Many of you who are fans of this site have no doubt discovered I am a fan of attractions that have closed down. Those of us who are hardcore fans of this unique form of entertainment find ourselves at a disadvantage. If your favorite childhood memory was a particular Saturday morning cartoon – through the power of DVD and YouTube, you can relive those memories. Have a favorite toy from your youth? There is a good chance of finding that gem on Ebay or it could resurface again in Toys R Us someday.
However, an attraction like Titanic: The Experience or Hard Rock Park, once the doors are closed and it’s gutted – reliving those memories through pictures or home movies doesn’t cut it. The entire purpose of an attraction is being there, feeling the sensations and escaping the real world for just a little while and it’s just not the same seeing them on YouTube.
One of my biggest regrets in life was not taking the time to visit more theme parks when I was younger. You just always assume they are going to be there and then one day? Poof. They’re gone. A perfect example was the MGM Grand Adventures Park that was open in the mid to late 90’s in Las Vegas. I never got a chance to visit the park, but as my fascination and curiosity with theme parks grew, I figured the internet has everything and I am sure I could get information on the park during its glory days. After all, it did close in 2000, which isn’t that long ago – surely there must be something out there.
My searches came up with next to nothing. Lots of maps and postcards with what the park looked like from an aerial shot above or a panorama taken from the ground. Pictures of the attractions themselves have seemingly evaporated from the face of the planet aside from a few generic shots of log flumes and roller coasters mostly used for publicity purposes.
As a result, I have made it my mission to track down as many photos on the park and get as much information as possible. After nearly a dozen interviews with key individuals who were involved in the creation of the park, I can finally piece together what it was actually like, including its strengths and shortcomings.
What’s important for theme park fans to realize when talking about MGM Grand Adventures was this truly was on the back burner when it came to overall scope of the entire MGM Grand Resort in Vegas. The casino, the hotel and theme park were all being built simultaneously. When the resort opened in 1993, it was the known as the largest hotel in the world and also contained the largest casino floor in Vegas.
It was a massive undertaking that employed thousands of people and took years to complete. Upon opening, guests entered from Las Vegas Boulevard under a giant replica of MGM’s mascot, Leo the Lion. Later on in the casino’s history, a bronze version of Leo was erected and currently sits at the corner of the property. Many Chinese guests (who are known to be huge gamblers) considered entering the mouth of a lion to be bad luck and would enter the casino through the side entrance or avoid the MGM Grand completely.
Once inside, instead of slot machines, guests were greeted by scenes from The Wizard of Oz. An Emerald City was built with a yellow brick road jutting out in front with life-size figures of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. Above was a hot air balloon with The Wizard himself flying away. It was an extremely well done scene that welcomed families to the resort. If you wanted to get to MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park? That was still a good half-mile walk through the back of the casino from the Las Vegas strip.
The early 90’s were also a time where the city had yet to adopt their slogan, “Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” This “playground for adults” was trying to make an effort to become less adult oriented. The idea came about as many families would skip Vegas and visit destinations like Orlando and Anaheim instead. Vegas was losing all that gambling and hotel revenue. In reality, the casinos didn’t want to utilize valuable property square footage with family attractions that would make far less than one-armed bandits.
The attractions, including MGM Grand Adventures Park, were considered to be loss leaders. At best, the casino owners knew they would break even with the attractions they were building when it came to actual income versus operating costs. As anyone in the casino business will tell you, if all you’re doing is breaking even, you’re doing it all wrong.
This new strategy was to bring an entirely new clientele that would normally skip Sin City. While the kids were off in the park, Mom and Dad could sit in front of a blackjack dealer and then the casinos could make some real dinero! Many of the big wigs didn’t build MGM Grand Adventures because they wanted to, but rather, they felt they had to in order to fill all those hotel rooms and help reinvent Las Vegas’s image.
What I am trying to say, in the most delicate possible way is: the park didn’t have to be good, it just had to be there. MGM is one of the best recognized movie franchises in the world and opening a movie based park seemed like a no brainer following the success of Universal Studios in Hollywood and Orlando. In addition, they also leant their name and co-branded the Disney/MGM Studios park in Orlando, which opened in May of 1989.
In size comparison, Universal Studios Florida is 125 acres and Disney/MGM (currently Disney’s Hollywood) Studios weighs in at 135 acres. Further west, Disneyland covers 85 acres, while it’s counterpart Disney’s California Adventure is a mere 55 acres as Disney’s smallest theme park world-wide. Even Hard Rock Park which was open in Myrtle Beach in 2008 covered 55 acres. MGM Grand Adventures in Las Vegas was only 33 acres on opening day – extremely small compared to nearly any other major theme park in the United States.
Due to it’s size, to call the themed sections “lands” would have been a stretch. Instead, the park divided itself into areas which included New York Street, Asian Village, French Street and New Orleans Street. Much like it’s other movie studio counterpart’s, the facades were built with a high level of detail perfect for picture taking, but served very little purpose for much else.
Movie parks aren’t cheap to build simply because you are recreating the sets, props and characters of some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. All of those things require separate contracts from the film’s stars, producers and anyone else who would want a royalty check as well as creative buy off on the finished product. The top brass at MGM Grand Adventures didn’t want to sink any more into this thing than they had to, so instead of using specific movie titles they simply did more generic attractions based on movie genres like sci-fi, western and horror.
This lack of budget and vision didn’t mean that the companies hired to do the work weren’t passionate about the project and did a half-assed job. Given the conditions, many attractions turned out to be quite clever and unique. Over the course of the series, we will take a look back at those attractions – many of which haven’t been seen on the internet well… ever. So come back next time and we will take a look at MGM Grand Adventure’s sci-fi attraction, Deep Earth Exploration, which was half simulator and half dark ride!