Elitch Gardens
July 26, 2011

copyright Jay Ducharme 2011

On Monday the 25th, Karen's sister Judy took us out for some scenic views of the Colorado area.  We stopped at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, where almost every well-known musical act had played.  It was an impressive site.  We also visited CaƱon City to ride the Royal Gorge Route, a two hour railroad trip.  We had seating in the Vista car, with curved windows that went nearly to the ceiling.  But I ended up spending most of the trip in the open car.  The trip provided spectacular views of the mountains and river, including a view of the world's tallest suspension bridge.  Along the way we waved to whitewater rafters passing by.  We had a great time.  We also stopped off at a nearby abbey that had its own winery.  And Judy also took us to see the famous Broadmoor Hotel, one of the most exclusive resorts in the U.S.

But our trip out west was rapidly drawing to a close, and the final stop for us was Elitch Gardens in downtown Denver. The park had a storied history, beginning in the late 1800s. For most of it's existence, the park occupied about a block of land outside of the city. In that small plot of land were the gardens that the name implies plus a lot of rides, including the famed intertwined wood coaster combination of the Wildcat and the legendary Mister Twister, often regarded as one of the greatest roller coasters ever constructed.  But in a controversial move in 1995, the parked closed shop and moved lock, stock and barrel to a plot of land just outside downtown Denver. After the owners had made a statement claiming they were going to save Mister Twister, the ride was unceremoniously bulldozed. Instead, the park hired designer John Pierce to create a new version of the ride: Twister II. The move was decried by coaster enthusiasts, and the bad feelings surrounding it's construction helped ensure that it was the last coaster Pierce would ever build. (The original ride eventually was rebuilt -- but by Knoebel's Amusement Resort and simply called Twister.)

The new Elitch opened to mixed reviews. Residents who remembered the park from their youth found few memories to relive there.  The time-worn charm of the original park was gone, and in its place was a new modern facility that bore resemblance mostly in name. After a few years of operation, the owners sold Elitch to Premier Parks, which eventually became Six Flags. Elitch was then transformed into a teen thrill park, much like every other Six Flags park, with giant metal buildings, Looney Tunes and DC Comics branding, and stock steel rides that could be found at any park in the chain. Then in 2006, when the Six Flags corporation was fighting bankruptcy, Elitch was sold again, that time to a financial consortium. Then once again in 2011 it was resold, this time to Herschend Family Entertainment which operates several other U.S. parks.

So it was with a certain trepidation that we visited the park. We weren't big fans of the Six Flags makeovers and were pretty sure we wouldn't find anything left of the Elitch Gardens from decades past.  As Karen's sister drove us toward the park, the huge white structure of Twister II was clearly visible from the highway. We turned down a street past the big colorful slides in the water park and were dropped off at the park entrance. The location did seem odd and fairly congested with traffic (though the original location was probably even more of a bottleneck). The entrance was painted bright yellow and sported a large round sign with the awkward phrase, "Not to see Elitch's is not to see Denver". The way the slogan was worded made it seem as if they were asking people to not visit the park. We followed the thick crowds of people funneling though the entranceway. Karen had purchased our tickets online for nearly half-price, so we walked toward the gates that were located inside a huge circular domed building that also contained a variety of concessions (fudge, funnel cakes, clothing and gifts). I had never before seen gates positioned inside like that. Every gate had a security checkpoint. We passed though and were in ... a shopping mall.  It really seemed that way.  The building was white corrugate metal with the ceiling trusses exposed.  It seemed functional, but not attractive.  At the center of this mall, under the dome, was a huge gift shop with the hip-sounding name The District.  There were lots racks filled with t-shirts and jackets, giving it the appearance of a mall clothing store.

