July 3, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Along with all the changes to American life in the 1960s came changes to Elitch Gardens. They readily responded to the changes introduced by Walt Disney’s parks and expected a different sort of amusement park from Elitch’s. Postwar Americans had more disposable income and new outlooks, especially the youth. At Elitch’s, the Gurtler brothers responded to these changes. Mary Elitch’s house was demolished in 1960 and plans made for new attractions. The 96-foot tall Mister Twister opened in 1965. The new wooden roller coaster included an 80-foot drop, a double helix, two 360-degree turns, and a tunnel. Hugely popular, it was consistently included in list of the top ten coasters in the country for years. The greenhouse along 38th Avenue was torn down to make way for more parking and a miniature golf course replaced the apple orchard. The Elitch Theatre attracted such stars as Cesar Romero, Barbara Bel Geddes, Kitty Carlisle, Gloria Swanson, James Whitmore, Myrna Loy, and a host of others.
The 1970s was yet another decade of alteration for Elitch’s. In 1975, the Gurtler’s faced hard decisions. The Trocadero Ballroom, once the most popular spot in Denver, was no longer drawing crowds. Young people were more interested in rock concerts than ballroom dancing and fewer bands were making road trips. After four long years of putting off the inevitable, the Troc was demolished. The theatre continued to attract crowds, however. The new “star-centered” performance system initiated in 1963 was proving a successful replacement of the “summer stock” system. Featured stars included Noel Harrison, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mickey Rooney, Maureen O’Sullivan, Shelley Winters, Patty Duke, Lynn Redgrave, and William Shatner, among others. Expansion of amusement attractions continued with the construction of the Splinter in 1978. This flume/water ride was built on-site around and through the Wildcat Coaster (added by the Gurtler Brothers’ grandfather in 1922).
Management shifts were made at Elitch’s in the 1980s. Jack Gurtler retired in 1979 and Budd transferred reins to his son Sandy in 1985. Sandy Gurtler became the fourth generation of the Mulvihill-Gurtler family to run the park. Focus now included hosting pop concerts on site, with such stars as Kris Kristofferson, Ray Charles, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Sandy took on the huge challenge of relocating the park. Space had simply run out with new rides being built around and atop existing rides—the Spider ride spread across the top of the bumper car building! Changes in American lifestyle meant more and more teenagers were seeking thrills and family attractions were less popular and the park could not continue to respond to these changes unless it moved. Sandy spent much time scouting potential new sites before hearing, in 1989, about plans to revitalize the floodplain of the Platte River in lower downtown Denver. The theatre drew such stars as Tyrone Power III, Gabe Kaplan, Cloris Leachman, and others though crowds there began to wane as teens instead demanded more amusements and thrills. If Elitch’s was to survive, it had to find room to provide them.
In the 1990s, as Elitch’s garden space shrunk and paved areas increased, Sandy Gurtler focused on finding a new location. Although Denver voters had approved $14 million in bonds to make improvements to the Platte River floodplain, the cleanup and construction would be daunting. City officials offered $21 million more in public funds to entice the park to relocate. By 1994, financing was finalized and construction began. Sandy Gurtler had envisioned 84,000 square feet of gardens and 3000 mature shade trees. He also planned to move 15 of the 18 rides to the new location including the 1928 PTC #51 carousel, the Ferris wheel, and the Sidewinder Coaster. A new ride, Twister II, would be modeled on the Mister Twister coaster which was to be left behind. The new park would offer a total of 34 rides and 31 games.
In 1995, the new Elitch Gardens opened with great promise. The first season was nearly rained out and battled flooding. The second season was extremely hot, causing plants and trees to die. Long lines and higher prices added to customer woes. The public missed the orchard shade. Though the new theatre honored both the Troc and the old theatre in its décor, it simply wasn’t the same. Denverites rebelled by not attending and Gurtler was forced to sell to Premier Parks in 1996. Premier immediately added new rides and a water park area to draw the public as well as hundreds of fast-growing Australian shade trees. Premier purchased and merged with Six Flags Amusement Parks in 1998.
Six Flags operated Elitch Gardens until 2006. During those years, they added a spring concert series and the Gotham City Carnival of Chaos stunt show, the Flying Coaster, expanded concerts at the nearby Pepsi Center, the Half Pipe ride, and the EDGE water slide. In 2007, the park was purchased by CNL Properties and operated by PARC Management. Four years later, Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE) assumed management of the park and three new rides were added. The Tube Top became part of the water park and KiddieLand was improved with Rockin’ Tug and Tike Bikes. In 2013, operations were resumed by Premier Parks and the Blazin’ Buckaroo ride was added. The Brain Drain, a new seven-story thrill ride, and Dive-In Movies at the Wave Pool were introduced in 2014.
This year, in June 2015, the park returned to local ownership under Revesco Properties, a team of investors led by Stan Kroenke. A new six-story waterslide, the SlideZilla, was added the same month along with several other upgrades to the water park. SlideZilla is a hybrid ride which includes one plunge into the Behemoth Bowl before a second plunge takes riders to the Tornado Wave and yet a third plunge. In all, there are now 53 rides and attractions at Eltich Gardens as well as family shows, dive-in movies, free summer concerts, and special events.
The original site of Elitch Gardens was sold in 1996 to Perry Affordable Housing, slated for housing development. Today, the area is home to Highlands Gardens Village—senior apartments, single family homes, townhomes and apartments. The style reflects an old-fashioned, home-town feel. At the center, the carousel building and the historic Elitch Theatre remain. The Historic Elitch Theatre Foundation has undertaken restoration of the building and fosters events throughout the year including theatre and summer movies on the lawn.
Next week, we’ll have a bit of fun talking about ostriches. Mary Elitch Long had a pet ostrich and I gave the animal a role in Escaping Yesterday. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).
Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.