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When is nothing better than something?

By Robert Niles
Published: July 12, 2009 at 8:55 PM
I highly doubt any current readers were visiting the site then, but I started Theme Park Insider when I lived in Denver, Colorado back in the late 1990s. That made my "home" park, if you will, Six Flags Elitch Gardens, now sans the Six Flags, since the chain sold the Denver park, along with several other properties, when Dan Snyder brought in his management team a few years back.

Elitch Gardens was, uh, not one of my favorite parks. Built on a slab of asphalt next to Denver's Pepsi Center arena, Elitch offers nothing that looks like a "gardens." It's a run-of-the-mill iron park, with low capacity and resulting long waits.

The Denver Post's John Wenzel wasn't too impressed with Elitch's, either, smacking down the park in today's edition of the paper.

During a recent weekday visit, families and middle-aged couples were sparse. Teenagers traveled in noisy packs, glued to their cellphones and cigarettes, generally making anyone over 18 feel ancient.

As I waited in line for the Tower of Doom free-fall ride, a group of dudes taunted another group of dudes with violent threats, one guy lifting his shirt to display his tattoos, sloshing beer here and there while he yelled. Just when it seemed they were going to clash, a portly security guard called the ringleader over to the fence and carted him off.

Wenzel questioned whether the park should remain open, given its lackluster state.

Would the space be better used as an extension of the Highland and Platte neighborhoods, with their locally owned eateries, boutique shops and similarly hip clientele? Or would doing that just add to the unaffordable condo values and menagerie of ridiculous haircuts?

We've invested so much in downtown over the past 15 years to maintain its growth and vitality. If Elitch's can't keep up, it's time to decide what we want that crucial urban space to look like.

My wife, who grew up in Denver, tells me that Elitch's wasn't always this way. It once stood on a different site (moving in 1995) and had, well, actual gardens. The site was small, though, and when the city moved to redevelop the Central Platte Valley near downtown, the park's owners - who would later go on to obtain Six Flags - jumped at the chance to move to this larger site.

But they didn't do much with it, except move over some off-the-shelf rides and install a dreaded Vekoma "Mind Eraser."

The Post writer doesn't seem to have much love for theme parks, though I'm inclined to forgive that attitude given the lack of positive role models in the U.S. Mountain West. But the questions, now raised, seem to me worth asking:

When is nothing better than something? And at what point do fans just go ahead and let a park die?

Readers' Opinions

From Mark Sajowitz on July 12, 2009 at 9:32 PM
I've went to Elitch Gardens once (last summer). I rode a total of two rides which were the big wooden coaster they have and the merry go round. The reason is one of the coasters I was on stopped suddenly as it started and all of the should harnesses lifted...so I got off the ride. The tower free fall tower broke down twice as I was in line with the magnet (or holder) not releasing the car down the tower.

I felt pretty unsafe riding anything else so I spent a total of 2 hours in the park with only riding two rides. I really have to desire to go back and I live only 45 minutes away from it. Good thing I had free tickets or else that would of been a wasted trip. I really think they should pay people to go into the park.

From James Rao on July 13, 2009 at 4:00 AM
As much as I rant about Six Flags (especially their Saint Louis operation), they are still a far superior amusement park company to PARC Management, the folks who run (I use the term loosely) Elitch Gardens. PARC also runs a couple of other parks in my general area, Frontier City (Oklahoma), and Magic Springs and Crystal Falls (Arkansas). All three of these parks are former Six Flags fiascoes that are in an extremely poor state of repair. PARC seems to love investing in declining parks then doing absolutely nothing to improve them.

You ask the question: "When is nothing better than something?"

Answer: When PARC Mgmt buys your local park.

From Anthony Murphy on July 13, 2009 at 7:04 AM
I also think it has something to do with the community it is in and its relationship to it.

This Elitch Gardens sounds like it is in a terrible location and, if it moved, it would beg the question that the community thought it was a little bit more expendable.

Using SFGA as an example, it opened in 1976 and NOT owned by Six Flags outright (Hotel Marriot tried its hand at the theme park industry) and with the bankruptcy of the whole chain, Great America hasn't looked any better, had a packed house, and new attractions. The city that it sits in, Gurnee, has become a tourist destination with the huge Gurnee Mills and the, pretty large, Great America, dominating opposite sides of Grand Ave. It would be a travesty if Great America closes down.

So, in short, the community really has to care if it lives or dies. Elich Gardens doesn't seem to really give anything of value to the community.

From Robert Niles on July 13, 2009 at 8:08 AM
Actually, I think that Elitch's is in a potentially excellent location, though the site leaves much to be desired. (If you see what I am saying...) It needs landscaping, but mostly, it needs a better connection with the rest of the development around it.

Ultimately, though, the parks lives or dies based on its customer service - that's what theme parks are all about, service. And from many reports, the current Elitch's is failing on that account.