We bypassed the store and headed out onto the midway.  The first thing we encountered was the massive structure of the carousel pavilion.  A large plaque high on the building proudly proclaimed it as a Philadelphia Toboggan Company ride.  It was about the same vintage as the Mountain Park merry-go-round that I used to operate.  The horses were modeled in the typically realistic PTC style.  The scenery panels had lushly painted bucolic vistas.  We past the carousel to an open plaza area.  The ground was made of colored poured concrete and looked like the technique used at other Six Flags parks.  At the far right was the entrance to the Island Kingdom waterpark.  To our immediate right was an attractive gazebo above a large stone fountain.  In front of us was a pretty and very Disney-like Main Street, with colorful colonial-styled shops lining each side. Above the street, hung between the rows of buildings, was a ceiling of LED light strings which must have looked wonderful at night.  The street ended at a giant colorful Ferris wheel fronted by a large clock with a face made of flowers.  Just to the right at the end of the street was Trocadero, an ornate building (dated 1917) that looked liked it belonged in New Orleans, with two large white columns on either side and giant decorative cylindrical stained glass lights.  To the left of the Ferris Wheel was a curving concrete pond with a small fountain in it.

Karen picked up a park map, a folded tome nearly 1/8-inch thick that opened up into the largest brochure I'd ever seen.  Since the Ferris wheel was right in front of us, we decided to begin our day with it.  Each cab was a large fiberglass bucket encompassed by a steel cage.  The two ride attendants seemed very friendly and chatty.  Soon we were traveling to the top of the wheel.  From up in the air, we were able to survey the lay of the land.  That was difficult, though.  The park had an odd sort of teardrop shape and about the only thing readily apparent was the amount of metal rides on the midway (including a stock Mind Eraser coaster that was down for the day).  That probably made the hearts of teen thrill-seekers go pitter-pat.  But Karen and I just looked at the view wondering how many of those we'd actually want to ride.  Fortunately, there was one thrill ride we wanted to try -- the giant white structure of Twister II called to us from the other end of the park.  We just had to figure out how to get there.

After our ride on the Ferris Wheel, we wandered in roughly the direction of Twister II.  We passed Startoon Studios, a kiddie area that looked like it was a re-themed Looney Tunes land.  It seemed a bit barren.  A structure shaped like a film reel appeared to have once been a swing-like ride, but now was being used as a plant hanger.  If there was any doubt this once had a Looney Tunes theme, that was dispelled by a massive enclosed playscape for kids that featured a giant cage exactly like Tweety's.  The only thing missing was the bird on its perch.  Nearby was the Cactus Coaster that had probably been themed to Yosemite Sam.  But overall, the new owners had done a pretty good job a eradicating references to Six Flags brands and replacing them with fairly generic theming.  Unlike many Six Flags parks, Elitch had lots of nicely-landscaped shady areas.  Some things were probably harder to change, though.  One was the Elitch Arena, a giant ugly metal building that probably had been home to a Batman stunt show in the Six Flags days.  Elitch was now using it as a concert venue.  But it was still a giant ugly metal building and stuck out as cheap and utilitarian compared with the nicely detailed Main Street area.

Opposite the arena was a sort of blast from the past: an old Arrow shuttle loop coaster named Sidewinder.  I hadn't seen one of those in ages.  It was odd in this high-tech age to find a steel coaster where riders first had to climb a five-story staircase to get to the loading platform.  After leaving the loading platform, the coaster dove into a loop and stopped on an identical platform at the other end of the loop.  Then the train was pushed backwards through the same loop, ending up back at the loading platform.  It seemed redundant with the similar Boomerang coaster nearby.  Sidewinder had low capacity and limited thrills but to its credit it took up very little space.

On our way toward Twister, we passed through the huge Rustler's Food Court, a cafeteria with a dizzying assortment of food choices, from a Subway shop to pizzas to salads.  This was a place we could happily dine.  There were lots of fun themed elements tacked up to the walls, including an elusive jackalope and a dangerous outlaw.  As we continued our walk, we noticed other nice themed elements often tucked away to the sides of the midway.  One of the more spectacular features was a curved wooden fence with widely spaced slats.  A waterfall cascaded down from the other side, glistening through the spaces in the wood.  We passed by the Half Pipe, a skateboard-like vehicle on a giant U-shaped vertical track.  The skateboard ran up and down the sides while circular seating on each end of the skateboard spun the riders into oblivion.

