It is late October, and the retractable belts between the stanchions in front of the ticket lines for Uncle Bill’s Flim-Flam Flumin’ Water Park and Petting Zoo have all been withdrawn. I stepped right up to buy my ticket without winding and wending my way through a maze of black nylon. In the mid-day Arizona autumn, it’s not that it was too cold for a visit to the park. Instead, the school year and the draw of weekly football games have provided many would-be parkgoers with plentiful alternatives. Still, Brad Tucker was not concerned.
Uncle Bill’s head Riverboat Captain has seen the tidal ebb and flow of seasonal attendance during his 25-year partnership with the park. He first joined as an apprentice to the world-renowned Larry “Tubes” Cortello, taking over his duties when the older man suffered a debilitating case of swimmer’s ear. With the gravitas of his experience fully ensconced within a careful gesture, he beckoned me forward as I walk through the entrance gate en route to the park’s centerpiece attraction: the Roundabout River.
The tastefully reserved patterns on the metal lockers to which I entrusted my billfold quickly yielded to a bold yet unassuming yellow line on the pavement, drawing my eye toward the changing vestibules and restrooms. As I began to undo my cufflinks, I received with delight a fresh towel brought to me by a junior member of the park staff from a large pile sitting on a handcart. Mr. Tucker took his leave while I left to busy myself with the quotidian, yet necessary, act of disrobing.
A bouquet of chlorine peppered my nose as I took in the sharp yet authoritative thwack of patrons’ rubber thongs against cement. While making my way to the entrance queue, I was greeted by the park’s public face, Mr. Ears the Elephant himself. We exchanged perambulatory pleasantries against a tasteful rendition of Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back” but the pre-excursion experience was marred somewhat by a disappointing and uncharacteristic collision with a small child run amok.
Such encounters, rare in Uncle Bill’s early days, are becoming a necessary tradeoff for the opportunity to experience Mr. Tucker’s craft. As the public at large becomes more culturally aware of the delights previously known only to the upper echelons of society, Bill’s has seen its experiences gain a foothold with all kinds of social classes.
As I neared the edge of the entrance ramp into the Roundabout, Mr. Tucker greeted me with a sumptuous flourish. Laying to rest at my feet an inner tube decorated with multicolored decals and a map of Arizona, he guided me to the River’s edge as I stepped into the water. Scintillating under the watchful sun and kept cool without being frigid, it was an adept pairing with the day’s warm yet stiff wind, another example of Mr. Tucker’s prodigious skill.
I was left to begin my journey around the river, a self-directed feast of sensory surprises. A charmingly small waterfall from an overpass near the first turn strengthened into a deluge as I approached, goaded into tumescence by the press of a button within reach of several onlookers above. Laughing in delight, I took in a mouthful of the Roundabout’s bounty. It was salty without being disarming.
A fork in the river sent me spinning to the left, where I wove my way between several arcs of water that were seemingly positioned to strike my face. I could not help but wonder if this was an intentional play: an opportunity Mr. Tucker provided for reflection during the journey and a chance to consider what lay on the right-hand path not taken.
The last dainty twist, designed expertly to spin the rider with head pointing downstream, offered patrons the chance to gaze upon a vista of the River in full before being skillfully guided to a stop by the young Laurie McInnes, Mr. Tucker’s protégée.
Mr. Tucker rejoined me to extend the courtesy of a farewell before returning to his duty of weaving a tapestry of water for his other patrons. I capped off my visit by briefly indulging the carnival games; buoyed by the thrill of the Roundabout, I reasoned, I could stand to lose a few dollars here and there. I found myself cautiously envious of those parkgoers in line who might be discovering Rivers like the Roundabout for the first time—if they could cultivate an understanding of the subtleties of the form, they could appreciate some of life’s finest experiences.
For an unforgettable circular experience, the charge is $34.95 prix fixe (locker rental not included). À la carte offerings include arcade amusements and various foodstuffs at BBQ-By-The-Water. I recommend partaking when the crowds have returned, however. Mr. Tucker’s delicate work at Uncle Bill’s is best accompanied by the sounds of raucous laughter and the pressing scent of pre-teen body spray.
Uncle Bill’s Flim-Flam Flumin’ Water Park and Petting Zoo in Tempe, AZ is open from 11:30 AM to 10:00 PM through November 10th, with Mr. Tucker personally overseeing operations on Tuesdays and Thursdays.