Supercharging the Stanley
Colorado's historical, pop-culture-heavy hotel finds new ways to impress.
My wife complains every year around my birthday (and Christmas) that I’m notoriously hard to buy gifts for, and I don’t disagree. I’d say the issue is that I’m not into “material things,” but that would make me sound like a pretentious jerk, and it also wouldn’t be entirely accurate.
I do in fact like material things, but those things are typically limited to novelty items, like used records, concert t-shirts, and the occasional wall art — reflexive purchases that I never think (or perhaps am too impatient) to toss out to my family as gift ideas.
And frankly, the older I get, the less comfortable I am with people making a fuss out of my birthday. In all honestly, I’m more than happy just receiving a simple card or a hug, and calling it a day.
That said, I turned 49 a couple weeks ago, and my family absolutely blew my mind with an absolutely amazing gift: a family overnight trip to Estes Park (that included a show at the world famous Stanley Hotel).
I’ve written about Estes Park, Colorado in this newsletter before, because it really is one of my favorite places on the planet (which is incredibly convenient being that it’s just a little over an hour’s drive from our house). It’s a charming, secluded mountain town that serves as a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park (and thus receives a good number of tourists). The area is overflowing with wilderness, animal life (most famously large herds of elk that wander across streets and through parking lots), outdoor recreation, and quaint lodging, shops, and restaurants.
As John Denver might say, it fills up one’s senses. And at the risk of sounding cheesy, whenever I’m up there, I feel somewhat more alive.
One of the hallmarks of Estes Park is the aforementioned Stanley Hotel. The sprawling, beautiful, bright white architecture sits above the town and is visible from many directions.
The hotel has an impressive, well-documented history dating back to the early 1900s. It was built by Freelan Oscar Stanley, co-founder of the Stanley Steamer, and opened on July 4, 1909 as a health retreat for wealthy Easterners.
What the hotel is most famous for, however, is providing inspiration for the fictional “Overlook Hotel” in Stephen King’s iconic 1977 novel (and later the film adaptation of), The Shining.
And believe me, the hotel has capitalized immensely off of that cinematic link, more so in recent years than in the first couple decades following the film’s release. When I first began visiting Estes Park with some regularity in the late 90s, the tie-in was still mostly relegated to items in the hotel’s gift shop. These days, the Stanley is presented to guests and other visitors as a hotbed of mystery and paranormal activity, complete with ghost tours where wide-eyed guides tell spooky (but mostly fabricated) stories about the establishment’s past. It’s fairly corny, but people seem to have a good time with it.
A few years ago, a hedge-maze was even constructed at the front of the hotel to emulate the setting of a particularly memorable scene from the movie. To be honest, the landscaping is a little lackluster:
Every October, the hotel also throws the Shining Ball, an epic bash celebrating their ties to the film.
Still, the Stanley has managed to maintain its impressive, upscale stature. It’s found the proper balance of historical preservation, pop-culture appeal, and what I’ll call modern dapperness. That last quality (though I’m not even sure “dapperness” is a real word) is attributable in large part to big renovations of some of the property’s historical buildings into entertainment venues — an initiative, in addition to a large expansion of high-end lodging on the property, that has really taken off over the last decade.
In recent years, the revamped 112-year-old Stanley Concert Hall, which sits separately down a short hill from the rest of the hotel, has drawn a number of live music acts and stand-up comedians high up into the mountains. This includes mainstream musicians and entertainers who would normally only perform in big cities like Denver and Colorado Springs when passing through Colorado. (The band 311 actually played at the concert hall on Halloween night this year.)
Though I have yet to attend a concert there (I was planning on one early last year until the pandemic hit), my wife and I have taken good advantage of the comedy shows.
In 2018, the hotel opened a stunning $10 million performance venue called the Pavilion Amphitheater. I haven’t seen it in-person yet (I suspect I’d either need to attend an event or take a day tour for that to happen), but the pictures are just spectacular.
It holds 300 seats and faces an 11,000-pound hydraulic glass door that opens up to a beautiful pond in front of Long’s Peak and cascading waterfalls.
(Something tells me that Jack Nicholson wouldn’t have gone crazy if he’d had this kind of setup.)
I’m guessing the amphitheater will play a pivotal role in a big multi-day event that’s coming this weekend to the Stanley: Brucefest, the “definitive Bruce Campbell film festival.”
Yes, it’s a real thing (and the tickets ain’t cheap).
But let’s get back to the buildings…
Just this year, renovations on the Stanley’s 1909 Carriage House were completed. Upstairs there’s now a nice Post Chicken & Beer restaurant, and downstairs is a richly decorated speakeasy lounge that hosts high-quality traveling magicians on a small, intimate stage. That was the show that was part of my birthday gift, and it was excellent. Jared Kopf was the featured magician that night, and he’s amazing.
And if that still doesn’t sound like enough, the Stanley Film Center, an 80,000-square-foot interactive museum and film center that pays homage to the horror-film genre, is in its early stages of development. I can’t wait.
While some historical preservationists may be gasping in disgust at all of these modern upgrades, I think the changes are pretty darned cool… especially since the exterior of the buildings, and their classic ambiance, have been maintained so well.
And of course, the original hotel remains pretty true to form.
Like I said, there’s lots of great stuff to do in Estes Park, even if you skip the Stanley. But if you’ve never been to the hotel, or haven’t been there lately, I’d highly recommend checking it out, and eating a meal or attending an event there. It’s truly something special, and it gets more special every time I visit it.
Have a favorite, stylish weekend getaway? Tell me about it in an email or in the comment section below.
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