This past weekend, my sister was visiting from Seattle. With a new boyfriend in tow, she wanted to show him all of the must-see Colorado sites possible during the quick, three-day trip they had planned. Of course, this miniature See Denver! excursion included visits to Lakeside and Casa Bonita. When we arrived at Lakeside, it was the busiest I had ever seen the park in my three-plus decades going there. We had to park our car all the way in the mud pits on the back side of the Lakeside Speedway, a relic of a lost time known for mythical car races and crashes.
Whether the crowds were just a result of regular Saturday night business or if it was the break from the rainy weather that has been threatening to ruin summer forever or maybe even the Lakeside Groupon that has been floating around (and making admission even cheaper than its usual nice price), I was happy to see the park booming. But the high attendance meant we actually had to wait in line for rides, sometimes standing around for thirty minutes at particular entrances — which is unheard of in my Lakeside lifetime. These extended moments were a blessing, though, because I was able to take a long, close look at the amusement park I love so much.
Lakeside is looking good these days — better than it has in a long time, actually. As I stood waiting to board the Cyclone Coaster, the freshly painted curved moldings and shiny mirror panels looked wonderful on the ride's out-of-commission ticket booth. The park had thankfully gotten rid of a stupid, stand-alone "hurricane" arcade-like single-person ride of sorts that had taken up standing room next to the beautiful Cyclone and, frankly, looked trashy next to the glorious Art Deco architecture. Lakeside has always had temporary rides and gaming systems and pieces of disposable photobooth-like equipment spread around the park, which to me have been pointless additions that degrade the beauty that is a living, vintage memoriam. But I understand why it adds and subtracts these more modern amusement conveniences — it's trying to stay current in some ways.
The park needs hundreds of thousands of lights and neon tubing to fully light up, and this year I noticed replacement bulbs in many of the ride signs that had been missing them. Raised planters had been refurbished and the grounds looked stunning — blooming flowers were bursting with color and new landscaping across the acres brightened up the spots between the rides. Lakeside's best life is lived once the sun goes down, but this season, the park's appearance was unparalleled day or night.
The next evening, we went to Casa Bonita. From a new visitor's perspective, the charm of this place may be a little harder to understand than Lakeside's. But CB does have the South Park thing going for it, so people outside Colorado actually seem excited about visiting, versus just being grossed out once they get to the food part of the dining experience. (The grossed-out reaction is to the food, not the restaurant itself.) Again, the spot was busier than on some previous visits, which is key to showing off the Casa's cool — the more people in the Mexican village in a strip mall, the more activity and, therefore, the more magic happening.
During a show in the puppet theater, the talking rock turned around and revealed himself in the wall, something I hadn't caught in my last few visits to Casa Bonita. There was a one-man band playing Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown" and Santo & Johnny's "Sleep Walk" along the main walkway. The "gorilla" escaped during one of the night's many shows, and several children chased him throughout the dining area. Of course, there were also the divers. Everything at Casa Bonita was functioning and looking great. But beyond the live entertainment aspect of this forty-year old landmark, I noticed something else: The detailed surroundings are what really make this place fun.
Neither CB nor Lakeside are Disneyland; I mean, you know when you're inside of them that you're still in the real world of Colorado. But each hand-painted sign, each fake rock in the CB cliffs and each individual light bulb lighting up a night at the amusement park make it feel like its own reality. There's a living, breathing element to these places that is so often missing from the new commercial construction that we are supposed to want to come and spend money in. The new world seems plastic — and not in the cool, fake plastic palm tree kind of way. I understand that themed restaurants and old, rickety theme parks are are too kitschy for the masses these days. But the spaces I choose to spend the most time in often have elements that give inanimate objects a life of their own.
I know that what is defined as a "a real Colorado experience" differs based on individual interests. But to me, two of this fair square state's greatest tributes to itself are Lakeside and Casa Bonita. Don't agree? Next time you visit either establishment, pay attention to your surroundings. Where else in Colorado can you enjoy hot sopaipillas while sitting behind a faux indoor waterfall or a eat a handmade funnel cake while listening to plinky carousel music? It's all about suspending reality for a moment and allowing the ridiculousness to take over. There's no doubt Lakeside and Casa Bonita are weird — but they are also uniquely Colorado.
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