Analysts not surprised another family-focused business is leaving the Strip

An exterior view of GameWorks on the Las Vegas Strip, Feb. 22, 2012.

GameWorks Las Vegas

An exterior view of GameWorks on the Las Vegas Strip, Wednesday Feb. 22, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Wet and wild still works as a concept in Las Vegas, just not as a theme park on the Strip.

As a water park on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, Wet ’n’ Wild shut down in 2004, and since then, other family oriented types of businesses have opened and closed. What has survived is the drinking, gambling and clubbing that have driven this city for decades.

This week, GameWorks announced it would close, and those who watch trends on the Strip say that trying to make Vegas a family travel destination was a business model that didn’t play here.

Perhaps it was foolish to pit a place known for Rat Pack romps, “MTV Spring Break” and “The Hangover” with Mickey Mouse and Shrek, just a few hours’ south on I-15.

“Los Angeles makes up a big part of our market, and they’ve got Disneyland and Universal Studios,” said Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at UNLV. “You have to ask: Why would somebody drive four hours for family entertainment that can’t compete with what they have at home?”

Nearly a third of the more than 38 million visitors coming to Las Vegas each year travel from California, according to the most recent survey from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. In 2010, 69 percent of tourists traveling in groups were adult couples. Only 7 percent were bringing anyone under the legal casino age of 21. For years, the average age of those coming to play in Las Vegas has been around 50.

“For us, it’s never been a family destination,” said Jeremy Handel, senior manager of public affairs for the LVCVA. “We’ve never marketed it that way.”

Resorts on the Strip tried to diversify their clientele in the 1990s, trying to appeal to families. The idea sounded good: a place where the kids would play in amusement parks, freeing adults to gamble.

The MGM Grand had an amusement park, which closed in 2000 after seven years. The MGM Lion Habitat also closed last month as part of a major renovation plan that included a fourth Sugar Factory, which opened Wednesday. The Luxor, New York-New York and MGM Grand still have youth-friendly arcades, although they’re scaled down from what they used to be.

The ’90s also brought the luxury resorts, such as the Mirage and the Bellagio, and high-end shopping options including the Forum Shops at Caesars.

“There were two business models, for families and for the luxury resorts,” Brown said. “One model worked. The other didn’t.”

The “What Happens in Vegas” ad campaign that started in 2004, however, succeeded in pushing the town back toward its adult playground roots.

“I think what you’re seeing is more of an evolution than a revolution because, historically, this is what this town has been,” said Tony Henthorne, associate dean and tourism professor of the Harrah Hotel College at UNLV.

Five years ago, Treasure Island changed its outdoor show from swashbuckling pirates to the scantily clad “Sirens of TI.”

“Now, you see more dads standing there watching it,” Henthorne said.

Still, Circus Circus has survived and recently opened the 10,000-square-foot Chuck Jones Experience, celebrating the creator of Looney Tunes. The sharks continue to swim at Mandalay Bay and the dolphins at the Mirage. The Tournament of Kings joust nightly at Excalibur.

The all-ages SkyVue, on more than nine acres across from Mandalay Bay, has broken ground and is preparing to have the footing poured for a 500-foot observation wheel, carrying 32 24-seat gondolas far above the Strip. It’s set to open in the summer of 2013, surrounded by a retail center.

Just don’t call it a Ferris wheel.

Or a kids' ride.

“When completed, it will be the largest observation wheel in the Western Hemisphere,” said Dave Kirvin, spokesman for the developers. “It’s more of a one-of-a-kind Vegas experience.”

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  1. Just from my observations, there were two major problems with the "family-friendly" business model in Las Vegas.

    First off, resorts responded to what appeared to be a vocal demand for family-oriented entertainment. But, as can happen in business, people don't necessarily transfer a want into action. Even market research at the time showed an interest - but people need to follow through and show up.

    Secondly, the people I know with children need to watch their money. Young families are not known for having a lot of extra cash. So, when they did come to Las Vegas - they did so on a tight budget. As a result, the families that were showing up did not spend on par with their childless cohorts.