We finally approached the imposing white structure of Twister II.  The entrance led directly into the center of the ride structure, much like Six Flags New England's Cyclone.  I was surprised to see standard 3-bench PTC trains running on the ride.  With such a twisted course, I would have thought that the 2-bench trains would have made more sense.  In fact, the ride began its life with the 2-bench trains and the park replaced them for some reason.  The queue line snaked through the structure and around an unkempt grassy area that was fenced off with chain-link.   The remains of a wooden fence were in front of it.  The train barrelled through its course as we followed the seemingly endless path to the large plain white station with a new-looking red metal roof.  On the side of the station building was a huge photo paying homage (somewhat ironically) to the old Mister Twister.  As we continued following the queue underneath the station, there were a series of awkwardly-placed similar images illustrating all the coasters from the original Elitch Gardens starting with the Toboggan from the early 1900s and ending with the Wildcat.  The images were behind plexiglass and reflections made them difficult to see.  As we climbed up to the loading area, we finally were able to get a good view of the surrounding land.  The ride was adjacent to a busy rail yard on one side and industrial development on another.  It was rare for a park to be built within city limits like this one.  In this case it didn't make for the most attactive scenery at the edges of the property.

As Karen and I waited (and waited) for the front seat, an annoying trend became obvious.  The park offered their Rapid Ride, an extra charge of $30 that allowed guests to cut into ride lines.  I abhor that practice.  Amusement parks used to be a place where everyone was equal and enjoyed the same priviledges.  But now those with extra money were able to force guests who didn't want to spend the extra money to wait longer in lines.  At many parks that offered this extortion, those guests could cut to the front of a coaster line (usually through the exit) but then had to sit in whatever seat was available at that time.  That had minimal impact on everyone else's wait.  At Elitch, however, those guests were guided to the front seat of the coaster.  And there were a LOT of Rapid Rides while we were there.  The result was that anyone waiting for the front had to wait doubly-long for the Rapid Ride queue to be exhausted.  I heard several people complaining about how the practice made it seem like the park cared more for money than for its customers.

After about 45 minutes, Karen and I finally sat in the front seat, which had a seat divider.  That made it a bit snug, with the seat belts and individual ratcheting lap bars.  We were dispatched onto the right-hand curve that brought us to the long lift.  The train was already "hunting," bouncing back and forth between the track rails.  That wasn't a good sign.  It was a long lift hill.  By the way, did I mention it was a long lift hill?  The chain seemed to move really slowly as the train inched its way up.  Maybe they had slowed the chain down to try to reduce the speed of the train as it plunged down the first drop.  It took a while for us to get to that point, but we finally crested the hill.  There was the ride's signature s-curve to the right and then around to left, and then we plunged down the first drop.  The train shook wildly.  We then rose up into a right turn and went down the second drop where a trim brake slowed us down a bit.  There was no noticeable airtime on any of the hills.  The only forces on us were from the train's convulsions as it attempted to negotiate the curving track.  There was another right-hand turn and drop, and the next hill was a sort of half-hearted double-up that had no noticeable airtime.  Next we flew into the ride's double-helix.  I thought the train was going to shake itself apart.  A left-hand drop followed a long straightaway with another trim brake.  We dove into a curving tunnel, emerged into some more turns and then were back to the station.  I could understand why John Pierce no longer designed coasters.

The owners of Elitch Gardens shouldn't have messed with a good thing.  They should have hired Pierce to simply reconstruct the original ride.  After all, they owned the original blueprints.  But instead they created a slightly bigger and slightly different version that didn't impress me.  I had nothing to compare it to, since I never rode the original.  Maybe I wouldn't have liked the original.  I rode Knoebel's rebuild and liked that.  But Twister II wasn't our cup of tea.

Speaking of tea, we were hot and parched and began looking for something to drink.  We passed by a food concession building that seemed to have been abandoned.  It had the name "Waterfront" on it, probably a reference to the nearby Shipwreck Falls shoot-the-chutes.  Getting soaked sounded refreshing, so we queued up for it.  Unlike the ride of the same name at Six Flags New England, this one produced a colossal splash of the muddy brown water.  We were quickly seated in the front and sent on our way.  The turn at the top of the lift was surprisingly bumpy.  The drop wasn't very steep, but when we hit the water, a white wall rose up in front of us and then collapsed.  We were drenched and laughing.

