Thursday, May 23, 2013

Indianapolis' Thunder Island



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- The murky waters of Thunder Island. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

Let's pretend it's the summer of 1993. In the rear view mirror, the Indianapolis skyline centered by the recently completed Bank One Center disappears as the car trudges down US 31. Baltimora's re-released 80s single 'Tarzan Boy' is blasting from the radio as the automobile hooks a left into the parking lot of Thunder Island. Finally, he made it to the local water park - this is the life that 'Saved By the Bell' portrayed. Girls in 'Bay Watch' style bikinis, amusement park junk food and oiled up dudes braving the water slides. It's a summer he recalls fondly, this hypothetical man in a stereotypical and fictional narrative of 90s nostalgia. The memories stick with him as he peers out of the window by his office cubicle, gazing across the highway towards the woods that now hide the remains of those radical summers. Twenty years older, the office is where he spends his summers now. As he puts the memories away and returns to his desk, a car pulls into the office lot. Not new clients or potential sales, but two people in search of the same water park - two explorers from Cincinnati.



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- Exploring Thunder Island. Photograph by Cameron Knight.

I was born in 89. I guess you could technically classify me as a '90s kid' given that the early years of my life were spent watching Ninja Turtles and wearing L.A. Gears. During the last decade of the 20th century, my summers depended on my mom taking us to cool places. We had Surf Cincinnati passes and when that closed we had Kings Island passes. In America at that time, community pools were falling to the wayside. Who needed them when you had the waterpark? 

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- A typical 1990s waterpark as seen in the Disney 'classic,' "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid."

Surf Cincinnati in particular holds a special place in my heart. I loved it as a kid, and when it was eventually closed and abandoned - it became the first place I explored and shot as a photographer. Kings Island's water park was cool too, but as a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do was expose my pasty white skin and results of a poor diet to the people around me. I eventually worked at the island for eight seasons, albeit as a manager on the dry side of the park. The only time I visited the water park was to meet up with my boss. I loathed those trips outside of my usual work space, sweating in cheap khaki pants, a faux denim shirt and a company logo emblazoned tie as the guests around me enjoyed the cooling water. These days, I'm not a visitor to waterparks. I don't find taking a bath with complete strangers appealing, sun screen smells terrible and enclosed slides scare the hell out of me, but I'll make an exception to visit one when it's abandoned.

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- Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

We heard about Thunder Island after receiving a tip from a reader (shout out to Quinn, thanks man!). After the Frisch's breakfast bar, we made the two hour journey to the northern Indianapolis suburb of Westfield. We couldn't find the park, even though Google maps said we were in the right place. After passing by the area for the third time, we saw what appeared to be the old entrance. We parked the car at a nearby office, walked up to the state highway, ran to the median when it was clear and crossed the opposite direction. You'd have to know what you were looking for in order to find Thunder Island, there's not much you can see from the road.

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- Thunder Island's abandoned entrance. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

We ducked into the woods, pushed our way through the brush and came out through a clearing. Instead of the sounds of waves, park goers and "Tarzan Boy," the only thing you hear on the grounds of Thunder Island are the birds, the highway and the sound of a nearby farmer tending his field with a combine. Ahead of us was a shack that looked like some sort of cabin. Beneath the weeds were well faded mini golf greens and bricks leading to the putt-putt holes.

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- The cabin in the island's woods. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

We pushed through the woods some more, eventually finding nature slowly taking over the old parking lot.

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- What remains of the parking lot. Photograph by Cameron Knight.


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- Faded parking lot lines. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

Pads of concrete and debris gave clue to old buildings.

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- Building foundation. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.


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- Debris. Photograph by Cameron Knight.

And then came the pools. If it wasn't for the cement, perfectly squared shape and paint - you'd think these bodies of water were actually real ponds, not remnants of human construction.

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- Photograph by Cameron Knight.

Despite the lack of humanity that once flooded this park in the summers, there's still many living things. The birds constantly chirp in the trees, spiders infest the old filters near the pools and frogs jump into the human made ponds when you get too close.

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Photograph by Cameron Knight.

And then there's the creatures - tadpoles I assume, but I've never seen tadpoles this big:

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- Mutant sea creatures? Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

Given the amount of wildlife and brush, I made sure Cam was up to date on the "snake policy." The "snake policy" is a rule I have when exploring any abandoned place. No matter how much we joke around, you don't joke about snakes. If you see one, you need to inform me in a polite, calm manner so that I can escape. I hate snakes. More. Than. Anything.

