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The current iteration of Elitch Gardens. Photo by Jay Bouchard
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The Long, Bittersweet Legacy Elitch Gardens Will Leave in Denver

One writer reminisces about the 130-year-old theme park—and Denver institution—and why keeping it in the Mile High City matters.

Not to see Elitch’s is not to see Denver.

Those nine words, which have served as Elitch’s slogan for most of its more than 100-year history, have been printed on ferris wheels, carousels, and in flower beds, and it’s beckoned to the generations of locals and tourists alike who flocked to the park in the decades after it was first built in northwest Denver.

That slogan was true when Elitch’s became home to one of the first zoos west of Chicago in the 1890s. It was true when the first roller coasters were built in the 1920s. It was still true when my dad worked as an usher at the old Elitch’s Theatre in the 1970s and ’80s, then the oldest continuously running summer stock theatre in the country. It was even true when I was a young kid visiting the city each summer. I’d ride The Twister II with my dad laughing hysterically beside me, wooden-coaster-induced tears streaming from our eyes.

But the Stan Kroenke–backed River Mile development is looming. And thanks to the multi-billion-dollar project, which promises to replace Elitch’s with a modern neighborhood and reimagined skyline over the next 25 years, it seems Denver is outgrowing Elitch’s—again.

The iconic park at the edge of Denver’s skyline didn’t always sit along the South Platte River. For its first 100 years, it was a 28-acre sanctuary at 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street—a full-bodied amusement park with lush botanic gardens, live theatre, picnic pavilions, barrels of 50-cent dill pickles, and the best roller coasters around. But the park ran up against its West Highland neighborhood with no room to expand. And while the neighborhood was poised to evolve in the late 20th century, the family that owned Elitch Gardens began looking for a new location.

That’s when the grand slogan nearly died.

According to archives of the Douglas County News Press, a deal was all but inked that would have moved Elitch’s to a 150-acre parcel of land in Highlands Ranch in May 1988. And if not for the people of Highlands Ranch rejecting it, Denver would have lost the park.

“Almost from the moment Elitch Gardens owner Sandy Gurtler made the announcement [to move to] Highlands Ranch, a group of residents in the area mobilized to see that it would never happen,” a local columnist wrote in 1986. “One ponders whether Douglas County will ever be ready for anything.”

Suburban petulance was Denver’s gain. With the Lower Downtown revitalization underway, and business leaders like John Hickenlooper (then the purveyor of Wynkoop Brewing Company) and Mayor Federico Peña advocating for the project, Denver officials stepped up with an enticing proposal: Elitch’s could stay in the city and more than double in size by moving to a 70-acre railyard on the South Platte River.

Keeping the park in Denver was neither swift nor inexpensive. Relocation costs totaled $94 million, and it took years to cobble it all together. While voters approved a $14 million bond in 1989, the rest of the financing—a patchwork of private financing and federal loan money—took longer to secure. The relocation was slated for 1992, and amidst a years-long delay Sandy Gurtler even considered giving up and negotiating with the suburbs again.

Eventually, Elitch’s 2.0 opened in 1995 with modern rides and a water park, but without a summer stock theatre or botanic gardens. At least a new version of the Mr. Twister roller coaster was reconstructed downtown, though. Soon after, Elitch’s became part of the Six Flags franchise.

The original location for Denver’s storied amusement park. Photo courtesy of the Historic Elitch Theatre

Some argue the spirit of Elitch’s vanished when it moved. Rose Lewis, who worked alongside my dad as an usher in the ’70s and wrote a master’s thesis about the theatre’s history, hasn’t been back since it moved downtown. “I won’t go; it’s not really Elitch’s,” she says. “It was astounding what it used to be like inside those [old] gates. It wasn’t all asphalt and concrete.”

Even if the Platte Valley location lacked the charm and history of its old home, at least Denver still had an amusement park within the city limits—one of the few American cities that could make such a claim. But depending on what happens in the near future, Denver might not be able to make that claim much longer.

Revesco Properties bought the land where Elitch’s sits in 2015 and received approval from the city to turn it into the River Mile development. The company has vowed to keep Elitch’s open, but it’s unclear exactly when the downtown location will close or where it will move.

Rhys Duggan, president and CEO of Revesco, didn’t reveal much more about a potential move when reached for comment. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” he says. But he did confirm that the initial timeline—that Elitch’s could relocate by 2025—is still a sound projection. And he said that his team is already looking for a new site to build the third iteration of Elitch Gardens. It’s possible the park could stay within the city limits. “We’re looking at a number of sites right now,” he says. “All are obviously in the metro [area] but they’re located in different jurisdictions, Denver being one of them.”

If a site outside of Denver is ultimately chosen, the venerable slogan might finally be retired.

I had all this in mind when I visited Elitch’s this summer. First, I went to the old location off Tennyson, where the Elitch’s Theatre and the old carousel house still remain, separated by a long lawn and flanked by condos. I took a few pictures of the theatre and texted them to my dad.

“It’s strange to see that building sitting there like a preserved Mayan temple in a green space when it was always cradled and crowded by the objects and pulse and energy of a thriving amusement park,” he responded. “It appears rather like a preserved seashell on someone else’s shelf.”

A few weeks later, I visited the downtown park, where I went in search of a lasting memory of Elitch Gardens in Denver. I made a beeline to the Twister II, and waited in line for 40 minutes for a three-minute thrill. It was worth it.

In fact, it was more than worth it. As I reached the apex of the coaster’s first climb, I had a clear view: To my right, I saw Denver’s soon-to-grow skyline. To my left, I looked out on the treetops and hills of the city’s northwest neighborhoods. Below me was the ground where the River Mile will soon be built. The whole city was momentarily laid out before me, the old slogan ringing so true. I was seeing Elitch’s. And I was seeing Denver.

No sooner had I taken it all in when the rickety coaster abruptly lurched and launched on its wooden frame, barreling me back through the past, eventually depositing me again in the present.

It’s hard to know if or when or where the Twister will be lifting, lurching, and plunging people a few years from now, but chances are visitors to Denver will be seeing the city from someplace other than Elitch’s as the park rides, once again, back to an uncertain future.

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