The management of infectious diseases is an increasingly important public health issue, the effective implementation of which is often complicated by difficulties in teasing apart the relative roles of extrinsic and intrinsic factors influencing transmission. Dengue, a vector-borne strain polymorphic disease, is one such infection where transmission dynamics are affected by environmental variables as well as immune-mediated serotype interactions. To understand how alternative hypotheses concerning dengue infection and transmission may explain observed multiannual cycles in disease incidence, we adopt a theoretical approach that combines both ecological and immunological mechanisms. We demonstrate that, contrary to perceived wisdom, patterns generated solely by antibody-dependent enhancement or heterogeneity in virus virulence are not consistent with serotype-specific notification data in important ways. Furthermore, to generate epidemics with the characteristic signatures observed in data, we find that a combination of seasonal variation in vector demography and, crucially, a short-lived period of cross-immunity is sufficient. We then show how understanding the persistence and eradication of dengue serotypes critically depends on the alternative assumed mechanisms.