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- The dock. Photograph by Cameron Knight.

There wasn't much left of Thunder Island when we were there. In the day and age we live in now, waterparks are typically found at corporate backed theme parks or feature ultra high-tech attractions. It was hard to judge what a lot of the attractions here once were. One of the pools had piers and a piece of a now rotting wooden dock. We assumed it once lined the whole thing, with a fountain in the middle.

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- Dock piers. Photograph by Cameron Knight.

The United States of America has the largest collection of waterparks in any nation. That boom began in the 70's at Disney (there's a fascinating read on Disney's abandoned water park here). I assume Thunder Island was a result of that 1970's water park trend as an article archived from the Indianapolis Star claimed the park was 19 years old in 1995, making its opening some time in 76.

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- Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

Information about Thunder Island is hard to come by though. I haven't been able to find any photographs of when it was still operating, hardly any mention of its history, but there's a little bit on why it closed. One internet blogger claims his uncle owned it, some kid met an untimely end on one of the slides and the resulting lawsuit closed things down. Another Indianapolis Star article points to bankruptcy. I'm inclined to go with the article over urban legend.

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- The L-shaped pool. Photograph by Cameron Knight.

Apparently one of the park's former owner, Mike Maio, filed a personal bankruptcy after being fined by the Securities and Exchange Commission for insider trading. After receiving a $1.6 Million fine, he filed the park for bankruptcy in September of 1994. A July 1995 article mentions the bankruptcy proceedings, but doesn't state if the park ever reopened. Judging by the land's current condition - I'd say it never did. Exactly when though is still an unsolved question.

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Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

Towards the back of the park was a large, L-shaped pool. How deep it was, we had no idea. The water is too murky and even in the areas you can see down, there's too much vegetation growing down there to see the bottom.

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Photograph by Cameron Knight.


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Photograph by Cameron Knight.

One the rest of the grounds are smaller, round pools - ghosts of attractions that are long gone.

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Photograph by Ronny Salerno.


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Photograph by Ronny Salerno.


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Photograph by Cameron Knight.

Overlooking the 'island', atop a hill, is the lasting ruin hinting to its nostalgic glory. As ancient civilizations have left behind stone monuments, so does one remain for Thunder Island. Although probably just fake stone and fiberglass, the rock structure at the top marks what must have been the key attraction - a concrete slide built into the ground that flowed back down to the park.

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- The stone monument. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.


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- The sole remaining slide. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.

We followed the slide back down to the main park, made our last photographs and tried to find our way out. We pushed through some more brush, back to the highway and ran across back to our car. In the end, there were no snakes, but hours later back in Cincinnati I got a text from Cam:

"I picked up a tick while we were out today. You should check your head."

Instantly I dropped my phone and began scouring through my beautiful hair. Sure enough, I felt something, grabbed it, ripped it off and flushed it down the toilet. Some small, ridiculously evil looking spider creature - a god damned tick. I never had one before. That night as I tried to sleep, I just kept reading Web MD about Lyme Disease. The next day I felt awful and after a few days of not getting better, I finally went to the doctor. Just a sinus infection, thankfully.

At Thunder Island, the people have been gone since the mid-90's. Now a days the wildlife reigns supreme as nature reclaims the abandoned waterpark hidden from the highway - a slowly eroding monument to 90's summer nostalgia.

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- An overgrown pool. Photograph by Ronny Salerno.


For other abandoned water/amusement parks seen on QC/D, check out:
Surf Cincinnati
Fun Spot
Americana/LeSourdsville Lake
Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom
The Beach

37 comments:

  1. Amazing how fast nature reclaims unused land. And those tadpoles are going to grow up to be bullfrogs.

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    1. That's what they're gonna end up being? Those things are gross looking.

