Restaurant serves up chaos and cliff divers, with a side of nostalgia

Casa Bonita, a legendary Colorado restaurant, is a 'Chuck E. Cheese meets Disneyland' kind of place

In an increasingly desk-bound world where stimulating work can be hard to find, Travis Sims is a breed apart.

He's an Acapulco cliff diver.

Well, an Acapulco-style cliff diver.

The cliffs are fake. The 30-foot waterfall is phony. And he dives on the ragged outskirts of Denver.

"I tell you it's just the weirdest thing," said the affable 21-year-old. "People ask me what I do and I say, 'I'm a cliff diver,' and they say, 'Whoa, cool! Where?' And I say, 'In a restaurant with a big pool in a place that's kind of a Chuck E. Cheese meets Disneyland kind of thing.'"

In other words, at Casa Bonita, the radiantly pink, self-proclaimed "most exciting restaurant in the world!"

Now in its 40th year, the eccentric 52,000-square-foot Mexican restaurant is a Colorado landmark exuding an undefinable charm that attracts people from across the globe.

"You look around and you don't realize there was a mathematical formula to all of this," said Mike Mason, the restaurant's general manager, as hundreds of diners streamed beneath plastic palms strung with Christmas lights.

The glittering chaos is festive but the formula hard to decipher. The main dining area resembles a Mexican village, while other sections include rooms outfitted in Edwardian furnishings, stalagmites and bubbling mud pots. Then there are the strolling guitarists, haunted caves, arcades and a jail cell with rubber bars.

"It's very odd," said diner Valerie Williamson, 29, "but an interesting odd."

Yet everything takes a back seat to the cliff divers, who leap 30 feet into a turquoise pool that forms the beating heart of Casa Bonita. In a world of busboys, waiters and dishwashers, they are virtual superheroes.

Would-be divers need experience in springboard and platform diving and must pass an audition. Not only do they dive every 15 minutes for up to six hours, they juggle fire and perform skits dressed as pirates, gorillas and damsels in distress.

Sims, a college student who has worked at the restaurant for four years, has become a minor celebrity, occasionally recognized at the mall.

"One girl ran up to me and said, 'You're the diver at Casa Bonita!' and hugged me," he recalled. "It was awesome. I think she was like 7."

On a recent Friday night, the place was jumping — literally.

Patrons cheered on Grace Meacham, 19, as she scrambled to the top of a cliff. She raised her arms skyward. The audience roared. She climbed above the pounding waterfall and dived ramrod straight into the 14-foot-deep pool.

The place exploded in applause. Meacham beamed. No one applauded at her last job as clerk in a Wyoming gas station.

"When I heard Casa Bonita was hiring, I thought anything has to be better than this," said the former high school diving champion. "It was a little intimidating, especially when they told me I'd have to dress like a gorilla."

In the changing room beneath the falls, diver Tor Larson, 19, was ending his shift.

"It's the most fun but intense job I've ever had," he said. "I tell people I work at the Mexican Disneyland."

Larson makes about $12 an hour.

Casa Bonita began as part of a chain that originated in Oklahoma City in 1971. Now it's the last of its kind.

The restaurant gained pop culture stardom when "South Park," the foul-mouthed animated series set in Colorado, dedicated an entire episode to Casa Bonita. In it, the main character locks his friend inside a bomb shelter so he can take his place on a visit to the restaurant. After a police chase, he winds up diving off the cliffs.

"Sometimes things become a phenomenon and you don't know why," said Mason, who has worked here for 38 years. "The smart thing is not to mess with it."

The food has been savaged by critics, but that hasn't affected business much, with up to 5,000 customers visiting some weekends. Many come to relive childhood memories.

Beth Shumake, 42, wandered around an empty dining section with red carpets and chandeliers, recalling the days she came here as a girl.

"This was always my favorite room," she said, wistfully. "It's so formal."

Not far away, Sonya Ludwig, 37, and her husband, Scott, 42, were heading into the "haunted" Black Bart's Cave.

"We used to bring our kids all the time," Sonya Ludwig said. "Now we're here for our own date night."

As a boy, Sims celebrated his birthdays at the restaurant and dreamed of diving from those cliffs. Now, he thinks of creating his own Casa Bonita.

"There is nothing like this anywhere, and the business model is pretty good," he said. "I just can't decide what it is."

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