Earlier this month I spent time at two of Denver’s most popular summer attractions for families: Water World, one of America’s biggest waterparks with 49 attractions on 64 acres, technically north of Denver in Federal Heights at 88th & Pecos, and Elitch Gardens, which is in the middle of downtown Denver and actually comprises two distinct areas, an amusement park with roller coasters, thrill rides, carousel, Ferris wheel, carnival games and live shows, plus Island Kingdom waterpark, filled with raft rides, water slides, lazy river and wave pool. Comparing the two head to head — Water World vs. Elitch Gardens — is a bit like comparing apples and oranges because they are quite different. Both parks have their merits… and their disadvantages.
Still, after visiting each of the parks — with four kids between the ages of 10 and 12 — I’d have to say that Water World offers the better value, namely because I didn’t feel quite so nickel and dimed:
- Daily adult admission costs at Water World and Elitch Gardens (“Elitches” or “Elitch’s” to locals) are comparable: roughly $40 per adult when purchasing tickets in advance online
- Water World offers discounted rates after 1:45 pm; Elitch Gardens doesn’t have half-day pricing
- Parking is free at Water World; it costs $15 at Elitch Gardens
- You can bring in your own food and coolers at Water World; outside food and beverage is forbidden at Elitch Gardens
- Food prices are cheaper at Water World than Elitch Gardens; for example, Water World sells a $3.50 cheeseburger, which I think is quite reasonable.
- Lockers to store valuables at Elitch Gardens are $12; lockers at Water World near Thunder Bay wave pool are $1 (pay $1 each time you open and close it), and standard ones that you can access all day at no extra fee are $8 in the bathhouse near the main entrance.
Now, other Denver-area moms may disagree with me. They might argue that Elitch Gardens does offer two types of experiences for one price: your thrilling amusement park rides and a full waterpark, and that’s pretty cool. Plus, Elitch Gardens is open later (typically 8 p.m. vs. 6 p.m. at Water World), offering added value for the price of a daily ticket. Still, given the vast number of attractions at Water World, the price of admission is quite reasonable. In fact, on your average, crowded summer day, it’s impossible to hit all the rides during opening hours at Water World. Same goes for Elitch Gardens and its Island Kingdom Waterpark.
So no matter which theme park you visit, you’ll want to approach the park with a game plan. Consider these time-, money- and sanity-saving tips that I gathered during my recent stints at each of the parks, plus some great advice from smart moms in the Denver area.
Tips for Visiting Elitch Gardens
Don’t visit on a Tuesday or Wednesday: Season pass holders can use their “Free Bring-a-Friend” tickets on these days, making the park much more crowded than a Monday, Thursday or Friday. Avoid Saturdays and Sundays, too, if you can help it.
Purchase tickets ahead of time: Buy them online for discounted pricing (not there is a $5 per order processing fee). You can also buy discounted tickets at King Soopers grocery stores. If you don’t purchase them before you arrive, bring an empty Pepsi can for $10 off. Another value-deal: Family Fun 4 pack – 4 tickets 4 meals 4 drinks and parking for $175.96 The tickets are good through Oct 28, 2012, but the package must be purchased online by August 12 (more than $70 in savings off the main gate price).
Consider buying Rapid Ride passes: With these passes, you move to the front of the line on the most popular rides.
Buy a season’s pass if you plan to go twice in one season: The season pass is $79.99 and will pay for itself after two visits, points out my friend Chris Bird, an Aurora mom. Plus you get extra perks like the Bring-a-Friend vouchers and early admittance to the water park.
Buy a souvenir cup and bring it back for $1 soda refills: Another great tip from Chris Bird!
Arrive before opening: If the park opens at 10 a.m., park your car ($15) by 9:30 a.m. to stand in line until the turnstiles open, then hit all your “must-do” attractions first. Lines for some of the popular thrill rides – like the Mind Eraser coaster – may die down just before park closing, too.
Splurge on a waterpark cabana: Starting at $100 for the day, these are not cheap. But I loved having my own private and shady home base. My tweens spent the morning on their own in the waterpark, while I read my book in the shade and kept one eyeball on the raucous wave pool. The kids returned for lunch (included in the VIP Cabana rate), and then we explored the theme park rides together for the late afternoon.
Pack a lunch: Outside food and beverage cannot be brought into Elitch Gardens. Avoid pricey theme-park food by packing a cooler that you leave in your car for mid-day picnic under the trees in the parking lot or under a nearby overpass, says Chris Bird. Don’t forget to have your hand stamped, and hang on to your ticket stubs for re-entry.
