After an afternoon photographing Lakeside Amusement Park, I made a short drive across Denver to Elitch Gardens. “Elitch's,” as the locals call it, has a long and varied history going back to its opening in 1890 as the first metropolitan zoo west of Chicago. From there the floral gardens and animal displays evolved with the addition of a Kiddieland area in the 1950s and exciting roller coasters and other attractions in the 1960s and 70s.
The Original Gardens
As the name suggests, the property was not conceived of as an amusement park. Mary Elizabeth Hauck Elitch Long (whew!) had a great love for both flora and fauna. So when her first husband John took some of the money earned at his successful Elitch Palace restaurant (which had the longest bar in Denver at the time) and purchased sixteen acres of farmland, the focus was all plants and animals.
“Elitch’s Zoological Gardens” opened for its inaugural season on May 1, 1890, and was quite profitable from the start. By the following spring, however, Mary’s husband was dead of pneumonia. She considered the Gardens their greatest joint project, and was determined to press forward without him. Record attendance was set three seasons later, and by the turn of the twentieth century Mary Elitch had expanded the property by a dozen acres and added several attractions.
These included a penny arcade, narrow gauge railroad, and even a Civil War naval battle reenactment—in addition to upgrading the landscaping of the grounds and providing the electric lighting which was becoming more commonplace at this time.
In 1904 the park gained its first wooden roller coaster, and two years later a Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel (their sixth) was built for the park. The carousel remained in service at the park until 1928, and during the depression it was sold. Today it resides in the town of Burlington, Colorado—and if only I had known! I had just driven through there the day prior, and I could have seen it.
It was actually competition from Denver’s nearby “White City” of Lakeside during the following decade that spurred Mary’s park on to even more lavish theming and attractions. The original wooden arched entrance (seen in the first postcard above) was replaced with a Greek styled one, likely conceived to evoke the same grandeur of the Beaux-Arts structures at Lakeside.
In 1916, Mary Elitch sold out—but with the stipulation that her park’s name never be changed, and that she be permitted to reside on the property for the rest of her life, rent-free. The new owner, John Mulvihill, rather quickly transformed the once bucolic property into something more flashy.
He added a Trocadero Ballroom and soon Elitch’s was the site of much drinking and dancing during the Roaring Twenties—something Mary didn’t care for at all (she was a teetotaler and had allowed no alcohol at her Gardens).
By the mid-thirties, both Mary Elitch and John Mulvihill were gone; so was the zoo and part of the original botanical gardens. Mulvihill’s son-in law, Arthur Gurtler, had taken ownership and was intent on adding more and more rides and attractions. The Sky Rocket wooden coaster, built in 1926, was revamped in 1935 as the Wildcat.
Gurtler’s two sons took over in 1945 and by mid-century Elitch Gardens—like so many other small parks across the United States—had become swept up in the phenomenal success of Disneyland. But “Elitch’s” was actually a bit ahead of the national curve.
While Disneyland was just breaking ground in 1954, a Kiddieland section of the Gardens opened featuring rides just for smaller visitors and it was a huge hit, proving that amusement parks weren’t just for couples on dates or beer swilling workmen. The open ceremonies were presided over by TV celebrity Hopalong Cassidy and his horse, Topper—again presaging Disney and the media synergy his park would be known for.
A much-beloved wooden coaster, Mr. Twister, was designed by the famed John C. Allen and made its debut in 1964. For years, riders on Mr. Twister were directly within the sightline of nearby Lakeside’s Cyclone and could gaze across at riders on that coaster from the top of the first lift hill.
More attractions were added throughout the 1970s and 80s. But it was not to last.
By the late eighties, the neighborhood around Elitch’s Gardens was changing. The Gurtler family also wanted to expand the park. In this case, expansion meant moving. The result was a sweetheart deal with the City of Denver—the family bought sixty-five acres along the Platte River downtown (a former Superfund site) for about $6 million, and voters in 1989 approved a $14 million bond measure to pay for the preparation of the land and various infrastructure improvements.
The campaign slogan was "Vote for Elitch's — it's Denver!" which recalled the decades old park slogan “Not to see Elitch’s is not to see Denver.”
Elitch Gardens reopened at its current home on May 27, 1995. Fifteen of the twenty major attractions at the former Gardens were transplanted, although the long history and charm of the original grounds was gone. The entire ride relocation and new construction projects cost some $90 million.
