Star Trek: The Experience (Gone)
Las Vegas, Nevada
The original 1960s Star Trek TV series, in tandem with America's real-life space adventures, sparked a revolution -- and nothing like the wispy, fleeting triumphs of '60s youth protest and hippiedom. Today, the ascent of sci-fi nerd culture is evident everywhere. You can thank Star Trek for the look of your cell phone, your big screen TVs, and the logic-defying career of William Shatner. If we could just get the transporter and warp drive working, who'd even care about global warming? We could just travel backwards in time, or move to someone else's planet.
Forty years on since the franchise launched, devotees of Star Trek and all its permutations can be found worldwide. They inhabit the same weight continuum as NASCAR fans, and they also are known for their obsession with trivia ("Scotty couldn't have climbed that Jeffries Tube to get to the auxiliary bridge!").
Star Trek: The Experience opened in late 1997 to cater to fans of the franchise and their families. It cost $70 million at a time when Vegas was passing itself off as a family destination. While families are no longer the casinos' focus, Star Trek: The Experience survives.
The attraction is a slick affair, connected directly to the Las Vegas Hilton Casino floor, with a combination of trivia-filled exhibits, artifacts, and immersive multimedia rides for the stimuli-starved. Replicas of the starship Enterprise hover over a large star field-lit circular gallery. Star Trek aliens and pasty, cable-ready Borg wander Quark's bar and restaurant and the gift shop levels.
Crowd flow is always a design imperative at a high volume attraction with start-stop elements such as motion rides. So STTE distracts the queue by taking decades of Trek TV episodes and movies and constructing them into an insanely detailed timeline: "The History of the Future" Museum. Along the way, there are display cases filled with 200 recognizable artifacts (though it's hard to discern whether they are original props or replicas). One learns that "Kirk encounters Abraham Lincoln" in 2269 and Tasha Yar was killed in 2365, while on the opposite wall one can scrutinize Uhura's ear receiver and Jean Luc Picard's family scrapbook.
It is simultaneously thrilling and depressing -- thrilling to see old friends such as the Mark IV photon torpedo that was Spock's coffin (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan), or to recognize every generation of phaser and communicator from the shows. Depressing when you remember that instead of examining the Gettysburg Address or a moon rock, you're admiring fake museum artifacts from a history that never was.
Two Star Trek thrill rides wait at the end of History: Borg Invasion 4-D and Klingon Encounter. Both involve live actors yelling at you and herding you through a series of rooms until you plop into motion ride seats, bathed in loud effects ("23,000 watts of 12 channel sound"!) and tossed around, and then are rescued by an onscreen starship because, well, frankly, you are just so special.
Reassured by the knowledge that you are destined to save the universe, you exit into the gift shop, where you can buy a Tribble, or six-packs of Romulan Ale "recently smuggled across the Neutral Zone." You can pose with a Gorn figure or a Salt Sucker (the monster from the first episode ever aired).
If hardcore Trekkers need more, they can take a special "behind the scenes" tour. They can even get married on the Bridge by a starship captain, with Klingon and Ferengi witnesses.
Dec. 2008: As in film and on TV, Star Trek: The Experience went away, but it will return. The new location will be at the Neonopolis mall in downtown Las Vegas. A gala re-opening is scheduled for early 2009.