  2. Vegas is supposed to be an adults playground as the article says it is being marketed for. I'm all for families having fun on vacation but there are other places for people to go for that: Disney Land if one is on the West Coast, Disney World and other Orlando, FL. attractions. Disney also offers cruises for everyone.
    On one of my last trips to Vegas, I could not believe the lack of oversight on the part of casinos and the lack of judgement for the parents. Strollers should never be seen in a place with scantily clad dancers at the gaming tables. And I have seen parents park their kids on a seat in front of a slot machine to rest or wait for the rest of their group. My grandma once had that bad oversight and gave my mom a quarter while in Vegas in the 50s and she got in trouble for putting that quarter in a machine and pulling the lever.
    I watch Vegas Strip (Tru TV) which is a documentary-style show following Vegas cops on The Strip who say it is a family friendly spot and perps should be considerate of that. Families can go to The Strip, just when all members are adults.

  3. There never was an authentic family-friendly focus for visitors to Las Vegas. It was all an overlay for the adult entertainment. Bringing "the family" to Sin City and expecting the tourist areas to provide entertainment for kids is ridiculous.

    Now, if you happen to find yourself in Las Vegas with "the family" and you are willing to look off-Strip at what the locals do with their families, you'll discover some great activities. But the conundrum comes when people say, "Why go off-Strip or away from Downtown when I'm in Vegas?", which is exactly the point. Las Vegas as a tourist destination is, never was, and never can be family friendly. Leave that to theme-park focused areas.

  4. Dennis is Right. If you want a Family Vacation go to Orlando, there is No Theme Park in LA that compares to their offerings. Plus you are less than one hour from spectacular beaches on the East and West coasts in Florida. Want Museums - Washington D.C. and the vast majority are Free - as is the Zoo.
    I was just in Palm Desert and was surprised at some of the new modern and Number of Indian Casinos. I suspect they are already biting into the San Diego Market and in the future will expand to attract the more Mature LA market as well. That leaves Las Vegas mainly with a Party Crowd that is just not that into Gaming and the International Market where most places Gambling is just boring.
    The Casino decision makers are White and Old and not very representative of the U.S. population and it's trends. From looking at what happened with the EDC they are meek followers - Not Leaders . The Future of Las Vegas must be thought about - From Education, To Zoning and Planning, Mass Transit, Medical Services, Crime, Utilities, Jobs and Quality of Life Issues. While Gaming should have a seat at the Table planning the Future, They should not Own The Table as they do now. They have never shown Any initiative to lead the Valley forward.

  5. NatIve American casnos threaten Las Vegas? I've heard that one before... The casino owners are responsible for 70-cents of every dollar made and spent in Southern Nevada. Seems like they are doing okay for the city.

    The future of Las Vegas is and always should be a gamble; that's the nature of a city built on risk. Change it, try to apply outsider ideas to it, and we're just another resource-scarce suburb

  6. Family friendly was a myth. Vegas lost the customer service it once had when the clueless corporate "hotel majors" showed up and until it regains that service it will continue to dope along. If you want the profits of a tiny cowtown hotel run it like a hotel. If you want major profits run a gambling joint properly as a gambling joint.

    Vegas is a GAMBLING town. Until the lame operators of the majority of the joints on the strip and downtown figure that out and provide great food and great rooms at a low price gambling will not recover. Low cost food and rooms bring in gamblers. The persistent high costs are why we have to rely on lame special events to bring in gamblers.

    One thing that killed Vegas was the grunge crowd. In the 50s and 60s we had whores and criminals galore but the average hotel called for a class atmosphere. Even when class is a thin veneer with suits and ties and cocktail dresses being required to keep that veneer it provides an atmosphere of stability for gambling.

    I still remember the quote: A bum is still a bum no matter how much he has in his pockets.

    Throw out the divas in bikinis and the bums in expensive leather and require a proper dress code and you will find the crowd responds. Put the same Diva into a semi transparent cocktail dress and high heels and the bum into a suit and they are suddenly an attraction instead of a freak show.

  7. This is Vegas not kiddi land, if your looking for congestion, crime, high taxes, loss of personal rights, expensive and over rated then go to California and stand in line for hours at Disneyland. Vegas Rocks..