From Joshua Counsil on July 13, 2009 at 10:06 AM
Elitch was my first Six Flags park.

Don't let it die - kill it.

From 63.76.51.1 on July 13, 2009 at 11:38 AM
Funny you should mention this today, as I just went to "The Park" on Friday. (Note: Elitch gardens is no longer owned by the Elitch family and no longer has any gardens, so we have started calling in "The Park").

My wife and I have been to many small parks and really enjoy the lot of them, Kennywood, Indian Beach, Holiday World, Nick Universe at Mall of America, Mt Olympus. So far as a ride count goes, The Park should be comparable with them, but a visit is very forgetable.

I found a map of the first year that The Park was opened and counted the plus/minus of rides compaired to this year and found the The Park is at a -3. Meaning that in the last 13 years the park has removed 3 rides more than it has built.

Every other park that people rate high is adding new rides in order to bring more people into the park. The parks that have not added new rides, make up for it with great customer service, great theming and other non-tangible perks (free drinks, free parking).

To make matters even worse, they have a fully built roller coaster sitting on site and not running since the beggining of last season. On top on that, they close at 9 on weekend nights and treat guest like Magic Mountain before Shapiro tried to make it a family friendly park.

Since The Park is a local monopoly, with the next closest park somewhere around 800 miles away, they don't care to make any improvements and it shows.

One more case it point before I stop this rant. The "new" ride, Ghost Blaster, was an hour long wait standing in a mud pit because their misting foggers are kicking out too much water. And the Ghost Blaster ride is right off the shelf exactly like the one at other parks that people pretty much ignore.

I only went to The Park because someone else paid for my ticket, and had a decent time for free. At $40 to get back into the park, I am scapping any plans to go back and am planning on flying to Hersheypark with my money to go to a real park with a decent ambiance and nice rides.

Jeff Elliott

From 74.77.43.23 on July 13, 2009 at 12:04 PM
Well I live by PARC Owned Darien Lake and if you ask me they are doing a good Not Great job with my home park. But the only reason is that Darien Lake is the Biggest Park in the PARC Chain so far and they feel they its not important to invest in the other parks. Also I feel bad for the Magic Springs People do to the fact that most of there magior rides are CLOSED.
From 99.10.188.13 on July 13, 2009 at 1:10 PM
I lived in Denver from the mid '80s to '90 and visited the original Elitch's often. Though small and without many interesting rides, the park was always fun to visit for the ambiance (and Mr. Twister was a darn fine coaster!)

I visited the new park for the first time a few weeks ago, and it was so disappointing that I spent no more time in the park other than getting the coaster credits...

It would be kind of a bummer to see Elitch Gardens go, especially considering Lakeside's current state, but it really doesn't seem to have much to offer anymore.

From Bruce Lane on July 13, 2009 at 6:39 PM
I found myself asking this exact question when the former Marine World park was Borg'd by Sick Flags. Was it worth seeing it stay open, knowing full well the place had mutated into little more than a Sea World wannabe?

As much as I wanted to believe something positive could be done with the place in its new form, the answer (to me) was a firm 'No.' I still believe today, as I did when I got my first look at the "new" park, that they should either dump their animal elements completely, and convert to a pure theme park -- or simply close down.

Apologies to any who may be fans of the place, but I doubt very much my feelings about it are going to change. I've got too many bad memories from the initial takeover -- and too many good memories from what the park used to be BEFORE the takeover -- to allow such to happen.

Heck, I can't even stand to drive past the place on my annual road trip to the Bay Area. I find myself diverting off 80 onto 680, north of Vallejo, and heading straight for San Jose.

Happier travels.

From Derek Potter on July 13, 2009 at 8:46 PM
It's always sad to see parks in a bad way. I passed Camden Park in Huntington, WVA, and it broke my heart to see it's state. However, I would rather see a mediocre amusement park than another mindless soulless strip mall or another housing development. Do we really need more places to shop or another block of fast food restaurants?

Many of our big parks have traded character and personality for homogenized, commercial blandness. Six Flags and most of it's current and former parks are prime examples, but I see it in all of the big companies in one way or another. As long as corporations with other products to sell and both eyes on the bottom line operate these parks, they will never reach their full potential.

What this industry needs is to be taken from the hands of corporate suits and returned to showmen and entertainers. This industry wasn't built by suits. It was invented by people like George Tilyou and Thompson/Dundy, who created Steeplechase and Luna Park and made Coney Island in New York the greatest place on earth in the early 1900's. People like Walt Disney, who cared more about creating his world and less about it's cost, are the ones that should make this industry go. Corporate parks could take a huge lesson from smaller operations like Holiday World or Knoebels. What those parks lack in multimillion dollar attractions, they make up for in personality.

