Carousel at Elitch's


“Not to See Elitch’s is Not to See Denver”

Summer and amusement park season are right around the corner! While you wait with your ticket to ride, we explore the legacy of Denver's one and only Elitch Gardens.

Amusement parks have long been a favorite for summertime fun, leisure, and entertainment. In the late nineteenth century, “pleasure gardens” provided a place for family and friends to gather and enjoy warm weather, picnics, and live music performances, setting the stage for the theme parks we know today. 

Elitch Gardens Entrance, 1938

Elitch Gardens Entrance, 1938.

History Colorado, PH.PROP.4035

Colorado has been home to at least five major early amusement parks:

  • Elitch’s Zoological Gardens (now Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park) (1890–present day) currently located near downtown Denver in the Central Platte River Valley;
  • Manhattan Beach (later Luna Park) (1891–1914) which once stood on the north shore of Sloan’s Lake;
  • Arlington Park (later Chutes Park) (1892–1902) now Alamo Placita Park on E. 3rd Avenue and Ogden Street;
  • Tuileries Amusement Park (1906–1913) located on S. Broadway and Englewood Parkway in Englewood; and
  • Lakeside Park a.k.a. “The White City of the West” and now known as Lakeside Amusement Park (1908–present day) located at Sheridan Blvd and 44th Avenue.

Only two of these parks survived past the first decade of the twentieth century. While Lakeside Amusement Park is the oldest park still operating in its original location, Elitch Gardens holds the honor of being Colorado’s oldest amusement park, entertaining eager park goers continuously for the past 134 years! 

Elitch Gardens in the 1890s

Elitch Gardens in the 1890s. 

History Colorado, 84.192.424

What’s not to love about the Elitch story? 

The beloved theme park is home to a long list of Colorado firsts including our first zoo (Denver Zoo opened in 1896), first botanic gardens (Denver Botanic Gardens opened in 1951), first children’s museum, first symphony orchestra, and first motion picture theater. Mary Elizabeth “Lydia” Hauck Elitch Long (1856–1936), the “First Lady of Fun,” blazed trails as the first woman in the world to own and manage a zoo. The esteemed businesswoman ran Elitch’s for 25 years!

Advertising poster depicting illustrated animals in zoo enclosures, reading "Elitch's Zoological Gardens, Denver, Colorado."

Advertising poster for Elitch’s Zoological Gardens, about 1923.

History Colorado, 2004.67.8


Elitch Zoological Gardens

John and Mary Elitch opened the Elitch Zoological Gardens on their farm in northwest Denver on May 1, 1890. The couple had been restaurateurs in California for years before eventually opening the Elitch Palace Dining Room in Denver in 1886. In the late 1880s, the couple purchased Chilcott Farm, a 16-acre plot of farmland near what is now 38th and Tennyson, to grow produce for their restaurant. But the Elitchs’ held even larger visions for the future. 

Mary Elitch surrounded by flowers in one of the Elitch greenhouses

Mary Elitch surrounded by flowers in one of the Elitch greenhouses, about 1900–1910.

History Colorado, 86.296.1062

John and Mary had long dreamed of opening a summer resort-style cultural center with a zoological garden and space for the performing arts. When the couple opened the park gates for the first season, the Elitch Zoological Gardens included a variety of animals (the likes of which impressed even their friend P.T. Barnum), a world-class botanical garden, and a budding theater program. 

The joy from the momentous opening was short-lived. John passed away unexpectedly the following year in 1891. As a thirty-four-year-old widow, Mary Elitch, known as “The Gracious Lady of the Gardens,” would navigate the ups and downs of business to ultimately manage the park for many years to follow, at a time when few women were permitted to hold positions of power. 

Mary’s love of nature allowed the gardens and zoo to flourish. Countless stories and photos feature Mary with her beloved bears. The gardens quickly began to ship flowers across the nation, including their prized variety of “Hilda” carnations. Mary worked to ensure that the park was a safe place for children and instituted Children’s Day every Tuesday, bringing in special entertainment for the kids.


Elitch Theatre

Throughout Mary’s tenure, the Elitch Theatre (established in 1891) continued to grow and evolve from a tent to the iconic structure we know today. Over the course of its history, the Theatre would host the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, Grace Kelly, and Mickey Rooney. Other entertainment at the park included bands, symphonies, and early motion pictures.

Today, the Historic Elitch Theatre, the last vestige of the original site of Elitch’s, continues to stand at 38th and Tennyson in Denver. In 2002, the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre Foundation (HEGTF) formed to pursue the restoration and preservation of the Theatre. The 2024 season includes tours, used book sale, films, and a children’s theater summer camp.

Elitch Theatre

Exterior and interior of the Elitch Theatre, about 1920–1930.

History Colorado, 93.167.3 


Elitch Amusement Park

In the early 1900s, Mary married Thomas Long, and soon the pair would open the park’s first rides including a carousel crafted by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. However, by 1916, competition among forms of entertainment in Denver was growing. Mary Elitch Long was forced to sell to John Mulvihill, with the stipulation that Mary could live on the property for the remainder of her life and hold two box seats in the Theatre for every performance. 

Mary Elitch Long lived at the park until her health grew poor. She passed away on July 16, 1936, at the age of eighty. Her legacy lives on in the spirit of the park and the historic Elitch Theatre. Her leadership, dedication to the park, and devotion to the Denver community have been recognized through her induction into both the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame (1996) and the Colorado Business Hall of Fame (1998). 

Carousel at Elitch's

Carousel at Elitch's, around 1904–1920.

History Colorado, 90.152.664

The park continued to evolve over the years as less emphasis was placed on the zoo and gardens and more attention was paid to the rides and performing arts. In 1917, John Mulvihill opened the spectacular Trocadero Ballroom for music and dancing. Historic performances at the ballroom included the likes of Benny Goodman, Lawrence Welk, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and more. 
Mulvihill also expanded the number of rides at the park. A new carousel, handcrafted by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company over the course of three years, was installed in 1928 to replace the original carousel. The original carousel was sold to Kit Carson County, where it is still in operation today. 

When Mulvihill passed away unexpectedly in 1930, his son-in-law Arnold Gurtler took over managing Elitch’s. The park would be owned by generations of the Gurtler family, who coined the famous slogan, “Not to See Elitch’s is Not to See Denver.” The Gurtlers made major upgrades to the park over the following years,  including the 1936 Ferris Wheel, 1954’s Kiddieland, and the legendary 1965 Mister Twister roller coaster. 


Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park

Perhaps the most significant change in its history occurred when the park relocated to a new site in downtown Denver’s Central Platte River Valley for the 1995 season. The move involved the relocation of several original rides, including the 1928 carousel. 

Confluence Park in Denver featuring Elitch’s in the background

Photograph by John Fielder of Confluence Park in Denver featuring Elitch’s in the background.

John Fielder’s Colorado Collection. History Colorado, 2023.1.2496

Ownership of Elitch’s changed in the 1990s with Six Flags taking over in 1998. In 2007, the name Elitch Gardens was reinstated when CNL Properties purchased the amusement park. Today, Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park lives on as an iconic Denver theme park with over 130 years of summertime fun. Look for Elitch’s to relocate yet again in the coming years, as its current prime location in the Denver downtown area is slated for development. No decision has been made as to its next location.

Read on for nostalgic and favorite memories of Colorado amusement parks shared by some of our staff at History Colorado. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!