Like most parents, for me the idea of taking the whole family to Elitch Gardens for the day elicits thoughts of lots of fun combined with a fair amount of hassle - not to mention heat in summertime. But when your 11-year-old indicates he's moved past the Chuck E. Cheese phase of birthday party options and points toward Elitch's, what can you do?
The slogan Elitch's pitches is that if you haven't been there, you haven't seen Denver - which actually has a fair amount of truth to it. Unlike many theme parks, Elitch Gardens has a neat history and, in addition to the typical roller coasters, tea cups and carousels, features some unique elements not seen elsewhere. One of those, which was unusable for many years and is now back open, is the Observation Tower, a Denver landmark which offers a commanding view of the city after a quick elevator ride up.
Of course, that's pretty tame stuff for our kids, who are typically more interested in things such as the Mind Eraser and Boomerang roller coasters. But first, as the mercury crept into the high 90s on a recent Wednesday, we had a date with the other side of Elitch's - the water park. And while the kids grabbed their tubes and jumped into the water, Jen and I took advantage of something the park marketing folks wanted us to try: the private cabana area.
One thing about Wednesdays at Elitch's: It's the day season-pass holders can bring a guest for free, so the place was packed like on a Saturday. Forget about getting a chaise or a chair anywhere; we weren't even sure where we'd sit. The cabanas, however, offer a very nice experience that includes shade, wait service for park fare and other perks. Elitch's has several types of cabanas, with the top end including a TV and fridge. Happily, we got one of the simpler setups, which offered a commanding view of the wave pool, a generous canopy to ward off the sun's rays and friendly waiters coming by with smoothies for the kids, beers for us and, later, some pizza and fries.
As theme-park accommodations go, it's tough to beat - although it's not cheap. The higher-end cabanas with TV and wireless, fridges and fans are $200 for the day. The basic cabana is $100, and the VIP is $150. The two higher-end options include a meal for the first four guests plus water bottles, and all of them come with locker space and tube rentals.
Not a bad deal, and if you can build it into the budget, it's the only way to fly at Elitch's on a hot day.
Despite some long lines, our kids - who range in age from 11 to 20 - made the most of it, trying out all the water rides, including the new Tube Top, which they gave an A-plus rating. Tube Top is similar to some of the other tube slider attractions, with the added spin that you go down in total darkness.
For more mellow types, we always prefer the quiet waters of Castaway Creek, where many parents with little ones were floating by and keeping cool in the water.
As the sun dips toward the horizon and the water park prepares to close at 6, crowds start moving over to the main park. There, the ages and daring levels of the kids come into play, as the older kids head off for the more intense roller coasters and attractions and the younger ones opt for some less-frightening rides. Since I have zero tolerance for spinning rides such as tea cups and tilt-a-whirls, my wife takes on those with the kids while I hit the mellower roller coasters. Elitch Gardens has done a pretty good job over the years of creating a variety of attractions for every taste, and if that means dizzy-averse dads like me can skulk on the sidelines while the others spin and whirl, well, it works for me.
As the sun goes down and the park lights up, improvements they've made to the lighting come to the fore. Both the Ferris wheel and the Observation Tower have new, very cool LED lighting - and, of course, all the rides do, as well. As we wound down our day, we skipped our usual last ride on the Ferris wheel to try out the Tower. Standing up there overlooking Denver and all the lights below, with the breeze blowing and our whole family around me, it was one of those perfect moments - and one well worth experiencing on your next trip to Elitch Gardens.