fbpx HOW THE EXPERIENTIAL AREA15 COMPLEX COULD BECOME A NEW KIND OF LAS VEGAS THEME PARK

HOW THE EXPERIENTIAL AREA15 COMPLEX COULD BECOME A NEW KIND OF LAS VEGAS THEME PARK

June 8, 2024 / Hursh

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Photo: Christopher DeVargas

It’s Friday night at Area15. We step gingerly past artist Tyler Fuqua’s giant robot Mechan 9, who’s sprawled out near the front door. We walk through the hallway of a starship. We slip beneath the gaze of Shogyo Mujo, the giant glowing skull, and emerge in Area15’s main hall—called the “Spine”—with possibilities bordering on the unlimited. We could vanish into a parallel dimension inside a supermarket. We could shimmy through a laser maze. We could make footprints on the moon.

Since opening its doors in September 2020, Area15 hasn’t stopped adding strange corners and unexpected destinations. The sprawling entertainment, dining and nightlife complex now boasts an axe-throwing bar, a virtual- and augmented-reality “lab,” a two-story arcade, a bar that soars into the air and whatever Wink World is. (I’m going with “bouncy psychedelic diorama.”) Its backyard event space, the A-Lot, and main performance hall, the Portal, host regular dance parties, which Area15 calls “massives” in a nod to the warehouse rave culture that inspired them. By day, some of the same spaces used for all-night partying are used for yoga and guided meditation.

Area15’s entryway
Area15’s entryway

I’ve seen a good portion of what Area15 has to offer. Naturally, I’ve visited Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart—the previously mentioned parallel-dimension market—on multiple occasions, most recently to drink in the semi-hidden bar. I’ve watched burlesque performers and screened movies in the Portal. I’ve dined in the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-themed dining room of the soon-to-close Lost Spirits Distillery, and walked out with two bottles of the terrific rum made on the premises. And I saw the legendary surf/garage band Man or Astro-man? in the club venue called the Wall, where it performed what amounted to a synth solo on a vintage Apple dot matrix printer. (I missed shows by The Drums and Yves Tumor, to my regret.) Area15 prides itself on doling out complete, memorable experiences like these, one after the other.

“There was an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day about how marketing events are now called ‘experiences,’” says Area15 COO Dan Pelson. “The word is kind of losing some of its meaning, but to us, an experience is something that really is transformative—something that is very unusual to the guest, something that we hope drives their participation in something. We like to talk about moving our guests from spectators to participants … While we obviously love people taking pictures and posting them, we want them to engage.”

As it happens, my girlfriend and I are here on this Friday to engage with some of the stuff I haven’t yet. Tonight, we’ll travel to deep space courtesy of Illuminarium, throw a few sharp objects at Dueling Axes, get dinner at The Beast gastropub and put down a couple hundred zombies from the back of Army of the Dead’s heavily armored taco truck. We’ll even poke our heads into the Asylum arcade to check out the Skee-Ball setup and giant Space Invaders machine. All told, we spend just shy of three-and-a-half hours at Area15 … and we still don’t come close to seeing everything, much less engaging with it.

“I would say Area15 has at least a half-day’s worth of activities, excluding the dining and retail,” says Dylan Dickson, host of the popular YouTube channel Theme Park Obsession, via email. “When I was there, we easily spent three hours in Omega Mart alone, so if others are spending that much time [there], plus doing the zipline, arcades and maybe a bar, then you could easily do a half-day.”

Now they’re coming for your entire day. Area15 is amid an expansion that will add Universal Horror Unleashed, a giant haunted house attraction inspired by the Halloween Horror Nights of Universal’s California and Florida parks, and a John Wick-themed attraction that puts visitors in the shoes of Keanu Reeves’ reluctant assassin. (See Amber Sampson’s sidebar below.) And bucking Vegas’ habit of bringing in outside brands, concepts and operators, Area15 is expanding to other markets, beginning with a new complex in Orlando, Florida—only minutes away from both Walt Disney World and Universal as the UFO flies.

Las Vegas has toyed with motion rides, interactive attractions and full theme parks in the past, but Area15 has found footing where MGM Grand Adventures and Luxor’s early attractions found none. And it’s done so not by copying Disney or Six Flags, but by building on what this city was already doing better than anyone. The fuel of Area15’s ascent is pure, high-octane Vegas, through and through—our hospitality, our nightlife, our inherent weirdness. Area15 may have originally positioned itself as an airport terminal for UFOs, but—almost despite itself—it’s becoming a new kind of theme park.

