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Chris Jones

Las Vegas Waterpark to Close

12 August 2004

LAS VEGAS -- With less than two months to go before the pools at Wet 'n Wild are drained for the last time, Sonja Robinson saw the past and future as she scanned the water park late Wednesday morning.

Standing in the shade to escape the young day's already 110-degree temperature, the 14-year park employee easily recalled her family's many experiences at the long-standing Strip attraction.

Figuring out where she and other parents will find similar summer fun in years to come was a bit more difficult, however.

"I've watched my 12-year-old son, Dylan, grow up at this park," said Robinson, Wet 'n Wild's director of sales and marketing. "When he was a baby his favorite thing was to play in the sprinklers, so it's been fun to watch him grow through the park and finally conquer (the high-rising water slide) Der Stuka a couple of years ago.

"It's been a great ride. We're going to miss a lot of people," she added.

After several years of uncertainty, Newport Beach, Calif.-based park operator Palace Entertainment learned last week its landlord will pull the plug on Wet 'n Wild once its 20th season concludes Sept. 26.

Las Vegas-based Archon Corp. owns the approximately 27-acre parcel beneath Wet 'n Wild and plans to tear down the park to make room for a new megaresort.

Archon's Sahara Las Vegas Corp. subsidiary in May 2003 signed a lease extension that would have kept the park in place for 10 more years. But seven months later, it reversed course and said it would build a 3,250-room hotel-casino and observation wheel where Wet 'n Wild now stands.

Amid uncertainty surrounding Archon's construction schedule, Wet 'n Wild opened April 24, and one month later, added a new attraction, the Dragon's Den slide. The ride's first season will be its last.

When SeaWorld developer George Millay and Summa Corp. (now The Howard Hughes Corp.) opened Wet 'n Wild on May 18, 1985, it was heralded as an "aquatic Disneyland" that would expand the city's tourism base by appealing to visiting families with young children.

And while the Strip's first major nongaming attraction fulfilled that pro-tourism goal, about 80 percent of the park's patrons were locals. Like Robinson, another local mother wondered Wednesday what she'll do without the park's pools and rides.

"Let's face it. Summers here are H-O-T," said Las Vegan Theresa Luna, a longtime season pass holder who routinely brings her 4-year-old twins, Tina and Joseph, to cool off at Wet 'n Wild. "I'm really sad that the park is closing because it's open from morning to night, unlike the county pools.

"Next summer, what am I going to do with my kids? We've been coming here since they were born."

Some of Wet 'n Wild's attractions were later copied by Strip resorts and local municipalities, as evidenced by the wave pool and meandering river at Mandalay Bay to the slide-equipped public pools found around the Las Vegas Valley.

Still, general manager Mike Fijas said Wet 'n Wild remained popular for two decades because its original design was strong but flexible enough to change with a growing community.

"This park is an icon in this industry because it's so old, but it's one of the best original parks ever built," Fijas said.

Several rides have been replaced or altered over the years, but Wet 'n Wild's signature attractions -- the Lazy River, Surf Lagoon, Raging Rapids and Der Stuka's towering 76-foot slide -- have been in place since the park's debut. Designer Buss, Silvers, Hughes and Associates also left space for additions that included the Willy Willy whirlpool, Royal Flush slide and Beach Club picnic area.

"It was designed to be a tourist attraction ... but its spaces, landscaping, big pools and large seating areas really were conducive for locals," Fijas said.

"It became their little oasis."

Wet 'n Wild still attracts about 500,000 customers each year. Coupled with projected growth in Southern Nevada's population and tourism industry, Fijas said Palace Entertainment is committed to this market. He would not confirm that the company intends to build another Las Vegas park Wednesday, though Fijas said he hopes to make such an announcement soon.

If built, a new Wet 'n Wild probably would be away from the Strip, where land values are prohibitive. Palace Entertainment would instead look for a central location that's accessible to tourists but convenient for locals. Fijas estimated a new park would take at least 12 to 18 months to build, ruling out any chance Wet 'n Wild might reopen by next summer.

Marina Nicola, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said Wet 'n Wild's continued presence would benefit local visitors with kids in tow.

"That's not the demographic we're really going after, but families do come here so it's important that we give them ample opportunities for entertainment," she said.

Wet 'n Wild spokeswoman Hannah Johnston said most of the park's current rides will be shipped to the nine other water parks Palace Entertainment owns. The park's 30 full-time employees could transfer within the company, though many will be laid off.

In summer months, Wet 'n Wild employs between 300 to 600 seasonal workers, including nine-year veteran Jaylynn Nuckolls and Frank Chaney, a 12-year employee who'll turn 73 in September. Both said Wednesday they hope the park reopens so they can return to their current jobs.

"If Wet 'n Wild opens up again, or when it opens again, I'll be right there," Nuckolls, an admissions supervisor, said optimistically.

Wet 'n Wild's demise might not mark the end of aquatic-inspired development on the north Strip. Archon's most recent plans for the site, which were approved by the

Clark County Planning Commission in January, call for a marina-themed project tentatively called Palace of the Sea.

The development would include a 3,002-room hotel towering 611 feet above the Strip, replica yachts and a casino area designed to resemble the famed Opera House in Sydney, Australia.

Archon did not return calls Wednesday, but the company's March 2004 annual report expressed confidence that a Strip resort would "greatly enhance" future profitability. In May, Archon reported losses of $2.7 million from October 2003 through March 2004, the first six months of its fiscal year. It lost $3.5 million during the same period a year ago.

Archon shares, which trade on the over-the-counter Bulletin Board, closed at $5.30, unchanged.