Lakeside Amusement Park
July 24, 2011

copyright Jay Ducharme 2011

For the final leg of our summer trip, we visited Karen's sister Judy in the Mile High City, Denver, Colorado. We had never been there before. We were met with sunny skies, crisp warm air and spectacular mountain vistas. After settling in at Judy's house, the first park we wanted to visit was one that I had wanted to experience for many years: historic Lakeside, an art deco wonder frozen in time on the outskirts of the city.

Judy drove us there. As we approached, the park's signature tower and the convoluted track of the classic Cyclone wood coaster came into view. We parked on a narrow dirt tract of land in front of the entrance, the tower rising high above us. The entrance building was a long white structure. It looked as if it could have been a roller rink at one time. Ornate bas-relief designs, abstract floral patterns, adorned the side facing the street.  Outlining the patterns were light sockets. Everything had been painted over in the same plain white as the wall. It looked as if actual lights had been absent for a long time. In the center of the building was the entrance, with two turnstiles and a ticket booth on the left. The entrance was a sort of alcove below the tower.  It opened up onto a plaza above the park. The ceiling of the alcove had bas relief designs similar to the walls, but these still had light bulbs in them.

The woman behind the ticket booth was very friendly as we figured out the pricing scheme and what we wanted to purchase. The park still sold individual ride tickets. We opted for the wristband, which gave us access to everything in the park except mini-golf. The wristbands cost a very reasonable $17.95. (It would have been $2 cheaper on a weeknight.)  We walked through the alcove and onto the plaza. On the left, the building continued with offices. On the right was a wall lined with pillars. Each was topped with s golden bird. The plaza ended at a set of stairs leading down to the midway. On our right, the wall ended at a large gold lion. It was clear that Lakeside was once a glorious and important part of Denver's social life.

We walked down the stairs past a lamp post that seemed to be from a Jetson's cartoon, a sort of 1960s futurist vision of lighting. In front of us was the massive art deco structure of the merry-go-round building. To its left was a sort of park with benches and gardens and a large abstract concrete-and-iron fountain that was dry. Against the tower building was a row of brightly colored facades that housed various food and game concessions. To our right was a cafeteria and the marvelous art deco entrance to the Cyclone. There weren't many people in line for the coaster, so that's how we began our visit.

The Cyclone was built in 1940 to replace an earlier coaster. It was designed by Ed Vettel, whose son was responsible for the re-working of Kennywood's Pippin into the now legendary Thunderbolt. The Cyclone and Thunderbolt shared design traits: both were hybrid twister/out-and-back layouts; both had a tight double-helix; both had some deeply curved drops and steeply banked track. The trains were remarkably well-preserved, with rare stationary lap bars, thick padded seats and flared padded sides. The park was running the red train; a blue one was stored in the station. The station still operated with manual brake levers  There were three operators. One manned the station brake to release the train at the start of the ride. Another manned the lower brake to let passengers off the ride. The third manned the upper brake to slow the train as it approached the station. The crew seemed to work really well together. The station brake operator would call out the usual warnings ("Do not stand up!") before sending the train off. The upper brake operator would yell out, "Did everybody have a good ride?" as the train stopped. The question was usually returned with cheers from the riders.

The interior of the station was colorfully painted and rimmed with neon. Above the station brake was a large wooden panel with a painting of the ride's layout. At various points along the route were empty light sockets, which I assumed at one time used to alert the operators of the train's location as it ran along the track. The panel appeared faded and unused. The track headed off through an archway into a pitch black tunnel. The railing on the queue line incorporated unique metal bas relief cutouts of a coaster car filled with riders in various emotional states, their hair blowing from the coaster's speed.

There was just one trainload of passengers ahead of us, and we were lucky enough to get the front seat.  Judy sat in the third seat.  It felt strange to not have a ratcheting lap bar pressing into my gut; I had grown so used to that feeling from nearly every other park we'd been to.  The sense of freedom in this train was refreshing.  There was a cloth seat belt with three steel loops on one section and a clip on the other.  It reached across both of us and was loosely secured.  The train filled up quickly.  The brake man recited his spiel and released us into the tunnel.  The train sharply turned to the right into darkness.  Kids behind us screamed, as all kids seem to do in tunnels.  We picked up speed in the dark and could feel the train turn sharply left.  And then daylight appeared.  We glided up the lift hill, which had a hand rail only on the left side.  That gave a heightened sense of danger; the right side of the track seemed so unprotected, dropping off precariously.  We crested the hill and the track disappeared, falling steeply and sharply to the left.  We flew down the drop and circled back up next to the lift, then dropped and circled again (that tight double-helix).  Each hill produced sustained floating airtime.  Then we bounded off toward the lake, flying over the camelbacks and coming out of our seat each time.  The track had a surprising amount of banking to it as it curved slightly left.  The we glided into the right-hand turnaround and returned to the station the same way we left it: flying over bunny hops that popped us out of our seat.  We rolled into the long brake run back to the neon-lit station.  What a great ride!  It was really comfortable.  The layout was unique and surprising and packed with fun lateral forces.  In fact the attendants insisted that heavier people sit on the right of the train so as not to squish the other rider.  And even with all the twists and turns, it still featured soaring airtime.  Cyclone was definitely one of my top five coaster favorites.  Karen and Judy both enjoyed it as well.

