Star Trek: The Experience opened in January of 1998, during Star Trek’s 1990s heyday. Early 1998 was a time of Trek plenty… there were two Star Trek TV series in production (“Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager”), a forthcoming movie (“Star Trek: Insurrection”) and tons of merchandise, including the now semi-legendary toy line from licensee Playmates. I really wanted to go to the Experience in those days, but somehow never quite got around to it. For context, I live in southern California, so the drive to Las Vegas is typically under 4 hours away at maximum warp.
So, it was in 2001 and later in 2003 that my wife and I experienced ‘The Experience.’
2001 was a different era. I didn’t have a digital camera, so my pics from that visit are from an old 35mm Vivitar point-and-shoot. We went to Las Vegas again in 2003, this time staying at the Hilton. It was during this second visit that we got to enjoy the Experience at will, since it was (literally) an elevator ride down from our room.
The Experience was, for its day, as close to a fully immersive Star Trek environment as I’ve ever seen/felt in my lifetime. It was a much scaled-down, indoors version of what I imagine Disneyland’s forthcoming “Galaxy’s Edge” Star Wars attraction will be like when it opens later this month. Basically, visitors got to live Star Trek for as long as they wanted. It was the 24th century today.
Walking in through a multi-story entrance graced with a giant suspended model of the refit USS Enterprise (“Star Trek: The Motion Picture”), you were immediately met with multiple options; you could walk the Deep Space Nine-styled “Promenade,” eat at Quark’s bar & restaurant, visit the museum (with many screen-used Star Trek props/costumes), or take a simulated shuttlecraft ride at “The Klingon Encounter” (think Disneyland’s “Star Tours” but Trek-ified).
The food at Quark’s was absolutely delicious, and you were met at your table by random Klingon, Ferengi and Romulan cosplayers who remained in character the entire time. I also remember some of the drink names on the menu, such as the “Warp Core Breach”; a large foaming glass vat of fruity booze that, while I didn’t try one personally, looked absolutely amazing.
Of course, being a Star Trek geek down to my bones (“Bones!”), I really geeked out seeing the museum… full of screen-used props, costumes, and other paraphernalia from Star Trek’s long history (nearly 40 years at that time).
There was Kirk’s wraparound tunic from the original series’ second season (I was surprised at how faded the once-vibrant green fabric had become), as well as the mutated “Nomad” space probe, and even a desk model of the starship USS Horizon, an older-class of 22nd century starship which we as a decoration in Benjamin Sisko’s office on “Deep Space Nine.”
The simulated shuttlecraft ride (aka “The Klingon Encounter”) was a real kick. Waiting in line to board the simulator, you’d scale a gradually elevating walkway lined with various exhibit pieces which detailed the ‘history of the future.’ All the while, beautifully edited Star Trek footage from the movies & TV series played on large overhead monitors.
As you made your way to the upper boarding level, you also got a much better view of the large starship Voyager, Enterprise-D and Klingon Bird-of-Prey models which hung suspended from a starry ceiling beneath the main dome of the rotunda. These ‘miniatures’ were huge…in the neighborhood of 20 ft. long (approximately 6 meters).
Once you boarded the shuttle (with far more seats than its TV counterpart) you strapped yourself in for a simulated ride from the Las Vegas strip right up into outer space. Once in ‘space,’ your shuttle got rocked and buffeted by enemy Klingon fire in the starry skies above Las Vegas, with Commander Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and the USS Enterprise coming to the rescue!
Before ‘returning to Earth’, you got to visit the USS Enterprise-D bridge (many Trek-themed weddings took place there), which was a near photo-perfect recreation of the set from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), save for a few anachronistic 21st century “Exit” signs.
The gift shop was off the Promenade, across from Quark’s restaurant, near a simulated “replimat’ station that looked exactly like the replimats found on the Deep Space Nine space station. They were also covered with random, scattered “tribbles” (from the classic Trek episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles” and its “Deep Space Nine” sequel “Trials and Tribble-ations”). While my wife loved the tribbles, my nerdy self was struck by the attention to detail. There was alien signage (in native Bajoran, for example), as well as many little Star Trek in-jokes scattered here and there. Almost everywhere you looked within the confines of The Experience you only saw 24th century Star Trek. It was nerdvana.
We never got to enjoy the Borg 4-D ride, which was installed in 2004, about a year after our last visit. “Star Trek: Voyager” star Robert Picardo (the ship’s Emergency Medical Hologram doctor) recorded a video for the attraction, and I would’ve loved to have seen it, but sadly the Experience ultimately folded in 2008, a mere decade after it opened.
The Star Trek Experience at the Hilton was somewhat expensive. Las Vegas is typically expensive, to be fair. However, for a longtime Trekkie like myself, it was Trek mecca. While my wife and I did see the other sights along the Vegas strip during our visits (the Bellagio, the Venetian, Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, etc), I did manage to spend a lot of quality time immersing myself in all-things Trek for a couple of days, and I loved every minute of it.
These days, the closest one can come to recapturing the Star Trek Experience is the annual Star Trek convention at the Rio hotel, which is the largest annual Star Trek convention in the United States. While I enjoy that particular convention very much, it lacks the fully immersive quality that the Experience had. To its credit, the Rio certainly decorates for its annual Star Trek convention, but it’s only superficial; you never once forget that you are in a hotel in Las Vegas. From 1998-2008, the Vegas Hilton had a whole section of itself transformed into a 24th century Star Trek reality. The Star Trek Experience was truly a labor of love.
In 2007, there were rumors that the Experience was closing shop, as the cancellation of the TV series “Enterprise” (2001-2005) and the low box office of 2002’s “Star Trek: Nemesis” seemed to signify a dip in Star Trek’s overall popularity. There was talk of a possible reprieve for the Experience at Las Vegas’ Neonopolis Mall, where it was hoped it’d reopen in time for the 2009 release of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” movie. Sadly, interest in finding a new home for the Experience foundered, and the license for the exhibit was allowed to expire. JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” movie premiered to great critical and commercial success, but the Star Trek Experience was no longer there to commemorate it.
11 years after the Experience closed and a good 16 years since I last saw it, I still miss it very much whenever I’m in Vegas. The only tangible reminders of that I still have of it are my photos (which I digitally scanned for this piece) as well as a DVD I bought of “I, Mudd” & “The Trouble With Tribbles” in the gift shop (this was back when Star Trek episodes were being released only two episodes per single DVD). Of course, there are also my memories of the Experience, which I’m hoping to preserve with this ‘log entry’.
To quote Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy) from 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, the Star Trek Experience at Las Vegas’ Hilton was “Surely, the best of times.”