Since we were soaked, we headed for the park's river raft ride, Disaster Canyon.  We could see the rafts circling around by Shipwreck Falls, but we couldn't figure out where the entrance was.  We finally found it tucked into a corner of the park.  It was nicely themed.  A stairway led up mysteriously between huge rocks.  The queue had various areas that overlooked the ride.  It was probably the best landscaped ride we had seen at Elitch.  The queue line seemed to go on forever.  There were even longer queue sections that had since been closed off with fencing.  It took about 20 minutes to arrive at the station, which had still more queue line to get through.  Karen heard one of the ride attendants call "Two!" and raised her hand.  We were called to the front of the line, which probably saved us another 20 minutes in line.  We sat with a family wearing the Rapid Ride passes around their necks.  The father joked that their passes finally benefitted other guests, so he didn't feel so bad.  The trip in the raft was fairly leisurely.  We spun a few times but mostly just bobbed on the water.  That waterfall with a wooden fence that I had seen earlier was part of the ride, but none of us got wet from it.  The father got splashed pretty good, but the rest of us were hit with only a few drops.

After that we really needed something to drink.  We ended up in the Orchard Cafe.  The place looked sort of lonely.  There were just three small cafe tables in the large concession.  No one was there.  But it served drinks and Blue Bunny ice cream.  I got a vanilla milkshake and Karen got a diet Pepsi.  We wandered the midway as we sipped our refreshments.  The milkshake was delicious.  Karen spotted the white tents of the picnic grove and peeked in to see what it was like.  It was ... white tents and picnic tables.  I saw that the park had a dark ride, so we located it on the map and headed there.  With the name Ghost Blasters, I knew what to expect.  In an unusual move, the ride's loading area was actually located inside a concession stand that offered discounted Elitch gifts.  Next to the loading platform was a nicely done animatronic figure named Professor Phearstruck -- identical to the character on Ghost Hunt at Connecticut's Lake Compounce (except at Compounce the characters were live actors on video screens).  Not only that, when we followed the queue line outside, there was the same stone griffon that guarded the Ghost Hunt queue.  The side of the ride's metal building had been partially covered by a cartoon graveyard scene.  The line snaked back inside the concession stand.  Eventually we were seated in one of the familiar cars holding our "boo blasters."  The ride itself was fun and had many of the same stunts as its Lake Compounce cousin.

By then it was nearly 2:00 and Karen wanted to see the show in the Trocadero, Cirque Innosta.  There were so many varieties of the Cirque du Soleil shows at amusement parks, it was hard to keep track of them. All of them generally featured a sort of mystical loose storyline, quirky soundtracks, inventive sets and costumes and cutting-edge acrobatics.  We entered the cool darkened theater with about ten minutes to spare.  A laconic mime was in front of the stage, sweeping and interacting with the audience members that were near him.  The stage proscenium was draped with a patchwork assortment of silky curtains lit in warm tones. By the time the show started, the theater had a full house.  Music started and the mime walked up onto the stage.  He walked to a trunk and pulled out a snow globe, staring at it dreamily.  The curtains parted, revealing a beautiful background of a giant amber moon, trees and a starry sky.  There was also an odd lump of fabric center stage.  Two women appeared on the stage in fanciful Louis XIV-styled costumes.  The mime walked over to the lump of fabric, which suddenly got sucked down into the stage as if encountering a black hole.  It was a surprising, fantastical effect.  There was an odd sort of platform under the fabric.  Eventually two men appeared and used the platform for an acrobatic act.  One of the men lay on his back on the platform with his legs pointing up.  The other man jumped on top of the first man's legs and the first man spun the second around like a ball.  That went on for a while.  The audience applauded and the men left the stage with their platform.  The mime and the women performed a quiet interlude.  The stage changed color to a much cooler bluish tint.  Pounding India pop music began playing and a man entered with what looked like a giant hamster wheel.  He proceeded to perform remarkable acrobatic stunts inside of it -- rolling around like a fallen coin, jumping out of the side and re-entering it.  It was fascinating and enthralling.  The colors changed again and this time a woman appeared along with a large steel ring from the ceiling.  She rose up into the air on the ring and swung about on it.  When she left the stage, the mime looked for two children to join him on stage.  A large sign appeared advertising "The World's Third Worst Magician."  He walked the two children through a silly pseudo magic act that went awry.  The final act then appeared, a man who balanced himself on stacks of cylinders.  Then all the performers came out for bows.  It was one of the better shows I've seen at an amusement park.  As the audience left, the mime remained and got some of the children to help him sweep up the stage area.

