ELITCH GARDENS – (1890 – 1994)

Text by Jeffrey Stanton - 10/3/11

Mary Elizabeth Hauck, who with her future husband John Elitch, founded Denver’s Elitch Gardens. She was born in Philadelphia in 1856 and spent most of her childhood in California when her father moved his livestock and fruit business to the state.  When she was 16 years old she meet John Elitch in church and eloped to San Jose to get married. Together they saw their first theatrical play about the streets of New York, which likely influenced the couple to later join the theatrical business.

They moved first to Durango, Colorado and eventually to Denver. After working in a bar for a year, John saved enough money to start his own business. His Elitch Palace Dining Room was located at 1541 Arapahoe Street. Mary kept busy with her own interests in  gardening and the arts. In 1888 the couple purchased the 16 acre Chilcott farm, an apple orchard five miles west of Denver, with the Intent to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for the restaurant. But with her love for animals, flowers, children, the theater , she had a dream of transforming the orchard into a park.

The apple orchard was transformed into Elitch’s Zoological Gardens (Denver’s first zoo), a wonderland of exotic animals, orchards, and gardens. When Elitch Gardens opened its gates to the public on May 1, 1890, friends of the Elitch’s, P.T. Barnum and Mr. And Mrs. Tom Thumb, were among the opening day crowd. There was plenty of entertainment: from marching bands to vaudeville to light Opera at their “Theatorium, a round, open-sided “Playhouse in the Gardens.”

John long invested $35,000 in a theater Troupe, which toured up and down the Pacific Coast. Unfortunately he contracted severe pneumonia while in San Francisco and died two weeks later on March 10 1891. It was a sad but determined 34 year old widow who returned to Denver.   Since their investment in the theater troupe was lost, and she was short of cash, she sold the majority of her garden’s stock to a group of Denver capitalists. However, she remained in an administrative capacity with the company, and by 1894 had regained total control of the gardens.  She gained the distinction of being the only woman in the world to own and manage a successful summer resort. She bought additional adjoining acreage, expanding the park to 28 acres.

Elitch Garden's entrance

In 1892 the Elitch Theater opened and began its tradition of a century of  “First-class Entertainment”. Construction was  modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. The theater evolved over the years Into a wooden octagon two stories high with a tent-shaped shingle roof crowned by a flagpole. She gave breaks to many future theatrical and movie stars, including 14-year-old Douglas Fairbanks, who worked as a stage hand during the opening season.  And in 1897 Mary formed the country’s first summer stock company. In 1906 Sarah Berhardt was brought to Denver to play “Camile” and  “LaSorcier,” both in the same day. Berhardt fearlessly petted the zoo’s lioness, which Mary subsequently named after her. Elitch’s also presented Colorado’s first motion pictures. On Aug 14, 1896, Mary Introduced the Edison Vitascope  to Colorado, allowing astonished locals to see moving pictures.

Elitch Gardens - 1904 Map

Mary installed the park’s first ride in 1904. It was a small toboggan coaster with a figure 8 track layout. It would remain until 1925. A Philadelphia Toboggan Company three abreast carousel, #6 was added in 1906. (It remains in operation today as the Kit Carson County Carousel in Burlington, Colorado.) With the death of Mary’s second husband,  Thomas Long, in 1906, J. K. Mullen and Jim Berger began running the non-theater operations and helping with financial decisions. She installed an Old Mill boat ride in 1914. The 200-foot-long building was a water ride through a sinuous dark tunnel which exhibited lighted scenes of fairy tale characters. It was rebuilt in 1928.

View of the Elitch Garden's bungalow

Monitor and Merrimac Civil War battle show

But as age took its toll, she sold  the entire property  to John Mulvhill in 1916. The sale contract had several stipulations; the name of the park could never be changed,   she would live rent-free in her cottage on the grounds, and receive $50 a month until she died.  She spent the last four years of her life with relatives and died of a massive heart attack at age 80 on  July 16, 1936.

With dancing popular, it was obvious that Elitch Gardens needed a dance hall. Mulvihill constructed the fabulous Trocadero Ballroom for the 1917 season, since dancing was one of the most popular pastimes with adults. Then in the 1920s two new Philadelphia Toboggan Company creations debuted. Herbert Schmeck designed the  65 foot high Wildcat roller coaster in 1922, a classic out and back coaster,  and a group of carvers spent three years carving a new four-abreast carousel  (#51) for the park for the 1928 season. As the floral gardens were expanded, management introduced the slogan, “Not to see Elitch’s is Not to See Denver.”

