Some students take a gap year between high school and college, but not many spend it like Max Spiegel has — diving into a tropical lagoon every 15 minutes or so at Lakewood’s Casa Bonita.
“I was a diver all four years at Cherry Creek High School,” he said recently as he climbed out of the pool’s 88-degree water after his first show of the day. “I love meeting all kinds of people like I do here — and when you’re a cliff diver, the kids idolize you.”
Casa Bonita, 6715 W. Colfax Ave., which has surprised and delighted patrons of all ages since 1974, still has the power to draw a crowd. The vibrant pink exterior belies its warm, old-Spanish interior, matching its Mexican culinary options. There’s a Disney-esque feeling to the booths and various shows hosted throughout the day, and it’s easy to get lost wandering its several levels.
“For us, and for the world, Casa Bonita is a top cultural icon,” said Bill Marino, executive director of the Lakewood-West Colfax Business Improvement District. “We have Casa Bonita, and the rest of the world doesn’t, so it’s a real feather in the cap of West Colfax and the 40 West Arts District.”
The restaurant’s 85-foot tower was a familiar sight to west metro residents for years. But Casa Bonita gained a whole new level of fame when “South Park” aired an episode set in the restaurant in November 2013.
“Every time that episode re-airs, we see an increase in visitors,” said Eileen Mullen, Casa Bonita’s office manager and head of marketing. “Coming here has become a ritual for many people, and we have customers who return often for special occasions.”
The 52,000-square-foot restaurant seats about 1,000 people on multiple levels, and in addition to the tropical diving pool, features arcades, gift shops and puppet shows. The famous waterfall used by the restaurant’s divers, was designed to resemble the cliffs of Acapulco. It is 30 feet high and the pool is 14 feet deep, and divers usually dive from about 15 feet above the water.
“You don’t deal with normal things when you work here,” said Mike Mason, Casa Bonita’s general manager. “Most restaurants don’t have to think about who to call when you need to repair a tropical lagoon.”
The restaurant had to solve that very question at the end of January, when it embarked on its first major pool renovation in 20 years. Staff had made minor repairs on the pool every few years. But after two decades, parts of the rock formations were looking worse for wear, Mason explained.
“This gave us the opportunity to go full-bore and fix things up really nicely,” said Paco Espana, head creator at Casa Bonita. “It was a huge project, but we were able to clean everything up, and add some layers and depth to the pool and formations.”
The renovation process took about three weeks, and the pool reopened for divers on Feb. 11. About nine divers are usually part of the restaurant’s 200 employees, a number which jumps to more than 250 during the busy summer months.
“There are so many little stories in the details of this place that people probably never notice,” Mason said. “Everyone who worked on the creation of our caverns etched their names in the stalagmites and stalactites they built. But you have to know where to look.”
When Broad Street Realty bought the Lamar Station Plaza Shopping Center in 2014, the company quickly realized the importance of keeping Casa Bonita where it was and extended the lease for 15 years.
“From a cultural perspective, it was important to keep Casa Bonita because it is a 43-year-old iconic institution, not only for Lakewood and Denver, but the state of Colorado,” wrote Thomas Yockey, president of Broad Street, in an email interview. “Its association with families literally spanned generations, because the kids who went there in the ‘70s are now taking their grandkids to visit Casa Bonita.”
And from a business perspective, Yockey said, “keeping Casa Bonita in place was important because of the irreplaceable visitor traffic that has the potential of driving customer traffic for other current and future tenants at Lamar Station Plaza.”
Casa Bonita’s power to pull in people has been a significant boon for West Colfax, especially in recent years, as the avenue has seen a resurgence thanks to the efforts of organizations like 40 West, and volunteers.
“It just brings people to the corridor,” Marino said. “We can promote it as a destination and entertainment center, and it exposes opportunities on West Colfax, 40 West’s galleries, and other restaurants and breweries.”
And while all of this is well and good, for customers like David Zuniga, who has been visiting Casa Bonita for 40 years, the important thing is that the beautiful house is still there to show the next generation.
“We bring our students here a couple times a year, and they get so excited,” he said. “I started coming when I was a kid, and just kept coming back.”