Just when I thought I’d mastered the artificially created wave at Disney World’s Typhoon Lagoon, a 6-foot-high wall of chlorinated water slapped me back to my senses.
The ride had started promisingly. I’d listened for the massive toilet flush that signaled the next wave, then paddled a few strokes before jumping to my feet.
I crouched on my surfboard and dropped down the face of the fast-breaking swell for a couple seconds - so far, so good. A steep, smooth wall of water - the surfer’s idea of heaven - stretched in front of me.
Half a second later, so suddenly that I wasn’t sure what went wrong, I was careening out of control, unable to stay ahead of the breaking wave’s white water. I wiped out, but only after flailing my arms, clown-slipping-on-banana-peel style, in a frantic attempt to keep my balance.
So much for my visions of gracefully cross-stepping to the nose of my longboard while the rest of the state’s surfers were cursing a summer flat spell.
It wasn’t the first Typhoon Lagoon wave that humbled me, and I felt frustrated and miserable - the last emotions I’d have expected months earlier, when my friend Greg first told me he’d rented the wave pool as part of his bachelor party festivities.
Florida surfers suffer through far more flat spells than wave riders in California and Hawaii, so Disney’s 2.75 million-gallon tank, with its promise of perfect, uncrowded swells, exerts a certain allure.
Rocker Chris Isaak and baseball’s Ryan Klesko are among the celeb surfers who have rented the pool.
Typhoon Lagoon also exerts a special tug on our wallets - Disney charges $1,000 to $1,300 for 100 waves.
Boards are banned when Typhoon Lagoon is open to the public, so the only way to surf Disney is to pony up. Our group of seven guys shelled out $1,200 among us - $12 a wave - for the 5-8 a.m. slot July 4.
We arrived at a park that was pitch dark, save for a few spotlights. As we waxed our boards in the parking lot, Greg presented me with a piece of paper he said was a liability waiver. I was so bleary that, for all I know, I might have signed over my 401(k) to Michael Eisner.
It was my first trip to the park, and I was surprised to find that Typhoon Lagoon doesn’t resemble a pool so much as a massive tank. High walls loom on three sides, while one end opens onto a faux beach.
The tank is about 50 yards wide and 50 yards long, with a complex wave-making machine hidden behind a 30-foot wall at one end of the pool.
Disney makes its swells by packing water into a reservoir disguised by a pirate-themed wall. Computers control a dozen hydraulic chambers that force 300,000 gallons into the pool at once.
The wave forms in 9-foot-deep water near the highest wall, then proceeds through the high-walled tank into the shallows near the beach, where the swell loses power and size, then finally dies.
Ready, set, go
Getting in position to catch a wave means descending a dozen steps on the side of the pool, then paddling a few strokes toward the spot where the wave breaks.
Before the wave appears, the surface of the pool roils and bubbles. Then comes a huge hiss that sounds like placing a stethoscope on a toilet’s tank as it’s flushed.
I’d been warned that I’d miss my first wave, if only because trying to catch the wake of a giant toilet flush is so foreign.
In the ocean, a surfer spots a wave as it forms 40 or 50 yards away. At Typhoon Lagoon, you barely see the wave. You just wait for the hiss, then paddle like crazy.
Ideally, you catch the wave, ride it for 10 seconds or so to the beach, then walk along the edge of the pool to wait your turn to climb down the stairs for another wave.
I wasn’t ideal. I missed my first wave, then paddled to the beach and got out of the pool to wait for my second wave, which I also missed.
As I floated in the pool before my third attempt, I tried mental tricks to prepare myself. I scolded myself for botching this perfectly predictable peak, which - unlike a natural wave - breaks the same way every time. The hefty price tag also amplified the waste of every uncaught wave.
The result of my angry attempts at self-motivation? Bam! Smacked down by a hairy wall of water.
Next, I tried the Zen approach, relaxing my jaw and neck, letting my mind go blank. Pow! I took off too late to catch anything but a snootful of chlorine.
Desperate now, I visualized myself riding the wave all the way to the shallows, instead of being forced to sheepishly paddle in. Amazingly, this time I rode the wave its entire distance, though not as gracefully as in my pre-wave reverie.
