Wet and wild still works as a concept in Las Vegas, just not as a theme park on the Strip.
As a water park on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, Wet ’n’ Wild shut down in 2004, and since then, other family oriented types of businesses have opened and closed. What has survived is the drinking, gambling and clubbing that have driven this city for decades.
This week, GameWorks announced it would close, and those who watch trends on the Strip say that trying to make Vegas a family travel destination was a business model that didn’t play here.
“Los Angeles makes up a big part of our market, and they’ve got Disneyland and Universal Studios,” said Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV. “You have to ask: Why would somebody drive four hours for family entertainment that can’t compete with what they have at home?”
Nearly a third of the more than 38 million visitors coming to Las Vegas each year travel from California, according to the most recent survey from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. In 2010, 69 percent of tourists traveling in groups were adult couples. Only 7 percent were bringing anyone under the legal casino age of 21. For years, the average age of those coming to play in Las Vegas has been around 50.
“For us, it’s never been a family destination,” said Jeremy Handel, senior manager of public affairs for the LVCVA. “We’ve never marketed it that way.”
Resorts on the Strip tried to diversify their clientele in the 1990s, trying to appeal to families. The idea sounded good: a place where the kids would play in amusement parks, freeing adults to gamble.
The MGM Grand had an amusement park, which closed in 2000 after seven years. The MGM Lion Habitat also closed last month as part of a major renovation plan that included a fourth Sugar Factory, which opened Wednesday. The Luxor, New York-New York and MGM Grand still have youth-friendly arcades, although they’re scaled down from what they used to be.
The ’90s also brought the luxury resorts, such as the Mirage and the Bellagio, and high-end shopping options including the Forum Shops at Caesars.
“There were two business models, for families and for the luxury resorts,” Brown said. “One model worked. The other didn’t.”
The “What Happens in Vegas” ad campaign that started in 2004, however, succeeded in pushing the town back toward its adult playground roots.
“I think what you’re seeing is more of an evolution than a revolution because, historically, this is what this town has been,” said Tony Henthorne, associate dean and tourism professor of the Harrah Hotel College at UNLV.
Five years ago, Treasure Island changed its outdoor show from swashbuckling pirates to the scantily clad “Sirens of TI.”
“Now, you see more dads standing there watching it,” Henthorne said.
Still, Circus Circus has survived and recently opened the 10,000-square-foot Chuck Jones Experience, celebrating the creator of Looney Tunes. The sharks continue to swim at Mandalay Bay and the dolphins at the Mirage. The Tournament of Kings joust nightly at Excalibur.
The all-ages SkyVue, on more than nine acres across from Mandalay Bay, has broken ground and is preparing to have the footing poured for a 500-foot observation wheel, carrying 32 24-seat gondolas far above the Strip. It’s set to open in the summer of 2013, surrounded by a retail center.
Just don’t call it a Ferris wheel.
Or a kids' ride.
“When completed, it will be the largest observation wheel in the Western Hemisphere,” said Dave Kirvin, spokesman for the developers. “It’s more of a one-of-a-kind Vegas experience.”