We walked back out onto the midway, admiring the colorful plantings that seemed to be everywhere.  We came to the station of the Lakeshore Scenic Route, the train ride around the lake.  I had heard a lot about it and was eager to take a ride.  But the train had just left the station.  Judy seemed especially eager to ride, opting for a coin operated model instead.  We contined down the midway, passing by attractive landscaping and another art deco masterpiece, the Auto Scooter ride (bumper cars).  The rides seemed to fit really well into the midway.  They were often hidden by tall trees, only to appear as you walked by them.  A classic Eyerly Loop-O-Plane named Round-Up ironically sat opposite a Round-Up.  A beautifully painted Flying Scooter ride at the edge of the park's old abandoned race track sat next to an unusual valentine-themed Twister-like ride named Heart Flip.  We queued up for a milder ride, the Big Eli Ferris wheel.  While we stood in line, I reminisced about my days running the same ride at Mountain Park.  At the ride's entrance gate was a cute height marker, a cartoon grandmother.  The Lakeside operator seemed to be having a confusing time of it, trying to figure out who to let off the ride and when to load it.  Karen and Judy noticed that there was a small plaque next to the operator that detailed how to load the cabs by number.  After a few minutes another ride operator (presumably more experienced) showed up and began giving pointers to the struggling guy.  Within a short time, Karen and Judy were loaded into cab 1 and I was seated in cab 9.  A line had developed, and when everyone in line was quickly loaded the wheel began its swift rotation, providing great views of the tree-filled midway.  Something that immediately caught my eye was the tall metal spire of an old Circle Swing ride.  It obviously hadn't been operational in many years.  Its loading platform was now the roof of a concession building.  I hadn't noticed it from ground level.

After that relaxing ride, we continued exploring the midway.  We passed by a classic open-air Whip.  Then we entered an area filled with vintage kiddie rides.  There was a turtle ride (a kiddie Tumble Bug) that had special significance for Karen and Judy: they had a picture of themselves as kids on the same ride at Mountain Park.  In fact, most of the kiddie rides looked the same as those at our home park, including the pony carts, mini jets, mini Whip and kiddie coaster.  There was also a rare mirror maze called Labyrinthe Crystal Palace.  But not all of Lakeside's rides were old.  There was a fairly recent kiddie Skater and an adult drop tower.

The Lakeshore Scenic Route train had returned from yet another trip, so we hurried over to the station.  The train itself, the Silver Speed, was an art deco masterpiece in gleaming stainless steel.  All of the train cars were enclosed and had comfortable padded seats.  The circuit took us around the entire lake, which provided spectacular views to our right.  To our left, on the other hand, was lots of fencing and, at one point, the park dump where the discarded Circle Swing cars lay rusting.  At about the half-way point, a gentle rain began to fall.  But as we traveled back closer to the park, the rain disappeared.  Overall it was a really pleasant 15-minute trip.  Coming back to the park through the tunnel next to the Cyclone was actually a bit magical as the colors of the park appeared before us.

We were getting a bit hungry, so we made our way to the cafeteria next to the Cyclone.  The counter was backed by a spectacular marble bar that originally came from Denver's Union Station.  The cafeteria offered the usual hamburgs and hot dogs, but also featured bean burritos.  So Karen and I each got one, along with an order of french fries.  I was glad there was something we could eat.  The food was tasty and very reasonably priced.