WE HAVE LIFTOFF

Liftoff at Area15
Liftoff at Area15

Real estate investment firm Fisher Brothers has owned the land Area15 now occupies since 2005. The complex is in a strangely isolated place—hemmed in by Interstate 15 on one side and by the Desert Inn super arterial on another, and accessible only by side streets lined with industrial parks. Shortly before Area15 opened, I asked CEO Winston Fisher if he was concerned about the out-of-the-way location, and he shook his head placidly: “The rideshares will find it.”

Finding Area15 was an effort for Fisher, as well. When I interviewed him for the Weekly in March 2023, he said he’d entertained “a lot of wacky ideas” for the land before he met Michael Beneville, CEO of New York-based creative agency Beneville Studios, who would become Area15’s chief creative lead. They set parameters for themselves: They had to add something new to Vegas’ entertainment mix, while keeping in mind “the decline of malls” and “the future of the experience economy.”

Guideposts in place, Fisher and Beneville set out to build a kind of mall (though Area15 is not a mall, and Fisher bristles at the word) and theme park (Fisher says it’s not a theme park, either, though he doesn’t seem to mind that comparison as much) centered around creative interaction, “an immersive district that houses immersive experiences … [and] attracts best-in-class experiences and art.”

This wasn’t a wacky idea. Around the time Beneville and Fisher began brainstorming ideas for Area15, Sleep No More—an immersive theater production set in a five-story New York “hotel”—was five years into a smash hit run that’s only wrapping up this year. House of Eternal Return, an interactive art installation created by New Mexico collective and future Area15 tenant Meow Wolf, had recently opened to glowing reviews. An increasing number of giant art pieces created for Burning Man were making their way off the playa, landing at music festivals and other events. Even Universal and Disney were starting to explore more personalized and atmospheric kinds of storytelling, with experiential “lands” based on Harry Potter and Avatar respectively.

The Area15 campus came together easily. The 200,000 square-foot “Spine” building is visible to cars heading both directions on I-15. Charcoal-colored and mysterious, it is its own best advertisement, and only became more so when Liftoff, a colorfully lit, 100-foot-tall observation tower and bar, was raised next to it. And Fisher was right: Uber and Lyft find the property just fine.

The Secret Garden massive at Area15.
The Secret Garden massive at Area15.

A long sidewalk to the entrance, adorned with Burning Man art, stretches out into a nearly 900-car parking lot. A group of concrete-slab office/warehouses on the west side of the property—all told, some additional 90,000 square feet of space—were later repurposed into additional experiences, a process that continues today. (Lost Spirits is in those warehouses, also the Army of the Dead VR attraction. Pelson says John Wick will take up residence there, too.) Inside the Spine, a two-level, 53,000 square-foot space was carved out for Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart.

But architecture and construction are linear and mathematical. The elusive what of Area15—as in, what makes an experience an Area15 experience?—wasn’t the easiest thing to pin down. I ask Pelson if they created “a brand book, or maybe a mood board” for Area15 during the planning process. He chuckles lightly and says, “Not only did we create a brand book, but also many, many mood boards. We’re kind of famous for them, internally, to the point of annoying some of our employees.

“But we also actually do have an underlying story, which we haven’t quite articulated to the guests—where did Area15 come from? What is it that it represents? We’re just now starting to unveil that, so to speak, but in very, very subtle ways. Even if you fast-forward many, many years from now, we’d like to have an environment where our guests are able to fill in the blanks.”

The tenant mix came a bit easier, though figuring out what’s a fit for Area15 and what’s not remains an active point of discussion within the mothership. “It’s kind of the secret sauce, and it’s such a secret that I’m not sure we even know,” Pelson says. “But we know when it’s right and when it’s wrong. And the key is to have that contextual fit and all the puzzle pieces fitting together.”

Omega Mart, still the largest and most recognizable part of that puzzle, opened a short time after Area15 did. Its importance to Area15 is literally spelled out on the building: Meow Wolf’s logo is painted on the Spine, the same size as Area15’s logo.

