“Not to see Elitch’s is not to see Denver.” This slogan, coined a century ago, was true: For decades, Elitch Gardens was Denver’s family entertainment center, a bright, noisy oasis where kids from toddlers to teens could have fun all day, in safety.
In 1890, Mary and John Elitch created the original Elitch Gardens on sixteen acres of farmland at the end of the trolley line, way out past the edge of town, at 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street, in what is now the Berkeley neighborhood. The land boasted beautiful gardens (it was fourteen years before Elitch Gardens installed a ride), including a memorable, immense flowering clock. It also held a zoo until the 1930s; Mary Elitch used the ostrich to pull her about in a cart. She sold the park to the Mulvihill family in 1916.
As development moved northwest, the park’s future was in doubt. Without room for expansion, profit margins grew thinner. In 1994, the Mulvihill/Gurtler family finalized a $94 million plan to move the park to a 67-acre site in the Platte Valley near downtown Denver; closing the original (now a successful new-urbanism neighborhood) and opening in the new spot in 1995.
Denver’s Mulvihill/Gurtler family sold the park in 1996. Since then, corporate entities have bandied its ownership back and forth no fewer than five times — until sports-industry billionaire Stan Kroenke, who owns the nearby Pepsi Center, bought it last summer. After a decade of instability, can Elitch’s regain its homey vibe and a sense of continuity? General manager Dave Dorman is happy to get the chance to try. He says the park is diversifying and expanding its popular offerings this summer – including more shade! (Anyone who spent time standing in line on midway asphalt in the hot afternoon sun at 5,280 feet will say amen to that.)
The beloved amusement park celebrates its 126th season this year. In honor of the upcoming opening on April 30, here are ten reasons to celebrate Elitch's — both old and new. And find a bonus reason at the end!
10. Mr. Twister
Some local aficionados may prefer the still-extant Cyclone at Lakeside, but for most Denverites, Elitch’s Mr. Twister was the ultimate roller-coaster ride. One of the last great wooden coasters, it was rated on the world's top-ten list — while it lasted. Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, but this creaking, clanking wonder was a blast.
9. The Splinter, aka "the log ride"
This extremely late Elitch entry into the water-ride game was not too exciting – you'd ride in a fake hollow tree trunk around a quarter-mile semicircle, around some very ineptly animated clockwork lumberjacks. However, people weren’t there for the ride: They were there to get soaked, which they did during the concluding 45-foot drop. In the meantime, they goofed around in the interminable line, making sure to stick their wad on the infamous, extremely gross, ever-more-encrusted “gum tree” support post en route.
8. The Sky Ride
Okay, it was a glorified chairlift that trundled two or three riders at a time out over the park to the parking lot and back...very slowly. Still, there was almost always a long line to hop on board, because it was fascinating to have a bird’s-eye, slowly shifting view of Elitch’s, day or night. You would yell down at your friends and try to pelt them with popcorn. And when you were older, you tried to get someone to sit beside you to smooch, which was ridiculous, because everyone in the park could see you. Ah, youth.
7. Trocadero Ballroom
This roofed pavilion was one of the great ballrooms in America during the Swing Era. It was 150 feet long, with on-site chaperones and a polished wooden floor, the latter waxed just enough to aid the dancers. Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, both Dorsey brothers, Guy Lombardo and Lawrence Welk all played the dance music that had grown far too tame for the young by the time the ballroom was demolished in 1975.
6. Elitch Theatre
Built only a year after the park opened, the Elitch Theatre boasted the oldest summer-stock theater in America until it was shuttered in 1991, 99 years after its debut. The first film in Colorado was shown here in 1896. Some of the acting greats who got their start at Elitch's include Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Fredric March, Edward G. Robinson, Grace Kelly and many more. Every week during the summer, a new play would hit the stage, providing outstanding training for budding thespians. Even after the repertory companies were replaced by touring shows, the theater was still a magical jewel box of a place, offering stars at close range who were often happy to hobnob after the show.
When the original park closed, the theater remained — intact but unused. Happily, years of funding and renovation efforts may allow the venue — which never had a heating/cooling system — to once again present theater. In the meantime, movies are hosted right outdoors.
Keep reading for five of the best things at the new Elitch's.
5. The carousel
Some features of the old park made it to the new location, like the carousel and the “wave swinger,” now called the Turn of the Century. The carousel that moved to the Platte Valley was not Elitch’s first; that historic Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel #6 now resides in Burlington. However, the second carousel, installed in 1928, is the one people today remember and love, and it occupies a specially constructed pavilion at today's Elitch's.
4. The Mind Eraser
Hey, if you’re going to go for it, go for it. This inverted roller coaster suspends you from the wheels so that you dangle into space as you are whipped through loops and curls, making the experience even more intense. This is a great embodiment of technical advances that make a thrill ride more thrilling — without sacrificing safety.
3. Sling Shot
It is what it says it is – a “reverse-bungee” contraption reminiscent of something the Acme Co. whipped up for Wile E. Coyote. Two people are strapped into a steel cage ball attached to elastic straps, then flung straight up into the sky 160 feet, at about 70 miles per hour. Oh, did we mention that the ball rotates?
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2. Island Kingdom Family Water Park
This is the best idea going at the new park. The additional acreage allowed for full-fledged water attractions, included in admission to the Gardens, so it’s a two-for-one deal. There are lots of fast-moving slides and tubes, and plenty of more mellow rides for younger patrons. Who needs a beach? Ante up extra and get a cabana.
1. Special events
This is where “new Elitch’s” really distinguishes itself. The park has increased its late-night hours and theme nights, as well as the number of free concerts over the summer; the Dive-In Movie series rates inclusion on a list of the best outdoor summer cinemas. Most important, the Elitch's schedule includes Education Days, which use the attractions to explore and understand physics, and also create opportunities for school bands, choirs and music groups to perform at the park.
Elitch’s really is Denver.
Bonus: Because of the crazy Colorado weather, Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park, at 2000 Elitch Circle I, has extended its $69.99 season pass deal until May 8 (the park, which opened last weekend, will remain open through Halloween). And if you visit the park by May 8, you'll get a souvenir water bottle. For the schedule and more information, visit elitchgardens.com.