After our nourishment, we went across the midway and took a ride on the park's whimsical old merry-go-round.  The ride could have been called Noah's Ark.  It featured the largest variety of creatures I've ever seen on a carousel, from horses to dragons, from rabbits to pigs.  The ride was also the only three-tiered carousel I had ever seen.  The seats were a bit small for us, but it was a fun ride anyway.  Then we walked past the Cyclone toward the north end of the park.  We passed the old Eyerly Spider, with its spectacular entrance.  There was another example of the park's unique landscaping.  And then before us was the Wild Chipmunk, a wild mouse ride built by Miler.  This variation had rare bobsled-style cars.  Karen and Judy wanted me to test it out first before they decided whether to ride it.  So I eagerly queued up.  The inside of the car was heavily padded, even all along the sides.  It could fit two kids, or perhaps an adult and a child.  The operator warned me to hold onto the sides with both hands and then sent me up the lift hill.  The ride felt fairly smooth.  I reached the top of the lift and turned left into a straight run.  The ride seemed pretty mild.  Then the car turned left again, and that time I was flung forcefully to the right.  The car picked up speed and headed into the typical zig-zag track of a wild mouse.  Every turn got faster, and I had to brace myself harder as I was whipped from side to side with increasing force.  The car dove down a steep drop and I got a little pop of airtime at the top of the next hill.  A left turn was followed by a long straight run of banked track, another turn, a powerful bunny hop, a turn over the station and then some speedy low turns up to the brakes.  It was a lot of fun, but a bit too violent for the ladies who passed on the ride after hearing my description.

We continued walking along toward the lake, passing by a large and long-closed building with a giant sign the read Riviera.  We later discovered that it was once a nightclub but now apparently was used for storage.  Another abandoned object was nearby, a huge iron structure that looked somewhat like a massive Ferris wheel.  A faded sign on it read Staride.  It had a lot of gears.  It also had a lot of lights and probably once looked beautiful at night.  To the right of that and on the edge of the lake stood a few more rides: a go cart track, a Satellite (another memory from Mountain Park) and yet another vintage Eyerly ride, a Rock-O-Plane.

By then we had covered most of the park area.  One thing we hadn't seen was a gift shop.  I was eager to take home some Lakeside souvenirs.  But I hadn't seen a concession where I could do that.  As we approached the stairs of the entrance, I spotted a security guard.  I asked him where I could buy some souvenirs.  He replied that they didn't have any, except for a tiny booth that we happened to be standing near.  It sold the usual stuffed animals and plastic toys.  So I thanked him and we move on.  We walked over to the nearby strangely-named College Inn concession, which served pizza and ice cream.  Judy was fascinated by the back wall of the concession, which was made of stone and had a series of ornate arches with doors and windows fitted with round colored glass.  It was so out-of-place that Judy asked the girl behind the ice cream stand what was behind the doors.  The girl replied that it was just storage for the concessions.  But there had to be more of a story to it than that.  Judy and I got an ice cream cone, and Judy asked the girl if there was any place to buy t-shirts or souvenirs.  The girl said she would page someone to meet us in the cafeteria.  That seemed odd, but we thanked her and walked over to the cafeteria.  I mentioned to another girl behind the cafeteria counter that we were there to buy souvenirs and she went into a back room.  An older very friendly woman emerged and asked what we were looking for.  Karen wanted one of the t-shirts that the employees were wearing, but the woman told her that they were for employees only.  But she had other shirts in back and offered to bring them out.  In a few minutes she returned with three plastic bins filled with shirts.  There were basically two styles: one that simply said Lakeside printed vertically, and another of the Wild Chipmunk.  So I bought one of each.  She also had a set of postcards that I bought.  I was very happy with that, and thanked her.  Judy then asked if she knew what that stone wall was at the back of the ice cream concession.  The woman said it used to be the Casino Theater.  Lakeside indeed seemed to have a colorful history.

We walked back up the staircase and got our hands stamped at the ticket booth so we could put the souvenirs in Judy's car.  We then followed the street south toward the other park entrance where there also was the official parking lot.  That brought us around to a colorful walkway by the Skoota Boats.  Judy spotted a ride there that grabbed her interest: the Flying Dutchman, a swing ride.  But there didn't seem to be an operator and the ride was apparently closed.  So we continued walking and ended up back at the Labryinthe.  Only two kids were in line, and I couldn't resist.  The attendant would let only two or three kids in at a time.  It was finally my turn and I began my journey into the hall of mirrors.  I hadn't gotten more than ten feet inside when a boy and girl went rushing past me.  "Hey mister!" the boy said.  "Follow us!  We'll help you find the way out!"  And with that they quickly wove their way through the maze, occasionally looking back and calling, "This way!"  They evidently didn't realize that I enjoyed getting lost....

We strolled through the little park and gazed at the idle fountain.  A panel on the back of it was opened.  Apparently it had some sort of electrical problem.  The sun was hanging low in the sky and we were eager to see the illuminated version of Lakeside.  Evidently, so were many others: the park began to fill with people.  To kill some time we headed over to the park's mini-golf course which was packed into an impossibly tight rectangular area behind kiddie land.  I was skeptical that they actually could fit 18 holes back there.  Judy decided to come along and watch as Karen and I played.  The course surprised me.  The holes were wooden platforms sitting on concrete slabs.  The cups consisted of a hole drilled into the platform with an electrical box mounted underneath.  The landscaping around the course was pretty impressive, from an elephant waterfall to an alien corridor.  The design was unique and whimsical.  And they did manage to do a great job fitting a challenging course into that tiny plot of land.  (I thought for sure Karen was going to win, but I rallied to just barely triumph.)

