The Las Vegas Star Trek Experience You Never Saw

By Norman Chan

A full-scale starship in downtown Las Vegas didn't happen for good reasons. But let's appreciate what we did get.

By now, many of you may have read this illuminating post on the blog of the Goddard Group, an entertainment design firm that conceptualizes and produces theme parks for various entertainment brands. The post recalls the proposal for a life-sized replica of the Starship Enterprise (NCC-1701, Motion Picture refit) to be built in downtown Las Vegas in the early 90s. This wasn't just a dream of one concept artist or businessman; over five months of work went into the proposal, with extensive research in design, engineering, construction, and cost of the attraction. And in fact, it had the approval of every stakeholder that would be required for the project to commence--including Las Vegas officials, Paramount Licensing, and development committees--save for one final nod from Paramount Studios' CEO. The Goddard Group never got that nod, of course, since there is no Constitution-class starship in downtown Vegas today, and the colorful Fremont Street Experience was built instead. The tweets say it all: fans agree that this project would've been awesome, especially since it was proposed at the peak of Star Trek's popularity. And while I would've loved to visit such an attraction, I can't help but agree with Paramount's then CEO that this would've been a bad business decision.

First of all, you can shelve those what-if fantasies of cosplaying as a Starfleet officer and guesting on board the Enterprise--the attraction would not have been a hotel or casino. Its proposed purpose was to bring attention back to downtown Las Vegas after the glamour had moved to new resorts and casinos further south on the Las Vegas Strip. At most, the attraction would've been a detailed shell of a ship, with restaurants and possibly a ride inside a few built-out spaces. Second, the budget for the project was estimated to be $150 million, in 1992 dollars. Large-scale themed attraction projects are notorious for falling behind schedule and going over budget, and $150 million would have been enough to fund multiple Star Trek movies--which then would have a better chance of recuperating costs and reaching more fans. But the risk that Paramount Studios CEO Stanley Jaffe didn't want to take was the project being a flop with the public, and a 300 meter long reminder of that failure potentially etched into the Las Vegas skyline. And finally, none of the organizers anticipated Star Trek dramatically waning in popularity over the course of the nineties, before fizzling out with the Enterprise series in the early 2000s.

But the strongest argument in hindsight against this project was the attraction Star Trek fans did get, the once glamorous but ill-fated Star Trek: The Experience.

Image Credit: The Goddard Group

If you never got a chance to visit Star Trek: The Experience, it's too late. The attraction closed its doors in 2008, after ten years of operating within the Las Vegas Hilton. It was also designed by Gary Goddard's team at Landmark Entertainment (he was then President of the entertainment company), and incorporated many of the ideas originally proposed for the Enterprise attraction--like a space-themed restaurant/bar--albeit on a smaller scale. I first read about Star Trek: The Experience in a Star Trek 30th anniversary commemorative magazine in 1996. The article featured only concept art from the attraction along with an interview from Goddard where he explains the attraction in enthusiastic detail. It was a great story that sparked my imagination, and in fact, read a lot like the recent post about the original Enterprise proposal on Goddard's blog. The Experience, which would be a combination of a museum, Star Tours-like ride, and interactive tour, was budgeted at $50 million and scheduled to open its doors in 1997. Construction delays and bureaucracy pushed ribbon cutting to 1998, and the total cost ballooned to over $70 million. Scale those birthing pains to a project three times the cost and an order of magnitude more ambitious, and it's easy to imagine the Enterprise project being a bust before the first fan stepped inside.

Star Trek: The Experience was celebrated in its first years of operation. Paramount Parks did a great job marketing the attraction, with excited press coverage from mainstream media outlets funneling Trekkies to Las Vegas to take part in the spectacle. Everyone who had ever been involved with Star Trek shows eventually made their way to the Hilton for photo ops at one time or another, and fans ate it all up. I'll never forget the illusion of being unexpectedly transported to the Enterprise-D and walking onto the bridge where Commander Riker gave orders the viewscreen. Yeah, you could see building code mandated "exit" signs in corridors that broke the suspension of disbelief, but this place was pretty magical.

Photo Credit: Flickr user krypto via Creative Commons

But all good things have to come to an end, and the business of Star Trek wasn't enough to keep the attraction profitable for the Las Vegas Hilton. Fans came and paid $40 a ticket to see the show, but it wasn't enough to move the needle on the metric that matters in Vegas: gambling. And as interest in Star Trek diminished, even the money made from hosted weddings, corporate events, and annual Trek conventions wasn't enough to convince the Hilton to renew its contract with the attraction in 2008. I have a feeling that's how it would've have been if Stanley Jaffe had approved Goddard's original proposal. We'd have an amazing attraction for a while, but it wouldn't be able to survive time--and popular culture--passing Star Trek by. And if Paramount had lost that much money on Star Trek, we might never have had the 2009 revival film (whether that's a good or bad thing is a matter of perspective, of course).

Star Trek: The Experience was dismantled in 2008; its props were auctioned off to fans and major set pieces sold to a mall developer who has tried for years to relocate the ride. What's mostly left of the attraction are the memories of the fans who flew in from around the world to step onto the bridge of the Enterprise and have a drink at Quark's bar. And for the hundreds of people who worked at The Experience over its 10 years of operation, those memories are treasured. Cast member Vernon Wilmer, who played a Borg drone (Seven of Sixteen), has been producing a documentary about the history of the attraction. He's so far released five hours of edited footage chronicling the attractions construction, showing behinds-the-scenes operations, and celebrating the actors, make-up artists, and technicians that made it all work. The video is delightful, revelatory, and very nostalgic--it's a must-see for anyone who's ever shared in Gene Roddenberry's dream.

So Star Trek fans, don't lament the fact that we never got a life-size Enterprise in Vegas. Let's appreciate the fact that we did get an amazing Star Trek attraction, and relish the memories of good times spent there.