Surf’s up! Catch some killer waves in Waco this summer

Water park is helping make Central Texas a California surfer’s dream.

By Amanda Kari McHughJuly 21, 2023 12:32 pm,

It’s the height of the summer season, and that can only mean one thing: good times spent at the beach.

Texas has more than 350 miles of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the best-known surfing towns are Galveston, Corpus Christi, Port Aransas, South Padre Island and Waco. 

Yes, that’s right: Waco, Texas.

Imagine you’re sitting on a beach, underneath a cabana, facing a view of turquoise waves and just beyond the break… you see longhorns grazing in the pasture. Well, that’s what it’s like to vacation at Waco Surf park. Amongst surfing professionals and enthusiasts alike, the park is known as having some of the best waves in the world. This is made possible by a technology called PerfectSwell, which is able to consistently produce all different types of waves.

The park has attracted surfers from places like Hawaii, Florida and most noticeably, California. 

Ben Rowen has been diving into the story behind the water park for Texas Monthly and joined the Standard to discuss. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I understand you’ve noticed a swell of Californians descending upon Waco. Tell us why.

Ben Rowen: Okay, so early during the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom shut down beaches in California to limit the spread of the coronavirus. And also early in the pandemic, a surf park in Waco – with an artificial wave that surfers from around the world swear feels exactly like the ocean – it had been open for a few years, but it reopened to the public early on in the pandemic and a bunch of Californians who were eager to surf started coming to Waco. 

I understand this place is called “Waco Surf” park. Have you been down there? 

I’ve been a few times now. I thought I was going to go once, but I went and surfed it and it was incredible.

The ability to get the same wave over and over again is really helpful when you’re learning how to surf. A few pro surfers also told me it’s really helpful when you’re trying to land a new trick and you just go out in the water, you don’t have to fight for waves. You get about 12 to 15 in an hour and it is so fun and so great to learn how to surf. 

I know you’re based in Austin, Ben. What got you onto this story in the first place?

So I moved to Austin right before the pandemic hit. And I come from California and some of my Californian friends started talking about it and how they really wanted to come to Waco to surf. That blew my mind.

What little I knew of Waco at the time was that it was landlocked. I had an image of it, you know, from the Waco siege, as this deeply conservative part of Texas; which is true to this day, but just also fascinating how welcoming they are of all these international surfers.

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The article does focus a lot on outsiders coming to Waco to experience this park. What about locals? I mean, do Texans take advantage of this park, as well? 

Yeah, so there are two parts of the park. There is a wave pool, which draws maybe 70% of the folks who surf there – out-of-staters. And then there’s a waterpark with slides and cable skiing and that is about 90% Texans. 

And just to be clear, there are Gulf Coast surfers here in Texas, there’s a contingent there. But something about the wind can sort of throw you off? 

The waves are a little kinked and unreliable.

I talked to one Gulf Coast surfer who was talking about how difficult it is to train there. Sort of the experience of surfing anywhere, even in the best locations in the world, is you wait for a wave and sometimes you are chasing waves; you’re driving three hours. You’ll be out in the water waiting for a set to come in for 45 minutes just to catch a wave.

What the artificial wave Waco offers is the same exact wave every single time. 

Are they big enough to actually surf on though? I’ve been to other water parks where they’ve had wave machines and they have not seemed surf-worthy. 

That’s definitely true of most wave pools.

This one you can get head high waves. You can get barreled, which is when the water falls over your head as you surf through the pipe.

When the park debuted this new technology in 2018, a lot of the surf community was really dubious of the viability of it. But they came and sort of immediately were impressed by this wave and it spread by word of mouth and became an Instagram sensation.

It’s certainly a thing in Texas culture right now, and that’s the sort of riffing on the large number of Californians who’ve come to Texas. How do Waco locals seem to be responding to all these Californians and others coming in to experience the surf? 

That’s a really interesting question because the difference between the response to Californians coming in and buying property, which is obviously making things much more expensive in Texas, is one thing. But to the surfers, they’re incredibly welcoming – glad about the surf park.

I talked to one business owner who said that he’ll see some people with bleached hair, which surprises him. But other than that, he’s got business coming in from surfers who were coming to town. And I talked to some people on county government – city government – who said that they love the place. They are thrilled to be able to surf without traveling 250 miles to the ocean. 

I’m thinking there may be other places that could take advantage of surf tourism, if this kind of technology is now available. Is that something that’s crossed your mind? 

It has. So the company that built this wave machine, American Wave Machine, also has the technology in a spot in New Jersey, in Brazil and in Japan. So, I think more and more of these parks will pop up, but there’s something really interesting about the Waco location.

On top of just being the first in the space that appeals to surfers, it’s fun to go to Central Texas and surf and to see a longhorn grazing at the end of your break. It’s pretty incredible.

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