Judy wanted to give the Auto Scooters a try.  Although the building itself was vintage art deco, the cars inside were modern.  And like so many of the modern bumper cars, these traveled at a fairly slow pace so as not to injure anyone.  The operator didn't wait to fill the ride, but also didn't move any of the cars that had no driver.  So the ride was more like a plodding obstacle course.  I bumped a few of the idle cars, pushing them off to the side.  That was about the biggest thrill on the ride.  After the ride, we leisurely wandered the midway and noticed that many of the rides had begun to close.  Though it was probably a staffing issue common to many small parks, it was odd that as the crowd grew there were fewer rides operating.

As the sun set below the wide Denver horizon, we boarded the Lakeshore Scenic Route one more time.  The air was cooling down and the ride was peaceful.  The opposite end of the lake afforded a panoramic view of the park as its lights winked on.  When we returned to the midway, the night side of Lakeside was coming to life.  It was as impressive as I had heard so many years before.  There were even unique neon landscaping features. The entire park took on a different aura, a strange wonderland of color.  Probably most impressive were the sensory overload of the merry-go-round building, which had been transformed from its bulky white to a rainbow of warm hues, and the spectacular Cyclone station with its lines of illuminated glass blocks and neon.  Signs that during the daylight appeared rather bland were transformed into eye-catching marquees.  Along with the signs, the rides took on an entirely new appearance, like dazzling illuminated jewels set against the deep evening sky.  And the park's signature tower -- even with many burned-out lights -- still was a rare visual delight, an echo of a Luna Park or a White City (the park's original name) from the golden age of the 1920s.

As we stood by the cafeteria, Judy and Karen noticed an elderly woman chatting with some guests and urged me to go eavesdrop.  As I approached, their conversation ended and the elderly woman and a younger woman headed toward the back of the cafeteria (where earlier I had bought those t-shirts).  I called out to them and they turned.  I assumed the elderly woman was the park's owner.  I thanked them for operating such a wonderful amusement facility and asked if they had thought about applying for National Historic status.  She said they did consider it, but the costs involved made it prohibitive.  She asked where I was from, and then asked me a question that surprised me: "What other parks would you compare this one to?"  The only one that came to mind was Kennywood.  She smiled and said, "We've heard that from so many people!  I've never been there."  I told her it was a compliment; Kennywood was filled with bright neon and beautiful landscaping.  I just mainly wanted to convey how happy I was that Lakeside was still operating.

And with that, we headed for the stairs leading to the exit.  It was sad to think that most tourists to Denver would probably opt for Elitch Gardens, which was located right in the city, rather than this much more charming park.  Lakeside seemed to be a popular spot for locals, as the Sunday night crowd seemed to attest.  Although my love of amusement park history often blinds me to reality, there were many signs that Lakeside was struggling to stay alive.  From the closed rides to the burned-out lights to the abandoned buildings, there was a part of the park that saddened me.  Perhaps it reminded me of the final years at Mountain Park.  But Mountain Park was doing okay financially up to the end; there just wasn't lots of cash left over for major improvements.  Obviously, the Lakeside management had been re-investing in park, adding new rides.  And they seemed to care about their heritage; perhaps they were saving some of the old ride structures for the day when they could properly restore them.

Lakeside was founded in 1908. Everything about the park spoke of an opulence from that gilded age, a time when the gold rush was still a pursuit that brought thousands of settlers from the east seeking their fortunes. As we walked back toward the tower, it was as if the ghosts from the past century were still there, not wanting to leave such a beautiful place.  The lights in the ceiling above the ticket booth were glowing brilliantly, a vivid reminder of that past.  There was a curious sign above the exit: REDIT.  I approached the woman in the ticket booth and asked, "What does the --" and before I had a chance to continue, she finished my question, as if she pleasantly anwered it a hundred times a day: "-- sign above the exit mean?  It's Latin and it means 'return.'" That was a marvelous statement about Lakeside.  I mean, who in our time would have a clue as to what that meant?  But back in 1908, everyone studied Latin.  So that one phrase would speak of a place that was cultured yet common, elite yet accessible, foreign yet familiar; a place out-of-the-ordinary where families could escape for a day of thrills and relaxation -- the perfect amusement park.

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