I remember watching the television commercials announcing the opening of Casa Bonita in 1973. The Mexican restaurant looked like a piece of Disneyland that had been scooped up and dropped onto the blighted Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colorado. The exterior featured pink fantasy Spanish mission architecture, and the interior contained a Mexican village, a mariachi band, a haunted cave, a waterfall and pond with cliff divers, fire jugglers, a Ske-Ball arcade, puppet and magic shows, costumed gorillas, and an all-you-can eat buffet. I begged my parents to take us there.
Even the rumors that Casa Bonita put dog food in its dishes -- rumors so virulent and pervasive that Casa Bonita had to buy airtime on local TV to assure people that it most assuredly did not use dog food -- did nothing to dissuade my desire to visit.
My parents eventually gave in. We drove to the restaurant, waited in a long, winding line (just like a line for a Disney attraction), took our food platters as they appeared from a slot, and were led by a waiter dressed in cartoonish Mexican garb to a table near the diving pool. It felt like we were sitting in a jungle, with twinkling stars overheard and a sleepy little Mexican town peeking through palm trees.
I don't remember many other details from that night. I do recall I thought it was wonderful, and I wanted to return as soon as possible.
And 35 short years later, I came back. My daughter was turning 11, and we wanted to celebrate. Since we were in Colorado on vacation, I suggested Casa Bonita. I described it to my daughter and she said it sounded like fun.
We went there in the middle of the week, driving from Boulder. The first thing I noticed as we got near the shopping mall where Casa Bonita was located was the large number of pawn shops, payday advance stores and check-cashing joints. Even the mall itself had a payday loan business. (Click images for full-size.)
The magic store next door to Casa Bonita is like one of those businesses next to Disneyland that tries to drink from the theme park's milkshake. Kids who enjoyed the magic show at Casa Bonita no doubt dragged their parents into this place to get Chinese linking rings, balls-and-cups, and hollow thumbs.
Once inside, I was surprised to discover that the place was nearly deserted. I saw about three other occupied tables in a restaurant that was built to hold hundreds of people. I was expecting lively music, but it was eerily silent, adding to the feeling of abandonment. The cashier was sitting on the floor, reading a book. She reluctantly got up, unhooked a chain blocking our entry, and took our order.
The highlight of our visit was the Fanky Malloon machine. The promise of a "Flying Fun Balloon" for 75-cents was too good to pass up. We bought a Fanky Malloon for each of the three kids in our group. I took a video of the machine in action:
On the way out, I asked my 11-year-old if Casa Bonita was as wonderful as I'd promised it would be. She said it was even better. Maybe we'll come back in another 35 years.