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  2. As a former Thunder Islander, I heard that the closing was due to insurance rates. I didn't hear about the kid dying, and I grew up in a town so small that if you sneezed on one end of the town, someone all 2 miles away would say "God Bless You." I'm not saying that it's not impossible that a kid died and I heard nothing from the incorrigible gossips in town, just that it's not likely.
    I was born in 85 and fairly young when it shut down. I do remember that there was a large water slide (it seemed gigantic at the time, but being a kid will do that.) it was an open concrete water slide with a rough finish. To protect you from the god awful grading you deserved for braving this slide, you were give a mat that was similar in thickness (if not quality) to a yoga mat. The last time I went down this slide, the water instantly stole my mat, and I felt every scratch, scrape and bump down the slide. When I got to the pool at the bottom, I was bleeding from multiple scrapes on my legs. That being said: I'm guessing insurance wouldn't have approved, even sans dead kid & I was still super bummed when it shut its doors. I've known several people that grew up in the Indy area, and never knew of this. It's pretty cool that you have given it some attention, even as a eulogy. Thanks.

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  3. Information is definitely hard to come by. The only thing I can provide is that I believe there used to be a large elephant sculpture as part of the park as well. I believe it squirted water out of its trunk into one of the smaller pools.

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  4. I grew up in Westfield and my mother used to buy the summer pass and just drop us off at Thunder Island all day for weeks in the summer. I vaguely remember hearing that the place went into bankruptcy after some zoning laws changed, but I may be remembering that incorrectly.

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  5. Craig HochscheidMay 24, 2013 at 1:31 AM

    Brilliant piece Ronny!

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  6. Really enjoyed this. Also saw your piece on Fun Spot park. You've inspired me to get out with my camera. Thanks.

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  7. I spent many summers at Thunder Island as a kid, along with my brother, and cousin. We LOVED it. My Aunt took us every chance she got. There were 3 large water slides that you used a rubber mat to slide down, I believe they were red, blue, and yellow. They each had names... I only remember jaws. Then there were 3 other tube like slides that emptied into the kiddie pool, which if I remember correctly, that was the L shaped pool. The pond looking pool, with the docks, was bumper boats. The massive rock slide was actually 2 slides side by side... you would ride an inner tube down those... there were little wading pools at the end of every curve where the life guards would stand... to give you a push in the right direction towards the end. They also had go carts... to which I was never tall enough to ride :( They had a game room, and a snack bar. They had delicious little treats called pizza puffs I believe. They also had a putt putt coarse. It's funny, I lived In Muncie IN my entire life, until recently my husband and I moved to Noblesville IN, which is actually about 15 minutes away from the remains of what once was the most wonderful place on earth (to a 9 year old). I had wondered what became of it, which lead me to drive by it's former glory... I could not see anything from the road, but knew it was hiding behind all of that vegetation. Had I not been alone, I would have loved to go in. Which is what lead me to come home, and start my research. I too was saddened that there are no pictures from it's "hay day". But that is how I came across your photos (which really creeped me out!) It is so weird seeing something not only abandoned, but something that you hold such fond memories of. It makes me wonder who owns the land, and why have they not done anything with it... Anywho... sorry to go on, and on... but I have been feeling a little nostalgic today, and was very excited to see that I am not the only one that wondered whatever happened to "Thunder Island". Thanks!!!

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    1. The blue one I believe was the Barracuda. The third may have been the sting ray?

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  8. I went to Thunder Island several times from 1986-1988. One of my favorite places to go back in the day.

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  9. Anonymous June 13, 2013 at 5:18 PM - You are spot on! I remember this place very well/fondly and have been searching the internet for pictures for years. The 3 large slides did have those old funky mats you had to use to slide down and to a kid, quite a large amount of stairs you had to climb up. There was a red, blue, and I wanted to say orange but I cant remember exactly either. As someone who drove from Indy to South Bend frequently, the pieces of the slide were in a small town about 15 miles north of where the park was for years. (I could tell by the washed out colors) The L pool was the pool with the 3 tube slides. For the life of me I can't remember the colors of those but I do know we use to slide down them more often because the lines were always shorter. Hahah, I still have scars on my legs from the "inner tube rock slide" and yeah, the workers would seriously just wait for you because they knew you weren't going to make it the whole way. The putt putt and go kart area wasn't as explored by us either because we couldn't ride the go karts yet. I do remember they had a pretty cool playground over there, which, come to think of it, my parents should have pictures of.

    Overall, this is the best collection of pictures I have seen in all my searches, nice job!!!

    Now, I'm going to check out 'The Beach' which was my second favorite place as a kid......wow how time flys!

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  10. Oh yeah, the bumper boats and elephant statements are valid too. In the same "kiddie" pool as the elephant were what we called "the mushrooms" They were large, mushroom looking centerpieces of the pools that shot water out all around.....

