austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

Come to my house, be one of the comfortable people

A small casualty of our day at Elitch Gardens: bunny_hugger's sunglasses. They came from a dollar store and now we had to find a new dollar store to replace them. This took more maneuvering than we figured because I drove right past the strip mall with the Dollar Tree in it, and traffic was too heavy to just turn around in any sensible fashion. But she found a nice pair tolerably close to the ones she liked. I got a pair of sunglasses too, since it had been really quite right that week. My trouble with sunglasses is they come in models that make me look like a cop, or that make me look like a member of Devo. Of course I went for the Devo one. (I jest. I look closer to Thomas Dolby.)

After we made the drive a modest bit away from our AirBnB hosts, there to ... no, not Lakeside Park. Lakeside Park turns out to be in walking distance of the place we stayed. We went to Casa Bonita.

If that name sounds faintly familiar you likely remember it from this episode of South Park. In it, Cartman obsesses with going to this crazypants-sounding Mexican restaurant that has, like, a fake cliff with divers and comedy gorilla acts and a haunted house and little flags you raise to get sopapillas brought right to you and all that, and to get there he plots some plot and ends up with like two minutes to take in the whole thing before federal, state, county, city, and local police carry him off to Punchline Jail. So it turns out the place is real and basically like you see in the cartoon.

The cartoon makes Casa Bonita out to be this shining castle in the midst of pawn shop squalor. Not so, really. It's in a strip mall, in a block of strip malls, mostly surrounded by fast-food and fast-casual dining. Next to the Casa Bonita is Adventure Dental Vision and Orthodontics, the place for parents to bring kids to the whiniest dental appointments of all the Rocky Mountain states. The experience has to be like going down to the Joann Fabric next to the Chuck-E-Cheese, only maybe four orders of magnitude higher, since Casa Bonita is so much bigger and weirder. Next to the dental place is another Dollar Tree. We had no idea. We were expecting Flash-animated pawn shops.

The frontage of the place is kind of a Mission-style tower, fair enough. The interior is somehow large enough to fit about fourteen baseball stadiums inside. The hype material says the place has a staff of three hundred and I find that entirely believable. Maybe even short-staffed. You enter through a long switchback of queues, implying just how crazy the place must get when every kids' birthday party in the county is going on at once. And place your order at the cashier. There's no getting in without ordering an entree, which runs about US$15. You can get cheaper and, probably, better Mexican food (this was about as good as we expect in bunny_hugger's parents' small mid-Michigan town). But, jeez, you're supporting the hiring of like three hundred employees here. It's cheap for that. The food's prepared right away and set to you on cafeteria trays. This is probably helped by the menu being pretty streamlined and simple. There's three vegetarian options, if they take the meat out of the prep of one of them.

The interior of the restaurant is this twisty maze of passages. Some lead to event rooms and we started out following one of those to some kind of family affair. Our mistake corrected we wandered around trying to figure out if we just seated ourselves or what, when a maitre d' came over and promised to lead us to the right table. I think we got into the main floor by the exit path or something like that.

The seating area is about eight hundred thousand different levels, some of them small enough to seat just two tables, some of them big enough to seat an elementary school class party. There's many different levels and paths and corners and inlets, some of them secluded inside gazebos or tucked behind half-walls or even features designed to look like caves. This place must take forever to check that everybody's cleared out at the end of the work day. There must be so many teens who figure a great stunt is to stay in after-hours.

From most of the seating areas on the main floor you can see the stage. And there, every 15 minutes, there's some kind of show. It might be a comic gunfight. It might be (at least when we were there) this comedy bit between a host, an ``animal trainer'', and his gorilla that oh sure he's got in control. It might be a show of trick diving, as there is indeed a thirty-foot waterfall and small pool built into the center of the place. Other times of day there's parades and pirate shows. Advice we got was that Casa Bonita takes about three hours to quite fully see, and yeah, that's about right. Just the shows alone are maybe an hour and a half until you've seen the day's routine.

The comedy shows are not subtle, dense, fast-paced wordplay. They're designed to be appreciated by semi-feral packs of kids watching from 75 feet away and partly obstructed by palm trees. So, you know, we loved it. But we were also going in to see a crazypants Mexican-based restaurant/theme-park hybrid. Just want to manage expectations for what you see. The diving is stunning, since it's diving but it's also into what looks like a terribly enclosed space. I suppose it's not really any more enclosed than the diving show at any amusement park. That there's cave wall settings and tables of people eating all around it makes it look more perilous, is all.

