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CSI: The Experience puts you at the scene of the crime

Based on the hit CBS series, the interactive exhibit at the MGM Grand on the Las Vegas Strip gives amateur detectives a chance to crack a murder case or two.

October 04, 2009|Jay Jones

LAS VEGAS — The drab, cheap motel -- the type that rents rooms by the hour -- sits just a couple of blocks off the Strip. Compared with its upscale neighbors, with their towering hotels and neon-laden casinos, this place seems better suited for a lonely crossroads in the desert than for fabulous Las Vegas.

In a dimly lighted alley behind the motel lies the body of a young woman. She is sprawled near a Dumpster, her right arm outstretched toward her faux-leather purse. Nearby are her cellphone and a publicity photo like the ones models and actresses use. The 8-by-10 glossy depicts the now-deceased woman. It's been ripped in half.

Summoned to the scene, about a dozen people gather around the body. Their job is to determine precisely how -- and when -- the woman died and to figure out who's responsible.

These aren't trained detectives. They're ordinary folks who, for the next hour or so, will try to crack the case, much as the characters do on the popular CBS show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

The amateur detectives have paid $30 each to test their sleuthing skills at Vegas' newest tourist attraction, CSI: The Experience, inside the MGM Grand.

"Crime scenes are puzzles. You'll use your powers of observation and science to decipher these clues," advises crime-solver Gil Grissom (actor William Petersen) from a large video screen at the beginning of the experience.

"Keep an open mind. Notice everything. Document everything. Let the evidence guide you. Remember, the dead can't speak for themselves," he adds. With that, visitors are divided into three groups, each assigned to a different case.

The people who gather in the alley quickly spot the woman's purse, with a wallet protruding. Nearby are the cellphone and a small, clear plastic bag containing a white powder. There's a tire track across the red waistband of her waitress uniform, and it's clear the woman has been run over.

"We ask the visitors to become new recruits. They're being tested to become new crime-scene investigators," says Christoph Rahofer, the Austrian event staging exec who came up with the idea while watching the TV program at home with his wife and kids.

That genesis led to the creation of the first "CSI" experience, an exhibit that opened in November in Vienna and is making its way across Europe. In Vegas, however, the attraction has a permanent home; it opened Sept. 13.

"It has guaranteed foot traffic," says executive producer Anthony Zuiker, the Las Vegas resident who created the "CSI" series concept 10 years ago.

"It's a hands-on experience [with] an educational slant," he says.

"It positions science to be fun."

There are, however, no blood-oozing bodies or bug-infested carcasses.

"It had to be acceptable to children," Zuiker says. The attraction is designed for people age 12 and older.

"It's more of an educational venue than an entertainment venue," adds Maryann Martin, an executive with CBS Consumer Products. She points out that 175 experts -- criminologists included -- were consulted "to ensure that everything is authentic."

At one scene, visitors find themselves face to face with a corpse behind the wheel of a car that has crashed through a wall into the living room of a home. But the detectives-in-training soon realize this is no accident. There are muddy footprints on the carpet and a red handprint on the hood of the car. Is that blood? Or is it tomato sauce from the pepperoni pizza strewn on the floor?

Down the hall, more tourists find themselves in the desert, standing beside skeletal remains partly buried in the sand. Only fragments of clothing remain, but on one bony finger there's a helpful clue: a ring. Are these the remains of an early settler who got lost in the scorching desert and died for want of water? The small, circular hole in the skull suggests otherwise.

From the crime scenes, it's on to the laboratories, where guests are provided with the tools necessary to report their findings to supervisor Grissom, and possibly solve the mystery. After a visit to the morgue -- again without gore -- there are stops at various workstations. Fingerprints and DNA are cross-matched. Ballistics tests are performed on a bullet found in the desert. Blood spatter patterns are analyzed.

"Getting knowledge across is important," says Rahofer, the attraction's creator. He says young people who have been put to the test often find themselves considering careers in law enforcement or science.

"It's almost like a recruiting vehicle," he says. "In Vienna, we had all these visitors from the police department and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They found it very appealing that finally somebody recognized their work."

Adds Martin, the CBS executive who oversees product licensing, "You're in the show for the hour and a half that you're here."

Although based in New York, Martin is no stranger to Sin City. She travels to Las Vegas regularly to fight a tough battle with the countless unlicensed marketers of "CSI" T-shirts and baseball caps. Licensed or not, they're hugely popular souvenirs from the hugely popular TV show that's set in southern Nevada.

It brings to mind a good question: Why did no one think of putting a "CSI" attraction in Vegas before now?

"The answer is simple," Rahofer says with a smile. "Nobody thought of it."

That is, until he did.




If you go


Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The last entry is at 8:30 p.m. Although intended for those 12 and older, for whom admission costs $30, tickets for accompanied children ages 4 to 11 cost $23. Interactive parts of the attraction are in English, with Spanish subtitles; (702) 891-7777,

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