Why Elitch Gardens is the best amusement park in Denver
It's a common trope among people who grew up in Colorado to express their preference for Lakeside Amusement Park over Elitch Gardens. Which is fine: Your preference is your preference, however misguided. What really rankles my ankles, however, is when snarky Denverites try to argue that Lakeside is better than Elitch's. Unless they have a vastly different conception of what the word "better" means, Elitch Gardens is the superior theme park by every metric that matters. I'm utterly convinced that Lakeside defenders are either clouded by nostalgia for a pre-new-Elitch era or are possessed of the knee-jerk contrarianism Coloradans sometimes develop around tourist attractions.
Now that I've sufficiently trolled a healthy portion of the Westword readership, allow me to explain why I prefer Elitch Gardens, which opened for the season last week with the debut of a brand-new ride.
To be fair, I've only been to Lakeside two or three times, while my visits to Elitch's number in the dozens. I was also still a child the last time I went there, which was still more recent than 1986, when Lakeside's last roller coaster was built. I don't feel compelled to return to a place that left me totally underwhelmed even when I was squarely in its target demographic. I'm less interested in criticizing Lakeside, however, than I am in celebrating Elitch Gardens, which is strangely underrated by locals despite its wide array of features and close proximity to downtown.
Easily accessible by bus and light rail, Elitch's is situated on a prime piece of Denver real estate. The park's Ferris wheel and observation tower have become iconic parts of the city's skyline. On summer days, you can hear the din of the merry crowds. It's added a level of whimsy to the character of our city. Where else can you catch a postcard view of the gleaming cityscape in the thrilling microseconds before a 200-foot freefall?
Lakeside is favored by nostalgists, but nostalgia can't whip you through the air at 60 miles per hour. Retro kitsch won't take you on a full 360° revolution in a harness next to your screaming friends. Amusement parks ought to be assessed by their appeal to spastic children, and speaking as a former spastic child, there's nothing more appealing than defying physics and looping loops. A good roller coaster should inspire as much fear as it does glee. A good roller coaster dares you to ride it as you walk up, pondering its impossible steel contortions. The coasters at Elitch's inspire that kind of fear, and deliver on that kind of adrenaline. Lakeside has three roller coasters in addition to a number of kiddie rides I can no longer enjoy because I doubt I could squeeze my ungainly man form into the seats. Elitch's, meanwhile, has over ten thrill rides and its own damn water park. Lakeside used to be called "White City," which was an old-timey theme-park franchise, and not an easy joke about Denver's demographics.
Let's discuss admission fees. Lakeside is celebrated for its cheap tickets, but the entry fee is misleading and does not include rides. Full-pass tickets to Lakeside may be $12 cheaper, but admission to Elitch's offers more amusements per dollar. Certainly more than $12 worth. It's also adding new features to the park. Last week, a new, seven-story loop ride called the Brain Drain made its debut, giving park-goers yet another fine opportunity to travel upside down at tremendous speed.
Dining options are pretty similar at both parks, with carnival staples like corn dogs and funnel cakes for sale. Yet one very important distinction between the parks, depending upon your age and proclivities, is beer availability. Elitch's serves beer at many of its restaurants and Lakeside does not, nor are they cool with you bringing your own. That's another reason that convenient public transit from Elitch's is such a nice feature: It prevents beery and wobbly-kneed patrons from getting behind the wheel after they pass out in Hook's Lagoon.
While Lakeside, with its faded charm and limited attractions, is the seeming underdog here, I'd argue that between declining attendance, liability and massive overhead costs, every amusement park is fighting an uphill battle. On a weekday visit to Elitch's last summer, the crowds were so sparse that I rode the Mind Eraser, that devilishly twisty feat of Dutch design, four times in ten minutes. For a line-averse guest like me, that's awesome. As an omen for the future of the leisure industry, however, that's very grim indeed. Elitch's has been bought and sold several times over the years, including by the Six Flags franchise, which sold the park in 2006 and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The apathetic thresher of capitalism hasn't been kind to Lakeside, either, and though I don't plan on visiting anytime soon, I'd be sad if it closed down. It's been around for more than a hundred years, and anything that's endured that long is worth preserving.
It's all too possible that the generations that follow ours will view amusement parks as strange relics of a more decadent era, when people still had the time and money for that sort of frivolity. Indeed, photo galleries documenting the eerie stillness of abandoned promenades, non-functioning Ferris wheels and roller-coaster carts frozen in their tracks already abound on the Internet. Denver is lucky to still have two operating amusement parks to choose from. For spastic kids, thrill-seeking day drinkers and tourists alike, Elitch Gardens is the better choice.
Elitch Gardens is open from May until October. Check out its website (which also functions better than Lakeside's) for more information.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.