    I could go on for days...haha

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  11. I was born in '93, shortly before the park's demise, and never knew about it aside from my parents telling me it existed. After reading your article, I finally decided to check it out for myself. Odd aside: assuming the office you stopped in was owned by Verizon, it too is now closed. I don't know how long this will last, as it is good office space, but still odd. Like calling to like, I guess?

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  12. I used to get stoned there in high school.

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  13. My brother and I both worked there in the mid 90's and it was lots of fun. It closed a few years after. Never heard of kid dying, but that was definitely the most serious lifeguard job I had given the injuries I witnessed. The tube ride was brutal, especially on fat people. Pretty wicked to see the blue mat still on the wall where the tubes ran into on the side wall. The most fun was when we shut down and we got to do all the things we tossed folks out for all day. I do remember the trade commission deal happening Suprano style Hoosiers for sure!

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    1. I worked there as well. I was the cotton candy girl and consessions. I remember going down the slides in my clothes after we closed. I also remeber a guy named Sarge, who I guess was like a manager and he lived onsite in a trailer. Good memories.

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    2. I lifeguarded there the last summer it was open. Was the most fun job and the most serious for sure. I think I saved someone every day of the tube slides. The tube ride was the worst...I slipped trying to walk down so many times when we would rotate our lifeguard positions. Such good memories!

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  14. went there some in jr. high and maybe into high school (I graduated in 90). I lived in Noblesville and this was less than 15 minutes away.
    I think I only did the water stuff once. Water parks were never really appealing to me then for some reason. I did the go carts a lot and later the crappy driving range.
    I believe some bad teen movie was shot there that included one of the people from 90210 (maybe tiffany amber whatever her name was) but this could be some false memory floating around.

    It was too much an in-between IMHO. Nothing big enough to pull Indy folks on a consistent basis and not remote enough to pull 60 miles worth of small town people.

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  15. You are totally right about that bad teen movie! I was an extra in it when I was working there as a high school summer job - that would have been in 88 or 89.

    I didn't know the bit about the Maio family and the insider trading - but it was pretty clear to even a 17 year old that the financial dealings there were seriously crooked.

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  16. I worked there in 88 and 89 and know nothing about a movie (and I would have known about it!). Nice story but untrue.

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  17. I moved to the Westfield area from Indianapolis in 2004. I had only heard about the place. I just pulled it up on Google...pretty cool:
    https://www.google.com/maps/place/Westfield,+IN/@40.0745255,-86.1291004,291m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x8814a58112169a67:0x6cbc14df7cdece6d

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  18. Shark, Stingray, or Barracuda




    (the slides)

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  19. We used to drive by there all the time after it closed. I remember thinking how cool it looked abandoned & wanted to explore it. Thanks for the pics.

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  20. I know a girl that was engaged to the owner...he was bad with money that's why it closed. The place was always busy. I have never heard that a child died there, there was a child injured at the Thorntown theme park a few miles away. They did close due to lawsuit. Simply poorly managed or would still be there and yes there was an elephant...a big one and it was one of the first items gone when it closed down. I worked as a manger in the 80's next door at the Taco Bell and kids would come by the bus load....I know this because every weekend we would get them in our parking lot prior to going we had 4 bus loads one Saturday. Crazy times!

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  21. Didn't it start out as 3- J amusement ?

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    1. You are right, It was 3-J's back in the day.

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  22. It was 3-J and it only was putt putt for years.

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  23. Freeze Frame with Shannon Doherty (90210) was filmed at Thunder Island - http://arisjanetakos.com/dawne/KidsInc/FreezeFrame.html

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    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTLlJ-d1OQU#t=320 shows video footage of the slides in the movie

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  24. Ah...yes! I LOVED Thunder Island as a kid! You're spot on on many things, the mountain was a huge attraction...sliding down on the tubes :) Bumper boats, the elephant, many fond memories <3

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  25. I worked there from 85 - 90 their was a guy that died at thunderisland is was 89 or 90 he died while sitting on a picnic table fell over had a medical condition of some sort. That same day that happened we had a kid on the go karts loose control and drive through the fence into bumper boat area. Don't know what happened to him other than he was badly cut up and ambulance came. I remember because both those happened same day and we had an employee party that night as well . And at employee party one of are lifeguards while riding go carts wrecked the go cart and ambulance came found out he had busted his spleen . That was a crazy day.
    The owners were the maios . Joe maio was always there his daughter antineete sp? Ran front . Then who we called pappa maio would show up quite regularily. Then they had a guy that lived in the trailer that was on the property we called sarge and his wife he was grounds and security . As for why it closed well their is alot left unsaid and won't be talked about. I will just say that that was my favorite job as a kid / teen .

