After last weeks controversial Cedar Point article, RD has found himself in the holiday spirit this week and is back to tell us a little story about Vegas past, all the way back in 1995.
As chance would have it, 1995 marks the year I married my wife, in Vegas. I resisted the temptation to post a picture of me with hair instead of old Andy Rooney over there. Enjoy!! - Gregg
* Click on any of the pictures below to see a larger version
I decided to take a break from OpEd this week, and instead reflect on a trip that changed me quite a bit in terms of my theme-park visiting self.
Back in late 1995, my family decided that rather than spend another year coming together on the east coast, we would instead travel to Las Vegas. I had just turned 21, and the mysteries of Las Vegas were something I'd been curious about for years. The sheer size of the properties, and the growth of the city had been exponential since the Mirage opened a few years earlier; in fact, it was kind of a theme-park on steroids. Our trip began late on the 26th of December, flying across country on another 'new' airline of the era- Western Pacific. First class it was not, and with odd departure times even worse. Arriving at Colorado Springs, we changed to what would be my first glimpse of the 'new' Las Vegas - the Stardust theme jet - which would transport us to this adult fantasyland.
Arriving in Las Vegas is something pretty unusual during the day, but at night it is even more spectacular. Nothing but darkness greeted our late arrival in, until we turned - and next to McCarran field was a festival of spectacular lights - the MGM Grand, the light from LUXOR, the castle of Excalibur, and many others. Vegas had just blown my mind, and her allure drew me in.
The rest of the family arrived the next day, and while my older relatives were in charge of depositing the life savings into the slots, I took the time to explore Las Vegas 1995. With my nephews in tow, we headed to ride EVERYTHING in Las Vegas - and I do mean everything. Our first encounter with the family friendly Sin City was the Grand Slam Canyon - now known as The Adventuredome at Circus Circus.
In the late 80s, Circus Circus had begun a master plan of building theme resorts to match or beat what The Mirage had done for the middle strip area. In this included the Excalibur, the Luxor and other projects, but for me and others this meant: GRAND SLAM CANYON! An indoor paradise of what was an odd melding of faux rockwork, assorted rides of all sizes, and the Canyon Blaster. Canyon Blaster is an Arrow four-inversion coaster, and admittedly one of their finest. Back then the dome was packed (It was, after all, New Year's week) and two train operations were taking place. To see how efficiently they loaded those trains was a miracle. They never stacked up, they never slowed down, and the lines were always moving. Motion Theaters showed different RideWorks films, and the Rim Runner offered to soak anybody who wanted to. It was incredible - and all in the air-conditioned comfort of a bright purple & pink dome. Wonderous in all dimensions, and a world of fun for all. I also recall the 'Adult's Only' section... a hidden bar atop the midway area where one could find some semolence of quiet, and beer.
The next day brought forth a now-lost Vegas wonderland: MGM Grand Adventures. In the early 90s, the MGM was to be reborn after a disasterous 80s, but this time larger, grander & more elaborate. The original MGM had been named Bally's years ago after the dreadful fire that made worldwide headlines; the new project would only share a name with it. The MGM Grand itself was a show UNTO itself, featuring a Wizard of Oz theme, and shows to match. One could see the Wicked Witch flying over the heads of gamblers at the tables & slots, and a yellow brick carpet led younger guests behind the hotel - and to MGM Grand Adventures.
Grand Adventures in itself was a true theme-park in every sense of the word. Rides, shows & attractions would have fit in perfectly into any park in the country, though scaled down a bit due to the size of the location. Their primary coaster was the Lightning Bolt - and despite the compact size... it packed a PUNCH.
This first incarnation of it (Lightning Bolt went through three during its lifespan) was not only enclosed - but completely dark; a Space Mountain but without the space! The train was exceptionally long - 12 cars - and was an early Intamin ride. If you were sitting in the front or rear of the train, you got totally different ride experiences; in the front you got catapulted around the course as the train accelerated off the lift and around the swoop turns; in the rear you got dragged down HARD off the top of the lift and into the course. Those of us who had a chance to ride this there got a real treat; a ride that for its size was amazing on all accounts.
In addition to the Lightning Bolt, other attractions included an Intamin Log Flume & River Rapids, a Pirate's show theater, the typical bumper cars, and two notable 'oddities' of rides/shows.
The first was the Deep Space Exploration ride, occupying the show building next to Lightning Bolt. This was a simulator mixed with a moving ride-through. Campy, cheesy & odd, the 'sides' of the vehicles would rise up during the show scenes, and a projected film would play during the ride portions.
The second was the Backlot River Tour - a very odd and weird Jungle Cruise meets Backlot Studio tour ride that had puke-worthy jokes & scenes from old MGM films narrated by a skipper on a guided course. It was for such as small park a valiant attempt to capitalize on Disney's attractions, but done in a way to make it unique. The scale & class of the park was very well done, here in the middle of the Las Vegas desert was an oasis away from the gambling & the lurid side of the city. MGM Grand Adventures was a place where one could really see the attempt to 'family' the Las Vegas experience.
And what better way to get from the MGM to the middle of the strip? Why, of course, take a MONORAIL! Now I know what you're thinking: There's been a monorail there for years... and you'd be right. But back in 1995, it was a single segment system, linking the MGM Grand with Bally's - but what made it that much more amazing is that the two trains operating on it were from Walt Disney World's inventory. Yes, here in Las Vegas 1995, you could experience the same fun of whooshing from fantasy to fantasy on a Disney Monorail. When these beauties arrived from Florida, they were painted with the 'new' owners logos on them - one for the MGM Lion, the other for Bally's, and placed onto the beams. What they didn't do was cover over or remove the original Walt Disney World logos - some of which could be viewed inside the cars on the doors, and if you looked closely enough, also under the paint. Sadly, these original monorail cars now languish in the desert, a sad site as of late.
Las Vegas 1995 was a true wonderland, but sadly most of it is gone now. MGM Grand Adventures shrank, then disappeared as the owners decided to remove the 'family' aspect of the resort; most of what was the park is now a pool area & parts of the expanded facilities around the resort. The Lighting Bolt came out of it's building and was then later extended; when MGM finally closed the doors on the park it was sold to a small park in Fresno, and sat in the lands around there for years. It has not been heard from since. The Log flume & River Rapids both found new owners, with their useful lives continue on elsewhere.
As for Grand Slam Canyon, it has succeeded and still lives on, though with a different array of attractions. The Rim Runner closed down in 2013 for good, and has since been replaced by the El Loco coaster. Other attractions have been added as well, adding more of a 'thrill' aspect to the park than previously envisioned.
The Monorail itself went through massive changes. First, the Disney vehicles were removed and replaced with Bombardier trains, and the system extended up the strip. For now, this is still a work in progress, as plans to extend the monorail to the airport have been proposed, as well as potentially forming a loop around the outside of the Strip area. Time will tell if these come true.
And of the Stardust - both the hotel & the plane? Stardust closed in the mid 2000's, and was imploded to make way for a new project; as of this writing, the site is currently awaiting the construction of a new hotel/casino in the future. As for Western Pacific & the Stardjust jet, both did not see long into the future: Western Pacific closed their doors in 1997, a victim of the era, with the Stardust jet finding her way to other owners.
Las Vegas is still my second home in a lot of ways. Though she has changed & grown over the past 20 years, she still is a place I love, and a place I frequent often. The future will see more change & growth, and that alone makes it the ultimate fantasyland.