Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Not to see Elitch's is not to see Denver.
-advertising slogan for Elitch Gardens

When I was a kid all summers began at Elitch Gardens amusement park over on Tennyson Street and 38th Avenue. The first day we could make it after school was out for the summer we would head to Elitch's with our report cards in our hand. Report cards got you two things- free entrance to the park and free ride tickets. The number of tickets you received was based on your grades. Four tickets for each A, three tickets for each B and two tickets for each C. Failing (F) a class or just squeaking by with a D got you nothing. With eight classes you could get anywhere from 2 to 32 tickets.

After we received our string of tickets we would toss our report cards into the first trash can we passed and race through the picnic groves on our way to the center of the park. The crash of steel wheels on metal surfaces, squeals of delight and fright from other patrons, music and game noise from the Arcade mingled with the smell of popcorn, tacos, french fries, funnel cakes, cotton candy and grilling hamburgers and hot dogs. The sounds, sights and smell were a sensory overload and always made me slightly nauseous when I first stepped into the center of the park.

Next came the most agonizing part, deciding how to spend our tickets. Rides cost any where from one ticket to five tickets. You had to balance quantity with quality. The Game Arcade was always out since I never understood the thrill of gambling. The Mr Twister and the Wildcat roller coasters were off limits because the one time I rode one (Mr Twister) I spent the whole time with my eyes closed tightly, hands gripping the seat bar hard enough to leave prints, begging God to make it stop. But that still left a lot of rides to pick from: the Ferris Wheel, the Carousel, the Octopus, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Wild Mouse, the Airplane ride, and many, many others. I loved it.

The best time I had at Elitch's was on the carousel. It was during one warm summer night before the park changed from individual tickets to an all inclusive pass. My sister, her boyfriend and I hit the park about a half hour before closing time. We wanted to ride Mr Twister (I had outgrown my fear) and hurried in and bought tickets but we were to late, they had just closed the ride. Most of the rides were closed and we raced around trying to get on the other rides that were still operating before they shut the park down for the night. Finally, we reached the point where the only ride open that we had not been on was the carousel.

The carousel was added to the park in 1928 and it took three master carvers three year to build. It had 64 colorfully painted horses (44 that went up and down and 20 stationary ones) and two Roman-style chariots. The wooden walls surrounding the machinery in the center were made up of 18 panels, each containing a large framed beveled mirror. The ceiling was painted sky blue with clouds and birds floating around and hundreds of bare light bulbs hung from the carousel roof support beams. When that thing was in motion is was magical.

We headed over to the carousel and gave the attendant all our remaining tickets and told him to keep the ride going until they ran out and climbed on board. We had the ride to ourselves. I don't know how long we circled around and around but it was long enough to get bored with riding one horse up and down. We started walking round the carousel trying to keep the machinery house between ourselves and the attendant. Then we got back on the horses and started riding them standing up. We expected the attendant to yell at us but he didn't seem to care. That's when I noticed the horses were spaced close enough so that, if you want to, you could walk from one to another. I wanted to.

When I was hidden from the attendant's view I stepped over to another horse, rode it around to the back of the carousel and when I was hidden from the attendant's view again, stepped over to another one. My sister and her boyfriend followed suit and we then discovered we could step from one horse to another quickly enough to keep the machinery house between us and the attendant. I don't know what the attendant thought when we disappeared from view for awhile but I do know we disappeared long enough to walk on each one of the 64 horses.

They tore the old Elitch's down in 1994 and build a new park now called Six Flaggs Elitch Gardens in lower downtown. The old park lost its charm for me when they switched to the "one price covers all rides" pass. Before that innovation people were more relaxed about going to the park but after the pass was introduced they were more frantic and in a hurry. It was as if they thought they had to get on all the rides they could in one visit or they weren't getting their money worth. It just wasn't enjoyable anymore.

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