Today, the park features six roller coasters, a water park and dozens of other rides and attractions, and holds the title of the only the only amusement park in the United States in the downtown core of a major city. The fourth-generation Gurtlers sold their interests after two (financially disappointing) seasons at the new location, and Elitch Gardens was passed back and forth between a number of corporate owners. The park was formerly part of the Six Flags chain until it sold the property in 2006. Today “Elitch’s” is actually owned by a sports and entertainment holding company, but managed by Premier Parks, a company started by a former Six Flags executive which manages a dozen amusement and water parks across the United States.
Although Six Flags split in 2006, the design of the Elitch park map is still very much in their graphic vein. Which is to say, less hyperbolic than the maps of Cedar Fair parks, but still somewhat stylized.
Entering the parking lot, I got very much a sports stadium vibe, mixed with traditional amusement park trappings. The flags, however, are metal. Lots of red, blue, and yellow.
Victorian gingerbread and wrought iron filigree adorns the ticket booths; this is something which has become a defacto design language standard at parks all over the world due to the influence of Disneyland.
This main entrance really struck me as odd; no familiar spatial organization for theme parks or amusement parks is visible from the parking lot. Without the Observation Tower in the background, there wouldn’t even be a visual cue that something exists beyond. In fact, with its arcing walls and striped awnings, the Elitch’s entrance looks much like a ballpark.
Once moving through the turnstiles, guests walk into a mid-sized indoor area with a few retail outlets and souvenir stands (presumably for last-minute purchases on the way out at park closing). There are a few design nods to the Victorian era and specifically London’s Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition of 1851; similar cast-iron and plate-glass is employed here.
It reminded me a bit of the World Bazaar area at the entrance at Tokyo Disneyland, which references the same language. The entrance to Elitch Gardens was just as loud, too, with concrete floors and sound bouncing off all the glass and metal. But here it’s small, and again, organized in a shape that feels like a sports stadium. I’m wondering—given the unique urban downtown location of the park—if this was a deliberate attempt at familiarity.
Immediately across the way after remmerging in the sunlight is the park’s Carousel which is a restored antique model that is over 80 years old, and is one of the many classic attractions which was relocated from the old Elitch Gardens. This is the very carousel (#51) which replaced the park’s first Philadelphia Toboggan model (#6) in 1928.
Main Street, Denver
Beyond the Carousel and Observation Tower is the waterpark area at Elitch’s. The rest of the grounds lie to the left. And the entry corridor to all the other attractions is a very, very, decidedly Disney-esque Main Street USA model. Seriously, I’ve never seen one this directly cribbed from the mouse.
The corridor is rather narrow, with a row of trees directly down the middle. This gives the walk something of a Midway feeling, but with added compression. The architecture is a Victorian hyperbolic mixture of the original Disneyland Main Street and its newer, larger cousins around the world.
All the trees really add something to the ambience. It wasn’t overly warm on the August day that I visited, but I can imagine it being an asphalt jungle at times without the lush landscaping.
There doesn’t appear to be forced perspective employed on the upper floors of the buildings here, which makes everything feel unnaturally large and imposing. Here’s another (unintentional) connection to World Bazaar at Tokyo Disneyland—the secondary floors there are all full scale as well, and many of the retail spaces and restaurants continue upstairs.
I walked this “Main Street” back a forth a few times, and with the trees, a narrow street, and the lack of forced perspective, it was indeed cramped. I don’t know if they were going for “cozy” but I definitely had compression on my mind.
Plenty of vintage-style graphic design, often in routed wood. The typefaces appear to be from the Letterhead Fonts Foundry, which I’ve seen at Disney as well as Cedar Fair parks.
The majority of the signage I saw was well done and on the more subtle side (read: not garish). Everything fits every well with late 1990s to mid-2010s Disney park design.
This makes sense, as the first season at the new Elitch’s was summer 1995. So whoever did the design work for this “Main Street” area was drawing on Disneyland (1955), the Magic Kingdom (1971), Tokyo Disneyland (1983), and even Disneyland Paris (1992).
Elitch’s is fascinating not just because of its long local history, but because in relocating in the mid-nineties, the park represents what designers in the industry thought represented “theme park-ness” at the time. It’s a snapshot of what tropes were well established enough by that time to work for the public.
For someone well-versed with Disney park design, this “Main Street” came off at once as a cute homage but also a knock off. Yet the execution was so on point that it didn’t feel cheap, as knock offs often do.
A curious feature of this area of Elitch Gardens are LED string lights which span the entire street, and then ended up looking pretty cool at night.
What would Mary Elitch think! The Trocadero has been resurrected right along with new Elitch Gardens—an addition by John Mulvihill which Mary always loathed for the drinking and dancing it brought.