Trocadero Ballroom

Trocadero Ballroom Dance Floor - 1948


When Mulvihill died in 1930, the park’s ownership transferred to his son-in-law Arnold Gurtler. In the mid 1930s, the zoo portion of the park was discontinued, with the space being used for more formal gardens and adult rides. A giant floral clock was added and the Trocadero Ballroom and it became a famous summertime night spot for those living in the Denver area. It was a regular stop for touring big bands such as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Guy Lombardo and Lawrence Welk, and provided a home to An Evening at the Troc, a weekly live national radio broadcast. And in 1936, the Ferris Wheel was erected.

Tour of the World & Old Mill rides - 1930s

The park’s worst tragedy was on July 16, 1944. Fire erupted in the Old Mill Tunnel of Love, trapping and burning  six screaming patrons alive. The old wooden tunnel had turned into a raging inferno by the time firemen arrived. It was out of control within minutes. As thick black smoke billowed to a height of over 150 feet in the air, the fire engines were delayed by a locked gate. Since no one knew what caused it a coroner’s inquest was held. It blamed the age of the attraction, ignorance, neglect and carelessness.  The six patrons died of smoke inhalation.

Kiddieland- 1954

In 1945, management was assumed by Gurtler's sons, Jack and Budd. In 1954, a section of the park called Kiddieland, oriented to small children, was opened. Television cowboy star, Hopp-a-long Cassidy, presided at the opening ceremonies. At a time when amusement parks catered almost exclusively to adults, Elitch's Kiddieland was an instant hit attraction with the first of many lucky generations of children. The rides, all gentle and kid size included floating motorboats, two-seat rocket planes, and an automobile track with a gas station for kids to fill up their tanks. They added bumper cars in 1955, a tilt-a-whirl ride in 1957, and a Miller wooden wild mouse in 1960.

Miniature Railroad

Wild Mouse- 1960

Elitch Gardens - 1950 Map

Then in the early 1960s, they built a miniature golf course in what remained of Mary Elitch’s apple orchard. Other attractions added included a Round-Up centrifuge ride that rose to a vertical position in 1963, the Casino (Chance Trablant) in 1965, the Holland Express (Mack Zugspitz) in 1966, Swing Ride (Zierer Wave Swinger) in 1966, an Everly Spider and a Sky ride (Watkins chairlift), both in 1969.

Spitfire airplane ride & Wildcat roller coaster

Elitch Gardens - view of colorful gardens

Elitch’s theater switched formats from summer stock to star-centered performances in 1963. During the 60s it featured performers like Cesar Romero, Walter Pidgeon, Hal March, Gloria Swanson, Raymond Burr, Ann Southern, Darren McGaven, Robert Cummings, Peggy Cass, Eve Arden, James Whitmore, and Arlene Francis.  And in the 70’s Sid Ceasar, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Steve Allen and his wife Jane Meadows, William Shatner, Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Lynn Redgrave,  Mickey Rooney, Kim Hunter, George Gobel, Robert Cummings, and Maureen O’Sullivan. Richard Kiley, Chloris Leachman, David McCallium, Gabe Kapland and Tammy Grimes performed in the 1980s. The theater closed in 1991.

Elitch Gardens- Theater

Elitch Gardens  hired John Allen, the president of the Philadelphia Tobaggan Company to build a new roller coaster for the 1964 season.  Since the park owners had seen and liked the configuration of a coaster at Woodside Park in Philadelphia they requested a similar design. Mr. Twister was originally designed as a double angled loop, followed by a figure eight with two high speed curves at each end. It was 72 feet high.  The public hated it since the lift hill immediately dropped trains into the slow-paced double-helix (interlaced with the wildcat coaster), followed by a hum-drum run back to the station. Since John Allen couldn’t understand why the ride was too slow he launched an investigation and found that an error on the blueprints. It resulted in a angle of 42.5 degrees rather than the intended 45 degrees, and consequently a lower speed of the coaster train.

He decided to redesign the ride for the 1965 season by adding a higher lift hill (96 feet), followed by a swoop curve that started the ride off with a “bang” during its first drop. With 1000 additional feet of track and two out and back deep plunges (now 3020 ft long), it allowed the trains to enter the old double helix at breakneck speeds. The ride was followed by a sudden drop after the helix then through a hidden banked tunnel at breakneck speed, and ended with a rabbit-hop along the trestle work back to the station with its final hump lifting passengers from their seats as the train screamed back into the station. It was a real twister coaster without hardly any bit of straight track. It was an immediate hit and the public loved it. Roller coaster polls always rated it as one of the top ten roller coasters in the country. (When I went camping in the Rockies during the 1970s and 1980s, I always drove down to Denver for the afternoon and rode Mr. Twister several times. It was my all-time favorite wood roller coaster.)

