Granted, it was about the slowest day of the year, to date. So said Francisco, the young dude running the Loop-o-Plane.
July 5th was the day I visited the Lakeside Amusement Park. Day after the holiday, mid-week on a Wednesday, with an evening temp around 60 degrees.
Not exactly a day for big attendance at this legendary place, located just outside of Denver at Sheridan Blvd and I-70.
Still the sparse crowd was kind of striking. Just a few families with kids. A bunch of teens on group outing. No lines for the rides, where the minimum wage operators stood looking bored.
But Lakeside is still in business—the fun business—as it has been since 1908. The gates still open at 6 pm on most evenings from May through Labor Day.
The rides? There are a dozens of em, and many still work reliably.
There are the Auto-Sooters—electric cars where drivers experience the joy of gently slamming into each other. There is the Round-Up, which spins like a giant top, pinning passengers to the wall with centrifugal force.
There is the Zoom, which lifts a vessel of people to about 60 feet in the air and then drops them. Everyone screams, and a gentle brake kicks in to interrupt their fall. There is the Satellite, where riders pilot rocket ships in a circle, controlling their own altitude with a joystick.
The Skoot-a-Boats are another slam-your-buddy attraction. Floating innertubes with inboard motors, they were once equipped with squirt guns. The guns were removed when people started soaking the ride operators.
The main attraction, the Cyclone, is down for the season. The white, wood-constructed roller coaster once was celebrated as one of the world’s most advanced. Riders are warned in writing—don’t extend your limbs out from the cars.
Last year, someone broke the rule and broke his arm. The Cyclone has been de-commissioned ever since. though the full explanation is shrouded in mystery. The park may be waiting for an inspection by the state.
The mechanical integrity of many rides—perhaps most—appears shall we say, sub-optimal. Confidence is not inspired by loud grinding of gears and what look like repurposed bicycle chains. Not to mention all that faded paint, much of it depicting 1940s-looking cartoon characters.
Games of skill and dexterity are everywhere—like the kind where you pick uo stuffed animals in a glass box, with a controlled remotely set of jaws.
Many attractions were created with a futuristic “space-age” feel back then, with names like the Satellite and the Rock-o-Plane. There are multiple merry-go-rounds and carousels, rotating around with their hand-carved horse heads bobbing up and down. The remains of a defunct Ferris wheel stand proudly behind some fencing.
A small gauge diesel locomotive hauls passengers around Lake Rhoda, named after park owner Rhoda Krasner. She is the daughter of the late Ben Krasner, who rescued the park from bankruptcy in 1935. Rhoda occasionally is seen cruising the grounds on a golf cart, making sure everyone’s having a good time.
Lakeside is like a traveling carnival, except maybe 10 or 12 times the size. Admission costs $5. Yes, that’s five dollars, and parking is free. Ride fares range from 50 cents to $2.50. A family of four could go all out and spend $100 in an evening. Or they could get by on 40 bucks.
So much potential enjoyment in one place. It is sad to see it unappreciated, with such a sparse crowd on a summer evening.
Lakeside sits on prime real estate. The owners reportedly have declined numerous opportunities to sell. It is not about money. It’s about their desire to preserve a place for affordable fun.
For 19 years, I lived a few blocks from Lakeside. We were close enough to walk over, but we rarely did. One time I visited the park with my wife and her adventurous eighty-something year old mother. Louise got stuck mid-lake on her Skoot-a-Boat and had to be towed in.
I know nothing about the park’s future, except what I see in media. There have been rumors of interest by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the irreverent South Park cartoon show. They recently purchased the iconic Casa Bonita restaurant, nearby in Lakewood, and spent $40 million restoring it to past glory.
But the Lakeside purchase rumors seem to be unfounded.
Last Wednesday, one thing was clear. Even with a small crowd, laughter was everywhere—riding the rides, feeding the coin-operated games, stumbling through the mirror maze in Crystal Palace.
It is not for everyone. Lakeside is an anachronism, a relic, and a throwback to old Denver. It has lived for 115 years. I figure it’ll be here until it’s not.