The next wave didn’t go so smoothly. I caught the head-high swell and made a bottom turn only to realize - wham! - I didn’t have enough speed to get past the white water that was collapsing on my head.
My only consolation was that my friends were falling, too. Greg, who boasts a wall full of surfing trophies and a maddening ability to catch any wave that breaks near him, kooked out almost as often as I did.
I was about to write off the whole adventure as a disappointing fiasco, when things brightened. After our first 25 waves, the Typhoon Lagoon engineer made some adjustments, and suddenly I was catching waves easily.
My friends and I had started off the morning riding Typhoon Lagoon’s “center peaks,” so called because they break in the middle of the pool, letting one surfer careen right and the other hurtle to the left. Disney also makes “lefts” and “rights,” and no one had told me the center peaks are the gnarliest Typhoon Lagoon has to offer. These waves aren’t a warm welcome for a groggy newcomer to the pool.
Thankfully, the new breakers the reprogrammed computer offered us - called lefts because that’s the direction the surfer rides as he heads toward shore - crested on one side of the pool. This swell, which broke more slowly and gently, was far more user friendly. But the downside was that only one surfer could ride at a time.
I false-started at first. After getting used to the super-fast center peak, I got so far ahead of my first left that I lost all momentum and had to watch the wave roll the rest of the way to the beach.
I quickly gained confidence, though, dropping easily into the wave, cruising a little as the water walled, then climbing up the face of the swell to carve a turn, then another, before the wave fizzled.
My buddies started catching more waves, too, and the spirits of the group lightened as falls became less common.
That’s not to say Disney makes an easy wave. Dan, the novice in our group, continued to face-plant even on these gentler waves. He finally switched to a boogie board and found more success.
For a moderately skilled surfer, though, these waves were forgiving enough to catch every time, but fast and challenging enough to trigger an adrenaline buzz.
Typhoon Lagoon’s wave breaks every 2 minutes or so, and once I grew comfortable with the peak, I settled into a rhythm. Catch a wave, trudge through the shin-deep shallows, ponder the surreality of surfing in a theme park.
As a sport that lacks a time clock, referees or rule books, surfing attracts independent types, guys who’d rather brave banditos and federales in Baja than stand on line for It’s a Small World.
For your typical surfer, nirvana is an Indonesian vacation that involves sleeping in a mud hut, slapping away malaria-carrying mosquitoes, dodging poisonous sea serpents and catching hideously sick barrels that’ll snap your neck at the first misstep.
True to Disney form, Typhoon Lagoon imposes a list of rules on surfers, such as a ban on profanities. My friend Matt presented a lifeguard with a few CDs to play on the park’s sound system as we surfed.
The employee immediately began an interrogation about the CDs’ lyrics. The stereo turns off at the first sound of an expletive, he warned. The lifeguard’s vigilance was comical, considering that he and the other lifeguard were the only ones around at 5 a.m. to hear any naughty bits.
Other rules, like only one surfer per wave, make more sense. As anyone who’s ever attempted to surf Malibu on a sunny Saturday knows, nothing kills a good wave faster than having to dodge a dozen surfers trying to cut in front of you.
Disney’s antiseptic environment includes other perks, namely the lack of sea lice, jellyfish and sharks. Typhoon Lagoon’s most fearsome physical danger is its rough concrete bottom, which, after three hours, had shredded the soles of my feet and blunted the once-sharp tip of my board’s plastic fin.
That was a small price to pay for the guarantee of waves on a day when the Atlantic Ocean was a flat sheet of blue all the way to the horizon.
By the end of our 100-wave session, I was catching even the once-dreaded center peaks, and my earlier funk was long forgotten.
My friend Ken summed it up as we pulled out of the parking lot.
“We caught the only waves in the whole state today,” he said, an adrenaline-happy smile pasted on his face.
To surf Typhoon Lagoon, call (407) 939-7873. The wave pool is available before or after the park’s regular hours, which vary by season. Prices range from $1,000 to $1,300 for 100 waves. Weekday mornings are the cheapest, weekend evenings the most expensive.
IF YOU GO
Disney also offers surf lessons at Typhoon Lagoon. Two-and-a-half-hour classes are offered at 6:30 a.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Cost is $125 a person. Classes are open to anyone 9 or older. To book a lesson, call (407) 939-7529.
This story originally was published in 2002.