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  26. I called years ago inquiring about the land, and they were wanting an astronomical amount for it. The little round/shallow pools for little kids. I remember playing in them when I was a kid. One of the round pools had an elephant that shot water out of its trunk. The other round pool had a mushroom in the middle that poored water out the top, and created a curtain of water. It was fun to run under it and stay in the middle. Its impossible to even tell there used to be a driving range there. I've been there multiple times since its closed down, and those pools are pretty creepy. I grew up in westfield and went there all the time. There was another water park (basically just a pond) and I think that is what people are referring to when they mention 3js. The pond is still there, as well as the old diving platform, but the water is nasty. The land is owned by a farmer for both locations. Look up "you know you're from westfield, indiana when" on facebook. There are some old photos posted of 3js. And some talk on thunder island.

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  27. I worked therr in late 80's-90. I remember it all, arriving early in the day and staying until late a night everyday! while working. i worked the go carts, bumper boats driving range and putt put. The "shack" in the pitcture looks like the driving range putt put officr. I remember ALOT of injuries on the go cart tracks. People were in total control of the carts driving, they were told that after the timed race they were to pull into 2 "pit lanes" and idle in. Many time nee drivers would freak out and mash the gas pedal and forget to brake and crash into the other carts in the lanes. I also saw a kids t-bone another cart and break his wrist. I also was injured there when fueling a cart another cart idled out of line and smashed my ankle between them. I remember the bumper boat water smelled more like gasoline than water, because the real boat motors leaked so much oil and gas! I fondly remember after all customers left we would race the go carta while reaching back and manually opening the "govenor" on the engines to make them go sooooo much faster. Also remember going down the slides with about 5 of us at a time. And of course the after hours beer and parties with everyone that worked there. Funny storage about Sarge, who lived there. When I first hire I was grounds, mowing weed eating etc. Well I was weed eating around that trailer and saw these tall green weeds at the back so I chopped them down, little did I know they were Marijuana plants. Not sure if they were his but I was never reprimanded. I had always heard that the family was tied to the mob and other shady dealings. I will tell you that was some of the most fun times of my youth. I was sad to see it go bay the wayside after I went off to college.....like it never happened. Thunder Island was like my "Meatballs" movie. Fun times, fun people and growing up!

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  28. Ok, the system will not allow me to post the image, so here is a link - This is an image of the park when it was actually running.

    http://www.timecapsule.com/images/water_park_hours.jpg

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  29. I remember Thunder Island back in the late 80's/early 90's. I had a lot of fun there. I remember the three slides the most. The red, yellow, and blue ones. I remember that the red one was the craziest. All three were different "levels of difficulty" (for lack of better term). I think the blue one was the most mild....and the red one was the craziest. I remember that if you did not stay on the mat, the lines where the slide segments changed, would pinch you!

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  30. I remember hearing about Thunder Island, but never visited. I grew up in Greenfield, IN - so it was a bit far away for me to go. Boogie Mountain was a true water park on Indy's east side, but never went there either. Many of my friends did.

    I was a child of the 70's and a teen of the 80's. In Greenfield - we went to "Acres of Fun" which had a "Turbo slide" - a large hill with a cement channel with water jets to push you down. You rode on a mat or risked getting skinned alive. Acres of Fun also had a miniature golf course, a 9 hole golf cours=, a man made lake and beach, an indoor pool and banquet/rental facilities.

    In the early 80's - it changed to Sugar Creek Resort, and it became a membership only club. We quit going because the membership prices were too high.

    A couple of employees tried to blackmail the owners , and in an altercation in an arrest attempt - the Hancock County Sheriff was shot and killed.

    This hit our little community very hard. I went to school with both of the Grass boys - who were a few years older than I in school. This happened in 1986 - a year after I graduated from high school. Shortly after this Sugar Creek Resort was sold - and it became Heartland Resort. They still have many of the amenities, but the turbo slide is gone. They focus on camping - and banquet facilities, and the amenities is for those customers.

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