At the end of this “Main Street” is the Big Wheel, a Ferris-type model some 100 feet tall. The compression of the walk leads to a classic sense of release as the view opens up; in this way the wheel functions as a classic Disney weenie, just like Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at the end of Main Street USA at Disneyland.
Looking back, the Observation Tower provides a weenie at the other end as well.
After passing through the courtyard area which holds the Big Wheel, things start to get more disparate. Elitch Gardens doesn’t really have “lands” per say, on its park map or otherwise. There are pockets, areas that seem to have the trappings of themes, and then stuff just kind of scattered in between. J.M. Mulvihills Bar & Grill doesn’t seem to be attached to anything (although the nearby swings ride is called Turn of the Century).
I loved this. A taco truck with a false front hacienda behind it to set the mood! This is the kind of thing I’m used to seeing at a Universal Studios park in the backlot area, or what I caught in the Southwest Territory area of Six Flags Great America. It’s the kind of FAKE / FAKE that’s almost charming.
Food Comes a Courtin’
Everywhere I’ve travelled, The Old West seems to be an inescapable theme. And not just in the United States, but in Europe and Asia too. Here at Elitch Gardens, its inclusion creates weird contradictions. So far, from the entrance through the park’s “Main Street” area, the emphasis has been on both traditional American amusement park iconography, and Victorian stylings suggesting the turn of the twentieth century. Although the park’s designers clearly leaned on Disney tropes (meeting mid-nineties expectations for “theme park-ness”), there’s at least a tangential connection to the legacy of the original Gardens.
But this “Frontiertown” approach has no connection to Elich’s or to the Denver area. As such, the theme is primarily relegated to a massive food court building.
Just as with “urban renewal” and “shopping mall,” the term “food court” is attributed to developer James Rouse. Wanting shoppers to extend their day at his indoor malls, he first added such a space to his Plymouth Meeting Mall (1966) outside Philadelphia in 1971, but it was too small and didn’t have much variety on the menu. Success finally struck three years later at the food court at his Paramus Park Mall (1974) in New Jersey.
Rouse was an unabashed fan of Disney. In 1963 he delivered the keynote address at Harvard’s Seventh Urban Design Conference, in which he asserted that given “its performance in relationship to its purpose” he felt that “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland.” Rouse went on to correctly predict the massive impact the park’s spatial design principles would have in the coming decades on retail, dining, hospitality, and housing developments—and further this with his own projects; The Rouse Company ended up building Disney-inspired “Festival Marketplaces” all over the country in the 1970s and 1980s.
This is what I call the “Flotsam / Jetsam” approached to a vaulted ceiling. Basically, if you’ve got a high open interior area in a structure, a solid shortcut to theming is to fill the rafters with a bunch of appropriate “stuff.”
And it’s not just excessive here at Rustler’s, it’s also quite random.
You have the expected displays, like livestock skulls and coils of lassos. But the rows of cowboy boots that are simply affixed to the wall? That I don’t get.
There’s no sense of historicity, even an invented one. If we’re supposed to be in the “Old West” then what are these Colorado license plates from 1970 doing here?
All the overdone propping spills out to the exteriors, especially on the roofs.
Just a pile of junk, with hand-painted signs that look like they came from the bric-a-brac aisle at Target.
There’s literally a stack like this on either side of every entrance and exit to the food court.
There are what appear to be a few genuine antiques scattered throughout. If this isn’t an authentic sign from the period, it’s well-reproduced for sure.
The Rustler’s Food Court building connects with a couple other exterior spaces. This “Tack and Saddlery” is home to carnival games (which did not seem to open on the day I visited).
In case you missed it, there are a half-dozen signs that say FOOD COURT on the roofs. The hand painted wood typography is a nice touch however.
There are also a couple retail spaces which are staged as faux proprietorships.
One trick which the Elitch Gardens designers successfully borrowed from Disney is the use of multiple, connected facades which actually lead all into the same building. Even though this appears to be a saloon, it’s just another entrance into Rustler’s Food Court.
At least this is clever—carnival fun as a “Gaming Parlour.”
Waters of the West
The Old West theming extends slightly beyond this one food court, but only in small ways. Disaster Canyon is the parks’ standard river rapids ride, and like so many models around the world, some kind of “Frontier” setting is the default. It was a bit chilly and the sun was due to set soon, so I skipped this one.
The queue entrance is a lighthouse, which reminds me of the New England themed Yankee Harbor area I found at Six Flags Great America. But because Elitch Gardens is so small, and there are no clearly marked “lands,” there isn’t really an opportunity for immersion. This “seaport lighthouse” area is nestled in next to some standard, off-the-shelf amusement park rides, roller coasters, etc.
