If you visited Las Vegas between January of 1998 and September of 2008, you may have also visited an attraction known as Star Trek: The Experience at the off-strip Hilton Hotel. (It’s now called the Westgate.) It gave Star Trek fans the chance to experience their favourite movies and shows (years before what Galaxy’s Edge did for Star Wars fans) and despite now being closed, you can relive parts of the experience through rare behind-the-scenes videos of the attraction under construction.
Having attended various trade shows in Las Vegas every year for the past two decades, I had many opportunities to visit Star Trek: The Experience, which included a Trek-themed restaurant called Quark’s, a gift shop with an impressive selection of Trek merchandise, and the experience itself, which paired a simulator ride with walkthroughs of various sets, including the Star Trek: TNG version of the Enterprise.
Klingon Encounter, the original version of Star Trek: The Experience, started with guests touring a museum with props, models, and costumes of the shows and films that also laid out the timeline of Star Trek’s various stories. From there guests were escorted by costumed actors into a room where they lined up to prepare to board a shuttle, but things quickly “went wrong,” as safety videos playing on screens started to flicker, and the lights went out accompanied by a rush of cold air. When the dust settled, guests suddenly found themselves standing on a transporter pad about the Enterprise, and a storyline played out involving Klingons, a missing Captain Picard, temporal rifts, malfunctioning turbolifts, and a battle over the skies of Las Vegas.
Born during a time when Las Vegas was trying to position and expand the strip as a family experience, Star Trek: The Experience was one of the better ways to entertain a group of kids for a couple of hours, assuming everyone was already a fan of Star Trek. The simulator ride itself was entertaining, and included a ship to ship battle filmed over Las Vegas itself which was fun, but most guests, myself included, walked away most impressed with the simulated transporter voyage they didn’t see coming. Years after Star Trek: The Experience closed its doors for good I’ve still wondered how exactly the ride’s creators pulled off the illusion, and finally I have the answer.
Dave de Vos is a Hollywood producer and director whose credits include several theme park rides including Back to the Future: The Ride, Terminator 2:3D, and Star Trek: The Experience. On his YouTube channel earlier this year he shared some unique behind the scenes footage of the Las Vegas attraction still under construction and being tested in October of 1997. The video walks through the various sets still being built, including the restaurant, and includes moments when sound effects are being mixed on the Enterprise’s bridge, and the malfunctioning turbolift. But it’s mostly worth watching for the tests of the transporter illusion, which reveal exactly how it was done.
When you see it in action without the accompanying light show and other effects meant to distract you, the effect seems kind of basic. The room that guests are shuffled into in order to line up for their shuttle ride quickly rises up into the air revealing a larger transporter pad set surrounding them, while an alternate ceiling quietly slides into place above their heads, completely changing their surroundings. The transformation happens in just a few seconds, and with everything else going on around the guests, including a blast of cold air, you don’t notice or see the moving set pieces at all. It was executed perfectly, and it made you wonder why Lieutenant Barclay was so nervous about being transported.
Sadly, in September of 2008 Star Trek: The Experience was closed permanently after having been given a brief second life in 2004 with a Borg-themed facelift. There were plans to move it to the Neonopolis Mall on Las Vegas’ Fremont street, but that was delayed until it was announced that the new owners had lost the Star Trek licence. With the success of the Star Wars-themed Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida, there’s always the chance that an immersive Star Trek attraction could see the light of day again. But it’s going to be a long while before investors are confident enough to spend money on building theme parks again.