Saturday, September 24, 2011

Colorado Trip: Part 2 - Baby Gymnastics & Casa Bonita!

We had beautiful weather for our drive from Manitou up to Denver on Friday morning. We could finally see the mountains and could see the views we missed on Wednesday's drive down. Our first stop was my cousin's house for a very special playdate.

My cousin's daughter, Elie, was born four days before Alice. Elie was born one day past her due date, where Alice was eleven days late. In the anxious days of waiting, my mom and sister had come to be at the birth and were waiting around with us. Jon's brother came to wait as well, everyone hoping that the birth would happen soon. My brother also lived in town at that time, and we spent a weekend eating, walking, and waiting. We decided to take a trip to the hospital so everyone could get familiar with the route to the hospital and the Labor & Delivery unit. Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at a popular Mexican hole-in-the-wall nearby. I remember reading on Facebook that my cousin was at the hospital in labor, and a mere few hours later, Elie was born. Already five days past my own due date, I was SO envious that my cousin beat me to the punch!

Anyway, this was the first time we would get to meet each other's sweet little girls and the first time they would get to meet each other. I don't have any photos from their very first introduction, as Elie was finishing her lunch and we were in a hurry to stuff some food into Alice as she was too excited and distracted to eat good meals for most of the trip. We made sure everyone got lunch and fresh diapers and then headed off for baby gymnastics at the local rec center. This was a real gymnastics facility with free play time for the wee ones. Elie and her big brother were old pros, but Alice is still learning how to play with other kids and things. She toddled around and had a great time climbing on the different mats and rolling around in the foam pit. The big kids also discreetly snuck in some playtime, trying not to attract the attention of the supervising gymnasts or knock over any tots. I think the big boys had more fun than anyone else!
Alice & Elie at baby gymnastics
babies on a balance beam! Alice didn't quite get the gist.

Super Cameron flying into the foam pit
Super Dad!
I enjoyed the trampoline. I wish I could have played with the harness!
the little cousins play together
After the gym, we headed back to my cousins house so all the little ones could have naps and the big ones could have a nice visit. After nap time, we headed out to meet my family and some more Clarks for dinner. Our destination was the self-proclaimed "Greatest Show in Denver." 

left: Casa Bonita facade (sourced from website). right: Casa Bonita in South Park (sourced here).
Casa Bonita is truly a marvel. I had the faintest memory of a childhood trip, all I could recall was the magically dimly lit interior with flickering lights a la Disneyland; basket after basket of pillowy sopapillas which were instantly smothered in honey and eaten while they were still warm and soft; and the dark and dreamy cliff divers, as exotic and mysterious as Latin soap opera stars. I knew that it might look different through the eyes of adulthood, but I convinced Jon that we just had to work it into our itinerary, since he'd never been before. We must have gone during the last Clark family reunion, when I was fourteen and my sister would have been nine, because she also had a faint memory, but it wasn't hard to convince my family to go as well. My cousin agreed to join us, though she had just been with another visiting cousin a few months ago, and another of our cousins decided to join as well with her husband and their two small children. These kids are all too young to remember the trip, which is too bad, as we'll probably have to go again when they can appreciate it.

I did my homework before we left. I knew that the restaurant was in the middle of a strip mall and the cheese enchiladas were made with something even more plastic and less adjacent to cheese than Que Beuno. I knew about the rumored empty cans of cat food in the restaurant kitchen and garbage cans. I read the complaints of broken seats and worn out carpet. But I didn't care. The place is the stuff of legends. It's legendary status has been cemented in pop culture thanks to several episodes of South Park (most notable is the eponymous episode, available here for your viewing pleasure)The restaurant made such an impact on the show's creators, who grew up in Colorado, that they named their production studio building after it. I'm sure they pronounce it the proper, Coloradoan way (as in Cass-a - sounds like "ass" - instead of the more traditional Cah-sa). The South Park episodes get it dead on, in case you're wondering.

Anyway, I needed to revisit this place of mythical proportions and experience it again as a conscious adult. 

So we dressed Alice in her finest rodeo dress and hung out by the deafening fountain out front until our entire party had arrived. When we entered, we were greeted immediately by the heady and intoxicating smell that lingers when chlorinated water is contained inside a musty, climate-controlled building (think the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland/World), and a huge wall that obscures said water and all the rest of the glory within. We walked through a long and eerily empty line that had clearly studied at the Disney parks school of crowd management and food service. We stopped at a hostess kiosk and hastily ordered our meals off an awkwardly placed menu before continuing along the deserted queue to retrieve our cafeteria trays. Here is where my sister was horrified and confounded by the lake of neon plastic puddled next to an otherwise normal looking enchilada. I explained what I had read on Yelp. I don't remember what she ordered, hopefully it was more recognizable. We didn't hang around there, though, for we could hear the siren song of waterfalls and cliff divers calling out at a feverish pitch. Here is but a taste of what greeted us when we turned the corner.

Look at that waterfall! People dive from the cliffs into the frighteningly tiny pool below! And there's an arcade! And pinatas and puppet shows! And Black Bart's cave! You can dine here with 1,000 of your closest friends, while being serenaded by mariachis who stroll around dodging an escaped gorilla! 