The tables have little flags on foot-tall wooden masts, to raise if you need a server for anything. Refills on sodas or, for adults, margaritas. Or, for dessert, which can be anything but is going to be sopapillas. In principle, unlimited sopapillas that are, indeed, fresh and hot and incredibly good. We naively thought the moist towelettes brought us with the first pack were to make sure we had clean hands before diving into the finger food. The sopapillas are served with squeeze-tubes of honey. You see where our horrible mistake comes in now, I trust.

While the dining floor is vast and labyrinthine it is not the whole of Casa Bonita, somehow. There's a wealth of attractions beside that. I've riffed on it growing into a theme park and while that's overstating it, it has got a lot of the things you might see in a theme park's midway. A caricature artist. A snack stand. A puppet theater that put on a weirdly plotless show about how of course one dinosaur didn't forget the other's birthday: he was going to Casa Bonita with him! A pinata, for kids to play around. A walk-through haunted house (well, haunted cave) attraction that was not quite too small for me. And that does end with you walking into a dragon's mouth.

An arcade, too. Mostly Skee-Ball, redemption games, and video games. We wondered if there might be pinball. Hoped, really. Then we realized if it had any pinball game it would be the South Park pinball. Casa Bonita has wholeheartedly embraced this one episode of the show, with Cartman dolls stuck in places he was seen on the show, and references to the show all over the place. We had to wonder whether they knew about the episode ahead of time or whether there were some hurried calls between staff the day the episode dropped. ... Anyway, so we realized if they had any pinball at all, it would be the South Park game, which was rushed out when the show first came on and who knew how long this cartoon with the obscene Colorforms would last. And then realized that absolutely under no circumstances would that pinball be here. Casa Bonita is a kids' place. There is not a single thing, including the sound made when you've dropped a quarter into the game, that's kid-friendly about the South Park pinball. And indeed, there's no pinball machines there. Too bad.

There is a lot of place here. We spent nearly three hours and we think we at least laid eyes on it all, but that's hard to be sure about. I mean, we found not just a passage behind the waterfall but that there were multiple booths there, for people who wanted to eat somewhere they couldn't see the shows? Hard to be quite sure. Maybe just space because it sometimes gets that busy. And still more stuff. Penny-smashing machines. Kiddie rides, horses and donkeys and trains and stuff. A ``Treasure Room'' in which you can venture up to the chest full of prizes and withdraw a bulk-mix candy. It's so delightful. Is it ridiculous? Yes. Is it worth getting to? For us, absolutely.

I have no idea how they can fit this floor plan into a strip mall. Nor how they can possibly do enough business to maintain the staff they need. Which is probably why this is the last Casa Bonita of a chain that at one point very nearly reached half a dozen instances. Some of their merchandise still listed them as being at Denver - Kansas City. I don't have any reason to think this one is in any particular danger.

Trivia: The 1933 invention of the filleting machine made redfish worth catching. By 1951 redfish represented about 70 percent of all fish landed in Gloucester, Massachusetts (home of Gorton Foods). Source: Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky.

Currently Reading: How To Read Nancy: The Elements Of Comics In Three Easy Panels, Paul Karasik, Mark Newgarden. Which I had been looking at even before the new writer made Nancy briefly Internet famous. The writers seem to be coming to the strip from an art-critic background, as opposed to a comics-critic background, so the perspective is a little weird and they just assume I have any idea what Formalism is about (so far; when I get to a second chapter they might explain terms common to the critiquing of art in ways that ignorants like me can understand and that expert readers will know to just skim over).

PS: I Don't Have Any Good Ideas For Finding Cube Roots By Trigonometry, so there's limits to just how brilliantly brilliant and clever I can feel about last week, but I still like what I did.


PPS: On to Storybook Land's thrill ride!

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The house of bricks from which the Three Little Pigs sing about not being afraid of the big-bad-wolf, you know, just like in the iconic Disney cartoon.


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And here's the Three Little Pigs, each holding up a symbol of their house-making ability. It looked like the same model used for the pig at Bowcraft Park.


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A closer view of the watering-can building that as you can see also sells Italian ice.


Tags: denver dash, fifth anniversary trip, story book land
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