The relationship between the two entities couldn’t be tighter, says Omega Mart GM Jeff Lund.

“I call it a collaboration, a partnership,” Lund says. “On paper, it’s a business transaction; we are in their campus. [But] they’re really a great partner. We collaborate because we want to draw people to Area15, which takes a little bit of effort—to get people off the Strip, across the Interstate. But once they get here, this is a destination.”

Dickson, who did a video review of Area15 for Theme Park Obsession, was initially drawn by Meow Wolf, but was impressed by everything else he saw.

“The Omega Mart experience was easily the highlight, at least on our first visit. … The exploration element to that attraction is so much fun, because every turn you make, you’re rewarded with beautiful visuals and fun art,” he says. “Also … the entry statement to Area15 was pretty cool, right when you walk in the building.”

It’s worth noting that, once you’ve stepped underneath that giant stylized “A” over the front door, your level of engagement with Area15 is adjustable down to the penny. Pelson proudly notes that entry to Area15 is free. You can take pictures with Bart Kresa and Joshua Harker’s projection-mapped skull Shogyo Mujo, browse the wares of Rocket Fizz and Kappa Toys, peer into the various attractions and experiences, bob your head to the constant hi-energy club music soundtrack and leave without paying a nickel. (Parking is free, too.)

A visit to Omega Mart starts at $54 ($44 for locals); multi-day passes that offer Meow Wolf and a whole lot more start at $124. That latter pricing is comparable to what Disney and Universal are charging for a single day, which is part of the reason why Area15’s crowd changes wildly depending on what time of the day you show up.

VNSSA performing inside Area15’s “Spine.”
VNSSA performing inside Area15’s “Spine.”

“During the daytime, when school’s out, we get a lot more families with younger kids,” Lund says. “Then, as the evening progresses, you’re gonna see more young adults in their 20s and 30s … the kind of consumer that’s more interested in nightclubs.”

Arguably, Area15 is creating a market for nightclubs plus. If you’ve been to EDC, you know that the carnival rides and funhouse aren’t just for show; attendees love to try them. Sure, Area15 has enough nightlife events on the calendar to rival the nightclubs of the Strip (including a May 16 EDC pre-party, Dreamstate, featuring Ferry Corsten, Markus Schulz, Infected Mushroom and more), but I’d be surprised if the attendees of those “massives” didn’t make room for some augmented reality dodgeball in the Lab, a ride on the Haley’s Comet indoor zipline, a few swings of Five Iron Golf or a taste of the free-flowing psychedelia on tap at Omega Mart and Wink World. The instinct to play, to engage, can’t be denied.

Along those lines, it’s no surprise that Area15 officials are exploring the possibilities that adult use recreational cannabis has to offer, although they’re doing so cautiously, and in a way that would keep it isolated from non-consumers and families. (At present, consumption of marijuana is unequivocally forbidden at Area15.) Last month, they partnered with Planet 13 dispensary—one of two Strip-adjacent dispensaries to recently open a consumption lounge, and itself a special effects-heavy attraction—to launch an open-air, double-decker bus ride between the two properties, running Thursday to Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. They call it—hold on to something—“Shuttle-14.”

“It didn’t take a Harvard MBA to come up with that one,” Pelson says.

But he gets serious when discussing the possibility of a consumption lounge. It wouldn’t be part of Area15, he stresses—“It’d be more of a … let’s call it a ‘condo’d-out’ area, due to federal laws. It wouldn’t be something that we would do directly,” he says. “That said, those opportunities evolve. We’re always looking at what makes sense for the campus, and in the right place. It wouldn’t be something that’s front and center. We do get a lot of family business during the day, so if we do something like that, it’s not going to be in their faces at all.”

SET THE CONTROLS FOR THE HEART OF THE SUNSHINE STATE

Area15 Orlando has yet to begin construction. Its 17-acre future site—right next to an interstate highway, like in Vegas—is already home to another Tyler Fuqua robot, Mechan 11, who’s carrying an Area15 flag and a bindle full of goodies. As currently planned, its “Spine”will be 100,000 square feet larger than its Vegas relative. In a March 2022 interview with Orlando Weekly, Fisher also promised it won’t be a copy: “I would love to work with local shops and to bring in local culinary experiences … they won’t be the same things [as] Vegas. It will be unique.”