It was amazing. There were periodic dramatic interludes by young actors and actresses who were surely thrilled and enormously proud of their steady, paying gigs. The drama involved a hysterical girl (like, in breathless hysterics, not actually funny) and two young men who I'm sure were playing every part, from the cliff divers, to the escaped gorilla, and performing in the puppet shows as well. The tables had a schedule of the evening's entertainment which was entertainment enough in itself. My mom kept wandering off to watch the actors, I couldn't tell whether she was taking notes or looking to recruit talent for her next theatrical production, or contemplating applying for the restaurant's director of entertainment position. I was also sad to note that the divers were not the hunky and brooding, Speedo-clad Latin hearthrobs of my memory, but scrawny teenagers wearing boardshorts. I also figured that Colorado must not have any lawyers. How else could this kind of place continue to operate? It wouldn't stand a chance in California, that's all I know. 

Though the restaurant can seat 1,000 guests, they apparently didn't have a table large enough to seat our party of seventeen (including four high chairs) all together, so we ended up crammed into two adjacent tables which was kind of a buzzkill. It didn't matter all that much though, since we were only seated long enough to scarf down our dinners before we all scattered in pursuit of entertainment. Jon and I both ordered the taco salad, which seemed like the safest bet, but I have to say that I certainly understood the accusations of cat food. My cousin assured me that she'd never been sick after eating there and while I can't say that I was actually sick afterwards, I don't think my body was pleased with my dietary indiscretion. Let me just say that if you want to experience Casa Bonita (and you really just should), you may want to plan on eating before or afterward and simply write off the meal expense as a cover charge. As a side note, many reviewers mention a similarity to Disneyland in the queue formation, the decor, etc. This may all be true but it has to be said that the food at Disney parks is heads and shoulders above Casa Bonita's offerings. They should really take some lessons from Disney in how to feed WAY more people WAY better food. Also, if you do plan a visit, don't ask your local Colorado hosts to go with you. Just because they live in the vicinity doesn't mean that they should be subjected to that experience more than once in five years (at least).

Anyway, once we finished off our meals and the first few baskets of sopapillas, and saw several death-defying dives (including the two-man "javelin"), we headed off to see the other wonders. First, we strolled through the cave behind the waterfall and got a glimpse of "the back side of water" that I thought Disneyland had cornered the market on. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see the back side of any dives, but I did take a few fun photos. I do love sparkly, backlit water! 
left: Alice and Jon. right: Shannon contemplates the miracle that is Casa Bonita's back side of water.
Then, my cousin's husband and I took a trip through Black Bart's cave to make sure it wasn't too scary for his little daughters (or for Jon or my sister). Jon hates low ceilings and close quarters, so he opted not to go through but Shannon mustered up the courage and lived to tell about it. The little girls had no problem at all, by the way. I also popped into the gift shop which actually had some things I would have brought home but it was a mistake to bring Alice in there, especially since none of the trinkets had her name. It was our first gift shop fail!

Before we knew it, the puppet show was on again. We gathered all the girls and found our seats in the little theater. We couldn't locate little Benjamin though, my mother had absconded with them and they were no where to be found. So here we are, three Clark cousins and our little girlies, all focused on a lion and a toucan with suspiciously similar voices. This picture isn't a good representation, but Alice paid rapt attention the entire time, tired as she was.

four sweet little second cousins
In the middle of the puppet show, my cousin told me she'd just realized the one place she hadn't looked for her little boy. After the puppet show, we headed straight for the front of the restaurant where there is an expansive zoo of mechanical animals to ride. Sure enough, little Benjamin had dragged my mother there and convinced her to let him ride them all. I exclaimed that we would never have been allowed to spend so many quarters on animal rides, and my mom retorted that it was because we weren't as smart as Benjamin. Apparently, before my mom had absconded with him, HE had somehow absconded with a sack of tokens that afforded him all the animal rides he could ever want.

We hit the road after the puppet show so our little puppet could have a good night's rest before our morning playdate at the park with all the little second cousins and their great-grandma. The weather was lovely, the park was WAY more fun than the parks of my youth, and the cousins had lots of fun running all over the place. I tried to show Alice how Elie was climbing all the way to the top of the slide and then going down all by herself, feet first. I was very impressed, but Alice took no notice. She was perfectly happy to go down the slide in her dad's lap!
Alice meets her great-grandma for the first time. It took just a bit of convincing. 
The park had a very fun little "river" with shooting water fountains that meandered into a little wading pool. Alice started heading in, fully dressed, so we did a quick costume change. We'd brought her swimsuit in the hopes that it would be warm enough for a little splashing about, and I'm glad we had it handy! The water was a bit chilly, but she didn't seem to mind. Nor did she complain when one of the fountains shot up right in her face. It had disappeared and she leaned way down to follow it, none of us anticipating it would return so enthusiastically. She sputtered and coughed a bit, but was no worse for the wear and not at all put off. And the rest of these photos need no explanation whatsoever!

Alice finally got friendly with my grandma!
Next up, I'll share the main events that instigated our trip out to Colorado, lest you think Casa Bonita was the main draw!

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