“Not to see Elitch’s is not to see Denver.” That sign on the giant Ferris wheel greets guests as they enter the Elitch Gardens theme park in downtown Denver, which, in 2010, is marking its 120-year anniversary.
The slogan may have been more relevant when Elitch Gardens was in its heyday in north Denver, located for more than 100 years at West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street. It moved to its current site in 1995, bordered by Speer Boulevard and Cherry Creek in the Central Platte River Valley, and its Observation Tower has become an iconic landmark among the city’s skyscrapers.
Founded by John and Mary Elitch in 1890 as orchards, gardens and a zoo, it grew to include a legitimate theater in 1892 and, five years later, the first summer stock theater company in the U.S., attracting big-name stars in popular plays. Add the 1917 opening of the Trocadero Ballroom, with musicians such as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and other big-band leaders, and there was no better place to go for an evening of entertainment than Elitch Gardens. Denverites thronged there for ballroom dancing. The amusement rides arrived a little later, and now Elitch Gardens claims to be the oldest theme park in operation “west of the Mississippi.”
Elitch’s has gone through many changes in purpose and ownership over the years, especially in its more recent past. In 2007, PARC Management (which owns 25 parks around the country) acquired the theme park from the Six Flags brand, with a mission to reconnect the park with the Denver community and focus on the family experience.
“Rarely is a park ever just built… it grows out of the community,” said Randy Drew, president and CEO of the PARC team. In addition to the company’s new Heart of Denver award, given to organizations that improve the lives of Denver citizens, PARC Management also wants to showcase the rich history of the theme park. “We want people to understand this is their heritage and that we care.”
The blend of newness and historical significance is in evidence throughout the park. Bright coats of paint and lights on the refurbished rides have added vibrancy to the park in general, and PARC’s reintroduction of the gardens adds a beautiful and natural pop to the park.
Signs that explain Elitch’s history are posted around the park and at significant rides. These include the 82-year-old Carousel, with 67 beautifully-preserved hand-carved pieces still in operation, as well as the Twister II, a replica of the original Mister Twister wooden roller coaster.
The park consists of several areas. The main theme park has enough flips, spins, twists, drops and attractions for everyone, featuring roller coasters, thrill rides and family rides, along with games and arcades, fun theme restaurants, souvenir shops, photo booths and candy stores.
For those hot, sunny Denver days, the Island Kingdom Waterpark is a cool place to get wet, where visitors can hang in the wave pool, fly down water slides and rides, and relax in the lazy river. (Entrance to the waterpark is included in the ticket price.)
The main park also features water rides for those who want to get wet and keep going, including Disaster Canyon and Shipwreck Falls.
Elitch’s isn’t just for the big kids, either. The Startoon Studios area offers tike-size rides that mimic a lot of those in the main park, with the Cactus Coaster, the mini Tea Cups and a shorter version of the Tower of Doom, as well as more kid-oriented play places like the Wacky Warehouse. The Island Kingdom Waterpark also has Hook’s Lagoon, a kiddie water playhouse of squirting hoses, slides and water gadgets.
PARC management says it wants Elitch Gardens to be a family experience, not just a destination. This family fun mindset includes hosting a summer series of concerts and kid shows brought to the Big Wheel stage and around the park.
Drew says it is not just about the rides – it’s about creating an overall family-friendly environment that helps families come together during their park experience. The goal is to offer an affordable and quality family outing, while offering a community connection.
“The mission of our company is to create safe, wholesome places for families to come and create treasured memories,” said Drew.
If You Go
2000 Elitch Circle
Denver, Colorado 80204
Concerts and events are included with park admission and for season pass holders.
All-day tickets cost $38.99 for those 48” and above, and $27.99 for those who are shorter. Ages 3 and under are free. Season passes pay for themselves in two visits, at $79.99. Check the Elitch Gardens website for ticket deals and discounts.
The theme park is open from May 1 to Oct. 31. The Island Kingdom Waterpark is open from May 29 to Sept. 6. Check the online calendar for specific hours of daily operation.