Illuminarium

Even so, it’s hard to imagine refining the Nevada out of Area15. Our city and state DNA is in its look, its attitude, its very name. Asked if Area15 can retain its Vegas-ness outside of its home state, Pelson says, “Oh, a thousand percent,” adding that Area15 has already established a sort of foothold outside of Nevada: Another iteration of Wink World, the co-venture with Blue Man Group co-founder Chris Wink, recently opened in the Mall of America in Minneapolis.

For now, the Area15 organization is laser-focused on Vegas—opening the Universal Horror and John Wick experiences, as well as another experience that Pelson can’t talk about just yet. But he can talk in general terms about the pitch for the experience that he, Fisher, Beneville and the rest of Area15’s creative team received—which, in its way, says just enough.

“It was the wackiest, most insane idea,” Pelson says. “At the end of the presentation, they were kind of nervous, looking to see if they went too far. And I said to them, there’s probably two or three companies in the world that would look at what you just showed and say, ‘That’s exactly what we were hoping for.’ Most folks would throw you out of the room, but that was exactly what we’re looking for. It’s a lot of fun to be able to work in that kind of environment, where you’re constantly trying to push the edge and do things that most are probably just afraid to do.”

“We have some really funky ideas. We’re gonna see if we can make them pencil,” Fisher said to the Weekly in March 2023. “We’re very inspired by [the example of] P.T. Barnum: spectacle sells. It scares people, but the riskiest thing you can do is something original, something grand, something that blows people’s mind. That actually makes me very comfortable. It’s being a commodity that I can’t stand.” –Geoff Carter

AREA15 EXPANDS ITS VISION WITH NEW ATTRACTIONS FROM LIONSGATE AND UNIVERSAL

Hollywood has a new home at Area15. As part of a 20-acre expansion, the entertainment complex will welcome Universal and Lionsgate into its ever-expanding universe, bringing two new attractions the world has yet to see anywhere else.

Universal Horror Unleashed rendering
Universal Horror Unleashed rendering

Universal Destinations & Experiences is on deck to debut a year-round horror experience next year, with Universal Horror Unleashed serving as its first permanent venture outside of its global theme parks. Typically, Universal’s seasonal fright fest Halloween Horror Nights features different haunted houses, teeming with iconic creatures like Frankenstein and Dracula and more modern monsters like Vecna from Stranger Things. Universal Horror Unleashed is a different beast entirely.

Dan Pelson, chief operating officer of Area15, says the attraction will bring new fears to the forefront, evolving the terror as time goes on—and it won’t all be Halloween-based. This will be an experience worth traveling for, he adds.

“They could have put their first permanent one in Los Angeles or Orlando, they certainly have a massive presence there. But the fact that they’re doing it here and with Area15 … that’s really a testament to how the city has transformed and humbly to what Area15 is doing in terms of that transformation,” Pelson says.

That should contrast nicely with Lionsgate’s new John Wick Experience, a 12,000-square-foot attraction set to open in 2024. The experience draws heavily from the billion-dollar film franchise’s hitman lore, delving fans into an elite underworld of contractual killing, complete with missions, in-character assassins and more. Egan Productions, the masterminds behind Circus Circus’ seasonal scare Fright Dome and the official Saw escape room, will pioneer the project, “merging our expertise with the cinematic brilliance of the films and the top-tier environment that Area15 provides,” says Jason Egan, who founded the production company.

John Wick Exprience rendering
John Wick Exprience rendering

“From the moment guests walk up to the building and enter the Vegas Continental, they will feel like they are inside the John Wick films,” Egan says of the fictitious hotel being constructed for the attraction. “Not only is this a highly immersive action-packed experience, it also includes two amazing themed bars along with a John Wick retail store that will be open to the public.”

These are “new endeavors” for both studios, Pelson says, and there’s more in store.

“A lot of folks in Las Vegas specifically think we’re gonna get it to this level, and then we’re gonna keep running it at that level. In our world, we’re just never done,” he says. “That’s why we continue to say—and it’s painted on our roof —‘Area15 does not exist.’ It’s not ever going to fully exist. We’re going to just constantly keep innovating.” –Amber Sampson

The article was originally posted by Las Vegas Weekly

Authored by Geoff CarterAmber Sampson

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