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Essence of Elitch's

Remembering the old, embracing the new at Colorados oldest amusement park


The Boomerang, one of many world-class roller - coasters at Six Flags Elitch Gardens. - CARSON BENNETT
  • Carson Bennett
  • The Boomerang, one of many world-class roller coasters at Six Flags Elitch Gardens.

I remember waiting impatiently in the parking lot of the original Elitch Gardens while my mom made sure we were all slathered with sunblock, my dad loaded film into three or four cameras, and I stared with my brother and sister at the "Rainbow" ride as it popped up over the trees like a sudden multicolored sunrise.

Elitch Gardens, originally snuggled into a few acres in north Denver at West 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street, now sprawls across the Platte Valley under the skyline of downtown Denver just off of Speer Boulevard. Elitch's is America's oldest theme park, preceding Disneyland by 65 years. But before it was just a theme park, it was the heart of Denver culture and entertainment.

John and Mary Elitch founded the Elitch Theater in 1890 as a vaudeville venue. Over the next 60 years Elitch's helped to launch the careers of actors and actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, Pat O'Brien and Grace Kelly. The theater, one of only two surviving structures at the original Elitch Gardens location, is also the oldest summer playhouse in the country and has recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Elitch's quickly grew beyond a theater venue to add a public garden, a zoo, and, when it added rides at the turn of the century, an amusement park. Elitch's had become an institution in Denver, and both tourists and locals adopted the slogan "Not to see Elitch's is not to see Denver." In 1994, Elitch's closed its gates in north Denver and moved to its current location in the Platte Valley.

May 27, 1995, the opening day for Elitch's current location in downtown Denver was bittersweet for people who remembered the old park. Gone were the huge shade trees and flower gardens so prevalent at the original location, replaced by canvas canopies and concrete. The "Splinter," better known by fans as "the log ride" with its hollowed-out log cars, quarter-mile flume, mechanized Pacific Northwest logging camp scenes, and 45-foot drop into a refreshing pool of water, was replaced by "Disaster Canyon," a skin-soaking river raft-style ride through a concrete gully. Picnics were only allowed in designated areas, and people could no longer bring in their own food. Not even a granola bar.

But not all was lost. Many of the rides were moved from the original site to be restored and installed in the new park. The 1925 carousel is now the first ride you see upon entering the park. The old "Swing Ride" was repainted and given its own island within a green lagoon. The first looped roller coaster in Colorado, the "Sidewinder," still runs on its green tracks near the center of the park. "Twister II," sister of the original "Twister," one of the oldest wooden track roller coasters in the United States, still offers a bone-jarring, teeth-chattering experience with great views of the Rocky Mountains, if you can keep your eyes open. Also relocated from the old park were the "Sea Dragon," "Troika," and my beloved "Rainbow."

Elitch's may no longer have big leafy trees and extensive flower gardens, but they do have Bugs Bunny. Six Flags bought Elitch Gardens in 1999, soon after it moved to its current location, and introduced a Warner Brothers theme. Kiddie Land is now called Looney Tunes Movie Town.

There are many new world-class roller coasters, rides and attractions at Six Flags Elitch Gardens as well. An action-packed Batman Forever theme show runs daily until Labor Day. The water park is a nice break during a hot day, but is too small to consider a main attraction.

As for the new rides, prepare to freefall more than 200 feet on the "Tower of Doom," my favorite ride. Strap into the "Mind Eraser" roller coaster, a unique coaster that suspends you with legs dangling and shoots you through dives, loops and corkscrews at more than 60 miles per hour. Be sure to check out the "Half Pipe," a brand-new ride that opened this summer. Elitch's describes it as "the most thrilling snowboard ride in Colorado." Although it feels nothing like snowboarding, it is quite an adrenaline rush. Riders are strapped into one of two cars that freely rotate 360 degrees on a large board/sled as it slides up and down a 100-foot-tall halfpipe track. It is only the second ride of its kind in the world.

The original Elitch Gardens was a cultural staple of Denver and Colorado. It was a little piece of history. The new Six Flags Elitch Gardens may simply be an adrenaline junkie's paradise or every kid's dream playground, but the old dictum still holds true: "Not to see Elitch's is not to see Denver."

-- Carson Bennett


Six Flags Elitch Gardens

Directions: Take I-25 north to Denver, exit at Speer Boulevard South (212 A), turn right on Elitch Circle.

The park is open, generally, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Check the Web site for specific dates.

Tickets: $36.99 for guests 48 inches and taller; $20.99 for guests under 48 inches or guests ages 55-69; Free for children under 3 years or senior citizens over 70 years. King Soopers offers discount tickets, as does the Girl Scout Shop, 3535 Parkmoor Village Drive. Call 597-8603 for hours.

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