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How Elitch Gardens has changed in its 132-year history

The Elitch Gardens that visitors see in downtown Denver today is quite a bit different from the park's humble beginnings in 1890.
Credit: Denver Public Library archives
Entrance at Elitch Gardens

DENVER — Denver's Elitch Garden Theme Park turns 132 years old this week.  

The historic amusement park — visible to commuters near Interstate 25 and Speer Boulevard in downtown Denver — has evolved quite a bit from its humble beginnings.

On May 1, 1890, John and Mary Elitch opened Elitch Zoological Gardens for the public to enjoy on their farm located on the outskirts of the city — or what is now 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street. At the time, Denver itself had only been a city for 30 years.

Elitch's was one of the first zoos to open west of Chicago and held the distinction as the city's first botanic garden. 

When John Elitch died unexpectedly the next year, Mary Elitch took over the business, and by doing so, became the first woman in the country to own and manage a zoo, according to the park.

Credit: Denver Public Library archives
Elitch Gardens between 1900-1910.

There's an entire podcast dedicated to Mary Elitch and her impressive legacy (she even found time to author two children's books). Known by visitors as “the Gracious Lady of the Gardens," Mary Elitch continued living on the grounds until her death in 1936.

The Elitch Theatre opened in 1892, and in its heyday hosted the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Vincent Price, Grace Kelly, Lana Turner and Mickey Rooney. It continued to operate for another 100 years, but held its last production in 1991.

The historic theatre has since fallen into disrepair, and The Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation has spearheaded efforts to raise funds to restore it.

Credit: Denver Public Library archives
Interior view of Trocadero Ballroom at Elitch Gardens in Denver,

A businessman named John Mulvihill brought the garden from Mary Elitch in 1916. And in 1928, a hand-carved carousel — which took more than three years to craft — arrived at the park. It's still in operation to this day.

The ferris wheel was erected at the park in 1936 and the famous "Mister Twister" roller coaster arrived in 1965.

The Trocadero Ballroom opened in 1917 and quickly became a hip spot for dancing in the city. Visitors could see classic big bands perform for as little as a nickel. The ballroom was torn down in 1975.

RELATED: People used to go to Elitch's to dance, pose with bears

Credit: Denver Public Library
The Elitch Gardens theatre in 1968.

A $94-million financing package allowed Elitch Gardens to move to its current location in 1994.

Big changes came in 1997 when Premier Parks, Inc. acquired the park and announced the addition of a water park. It was also at this time that the park released an improvement plan that included rides like The Mind Eraser, Tower of Doom and Shipwreck Falls.

In 1998, the park became "Six Flags Elitch Gardens." That lasted until 2007, when the park changed ownership again and reverted back to its original name.

Credit: History Colorado
Historic photo of Elitch Gardens

The park introduced a spring concert series highlighting local and national talent of a variety of musical genres in 2001. That concept has since evolved into a summer concert series that's free to attend with park admission or a season pass. 

In the last decade, the theme park has introduced rides like the Star Flyer, an extreme swing that takes guests to the top of a 17-story tower, and the water slide Mega Wega Wedgie, described as an "extreme speed slide tower."

Credit: Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park

In 2019, Elitch Gardens opened a "innovative, alluring and sensational new ride" called Meow’s Wolf’s Kaleidoscape.

Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf would open a 60,000-square-foot permanent art installation called Convergence Station next door to Elitch Gardens in September 2021 at Colfax Avenue and I-25.

The area where Elitch's currently sits could look a whole lot different in a few years.

In December 2018, Denver City Council voted to move forward on the River Mile Project, which will someday include below-market rentals, schools, retail and restaurants along a stretch of the South Platte River surrounding the theme park.

Exactly when that change will impact the theme park is yet to be determined. Elitch Gardens said it will stay in its current location for the "foreseeable future."

RELATED: 'River Mile' development plan near Elitch Gardens moves forward

RELATED: Water World, Elitch Gardens hiring thousands

Credit: Denver Public Library
Elitch Theatre

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