For as long as he can remember, Jeff Henry has been called Jefe. It means “chief” in Spanish, and the way Henry sees it, the nickname was a self-fulfilling prophecy. “I always thought of myself as a leader because that’s what people told me,” says Henry. “They’d say, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ and people would say, ‘Jefe.’”
That was back in Henry’s teens, working for his father and mentor in New Braunfels, Texas. At 16, he built his first riverbed tube ride, which a million people still slide down every year.
Now, at 49, he presides over a veritable waterpark kingdom — including the world-renowned Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort and NBGS. He never finished high school, never went to college, never had any formal training. But when it comes to waterparks, you better believe he’s still the Jefe.
For the last several years, though, Henry has been leading his charge strictly by example. After 15 years of doing seminars and trying to spread the word to the rest of the industry, he got fed up with the “nay-saying, back-stabbing, Caesar-killing machine,” and decided to start “flying under the waterpark radar.” He says this is his first interview in at least four years. And he’s got a lot to say.
First off, the industry is suffering from severe stagnation. Henry blames this problem on the corporate takeover of what started as a family-cottage business. “The industry has gotten boring,” he says. “The supply side was never innovating. It was always the park side. It’s time for a change.”
Henry is determined to make those changes happen. His goal: to eliminate waterpark lines completely by expanding on his “transportainment” concept in which guests are moved about by conveyor belts without having to leave their tubes. He’s also working on a “convertible waterpark” that uses covers and roofing technology to open and close portions depending on the weather. In his spare time, he’s working as a consultant as part of Henry, Schooley & Associates.
But for all his grousing about the industry, Henry is also remarkably optimistic. He says the trend toward indoor waterpark resorts is going to create a golden age for the industry — if manufacturers and operators can capitalize on it. For his part, Henry is re-opening the lines of communication with everyone in the industry.
“I’ve buried all my hatchets from the past,” says the man people still call the Jefe. “Cooperation is essential to being able to address problems and issues professionally and quickly. If we do those things, then the sky’s the limit.”