles dropped off ticket-holding kids, and then sprinted home to catch some sleep or a graveyard work shift. A few stayed to chaperone.
But when thousands more people clamored to get in, waterpark officials made the call to sell additional tickets, says Typhoon Texas spokesperson Bernard Kaplan. Though Kaplan says he wasn’t able to estimate the attendance figure or the number of security guards on hand — or to say whether the waterpark supplemented its in-house security staff with additional reinforcements once the attendance swelled — he insists the security presence was “adequate for the event.”
His assessment is contested by attendees interviewed by the Houston Press who want to know how drugs made it into the park if Typhoon Texas had it under control. And why thirty-something men, who weren’t chaperones or parents of the kids, were allowed to cram into the lazy river alongside barely clothed teens.
“There were grown men, college-age guys. Of course, the girls were in bathing suits. You had to be really cautious,” says 13-year-old Ireon Bradford, of Spring, who attended the lock-in with two of her friends and her minister father, Rickie Bradford. “There were little kids, like five-year-old kids, which was not appropriate because on the flyer it said ages 11 to 18.”
Lines were so long for the two concession stands that were actually open that attendees bought handfuls of vending-machine snacks to try to tide themselves over for the eight-hour event. When things started getting hectic, an overwhelmed, underpowered Typhoon Texas staff asked onstage performers to assist in securing the wave pool. Instead of keeping an eagle eye on the water, lifeguards were chasing around teenagers who had stolen their rescue devices.
At 1:30 a.m., citing violations of the park’s code of conduct — “not listening to lifeguards, rowdy roughhousing in the pool, pushing and shoving, just basic decorum,” says Kaplan — waterpark officials walked onstage, announced through the PA that the event was over and swiftly shooed everyone out of the park.
“They basically forced us out,” says Ireon Bradford. “Everyone was on the curbs and along the street trying to figure how they were going to get home. That was pretty hectic. I think it was more inconvenient to shut it down than to just let it go all night.”
According to witnesses, the waterpark didn’t seem to consider the exodus of unsupervised youth, some of whom wandered off into the night until a ride showed up five hours later around 6:30 a.m.
“That’s not true,” counters Kaplan. “They were asked to leave the park area, but they were allowed to stay at our entrance, where we had security, and wait for rides. Kids had the opportunity to stay in front of the park, which is lit.”
Asked if Typhoon Texas security or staff kept constant watch over those kids who had to wait until Saturday morning to get a ride home, Kaplan says, “I can’t address that. I don’t know.”
Typhoon Texas promised refunds to all ticket holders, but more than a month later, some folks haven’t even received a dime. Those who have scored a refund say they had to barrage the company’s phone or inbox for a reimbursement from the privately owned, $50 million waterpark.
In like vein, amusement parks and waterparks offer lock-ins for other groups, apparently without incident. Each year, Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio locks down the park overnight for graduating high-school seniors from around the Hill Country and South Texas.
The 2016 edition, in early June, featured DJs, dance areas and bottomless tickets to all the rides from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in the approximately 200-acre amusement park, which is seven times the size of Typhoon Texas. “It went off exactly as planned,” says Sydne Purvis, Fiesta Texas’s communications director.
Kaplan of Typhoon Texas says that Peggi Merkey, founder of the Cypress-based Can You Hear Me Now?, approached the waterpark about the overnight lock-in, which was meant to attract the religious and any potential converts who’d be willing to listen to a Christian message, says Rickie Bradford, who was hired by Merkey to perform at the lock-in. Merkey declined the Press’s interview request, and instead emailed a prepared statement that already exists on the group’s website. It wipes the organization’s hands clean of any wrongdoing. “All of us at Can You Hear Me Now? are disappointed that Typhoon Texas prematurely decided to close the waterpark without authorization of our organizers,” reads part of the statement.
Typhoon Texas, which entertained its first visitors over Memorial Day weekend, had been on a hurry-up schedule that enabled it to open after just nine months of construction. Not even the April 18 floods could thwart the waterpark’s expedited prairie-dirt-to-oasis construction schedule.
The rainbow-colored slides, including one that shoots riders through a trap door and into a sinuous water tunnel, can be seen from Interstate 10. Inside, there’s an oceanic, 25,000-gallon wave pool and a lazy river that’s measured in football fields instead of something normal like feet (because this is Texas). It’s also Texas to outfit a waterpark with a barbecue restaurant that smokes its own brisket on-site, which is something pitmasters perform each day at the Typhoon Lagoon.
