Generations of Coloradans know Heritage Square as an elaborate homage to their state’s prospecting past. But this weekend will be their last chance to see the fun-sized frontier town on the edge of Golden, renowned as one of the oldest theme parks in the world and initially designed as a Disney-style park for the Front Range.
The end began began earlier this month, when the last sleds skidded down the alpine slide; most attractions will shut down after November 1. Heritage Square has been losing money for “many years,” according to its management.
Originally called Magic Mountain, the park was conceived by Walter Cobb and a team of locals, according to the Golden Landmarks Association. They brought in C.V. Wood, a key figure in the creation of Disneyland, and a team of more than a dozen ex-Disney employees. Together they built a village in the visual style of the Colorado gold rush a century earlier, drawing from the state’s architectural traditions to design four main buildings with surprising accuracy. They also borrowed Disney’s practice of “storybook” architecture, a Hollywood trick that makes buildings look larger by skewing their lines.
“It was the second regional theme park anywhere, after Disneyland,” says Richard Gardner, boardmember and historian for the Golden Landmarks Association. “They thought big, and Wood made sure they thought big.... It’s all creative artistry, and you see intricate craftsmanship.”
But financial trouble dashed much of the grander plan, which included never-built futuristic, storybook and forest-themed sections. The park closed in 1960, after three years of partial operation. It was revived eleven years later by a real-estate company as Heritage Square, and its central village would survive a series of ownership changes in the decades to come.
Oddly enough, an actual mining company currently controls the fictional outpost. The homey theme park stands next to a massive rock quarry, and Martin Marietta Materials owns the sites of both the pit mine and the quaint historical village. There is little chance that the mine will expand onto the theme park’s land — Heritage Square isn’t zoned for industrial use, and the company claims no interest — but the park’s closure is likely to spell doom for its unusual main-street buildings, since they would require costly renovations to survive, says property manager Peter Bovis.
Now visitors are flocking for a last foray through the tiny bizarro world. Certain attractions, such as the slide, have already closed; this weekend brings the last days for the central village and the Miner's Maze Adventureland. Spider Mansion never opened for the season because of a water main leak; the haunted house will open next year "in a new location," according to Heritage Square's website.
Only a small section of the park is set to reopen next year: The amusement-park section, with its go-karts and mini-golf, and the Garden Grille are operated independently and have an extended lease. On the rest of the land, the city’s zoning rules allow for “planned unit development,” likely in the form of office or commercial construction, according to Golden staff.
The thought of the end is “horrific,” Gardner says. “This is one of the crown jewels of the region. It’s one of the best-preserved examples of early theme parks anywhere on earth.”
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Heritage Square's owners have told the city that they want to preserve the one-room wedding chapel, which was once a school in Lakewood. The fate of the other buildings, whether demolition or preservation, hasn’t been decided, Bovis says. But the city’s planning staff expects to receive demolition-permit requests for the rest of the site — unless someone’s in the market for a real piece of fake history.
When it's gone, people looking for historic Colorado may have to settle for the real thing. In fact, Disney himself turned to this state as he crafted his first fantasy land: Fort Collins's old town was an inspiration for Disneyland's Main Street USA.