Denver’s Elitch Gardens Water Park: Jump Right In


Denver Water Park

My daughter wonders where all the water comes from. She is in awe about the sheer volume of the wet element. We have gone swimming multiple times this hot summer, but nothing compares to Denver’s Elitch Gardens Water Park.

There is not just one big pool here, but two, plus numerous slides, pirates cove, water rides and a lazy river called “Castaway Creek” with artificial geysers, bubbles, waterfalls and a picnic area. My 6-year old must think of our inflatable kiddie pool at home. “Do you think they fill them up with a water hose?” she asks.

While I try to think of an intelligent answer, a signal tone bleeps through my thoughts, followed by applause and happy shrieks: The waves are coming! Commotion Ocean, a giant wave pool is coming alive. Who cares about water sources now? The

rolling surf is here to play, and we jump right in.

Elitch Gardens has been part of the Denver landscape for more than 120 years, originally in north Denver. It was founded in 1890 by entrepreneurs and nature lovers John and Mary Elitch.

The two had an amazing life. John was a restaurateur, businessman, actor, zookeeper, and the original owner of Elitchs. He once managed the restaurant in the California Theatre (San Francisco). Not only did he meet many entertainers and businessmen, but he also met a young usher, Mary Hauck. The two hit it off and married in 1873 in their hometown of San Jose, CA.

John shared his dream with Mary. He wanted to become a zookeeper at a beautiful resort with a theatre. In 1880 the couple arrived in Denver, CO. John worked at friends’ restaurants accumulating money. He eventually had enough savings to open a restaurant. John later sold the restaurant and opened several other eating establishments in Denver. In 1984 he purchased a 16-acre farm in the Western Denver Highlands. The couple decided to follow their dream. They wanted to transform the land into a magical cultural resort. They planned to have a zoo, plants, flowers, musicians, and a theater for his friends to entertain. Three years year, they opened the Elitch Zoological Gardens. Many of his famous friends attended the opening day. One guest was P.T. Barnum. He donated many of the animals for the zoo. The place was almost an instant success. As the saying goes, “the rest is history.”

The park was famed for its fun-filled entertainment and horticultural beauty. Elitch Gardens was the self-acclaimed home to Colorado’s first botanic garden and symphony orchestra, one of the first zoos west of Chicago, the country’s oldest summer stock theater and Denver’s first movie theater.

Although she lost her husband in the park’s early years, Mary Elitch went on to successfully operate Elitch Gardens on her own for 26 years. In 1995 the park moved from its original location at West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street to the current spot near downtown Denver.

Hook’s Lagoon is five levels with 150 water gadgets.

Under new management by Herschend Family Entertainment, today Elitch Gardens is a combination amusement park and water park with live shows, fireworks and more than 40 thrill, family and water rides to choose from. There are high-tech rides, like the 200-foot free fall plunge “Tower of Doom;” a fully restored 83-year-old carousel with hand-carved horses; and the “Edge,” a massive 42-foot slide where daredevils drop down on an inner tube before racing up at breathtaking speeds to the other edge. Well, maybe later.

Off to Hook’s Lagoon first. It is supposed to resemble a tree house, but there is no tree in sight. Instead, 150 water gadgets on five levels include gigantic drenching barrels and spitting alligators, rushing fountains and squirting water pipes. Junior buccaneers can practice on the “Sea Witch,” a three-mast pirate ship with nets to climb and more body slides.

Who ever thought that there could be so many variations on slides? “Splashdown” is a 75-foot-long twisting family raft ride. “Cannonball Falls” are two enclosed tube slides. “RipQurl” means a high-energy tubing bowl ride for one or two riders. “Gangplanks” are two continuous river-run tube slides. “Sun Plunge” looks pretty harmless, but there is a reason it has no lines. A 65-foot tall speed slide is not for everyone. As is “Acapulco Cliff Dive,” which mimics free fall euphoria with a 65-foot-tall high-speed and high-thrill slide. And “Paradise Plunge” is an enclosed corkscrew speed slide where you get dizzy just by watching. We need a break.

Many rows of sun chairs are provided, but all seem to be reserved with a beach towel as place holder. We are lucky to be offered two when another family leaves early. We spread our towels, lean back and soak in this mini-vacation. I squint my eyes and gaze into the blue sky. The Ferris wheel and the 300-foot Observation Tower loom overhead. The view must be breathtaking.

“Not to see Elitch’s is not to see Denver” was the park’s slogan in its early days. It still rings true with its downtown location.

If You Go

Elitch Gardens
2000 Elitch Circle
Denver, Colorado 80204

The Elitch Gardens Water Park is open most days from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

Water Park admission is free with paid general admission. Daily tickets for adults cost $42.99; children and seniors over 62 pay $29.99. Search the internet and check out local grocery stores for coupons or discounts. Multi-day and season passes are available.

Plan ahead and arrive early to get a head start on the crowds. The weekends and Tuesdays are the busiest days. You can not only buy tickets on the park’s website but also parking passes ($12), meal vouchers, and daily tube, cabana and locker rentals. Locker quantities are limited and advance reservations are advised if you do not want to keep valuables unattended. Tube rentals (single $7, double $12) cut the waiting time at Water Park attractions like the “Castaway Creek” lazy river.