Once upon a time, like twenty years ago, Lakeside and Elitch's were comparable amusement parks of the turn-of-the-last-century persuasion. Yes, prior to being ripped out by its north Denver roots at West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street and tossed carelessly into the Platte River area by downtown and rebranded as a Six Flags, Elitch Gardens had much of the beauty that is Lakeside today.
If Elitch's were still in its original location in 2014, you might be able to actually compare the two. But as it stands, they're so completely different that it's easy to see why Lakeside rules. (Even so, I will explain why -- in the process filling my personal annual requirement of writing a slobbering love letter to the most beautiful place in Colorado, one that I will defend to my death, even if that death is on Lakeside's roller coaster, the Cyclone. I'm kidding! Sort of.)
Look, Lakeside isn't fancy. It isn't an amusement park you visit for the latest in upside-down, shake-the-shit-out-of-you rides. It is a place for nostalgists and those on the cheap, architectural lookie-loos and people who want to buy a lot of fun for under $20. Being a person who fantasizes about rotary-dial phones still being commonplace and makes a "living" as a writer, I qualify for all of the above.
If you love art-deco anything, Lakeside has acres of eye candy. Though the park opened in 1908, in the late '40s, architect Richard Crowther was brought in to spruce up the joint, adding a gorgeous assortment of neon-lit ticket booths and ride entrances. The foliage, too, is something I have always loved -- and something that Elitch's lost when the park that was famous for its gardens moved into town and replaced all that greenery with cement.
With nostalgia comes ambience, something Lakeside has in droves. At night, the neon and blinking bulbs come alive, from the flickering, half-lit sign for the Wild Chipmunk to the zippy pink-and-green fluorescence of the Hurricane's ticket booth. Ancient trees dot the cement and asphalt trails that wind from the Kiddieland entrance to the boarded-up Riviera Ballroom on the edge of Lake Rhoda.
And speaking of Lake Rhoda, did you know there's a real-life Rhoda? Though Elitch's carries a name rich in Colorado history, Lakeside can brag that the namesake of its body of water, Rhoda Krasner, is not only alive and well, she runs the park. When her father, Ben Krasner, purchased Lakeside, he changed the lake's name from West Berkeley Lake. Then there's the price. If you so desire, three bucks is all you need to get a little taste of Lakeside. Yup, gate admission will cost you less than a five-spot, if you just want to wander around and enjoy the scenery. Individual ride prices run fifty cents to three dollars, and wristbands during the weekdays are only $14.50 for unlimited rides. (Weekend passes are $22.50, but if you do a little digging, you can almost always find a coupon somewhere.)
That Lakeside is so cheap is the main reason it rules: It's affordable for a lot of people, which means more enthusiasts can enjoy the park for what it is. This is also where I get especially defensive of Lakeside, because for some reason, the park's lack of high pricing gives people the idea that the place is dirty and unsafe. On the contrary, Lakeside is beautiful and well-kept and, like other amusement parks, it undergoes plenty of safety tests. But by all means, if spending more money makes you feel better about something, there are more than enough places around this city where you can toss your wad to make up for Lakeside's unseemly low prices.
The food, too, is relatively inexpensive. If you're into microwaved personal pan pizzas and soft-serve ice cream, Lakeside can get you a meal for under $10. Or if you want a true park experience, you can load up on funnel cakes: I watch these fried-dough artists do their thing every summer, and the amusement park delicacy comes out hot, greasy, sweet and delicious every time.
If you don't want to partake in carnival food or want to save even more money, Lakeside is totally BYO-Picnic-friendly. There are benches and covered pavilions all over the park that are ideal spots to lay out your own gorgeous spread, so you can take your time with a nice summer evening meal before taking on the rides.
I could sit here all day and list more reasons why Lakeside rules, but this place is really something you have to see and experience for yourself. Whether you are a Colorado native who has never made the trek to the crown jewel of Sheridan Boulevard or you just moved here yesterday, now's the time to take a ride on the Cyclone and get your head spun on the Scrambler.
Lakeside Amusement Park is open weekends through May and daily starting in June. Find more information on the Lakeside Amusement Park website (and yes, it has one!).
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