The waterpark, a 43-acre site masterminded by Ray DeLaughter and Texas A&M University classmates Keith Dalton and Terry Hlavinka, is just one component of a greater commercial- and tourism-boosting campaign by Katy, known for Katy Mills Mall and its powerhouse high-school football team.
A $7.5 million, three-story, red-brick and white-columned city hall, built using tax revenue reserves, opened in downtown Katy in early June. The $150 million public-private Katy Boardwalk Project — complete with a pond, a convention center, a hotel, luxury loft living and an 89-acre nature park — is scheduled to break ground next year, and will be located catawampus to Typhoon Texas.
Rickie Bradford, who says he used to sling drugs in the Acres Homes neighborhood on the north side of Houston before reversing his fortunes as a born-again Christian, says an overnight Christian lock-in at a Houston-area waterpark isn’t out of the ordinary.
Bradford says that he has participated in two lock-in events that Merkey organized at Wet‘n’Wild SplashTown in Spring, and everything was inspirational for the 40-year-old Bradford, a youth minister at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church who also runs community outreach programs for at-risk youth under his Rickie Bradford Ministries.
But things started going wrong early that night at Typhoon Texas, he says.
“I saw the staff take rolls of tickets out of the booth, walk into the crowd and start selling tickets from the back of the line to the front of the line. They were selling them in the parking lot, too. They went above and beyond,” says Bradford, who’s also known as the Christian rapper II Crunk 4 Jesus. He never performed his set because Typhoon Texas pulled the plug on the event shortly after the first and only musical act finished up.
Parris Patrick, a pastor at Agape Community Bible Church, in Alief, says he sensed trouble before he and his group of 12 children made it through the gates.
“We immediately saw by the parking lot that it was well over 3,000 people, and it didn’t seem to be too Christian, just by looking at some of the outfits and language that was strewn around,” says Patrick, who has attended Christian-themed events for years at amusement parks, including a handful at the now-shuttered Six Flags AstroWorld, without dealing with upheaval.
Shortly after Patrick and his youth group were settled in the lazy river, he noticed “a large number of people jumping the fence to get in” unabated and unchallenged by park staff. “I didn’t see any security. The only security I saw was the Typhoon Texas staff,” says Patrick.
Around 12:30 p.m., about two hours into the event, throngs of humanity overwhelmed the lazy river. Patrick says that he saw open packages of synthetic weed and smelled marijuana, though he never witnessed anybody smoking pot.
Later, his 12-year-old daughter was caught in the middle of a scrum. “It was billed as an event for just school-age kids, [but] there were grown men there. One of the grown men decided that he was going to start pushing people and swinging, and my daughter got hit in that foray,” says Patrick. “She had a headache the next day.”
Patrick immediately pulled his group of 12 children out of the water. “The younger kids were very nervous and scared. They were wondering why would I bring them to an event like this. I had to explain to them that this isn’t what this is supposed to be. We all clustered together at the same table.”
Which raises the question: With warning signs like this, why didn’t some of these people leave long before the waterpark was shut down?
“We didn’t because we assumed [Typhoon Texas] was going to handle the situation,” says Patrick. “Our assumption is that they were going to start asking people for their proof of purchase, and if they didn’t have it, they would be told to leave.”
On the afternoon after the lock-in, Typhoon Texas issued a blame-shifting statement that critics say doesn’t own up to the waterpark’s aggressive attempt to get every person possible into the event.
“How I see it, the owners of the park let everyone in and that’s how it went from 3,000 to 6,000 people,” says Justin Milburn, a.k.a. Iam Justified, a Christian hip-hop artist and local high-school teacher who was also scheduled to perform at the lock-in. “It might have been a little bit of money hungriness going on because they wanted to get the people in. It probably would’ve been fine if they had more manpower.”
“This was not a capacity issue. This was not a security issue. This was a misconduct issue,” argues Kaplan of Typhoon Texas. “The safety of patrons in the park, whether they’re there as a family or with a group, is our top concern and it’s our top priority. Unfortunately, due to a small group of folks, a decision was made by the park to close down the event.”
Kaplan estimates the final attendance of the Christian lock-in at 4,500 on the high end. “I don’t recall exactly, but it’s far, far below the capacity of the park,” he says.