Karen and I walked across the midway to the row of gift shops.  There were lots of t-shirts, but none of them appealed to me.  One of them showed a steel coaster the park didn't even have and it read, "I had so much fun I almost puked."  We walked back out onto the midway.  In the concrete pond, a duck had taken up residence on a small rock.  It was sitting on its young.  We headed toward the front of the park searching for the entrance to the park's huge observation tower.  I was surprised how many ride entrances were hard to find.  We finally found it.  There were only a couple of kids in line.  The elevator returned to ground level and disgorged its passengers.  We climbed into the comfortable air conditioning.  The pleasant elevator operator gave us the usual warnings (no spitting, etc...) and opened the doors to the 250-foot-high platform.  There was a strong cool breeze blowing and it felt good.  The views were spectacular.  The downtown Denver skyline was an impressive sight.  From our height, the waterpark's wave pool appeared to be filled with ants.  And of course there was an impressive panorama of the entire park.

We returned to terra firma.  Both of us had pretty much seen and done everything we wanted to do at Elitch.  I did want to take a ride on the nearby carousel.  The ride was in beautiful condition.  The large fancy chariots were pulled by two steeds that were jumpers.  Strangely, both horses had signs on them warning that they couldn't be ridden.  We climbed aboard other horses and had a leisurely spin.  After that, we were ready to leave.  When we walked back onto the midway, one of the park's midway acts was performing, a girl drummer group called the Bang Bangs.  Strangely, their performances were scheduled at the same time as the Cirque performances.  Normally parks staggered performances so that shows all took place at different times throughout the day.  The girls weren't very good and seemed to be hesitantly making up their performance as they went along.   We headed back toward the entrance and paid one last visit to The District looking for a souvenir.  I finally found something I liked: a pop-up magnet.  With that in hand, we exited the park.

Elitch Gardens was a strange place.  On one hand, there were elements of beauty about it.  Some of the landscaping and water features harkened back to the family parks of old.  But on the other hand, the industrial modifications by Six Flags had left an indelible mark.  There were the giant steel rides and metal buildings that just didn't seem to fit in.  Elitch had an identity crisis: was it a good old family park or was it a high-tech thrill park?  It didn't look like the new owners had resolved that crisis.  The park map listed the Spider and Troika as "Family Rides."  If I went on those rides, I'd probably also need to buy that "almost puked" t-shirt.  Judging by the large crowds, the guests didn't seem to care one way or another.  But to me there seemed to be something missing -- a soul, which nearby Lakeside Amusement Park had in spades.  (I thought it was an interesting anecdote that the original lift hill of Mister Twister used to face Lakeside's Cyclone.)  It was almost as if Elitch's deal to come downtown was made with the devil.  They gained a bigger plot of land but lost their charm, especially in the eyes of long-time Denver residents.  Except for the absence of branding, I could have been at any other Six Flags park.  I did enjoy the show and the water rides.  But that alone wouldn't be enough to draw me back to the park.  Elitch had many elements in place: a storied history, a nice Main Street area, a location near the heart of a major city and next to public transportation.  But I think the new owners needed to sort out where Elitch's soul really was.  Perhaps it really was a teen thrill park, and Lakeside was Denver's family destination.  We had a wonderful time in Colorado and would love to visit the state again some day.  But as for the park, I was left with the impression that not to see Elitch's was ...  not to see Elitch's.

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