Seek air-conditioned or shady spots: The half-hour Cirque Innosta Verano show (featuring impressive feats of strength) takes place three times daily inside an air-conditioned theater near the main entrance. The indoor Ghost Blasters ride is refreshing, as are the misters found at some outdoor carnival games. Cavernous Rustlers Food Court was cool and quiet when I stopped in for a hearty Panda Express rice and stir-fry bowl ($9) at 7 p.m., an hour before the park closed.
Tips for Visiting Water World
Arrive before the park opens: This is so important to be one of the first in line to enter the park to secure a shady spot or lounge chairs by one of the wave pools. We didn’t walk in until close to 10:30 a.m., so many of the best spots were taken. I set up shop in a shady area at the bottom of the stairs that led to the Thunder Bay wave pool, but my shade disappeared within 90 minutes! The covered picnic tables near Thunder Bay are also coveted spots.
Purchase tickets ahead of time: Buy them online for discounted pricing (note the $1 per ticket processing fee). You can also buy discounted tickets at King Soopers grocery stores ($5 off) and coupons at Wendy’s ($6 0ff). If you don’t plan to purchase tickets before you arrive at the Water World ticket counter, bring an empty Diet Pepsi can for $6 off the price full-day admission, suggests Meagan W., who lives nearby. If you want to pick up discounted tickets — or Diet Pepsi — stop at the King Soopers at 84th Avenue and Pecos Street on your way to Water World (just a couple blocks away).
Splurge on a cabana: Like at Elitch Gardens’ waterpark, having your own private, shady area where you can spread out and be a bit separate from the crowds of people is worth at least $99 — especially if you’re planning to spend the entire day at Water World, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Pack your own cooler with a healthy lunch, snacks and drinks: I love that you can bring your own food into Water World — what a money saver! Bring your lunch, and treat the kids to Dippin Dots or an ice cream cone mid afternoon.
Buy a pizza from Little Caesar’s: Tami DePalma of Arvada, notes that this pizza joint is just north of the park, and you can bring your own $5 pies into Water World. What a cheap lunch!
Have pre-planned meeting spots or times: Make your independent tweens or teens wear waterproof watches, and set up a time to meet for lunch — or another time during the day — otherwise it will be very hard to get in touch with them since they won’t be carrying cell phones on all the water rides, suggests Laura Scheer of Highlands Ranch.
Buy the tube valet service: For $30, one member of your party gets a wristband which allows your group to bypass the long lines on the raft rides, such as Voyage to the Center of the Earth, Lost River of the Pharaoh’s and Storm!, to head straight to the top of the ride to pick up your big innertube. “This saves a lot of sanity and time if you don’t want to wait 90+ minutes in line for those rides,” says Elizabeth P., a Denver-area mom.
Pack rash guards: Laura Scheer always brings surf shirts for her kid to help prevent sunburn; a full day in the sunshine and in reflective water is a recipe for trouble. (I am so doing this for my son next time; he definitely came home pink shoulders, chest and upper back.)
Stay until the bitter end: Denver-area mom Stephanie R. says she often sees many families leaving the park around 4:30 p.m., which is when the lines for rides start to diminish. You may be able to walk on favorite rides at the end of the day, before the park closes at 6 p.m.
Tips or Visiting Both Elitch Gardens/Island Kingdom Waterpark and Water World
For both waterparks, it’s helpful to have two adults on hand. That way, one adult can stay with your towels, purses and other valuables (and you don’t have to rent a locker), and the other can be helping kids lug innertubes up to the tops of water slides. Tami DePalma also suggests two adults for differently aged kids: “One adult (or a babysitter) can sit with the younger children in the child-friendly pools, while you brave the big rides with your school-age kids, or vice versa,” she says.
My friend Rajean Blomquist of Castle Rock, Colorado, points out that it’s always helpful to bring an extra set of clothes (they will get wet at Elitches, even outside of the waterpark area, if you go on the the soaking flume ride). Also bring plenty of sunscreen to re-apply throughout the day, a ball cap or visor, plus Tylenol. I know my kids are prone to getting headaches after riding rickety roller coasters and spinning raft rides, and the strong Colorado sunshine and thin air can add to dehydration — so don’t forget to purchase or bring reusable water bottles and fill them often.
Which theme park do you and your kids prefer? I’d love to hear what you think about two of Denver’s most popular summer attractions. Just a leave a comment — and share your visitors’ tips, too!