Why MGM’s strange, doomed theme park of the ’90s was a touchstone of a generation — and radically ahead of its time
The MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park was born in the Las Vegas backlot of the brand-new world’s largest hotel on December 18, 1993, and died for its business sins less than seven years later. The 33-acre park — about half the size of Disneyland’s appendage, California Adventure — was a celebration of a hypothetical studio with hypothetical sets for hypothetical movies. The core attraction was a river tour along which fake films with names like Temple of Gloom and Jungle Storm were being fake-shot. It was an unwitting mockumentary, a trip behind the scenes of scenes that never happened, an investigation of the façades of façades to reveal the plywood plank of absurdity on which real blockbusters, dumb as the fake ones, rested.
When you got off the raft, you could explore such environments as turn-of-the century Brooklyn, French Street, and Asian Village. These, too, represented nothing but what they were; they evoked neither movie sets nor the places themselves, but rather the earnestness of propping up enough wood and stucco to transform one little corner of the desert for one kid on one fine day. You could wander half a block through Old England and capture the faux Tudors on your point-and-shoot Yashica; you could see an arrow-shaped sign pointing to a New Yorkish pawn shop. There was a roaming costumed lion who was supposed to represent the MGM logo’s regal Leo but was, for some reason, named Looey. Parents paused to photograph their children hugging this stranger.
The park’s thematic underdevelopment could be a gift for the crowded mind: The Grand Adventure could be whatever you wanted it to be, if you had the imagination to make it something. Or maybe you’d just forget it: Visit YouTube today, 21 years after the park’s demise, and you’ll find, beneath videos shaky and surke, the comments of thirtysomethings grateful for the reassurance that this dimly recalled place was not just a dream. The execution was not, as a new generation of marketers would put it a decade later, “sticky.”
But here’s the irony: In the memories of Las Vegans of my generation — the one so eclipsed and disemboweled by time that it can only sign its name “X” — it’s precisely the slippery randomness of the place that makes it stick as an all-purpose synecdoche for Family Vegas, the Strip’s audacious, Disney-tinted rebranding experiment that lasted roughly from the completion of the Excalibur in June 1990 until September 2000, when Grand Adventures closed to the general public. The park was, for a while, so oblivious to the value of its own real estate, so wackily invested in being all things to all families, so devoted to fulfilling our platonic vision of a theme park, that in retrospect it seems almost imaginary.
Grand Adventures was born too late, on the wobbly pontoon bridge between the age of presence and the coming epoch of telepresence. By 1995, with the introduction of Internet Explorer, the Web would become not only mainstream, but almost obligatory in American life; lived experience began its gradual shrinkage to the size of a human palm, where fellowship would reside on screens and joy would become a solitary sport. Read into that what you will. It’s taken 30 years, two of them as masked shut-ins, to realize that we need each other in the flesh. Humans, if they don’t kill each other first, are ready to become the new old big thing. It’s good for families to be somewhere and do something with other members of the species: That’s the logic of Area 15 and the High Roller and the revivified and relocated Wet ’n’ Wild. It’s the logic of the sporting venues sprouting like mushrooms on every second street-corner. It was the doomed logic of Grand Adventures. It doesn’t seem so doomed anymore.
On the eve of its debut, Grand Adventures seemed almost like a whim, a fine gift to Young Vegas. But it was pure poetic business strategy, blindered in hot pursuit of tourist gold. For our generation, one quick with irony — especially when it came to the exploits of the Gekko set — and well-schooled by a folk-rock revival, it was easy to imagine some new Dylan marking the occasion with acidic glee:
The bosses with money thought
The Boomers with children could be
Brought to the city where they’d
Drop off their children at
The gates of Adventure then
Turn back to the darkness
For a drink and a smoke
And a bad hand of blackjack.
The parents, went the theory, were far too attached to their children to leave them at home with a grandma or grandpa or sitter. But if Boomer parents were too attached to leave the kids at home, why would they suddenly feel comfortable dropping them for the day at a theme park in the backlot of a Vegas hotel?
Who remembers this place fondly, and why? Not the Boomer parents, who weren’t that impressed in the first place, nor their Boomerkids, the ones who thought they’d been dreaming all this time. The memories are sharpest for the long-lost pre-digital teens of the early ’90s, the ragged wanderers of Gen X, kids hatched in the Swinging Seventies, latchkey survivors of front-yard football and parental divorce and the death throes of disco and the lingering sounds of Queen and the long, long hours waiting for someone to come home. These kids, free-range from the start, knew what it was like to play sports that were not organized, to make a best friend after a fistfight, to come home with a bruise. What they didn’t know was the heart of their inimitable city, because the Strip never wanted them around. Then came word that the new MGM would have a theme park — a beachhead from which a restless underage cohort in big hair and flannel could lay claim to the forbidden city. Or at least land a summer job.
Like a lot of cool ideas that turn out disappointing, Grand Adventures was sweetest of all before it existed and after it was gone. In the prospective tense, it could still turn out to be anything; in the retrospective tense, it could be remembered as better than it was.
