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Vegas Turning to Southland to Fashion Its Theme Settings

Attractions: Aerospace, Hollywood firms team on projects such as Hilton's Star Trek: The Experience.

January 02, 1998|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new "Star Trek" space adventure-casino at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel is going boldly as the latest entry in a craze increasingly evident in Sin City: gambling locales with themed entertainment.

It's a trend in which several Southern California companies--including some from the aerospace industry--are playing an instrumental role.

The new Hilton attraction includes Star Trek: The Experience, a $70-million space adventure that is a joint venture between Hilton Hotels Corp. and Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Parks Inc. unit. It will be a key attraction of the Hilton's $30-million Space Quest casino, which opened Nov. 16. They are a new twist for the hotel that once defined Las Vegas-style excitement a generation ago when Elvis was in the building.

Those who try the 22-minute adventure ride will wait in line under giant star ship models fashioned by Penwal Industries Inc. of Rancho Cucamonga, then enter a transporter room created by Landmark Entertainment Group of North Hollywood. Then they'll climb into a motion-simulator thrill ride built by McFadden Systems Inc. of Santa Fe Springs and watch a space-flight movie produced by Rhythm & Hues Studios Inc. of Culver City.

At last, they'll be ushered toward the casino, designed by TSL Retail Entertainment Inc. of Los Angeles, for a flier at some 24th century-style gambling, including futuristic slot machines.

A lot is riding on the project, as Beverly Hills-based Hilton Hotels is hoping that the thrill-ride attraction will draw more people to gamble. But Shannon Bybee, executive director of the University of Nevada Las Vegas International Gaming Institute, pointed out that it's no guarantee that patrons who drop in for the entertainment will linger at the slot machines. "It's interesting, but I don't know how much impact it will have," Bybee said. In the few first days after the Space Quest opened, he added, "people weren't coming out of the casino and saying that it was really out of sight."

Environmental fantasy is running amok elsewhere in Las Vegas, where resorts offer the atmospheres of ancient Rome (Caesars Palace), Camelot (Excalibur), a vast pirate's nest (Treasure Island) and ancient Egypt (Luxor).

But the genre is enjoying its best success at the $450-million New York-New York Hotel Casino. The resort's meticulously detailed ersatz Manhattan created by Yates-Silverman Inc. of Irvine has drawn enormous, free-spending crowds. Bear, Stearns & Co. analyst Jason Ader estimated that New York-New York, a venture of Primm Resorts Inc. and MGM Grand Inc., has had 1997 pretax earnings of up to $125 million--a stunning achievement that other hotel owners would like to duplicate.

And in trying to do so, they will turn to people like Rock Hall, chairman of Technifex Inc. of Valencia, whose work around Las Vegas has included creating a holographic Marilyn Monroe who greets tourists at McCarran International Airport.

For the Hilton, Hall found a way to animate lightning bolts and tornadoes inside liquor bottles to amuse tipplers in one of the "Star Trek" bars.

"This is the most highly themed project I've ever seen," said Hall, who installed about $500,000 worth of tricks around the casino including screens over restroom urinals that display purported chemical analyses along with encouragements such as "Today's your lucky day."

"This is not your mother's casino," agrees Peter Chernack, chief executive of Metavision Inc. of Burbank, which infused moving images of Earth and other spacecraft in 80 feet of picture windows at the Hilton.

"Gaming has always used entertainment as a part of its mix," said Chernack, who is also the president of Themed Entertainment Assn., a nationwide trade group that draws members from both theme park and TV and movie production vendors. "Now we see more and more that the lines between what is and isn't entertainment are getting blurred."

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To that end, the Hilton spent more than $12 million to dress up its 23,000-square-foot casino, said TSL President Richard Lewis, who dreamed up glowing energy panels in the walls, employees dressed in futuristic costumes and a background audio system crackling with announcements of departing rocket ships.

"It is a hybrid of gambling and entertainment," Lewis said.

Of course the space-adventure phase that opens on Sunday is all about entertainment, and Hilton and Paramount Parks hope that it will achieve a major tourist attraction, at $9.95 a head, that attracts gamblers into the casino at a rate of 1,000 per hour.

An expanded special-effects-packed tour of the Starship Enterprise, the Experience show was produced by Landmark, also producers of the $110-million Jurassic Park attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.

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