Mr Twister roller coaster -1965

Mr. Twister first drop (left) & double helix (right)

The once beloved Trocadero Ballroom was torn down in 1975 due to the decline in polularity of ballroom dancing. They had delayed the decision for four years in hopes that its popularity of dancing to a live band would return. The building was replaced by a large arcade containing skee-ball and arcade games.  Two new rides debuted; the Big Wheel in 1975 and the Sea Dragon, a large swinging boat in 1981.

Penny Arcade Building

Elitch Gardens - 1980 Map

In 1985, management and ownership of the park was assumed by Budd Gurtler's son, Sandy Gurtler, who became its president. He upgraded the park’s ride mix by adding a Thing—Mig-Jig (Heinz-Fahtze Twister), and the Huss Rainbow ride in 1985. Paradise (Huss Breakdance), and Battle Zone (Intamin boat tag) debuted in 1987. The Sidewinder was Colorado's first looping coaster in 1990. It was built by Arrow Dynamics, and was a launched shuttle loop that sped into a drop, into a vertical loop, up another hill, and then proceeded to run the course backwards. The Mine Shaft (Chance Rotor) was added in 1991, and the Illuminator (Chance Skydiver) was added in 1992.

Aerial of Elitch Gardens - 1980s. Mr Twister is on the right with the Wildcat coaster threading its way through it.



Since Elitch Gardens had no expansion space at its historic location, the family had long planned to relocate to a larger location. The city of Denver provided a location in the Central Platte River Valley, an area that was once a Superfund cleanup site. In 1989  Denver voters approve $14 million in bond subsides for flood plain and road improvements, enticing Elitch's to move the Park to a central Denver site.  The final $95 million financing package was completed in 1994 and construction began on the new Elitch Gardens in the Central Platter River Valley near downtown Denver. It became the first amusement park to be built in an urban area in the United States in more than 30 years. After 104 years of successful operation, Elitch Gardens closed its doors forever at its famous northwest Denver location. They moved fifteen of the park’s  twenty rides to their new location adjacent to Interstate 25 between Invesco Filed and the Pepsi Center. Sadly they left its Mr. Twister coaster behind. The new Twister II, however, was similar in design, but not an exact duplicate. It is a much tamer ride and not as exciting.  The park opened on May 27, 1995, and its attendance during its first year at the new location was about one million visitors (versus 750,000 for the last season at its old location), and about 1.2 million visitors for its second season.

New Elitch Gardens - 1997 Map

In 1996 Premier Parks, Inc, a publicly held company, purchased Elitch Gardens and added millions of dollars' worth of new rides and attractions.  After they purchased all the Six Flags parks, it operated as Six Flags Elitch Gardens until 2006. PARC Management purchased Elitch Gardens from Six Flags in 2007 for a reported $170 million dollars and rebranded it simply 'Elitch Gardens'.

New Elitch Park - Aerial View

New Elitch Gardens - View looking West from Tower of Doom

Current thrill rides include the rebuilt wooden Twister II, 4640 ft long and 100 ft high, the260 ft long, 109 ft high Mind Eraser steel coaster that has five inversions,  the Boomerang shuttle-loop steel coaster, the Sidewinder steel coaster, and the steel  Half Pipe. The 200 ft tall Tower of Doom drops riders in a free fall, the Sling Shot catapults riders 216 feet in the air, and the XLB8R, a free fall swing.  Disaster Canyon is a white water raft ride, and Shipwreck Falls drops a boat  load of passengers down a 50 foot waterfall.

New Elitch Gardens - Mind Eraser Coaster

Family oriented rides include the 100-ft-high Big Wheel, the spinning Tea Cups, a Tilt-a-whirl, the Sea Dragon rocking boat, the Troika, Dragonwing that gives the sensation of flying, and Ghost Blasters, an interactive haunted house.
Kiddieland attractions include Jumping Jack, a miniature version of the Tower of Doom,  Around the World in 80 seconds – spinning hot-air balloons,  the Cactus kiddie coaster,  Stars Swinger, the Studio Express train, and the Wacky Warehouse, an area filled with tubes, slides, a net and ball pits.

Mr. Twister II at the new Elitch Gardens site near downtown Denver..

New Elitch Gardens - Turn of the Century swing


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