Aquarena Center, formerly known as Aquarena Springs, at San Marcos Springs just off U.S. Highway 81 in San Marcos, Texas, is an educational park that attracts tourists and visitors year-round. The springs, a cluster of 200 in all, originate in the Edwards Plateau sixteen miles north and flow from the Edwards Aquifer at the rate of 200 million gallons daily to form the headwaters of the San Marcos River. The area is also distinguished by the eroded Balcones Escarpment, which rises above the plateau where the park is located. The complex ecosystem of the springs comprises more than fifty varieties of fish and 125 species of plants, as well as the endangered San Marcos dwarf salamander.
To Tonkawa Indians in the area the springs were known as Canocanayesatetlo, meaning "warm water." The expedition of Isidro Félix de Espinosa, Antonio de San Buenaventura Olivares, and Pedro de Aguirre in 1709 likely discovered the springs, but the springs were named by Franciscans exploring the Guadalupe River valley for a place to which to move the San Xavier Missions and presidio in 1755. Fourteen years after the area became a Mexican land grant in 1831, settlers began to arrive and two ranches were established nearby. In Spanish Texas the springs were an important stop on the Old San Antonio Road, which ran between northern Mexico and Nacogodoches, and from 1867 to 1895 they served as a stopping place on the Chisholm Trail.
A. B. Rogers, owner of a San Marcos funeral home and furniture store, purchased the property in 1926. His son Paul developed it by building the Springlake Hotel in 1928 and introducing glass-bottom boats on Spring Lake. The hotel failed to survive the Great Depression, but was restored in 1961 as the Aquarena Springs Hotel. In the 1950s, construction of a submarine theater and large spillway at one end of the lake to produce a swimming pool led to the opening of an amusement park at the site in 1951.
The Aquarena Springs Resort, which attracted 250,000 visitors annually, was built around Spring Lake on an archeological site that has yielded Clovis artifacts, including spear points, believed to be 12,000 years old. Among other features the resort offers a Franciscan mission, a 100-year old gristmill, Texana Village, and an underwater show originally designed by Don and Margaret Russell, who developed similar shows in Florida. The resort also featured a swimming pig named Ralph. In 1977 the park employed 225 persons, including students from nearby Southwest Texas State University.
In 1994 Southwest Texas State University acquired the property from the Aquarena Springs Corporation with the help of its nonprofit support foundation and revenue bonds authorized by the state legislature; previous owners retained an interest. Plans were to preserve the ecosystem and use the resort for conferences and other educational purposes. The hotel was scheduled to close in September 2000.