Nicely routed type on the signage, even though the design feels like an uncomfortable mix of US Navy surplus grit and Hyannis Port yacht club class.
Let’s Get Twisted
Again, there’s no lands or themed areas per say at Elitch Gardens. So right around the corner from these water rides, and just down the road from the Old West food court, right at the back edge of the park, is a classic wooden roller coaster which doesn’t seem to have a relationship to its environs at all.
The original Elitch Gardens had installed a number of coaster rides over the decades, including Toboggan Slide (1904–1925) and Sky Rocket (1926–1935). But none was more famous or beloved than Mister Twister which was designed by industry legend John C. Allen. Unfortunately, the some 3,000 feet of thrilling track did not make the move to the new Elitch Gardens in the mid-nineties; it’s likely the park balked at the sheer expense of dismantling and reconstructing it. Given its age, the Twister probably would have required some serious retrofitting and restoration as well.
A few years after the new Elitch Gardens opened, family-owned Knoebels in Elysburg, Pennsylvania seemed to think it was worth the expense, and expressed interest in purchasing and moving Mister Twister, which had been left standing at the former property. This proved impractical, so instead the park bought the blueprints, modified the layout to fit the footprint on the Knoebels property, and mirrored it. The park’s Twister opened in 1999 and has been thrilling guests ever since. So this classic coaster—or at least the experience it provided—isn’t quite gone forever.
Elitch built an entirely fresh ten-story coaster from scratch at their new location instead, and unimaginatively called it Twister II. The park claims it recaptures the famed twists, turns, and thrills of the original (“Built Wilder The Second Time Around”), but most fans who remember the first Mister Twister don’t agree. I myself couldn’t make the comparison, but I rode it twice (once in the front row and once in the back) and I found Twister II lacking. The ride was pretty rough and uneven, actually.
Odds ‘n’ Ends
Apart from the theming I’ve already covered, all that’s left are some disparate bits of amusement park charm scattered here and there, and some of the same sorts of vintage typography that I found at Lakeside earlier that same day. I’m sure this looks great when it’s lit up at night.
This typical Theme Park Gingerbread looks like a food stand, but it’s actually one of two entrances to a rather unremarkable interactive dark ride called Ghost Blasters which is part of a larger franchise. This attractions closed in the fall of 2018. For the 2019 season the location reopened as a “thrill ride for the mind” called the Kaleidoscape which was developed by Meow Wolf, an arts and entertainment group which began in New Mexico as an artist collective in 2008.
Right next door in front of Mind Eraser, a Vekoma suspended coaster, is this cute little shack housing the Colorado Corn Dog Company. I point it out because there are nice little thematic design moments through Elitch Gardens, but because they were not comprehensively planned with an overall narrative, or even more specifically themed lands or areas, the charm falls flat. If this shack was supported by, say, a turn of the twentieth century boardwalk or perhaps a county fair setting, it would really shine.
Goodnight for the Gardens?
It’s rather fitting that it was dark by the time I strolled back through the “Main Street” area to exit Elitch Garden, because a permanent night might end up falling over the park—its future might be in jeopardy.
Rumors began swirling when the city of Denver approved a new zoning plan for the land that the park sits on in December of 2018. The River Mile is a mixed-use urban redevelopment project which includes high density housing in the form of some 8,000 units of various configurations. Office space would be available in some towers, with the street level reserved for retail and dining.
The architects working on the project say it will take several decades for The River Mile to be completed, so for now at least, Elitch Gardens seems to be secure in its current location. But who knows what might happen down the road. Could Elitch Gardens move on to yet a third iteration?
Walking towards the exit of the park, I took my time. The small LED lights strung across the rooftops of the “Main Street” area of Elitch Gardens were synchronized in an elaborate display with colored lighting on each and every building. I watch this go through several cycles; everything was bright and colorful, but the transitions were slow and subtle enough that the lighting wasn’t obnoxious. It was a very pleasant way to end my day in Denver.
Elitch Gardens is interesting to me mostly because of the snapshot of mid-nineties, Disney-esque thematic design on display. From the park’s “Main Street” to Rustler’s Food Court, Elitch Gardens v 2.0 looks like a shopping list of visual tropes that audiences have come to expect from the theme park experience. It would have been nice if the park was designed with a cohesive vision rather than the more fragmentary approach they took with the property, but if you’re in the Denver area during the summer months I think it is well worth a visit.