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Brendan Buhler

Theme park visionaries are in over their heads

3 September 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A year ago, the $10 billion combination indoor water park, ski slope, casino and hotel known as Wet Las Vegas was chugging along, hypewise. They were in talks to buy land on the south Strip, they were maybe going to play host to the Tarkanian Basketball Academy and a reality show would be taped on-site.

And then the news releases stopped.

A couple of weeks ago, a release announced the company had "revisited our strategy for acquisitions to pace our momentum while building market value." Which means what, exactly?

It means the project, which has yet to proceed far enough to buy property, is on hold even though it claims to have $1 billion on hand. It was getting the rest that proved to be too much to ask in this economy.

"You get a little nervous when you go into your investment banker's office and they're running around screaming with their arms in the air," said Wet's chief executive, Steve Dooner, who's worked for Disney and Universal, and helped build theme parks from California to Japan.

In November, Dooner put his resort plans on hold. Right now the company of about 240 telecommuting employees is, as they say, concentrating on other opportunities — talking about buying or investing in theme parks and hotels across the country.

At least until the credit market calms down (another quarter or two, Dooner thinks), Wet Las Vegas is a dream deferred.

And what a dream. Even by the standards of the boom years, it is somewhere between audacious and nuts.

Consider: At more than $10 billion, it would be pricier than CityCenter, would be built on nearly three times the acreage and have twice as many rooms and condos.

And that's in addition to powering the whole resort with hydrogen fuel cells (the liquid hydrogen to make the resort environmentally responsible would be trucked in from Northern Nevada) and building a year-round indoor ski dome, an extravagance popular overseas at locations in Asia, Europe and Dubai.

(Speaking of overseas, Dooner hopes foreign investors can be induced to part with the dollars they've been picking up cheaply during the recent unpleasantness with our economy.)

The concept started innocently enough, Dooner said. First, he and a few partners noticed that since Wet 'n Wild closed in 2004, Las Vegas has been without a water park, which seemed a little odd for a town of 2 million people that, in the summer, is hotter than a fried toaster. So maybe, they figured, a little $30 million or $90 million outdoor water park could find a place somewhere near the Strip.

Then they found out how much the land cost. So obviously it would have to be an indoor park, which is the coming thing anyway. And at that point, why not attach a casino, a hotel, some condos and a little meeting space? And what the heck, a snow dome. Gotta make it stand out.

"Obviously there's a lot of dreaming that goes on with these projects," said Jeff Coy, president of Phoenix-based water park consulting group JLC Hospitality Consulting. "The plans keep growing bigger and bigger and no one begins to wonder what is really possible."

Coy added that he wasn't about to guess what too big means in Las Vegas but said the decline in air travel might reveal the city's limits.

Dooner said he has it all in hand.

As for the cost, he said, on a dollars-per-acre basis, Wet Las Vegas would be a third the price of CityCenter. As for the fact that he's never run a casino or a hotel, he said he's confident he can run a theme park, but he would like to find an experienced Vegas partner who can help run the casino and hotel.

As with recent Strip projects that have been derailed by the economy's woes — the Cosmopolitan (bank-owned but still under construction), Echelon (construction halted until the credit market improves), or the Plaza (groundbreaking delayed until sometime next year) — the credit crunch has thrown the Wet Las Vegas timeline off. The difference, Dooner said, is his project will start when the economy is improving.

In November, say.

But prudent timelines aside, Dooner's jokes about the how the resort's projected price has grown from seven to ten digits had a familiar taste, like a 2-year-old Twinkie left over from the good times.

"It's just, more zeros and zeros don't have any value," he said, "so why does anyone worry about them?"