Originally created 02/22/98

Las Vegas vacation has ups and downs



LAS VEGAS -- There's a photograph that won't be appearing with this story.

I do wish I had the guts to show it to you, though. It might help illustrate an odd realization this trip evoked: that sometimes fun and blinding terror go hand in hand.

The photo, shot the night before, rides in my pocket as I enter Caesars Palace with my wife, Pam, our three children and my mother-in-law.

We've come to this purportedly penitent Sin City to investigate two new highly hyped "family attractions" -- the Las Vegas Hilton's Star Trek, the Experience, and the Race for Atlantis at Caesars Palace.

Rushing to beat the crowds for Atlantis, we march through Caesars casino and hike the length of the hotel's Forum Shops complex.

We turn one bend, and a towering Trojan horse, at least the size of the legend, pokes into the mall from a multistory FAO Schwartz. The horse is mundane, however, compared with what awaits at the mall's terminus, a domed rotunda with fresco-style murals of racing chariots above.

Here we merge with the line that has formed for Atlantis' public premiere. As it happens, folks inside the attraction are still trying to work out a few kinks, and the line doesn't budge until 45 minutes after the scheduled 10 a.m. opening.

FORTUNATELY,

just as boredom sets in, the fountain beside us goes postal. This thing was already pretty interesting, with columns and waterfalls set atop a massive, colorfully stocked aquarium. Now the columns descend. Fields of giant ice crystals arise, and mythic figures emerge from the steam and fog: Poseidon high on his throne, flanked by his son and daughter.

The son, you see, is fire; the daughter, ice; and the fountain's narrative has to do with the siblings' squabble to inherit their daddy's realm. Mouthing dialogue that's one part Joseph Campbell and two parts Marvel Comics, Fire rages; Ice shouts. But the kingdom can't be saved.

Thunder rumbles. Lightning flashes. Then Poseidon's dark throne transforms into a monstrous beast-bird, with clacking beak and flapping wings.

Oh, and the waterfalls burst into apocalyptic flames. And that's before one even glimpses the inside of the attraction proper.

Finally, though, the line moves, and we enter a fog-shrouded chamber where heaven and earth meet. Here we're told that the ride's "preshow" is on the fritz, and in a way, that's good, because the managers wind up comping everyone in line, saving us the price of six tickets: $9.50 adults, $6.75 kids, $8.50 for seniors and $8 for students and Nevada residents.

What's bad is that we have only a vague sense of what the ride's about as we pull on electronic 3-D goggles, strap ourselves into what is supposed to be a giant chariot and meet a cartoon character named Pindar who is assigned to lead us on the race.

THEN WE'RE OFF,

dipping and diving on a 27-seat motion simulator that is digitally connected to the fantasy-scape unfolding on the surrounding 82-foot-high IMAX film dome.

The sensation, accentuated by an encompassing sound system, is that we're pinballing through Atlantis' crumbling cartoon realm; that we're slamming into other chariots, under attack by the fire-breathing crypto-creature Ghastilus; and then, swooping along side by side with graceful animated dolphins.

As we stumble back into the mall, Pam dismisses our experience as "souped-up Captain Eo" -- a reference to Disneyland's now defunct 3-D attraction.

But the kids and I hold it in much higher regard. As does Grandma. Which brings me to another interesting phenomenon -- and back to that photograph.

We left Los Angeles for Vegas on a Friday evening. By 8:30 we were hungry -- for food and the trip's promised thrills. So when we reached Buffalo Bill's hotel and casino at the California-Nevada state line, we couldn't resist.

The hotel is designed to look like one of those sheet metal-clad mining operations, where impossibly steep conveyors haul ore to frightening heights. Here, though, a roller-coaster track rises from the casino and cuts cold yellow slashes across the black sky.

AGAINST MY BETTER

judgment, I let our daughter Ashley, 13, talk me into the front car with her. Emily, 11, and Grandma, 70-something, sat a few cars back.

Our car ratcheted to its apex 209 feet above the desert floor, then paused above an endless vertical drop, with 5,000 feet of wrenching track visible in the darkness ahead.

When we finally wobbled off the ride, Ashley and Emily giggled wildly. My eyes met my white-faced mother-in-law's, and we fell into each others' arms, our laughter coming from an entirely different part of the soul.

Apparently, though, the lesson didn't take. After a fine cheap dinner at the hotel's Wagonmaster coffee shop, Ashley again lured me onto a ride.

THE TURBO DROP

lifted us straight up over the desert. With our feet dangling at acrophobia-inducing height, I spotted a camera sticking out at eye level. But vanity is no match for terror. I didn't even make a stab at insouciance.

Have you ever dreamed that you were falling? Remember that sickening plunge? The jolt of panic that hits your chest? How you would sob and scream simultaneously if your body hadn't locked up like bad brakes?

Well, the camera that caught my daughter with hair flying and a G-force-smeared grin on her face caught me in that nightmare.

Pam gawked at the picture we bought at the now-obligatory photo stand at ride's end.

At Star Trek, the Experience there is a ticket line ($9.95 a person regardless of age) and a line in which we wait for our turn to board the starship. By the time we get inside, we're too impatient to linger in the exhibit area, even though the masterfully made up "Trek" creatures are friendly.

The ride itself takes us along on a ripping space battle between our Trekkie protectors and them lousy Klingons. Again we're stuck in the sort of buckin' box motion simulator that is taking over the thrill rides scene, but the effect is less viscerally convincing than Atlantis.

PSEUDO-SPACE

isn't all that scary. What is is the ride's climax, in which our imagined space probe cannonballs down the neon-lighted streets of Las Vegas.

Exiting the ride, we spill into the Hilton's new Space Quest casino, which is where we waited in line. Once again the kids' attention shifts back and forth from the meteors, moons and planets soaring by in huge overhead "windows," to the gamblers who smoke, drink, swear and poke away at slot machines inches from our elbows.

Which brings us to what I see as a key Las Vegas problem.

With its pyramid, sphinx, pirate fights, and albino tigers, the place now looks like a fifth-graders' brainstorming session gone gloriously haywire. It's as if a brilliant 10-year-old's imagination were magically loosed upon a town.

In many ways, though, the town is better suited to adults' "inner children" than to genuine crumb-snatchers.

Kids are everywhere in Las Vegas, and by and large they don't fit in. Las Vegas reportedly has been grappling with its newfound identity as a family destination.

It should.

TAKE THE EXCALIBUR,

where we stayed, for instance. With its larger-than-life Arthurian spires and turrets, this castle-shaped hotel looks like every young child's dream. But the facade doesn't deliver on its promise.

Wallpaper made to look like stone blocks in the (typical in Vegas) so-so rooms doesn't distract one from the obvious fact that gambling is what this and every hotel-casino really wants its guests to do.

All that said, if someone had rigged our brains with digital funometers, they would have been flashing more fun than frustration. Where but Las Vegas can you eat breakfast at the Motown Cafe while Supremes impersonators -- complete with sequined red gowns and elbow-length red gloves -- belt out a dead-on Stop in the Name of Love, and then ride a yellow-checkered roller coaster as it corkscrews and loop-de-loops through a reconstructed New York skyline?