Thanks to a late start from Kansas City and stops in Topeka, to see the outstanding Brown v. Board of Education site, and Manhattan, to peruse the Kansas State University bookstore (what can I say, my youngest daughter loves purple and cats), we didn’t even get the thrill of a daytime Rocky Mountain approach to Denver. And then came the rain.
It was a rough nine-hour driving day that didn’t end until we tossed our keys to the valet just before midnight. Thankfully, Hilton’s mobile check-in had us on our way up to a top floor corner room (that I was able to select on my phone!) in less than 20 seconds. Thank you technology…and thanks also to the Toyota Sienna’s Blu-Ray entertainment system that kept two young ladies smiling through Kansas’s flat nothingness.
The Hilton Garden Inn Denver Downtown is in a hotel cluster near the convention center, which, at first blush, save for the giant blue bear statue out front, didn’t seem ideal for a weekend in Denver with kids. The location, however, proved perfect for us because just two blocks east is the pedestrian nirvana of the 16th Street Mall and its free MallRide loop bus, which my youngest daughter would have been content to ride all day long.
A few more blocks in the same direction is free Ping Pong, mini-golf, foosball and more at Skyline Park (quick side note: my kids are terrible at ping pong…and foosball). A five-minute walk north from the hotel are the shops and restaurants of Larimer Square while the U.S. Mint in Denver waits for your family just a couple of minutes south. Coors Field and Elitch Gardens, other havens of childhood fun, are also within reach on foot or by bike.
After a tasty huevos rancheros breakfast around the corner at the Supreme Bean Cafe, my wife and oldest girl rented B-cycles from Denver B-cycle, the first large scale bike sharing program in the country, and explored downtown in two separate 30-minute segments, picking up bikes in one place and then dropping them elsewhere. They saw Larimer Square, Union Station and Coors Field, while my youngest and I grabbed our cameras and snapped photos of the eye-catching Denver Center for Performing Arts and the massive blue bear, which inspired us to sing Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band’s kindie rock classic of the same name.
After we worked up a sweat, the hotel’s oversized square hot tub offered us much needed respite before The Avett Brothers concert at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater in nearby Morrison, Colorado. This carved-into-a-mountain venue is the most beautiful place in America to see live music. As you plan your own Denver weekend with kids, consult the Red Rocks calendar and consider spending an evening there – it’s pure magic.
The next day, we were up early for Elitch Gardens, America’s only urban amusement park, which is celebrating its 125th birthday this year. We started on the Ferris wheel together, scoring sweet views of the park and city skyline, before my daughters ran wild on dry rides like DragonWing (which fans of “How To Train Your Dragon” will love), and got soaked on the wet ones. We tried not to spend too much money on food while at Elitch Gardens (although we couldn’t escape the gift shop without shirts for all of us!), so we just shared a delicious chocolate mousse parfait and a Siberian Chill.
Our day of fun was just getting started because we were told by a friend to make the 15-minute drive out of Denver to experience Lakeside Amusement Park at night. He was adamant about the “at night” portion of the command, so we followed orders and allowed the county fair atmosphere, mid-19th century lights and art deco rides like the Cyclone to be an amusing cherry atop our Saturday sundae.
In between roller coaster screams and Ferris wheel spins, we stumbled into the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank, a fascinating, free, two-room hall of cash. We thought we’d missed our Denver greenback experience since the U.S. Mint is only open Monday through Thursday, but here we saw bank notes from the birth of our nation through the futuristic new $100 bill, designed our own currency, and ogled the $30 million U.S. dollars stacked up behind a thick pane of glass.
In between tours of money, amusement parks and concerts, we did eat more than chocolate mousse and eggs! It’s a goal of ours to avoid chain restaurants, but we made a tasty exception for Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, a regional chain that started in Denver. My wife and I saw the words “Gyro” and “hummus” and ran through the door. Once inside, our girls were in heaven thanks to the iPad-esque touchscreen drink dispensers and the passcode protected bathrooms. They’ve never been so excited to refill water cups and wash their hands.
Debating the best pizza in any city is always an acrimonious affair, but we feel as though we found the spot in Denver: Sliceworks. Get treated to a free sliver of cheese pizza while deciding between slices of baked potato or vodka cream. Tip: order one of each!
Despite the Rockies and Rapids both playing games at home, we regrettably didn’t get to scratch our sports fan itch, but we still had a thrilling time with our kids in and around the city of Denver.
Keep reading the Family Vacation Critic Blog for more on Jeff’s three-week cross-country road trip with his family. Next stop: Southern Utah!
— Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an at-home dad of two pre-tween daughters. He writes about parenthood, family travel and all things childhood on his site OutWithTheKids.com. He considers himself one of the luckiest guys in the world, although he needs to be reminded of this fact from time to time. Jeff also writes for PBS.