From Bruce Lane on July 13, 2009 at 10:00 PM
Derek, Bravo! I could not agree more (about taking control of parks back from the MBA-toting suits). A big part of the attraction for me, at the original Marine World, was if you hung around long enough (and I certainly did) you actually became part of the "park family" no matter if you'd ever worked for them or not.

An example: One night, MANY moons ago, it was decided to hold an employee talent show after hours. Normally, this would have been open only to other employees, but guess what? Both myself and my closest friend (who'd been a regular nearly as long as myself) got invited. By no less than a department head, if I recall correctly.

The whole thing was an amazing experience, and what we saw that night only underscored how tight-knit the original place was, how much the staff really cared about each other and about the park itself.

That atmosphere, unfortunately, was among the first things to go when Sick Flags took over. Within four years of said takeover, NONE of the original Marine World staff were left, despite having received good offers to continue under the new ownership.

As far as I'm concerned, the original Marine World died the day the takeover papers were signed. I prefer to think of them as closing down, and live with my memories of the best times I had there, rather than contemplate the horrendous abomination that now occupies the space where they were.

Happier travels.

From 71.191.33.100 on July 15, 2009 at 4:09 PM
I currently live on the East Coast, but I was born and raised within very close to the original Elitch's location. It was indeed a wonderful place. It had numerous gardens and many, many places to picnic - when you could actually bring food into parks. In fact it started out as a zoological gardens. I had several relatives who worked there in their teenage years. Ol' Tom Tancredo worked there as well.

It boasted the best wooden coaster in the world, the Mister Twister (disagree if you like, but the MT was consistently ranked highly. The Wildcat was also great if you loved to catch air. I am 37, so i am just old enough to remember the Trocadero Ballroom. I can remember taking tap dance lessons there when I was about 2 or 3. Dozens of girls of all ages all lined up, tapping away. For the "old people" in my family (my grandparents' generation), it was THE place to go for a night out dancing.

I am also old enough to recall the time when you bought tickets for the rides. The Denver papers would run coupons for $2.00 admissions into the park. The great thing about this was for people who wanted to go to the park ( or had to with the kids), but didn't want to ride any rides. My cousin and her husband would go in, walk around, have ice cream and just people watch.

The problem with the old location was that it was bounded on all sides by residential neighborhoods. There was absolutely nowhere to grow. So in the era of big, looping, steel roller coasters, there was no room to build such rides. Also, a lot of people didn't like the neighborhood (people thought it was unsafe, Denver had a real0.gang problem in the mid to late 80s into early 90s. I had one guy i went out with in college (who didn't know I was from the neighborhood) refer to it as "a crime infested neighborhood". HA! It is all being gentrified and houses are worth a fortune over there now!

Anyway, eventually the Elitch family happened on a good idea. Build a new park down in the Platte River Valley. You could never tell today, but back then, the was NOTHING down there. Mile High was sort of close, but still on the other side of the highway. there were no lofts, no Pepsi Center, nothing. LODO was still nothing but abandoned warehouses. So they planned to build the park there where there was plenty of room to grow.

Fast forward - they didn't buy enough land down there. Soon it was once AGAIN surrounded with nowhere to grow. Not too smart. Sure, the managed to put in some marquee rides, but the park had lost all the magic of the old park. Absolutely NO trees in the park, much less the old gardens. It was all sterile concrete (and hot as all get out). They "moved" the MT there, but it wasn't even the same coaster! they changed it - not for the better. I went the year it opened and it broke my heart. I went about 7 years ago with my now husband (from out here on East COast). It was even worse. The place was also completely filthy and not taken care of in any way.

To me the current Elitch's is comparable to the Six Flags in Largo, MD. It is nothing but a dumping ground/babysitter for delinquents. Regular adults don't want to have to deal with such nonsense, and family's are intimidated by the roving bands of tweens and teens. Sounds like the same issues at Magic Mountain (I haven't been there since 91, so didn't see all the issues at that place).

Sorry if people find this long, but when i saw the story, I had to talk about the great park the Old Elitch's was. It didn't have the big coasters(a fact i of course hated as a kid), but it was a beautiful place and great for families - and dates. It still makes me sad when I am home and pass the old location. The difference between the old and current park may as well be heaven and hell. I really miss Denver and the old Elitch's.

From 72.165.229.187 on July 16, 2009 at 11:32 AM
Hey -- John Wenzel, writer of the Elitch's article, here. I actually have a lot of love for theme parks and have visited dozens over the years. Perhaps holding Elitch Gardens in Denver to the same standards as Cedar Point and King's Island (my two home state parks, and the ones that I've visited the most) was unfair, but I'm glad it spurred this discussion. It's important for theme parks to reflect in some way their geographic and cultural surroundings, and I just felt Elitch's wasn't doing that as well as it could.

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