When asked for the waterpark’s maximum occupancy that’s permissible under the City of Katy fire code, Kaplan also didn’t have an answer, not even a ballpark figure.
“A waterpark doesn’t have a capacity like an airplane, because the crowd is always different. We’ve had crowds of 7,000, 8,000, and it can be above that,” says Kaplan. “It depends on the crowd that’s there. By that, I mean are there more kids? Are there more small children? Is it moms? What is the makeup and how are the rides used and which rides are being used? So there’s not a hard capacity number.”
Performers Rickie Bradford, Iam Justified and Austin Lanier say that despite the packed house, from the stage, which overlooks the park’s oversize wave pool, they didn’t see any serious mischief. For the most part, the musicians say, the kids were well-behaved.
That changed when park officials made the call to kick everyone out at 1:30 a.m.
“You had kids that were in a panic mode, saying, ‘Hey, I live in The Woodlands. My mom just dropped me off an hour ago and she’s not scheduled to pick me up until 6:30 in the morning and she’s not answering the phone. These people are pushing me out and I have nowhere to go.’ I saw kids acting out after that,” says Bradford.
“[Typhoon Texas staff] were asking us to do security,” adds Bradford. “I was like, ‘What? I’m an artist. You’re wanting me to clear the wave pool?’ I was like ‘no.’ They said, ‘Can you hold that gate down for me?’ I was like, ‘Huh? There’s a security guard sitting right here and he’s not doing anything. Why are you asking me?’”
Almost immediately following the event, a landslide of unsubstantiated, probably false claims were posted by persons unknown on Facebook and Twitter. Hysteria ruled the day, with everything from the supposed rape of a female lifeguard in the lazy river to the pummeling of two people inside the park and to a teenage mob looting the nearby 24-hour Walmart. (When the Press spoke to a shift manager at Walmart, he said that he had no idea who was working that night and suggested we contact the corporate communications office in Bentonville, Arkansas.)
The Katy Police Department, which has jurisdiction over the park, didn’t make any arrests or receive any calls for service related to the lock-in. Warner Preston, fire marshal and assistant fire chief with the Katy Fire Department, says he also didn’t field any calls from Typhoon Texas personnel or any of the event attendees.
When Bradford woke up Saturday morning, following a hectic night of arranging rides for displaced kids, he read news coverage that, to him, blamed the Christian rappers and Christian youth for inciting chaos. One report claims that kids tried to electrocute the rappers and DJs by splashing water onto music equipment. That wasn’t true, according to the onstage acts interviewed by the Press.
“I just felt like [Typhoon Texas] wasn’t used to a rap show. From an artist’s perspective, the crowd was the perfect crowd,” says Austin Lanier, a Christian hip-hop artist who also didn’t perform as planned. “You want people jumping up and down; you want people yelling and getting hyped. I think it was something that the waterpark had never seen before so they got a little worried and concerned.”
Lanier, along with Bradford and Iam Justified, recorded and released a rap song that’s critical of Typhoon Texas’s so-called lack of accountability. “We made a song clearing the Christians’ name and letting everyone know that it was Typhoon Texas’s fault for chasing the dollar,” says Bradford.
When lock-in attendees were shuttled out of the park, they were told to present their receipt in exchange for a free pass or a reimbursement, explains Kaplan. He wasn’t able to tell the Press how many people, as of mid-July, had requested and received a refund.
Some attendees, including Patrick, say they scratched and clawed for a refund. “I’ve heard from a few people that they’re not really communicating,” the pastor says. “It took me a bunch of emails before they responded to me.”
Iam Justified thinks that all would be forgiven if Typhoon Texas owned up to the possibility that the fledgling waterpark may have made some poor choices. “If they were real about it and said, ‘Hey, we’re a new company; we want to make sure we have a good reputation; we didn’t have enough manpower so we shut it down,’ I would understand,” he says. “It was going to be fun. I was so ready to rap at that.”
Shortly after Typhoon Texas announced the shutdown, Ireon Bradford, who’s going into the eighth grade this school year, nervously kept watch over her younger brother as the two struggled to get through the maze of charged-up people.
“Some people in the crowd looked suspicious and like they would hurt someone. All of the staff was behind us, pushing everyone to the front,” says Ireon, who adds, “I’ve been to one lock-in before, but it was more of a sleepover at an arcade. It was really fun. I was hoping that it would be like that at Typhoon Texas.”