What can you say about X, a sign consciously signifying both anything and nothing? X accelerated the country’s micro-fracturing from culture into subcultures. X earnestly carved the terrain once known as pop into fan fiefdoms long before niche passions, hopped up on the power of social media, coalesced into the paradox of Collective Niche Fandom and became the very essence of pop. But X was not obsessed with being known. X created ’zines with circulations so low that you could have drawn each copy by hand. It didn’t really matter: The thing had been made and it was nothing more than what it was, an experience that didn’t need to be known. It happened, photographs or not. Because film costs money, you know.
And so Generation X was a perfect match for a theme park that was bound to be forgotten. The experience economy was not yet what it is today, which is to say, the economy of life not so much lived as repackaged for follower approval. It was enough, in that sliver of time between the opening of Grand Adventures and the crowning of the Web as the imperial power of our End Times, to share an experience in person with four people you knew and laugh about it — or at it — the next day before allowing it to fade in your mind into the pleasant haze of non-Instagrammed legend.
There was a little coaster called Lightning Bolt that whisked you through the dark but not quite to space. There was a sweet high-tech motion-and-screen ride called Deep Earth Exploration that plunged you down through the magma. There were, particularly toward the end, carnival-style rides like the Zipper, rides parked on the pavement, rides with no larger ambition than to raise your heart rate and empty your gut. There was a ride through Colorado rapids; the age of Family Vegas loved nothing so much as water. And of course there was a ride that dropped you from a very great height: Your stomach would join with your throat and you could scream without sound because your stomach was blocking the sound and you’d lost all control but were somehow, for that moment, king of the world, queen of the world, you of the world, in your very own Vegas of the mind.
Grand Adventures had no story to stitch all this together. That was the beauty of the place: MGM didn’t tell us what to think because it didn’t know what it thought. Whether out of generosity or laziness or budget cuts, Grand Adventures had skipped the narrative, this idea that we needed someone with a degree in crafting the arc of experience just so, so that we’d be picked up at just the right moment and dropped off at just the right place, to exit at the gift shop. The park’s dopey magic was precisely in its inefficiency, that rarest and most endangered substance in the world, a thing we loved even before we knew it was about to die on the screen upon which we would live out the remainder of our lives. We didn’t want to be picked up at the right time or dropped off at the right place. That was the whole point of our Vegas, our stillborn Vegas, our Vegas that never had a chance. In the slim space between the plastic ’80s and the pixilated forever, we saw our shot at a city.
But they charged us $25 for admission, and we didn’t have that kind of dough.
So we — well, who am I kidding, I — only went once.
All this nostalgia, all this justification of dreams, all the words in the article you’re reading, and, yes, I only went once.
It just wasn’t that good.
By 1997, the money folks at MGM knew it too, and lopped off a third of the Park to create a glamourous pool that understood the future: The theme of Las Vegas was Vegas.
We won’t forget what might have been, had the glorious mistake that was Grand Adventures worked just a little better, just enough to prolong the age of inefficiency. But we don’t remember the days of Family Vegas for greatness. We remember them for their incompleteness. Incompleteness is always and forever, the thing that keeps us dreaming.
And so you’ll still find us, here in the present, thinking how nice it is that they named the new swim park the same as the old one, still very wet, but a little less wild. You’ll find us saluting the indomitable obsolescence of the Excalibur, which never delivered on the promise of its battlements but keeps winning, like a ball-control quarterback, simply by surviving. You’ll find us admiring the razor-sharp blackness of the Luxor, which delivered on form but never content. You’ll find us remembering rainstorms at Desert Passage and the harangues of fat Bacchus at the Forum Shops and the Battle of Treasure Island before the place was seduced by sirens and reduced to its initials. You’ll find us wondering why Circus Circus never felt quite right and pondering the frisson of its wrongness. You’ll find us missing the arterial neon of the Dunes sign, rising, falling, forever recirculating, spelling that word, letter by letter, making a beautiful promise for the nothing-much inside. You’ll find us driving through Downtown, which still remembers and even practices inefficiency, remembering when the Hacienda horseman was on the South Strip in front of a thing called the Hacienda Hotel, whose parts were packed up and sent to Mandalay. You’ll find us remembering a Fremont Street where Vegas Vic’s hat was taller and his waving hand glowed against a black, black sky and the street felt like day in the middle of the night because, as any kid could tell you, that’s what lights are for. You’ll find us staring up at that great, gold idol of an MGM lion and remembering its predecessor, a piece of angular abstract art, a lion that took itself less seriously and, like a trickster, invited you to enter through its throat.
And you’ll find us, on very rare occasions and for no particular reason, rolling down Koval Lane, looking at the big backlot where the condos of the rich tower over the erstwhile Emerald City. And if you could read our minds, or maybe just our lips, you’d know our thoughts: There used to be a theme park here, it promised a grand adventure, the adventure never really came, and we miss it anyway. We thought it might be the beginning of our Vegas. But, like all things, it was only the beginning of a burnished memory, a phantom city that never was and which cannot be knocked down.
And we whisper to the next generations, take your inspiration where you will. Φ
Photos: Barry King/Alamy Stock