My night photographing an eerie haunted abandoned water park

I had just driven to the front of the post-apocalyptic looking abandoned water park. This was a high-profile abandoned location. After all, you could easily see it while traveling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Sure enough, there were several cars circling around, wondering where to park or enter. A group of three waved at me.

The entrance to the water park, with the letter “k” missing for quite some time. I lit this with a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light during the exposure.

I scooted past the cars, eventually parking at the back end. I had parked here for a couple of reasons. One was so my car would not be on the street. The other was that I hoped to meet with the caretaker.

Encountering the first people at the water park

I wandered the water park as the sun began its descent behind the desert mountains. I didn’t think it was possible, but the place was even more tagged than two years ago when I had first visited. 

Inside the gift shop, with the Interstate in the distance. Lit by a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light during the exposure.

The three people who had seen me on the front street gave me puzzled looks. “Where did you park?” I muttered something about parking in the back. 

“Hey, do you think it’s cool if I paint here?”

“I don’t think so. It’s private property, although it’s not like that’s stopped anyone else.” I had never understood vandalism, even if the place was going to be eventually leveled.

“Cool, man,” he replied, as if I had given him permission to paint. “I’m from San Francisco. We’re on our way to Vegas. Just had to stop by here.”

Scouting for night photography

I continued wandering and taking photos with my phone. All the while, I was thinking about the angles of the moon as it rose and what might look good, taking photos to remind me of potentially good angles later if I were to return in the evening.

A fisheye view of what used to be the arcade. Using a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 light painting device, I lit the interior and exterior of the structure.

But would there be people here in the evening? Would it be safe?

Meeting the guys in the back

I returned to my car, which I had purposely parked near the water tank and the dilapidated house and RV up near the top of the property. As I mentioned, I had hoped to meet the caretaker of the property here. I seem to have this way of connecting with people, and I hoped to do this here.

One guy looked like he was carrying things back and forth between the RV. I waved at him with a smile, doing an almost dorky sort of wave. He waved back and walked slowly down the hill. 

Making a connection

We got to talking about the Mojave Desert area, talking about Joshua Tree, Barstow and more. He was quite nice and smiled when I mentioned some of the history of the water park. 

Generally speaking, I really dislike graffiti. That said, this particular painting of this woman captivated me, and I knew I had to photograph her at night later. I used a handheld ProtoMachines LED2, using warm white and blue light from numerous angles during the exposure, to create the lighting for this image.

He had lived up in the hills above Ben Lomond, in Boulder Creek. I knew the area and exclaimed how beautiful it was up there, and how I had spent a lot of time in Santa Cruz, Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek, playing music and hanging out. 

“You know how there are giant redwood trees that are hollowed out by fire up there?” I nodded. “I lived in one of those trees for two years.”

Now, he was living in an RV parked under a dilapidated house that was tagged. I hadn’t realized how messed up the house was until I had walked closer and began talking to him.

He then mentioned how he had also lived near Beckley in West Virginia. We talked about the beauty of that state, as I had visited numerous times. 

Ghosts, accidents and 50 mile-per-hour waterslides

We ended up going on a mini-tour around the property. “The gift shop is haunted. There is a painting of a woman on the wall inside. People keep tagging it. But the paint never stays on.”

I asked how long this had been happening. “I’m not sure. It’s been happening for a while, though. Don’t worry, they won’t bother you,” he assured me. 

The first building constructed at Lake Dolores is still standing, although I suspect it’s far more colorful than before.

Soon after, he pointed and said, “That was the first building built here.” It was the bathrooms and changing rooms. And it was indeed built like a brick, uh, something-house.

We looked at the enormous pits which were the lakes in Lake Dolores. 

Some of the small waterslides at night, with the Interstate in the distance. The ones that you stood up on or went 50 miles per hour have long since disappeared. This was lit by a handheld ProtoMachines LED2 during the exposure.

He mentioned the long waterslides that used to exist, ones in which one could reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour.

“And on some slides, you could go down while standing up! Some people got major road rash from that.”

And worse.

“One time, after the park closed, one of the employees wanted to go down the waterslide. The waterslide had been turned off, and the water was not full enough down below. He slid down and badly injured himself and then sued the water park. This shut it down.” 

The weirdest thing

No TV tonight. But plenty of color in this night photo of an abandoned water park.

“We get a lot of visitors here,” he mentioned.

Peering around at all the tagging, I nodded my head. I asked him what the weirdest thing he’s ever seen people do. Without hesitation, he answered, “Seances. I came across people conducting a seance right there,” pointing to an area between what had been the arcade and the gift shop. 

He later said, “Come on back later. You can stay here all night photographing. We’ll patrol the area and make sure no one bothers you.”

Not even ghosts, apparently.

Returning later in the night

I was excited about the prospect of photographing this place unimpeded, given the nod by the caretaker. Earlier, I had been thinking of some themes for a new night photography book on abandoned places. Lake Dolores would fit that theme beautifully. I drove in using the “secret locals” way he had also shown me, proud that I actually remembered how to do it.

An interior photo of the former arcade

I set about photographing and felt very creative, using more color in my lighting than I usually did, befitting the cartoonish, colorful nature of the water park. 

Several times, I saw an ATV pass. One time, he waved. 

Photographing the haunted gift shop

The corner of the allegedly haunted gift shop. Inside is the painting of the girl that allegedly cannot be painted over, according to the caretaker.

Of course, I had to do it. I ventured in, saw the girl, and smiled. I shined some blue light on her to give this eerie, bold and cartoonish quality. This sort of light painting would never stay on her. True to the caretaker’s word, the spirits never bothered me.

As I photographed some of the other buildings, an eerie cold wind blew in from nowhere. The air had been still and hot, but the sudden wind was gusty and cooler. Then just as suddenly, it stopped. Whether this was an atmospheric anomaly or the last vestiges of a seance, who can say?

I worked with mostly primary colors for much of this photoshoot, enhancing the already colorful, cartoonish look of the retro-futuristic water park. I’ll often use only warm white light for photo shoots, or perhaps a dash of color here and there, but here, I let the colors fly.

I packed up and left shortly after 2 a.m. This had been a great, creative night. And the ghosts had been kind.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

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