In the scenic town of Estes Park, there is an abundance of history to discover, and among its notable landmarks is the esteemed Historic Park Theatre.
This family-owned establishment holds the distinction of being one of the oldest movie theaters in the entire country, boasting a rich legacy that spans generations.
Stepping inside this iconic venue is not merely a cinematic experience; it is a journey through time. And below, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about this experience and help you decide if it’s worth a visit.
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What is Historic Park Theatre in Estes Park?
The Historic Park Theatre in Estes Park is one of the oldest operating movie theaters in the country and a renowned cultural landmark nestled in the heart of the town.
It provides a unique cinematic experience, allowing moviegoers to enjoy the magic of the silver screen while surrounded by a historic ambiance. The theater’s cozy seating, vintage architecture, and nostalgic atmosphere create a delightful setting for film lovers of all ages.
Erected in 1913, this cherished picture house has brought joy and entertainment to both residents and tourists for countless years.
There are varying claims regarding its status on cinema’s Mount Rushmore, though.
Some hail it as the oldest continuously running movie theater in the United States, while others add qualifiers like “oldest west of the Mississippi” or “oldest single-screen theater.”
One thing remains indisputable: this venue is a historical icon that holds a distinguished place among the oldest cinematic establishments still thriving in the country.
In 1922, Ralph Gwynn assumed ownership and in 1926, a significant addition was made to the landscape of Estes Park: the landmark tower known as the “Tower of Love.” Gwynn constructed it as a tribute to the love of his life, but it’s not quite as sweet a gesture as you might imagine.
On the day they were meant to unite their lives, the love of Gwynn’s life vanished, leaving him standing alone at the altar, heartbroken and shattered. Determined to express his anguish and perhaps seeking a twisted form of closure, Gwynn built the tower to represent the beautiful love of his life: beautiful on the outside and hollow and empty on the inside. Ouch.
Throughout its existence, the theater has endured numerous challenges, including narrowly escaping devastating fires and natural calamities like the destructive Lawn Lake flood of 1982, when a flood sent a soft drink machine
crashing through the theater’s glass doors.
In addition to its resilience, the theater has also embraced progress, undergoing renovations and enhancements to preserve its historic allure while integrating contemporary conveniences and facilities.
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places, today it showcases a diverse range of films, including blockbuster hits, independent films, documentaries, and classic movies. It also hosts special events.
Where is the Historic Park Theatre in Estes Park?
The Historic Park Theatre is located at 130 Moraine Ave, Estes Park, CO 80517.
Convenient parking options abound near the theater. One possibility is to utilize the free parking area across Elkhorn Ave, located behind Himalayan Curry & Kebob. There is a lot and also street parking there.
Alternatively, you can follow our example and park at the visitor center’s complimentary parking area. From there, you can indulge in a riverside stroll along the famed River Walk as you leisurely make your way towards the theater.
Experiencing the Historic Park Theatre in Estes Park
The Historic Park Theatre in Estes Park is a theater with historic charm and unique character.
If you are accustomed to the lavish amenities of fully equipped modern theaters, you’ll find that your viewing experience at the Historic Park Theatre in Estes Park offers a departure from those cookie-cutter multiplexes.
You won’t find cushioned armrests with cupholders and leather recliners at this venue. Instead, vintage wooden chairs will be your companions.
The steps of moviegoers going to and from the bathroom give the surround sound a run for its money and a cascade of spilled candy from the back row might skitter beneath you.
If it’s cold outside, you might be stepping into a refrigerator. So dress warm. And when you need to go to the bathroom, be ready for a tight fit.
All of these things don’t sound great at first glance but this unique blend of quirks and imperfections give this theater its character.
It’s a small price to pay to be a part of the tradition of watching movies here which has gone on for over 100 years. My advice: embrace the quirks and immerse yourself in a bygone era of movie magic.
Tip: If you do find the seat to be uncomfortable you can pick up a cushion or two from the back of the theater and use that on your seat.
Because this is a single-house venue, your viewing options will always be limited. On our particular visit, the theater was playing only “The Little Mermaid” for a Sunday 1 PM matinee.
The theater doesn’t do assigned seating so if you want to get a seat that you really love you may want to arrive early. However, in this case the theater was probably only about 20% full so we could snag any seat we wanted.
In the lobby, vintage cinematic artifacts evoke the memories of days gone by, reminding individuals like myself (in their mid-30s) that movie theaters were not always sprawling AMC and Cinemark complexes.
Within the movie theater, a compact but well-stocked concession stand awaits, offering a wide array of treats typically found in such establishments, with the exception of hot food.
Familiar snacks like Sour Patch Kids and Buncha Crunch line the shelves, tempting moviegoers to indulge their sweet tooth. An assortment of sodas and slushees are there to quench your thirst.
And, naturally, no cinematic experience would be complete without the quintessential buttered popcorn, available in a range of sizes to satisfy every craving.
Once settled, we proceeded to our seats, grabbing a couple of cushions along the way. Throughout half of the movie, I utilized the seat cushion, but eventually decided to forgo it in at attempt to fully embrace the genuine vintage viewing experience.
It wasn’t so bad but it’s definitely not the same comfort you would have at a big theater so if you have back issues or get uncomfortable easy, you may be battling some of that.
Since you don’t have cupholders one thing you can do is to plop down a seat between you and whoever you’re sitting with. You can then use that to place your snacks and drinks on which makes things a bit more manageable.
As far as what seat is best, I’d recommend sitting pretty close to the front and in the middle. There’s a stage in front of the screen so you might find yourself wanting to sit closer than you typically would in a movie theater.
Around the scheduled start time of the movie, local commercials and advertisements were screened, followed by the previews, much like any conventional movie theater.
Then it was time for the main feature which was the Little Mermaid, a movie with some mostly impressive visuals but some questionable soundtrack additions and character voicing if you ask me. But I’m no movie critic.
For movie enthusiasts and history buffs alike, I wholeheartedly recommend paying a visit to the Historic Park Theatre. On those rainy days in the mountains, this theater offers a perfect sanctuary. While Estes Park does have a more contemporary cinema within city limits, it’s truly hard to resist being transported a century back in time while enjoying a film in this remarkable venue.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.