Las Vegas Sun

November 14, 2018

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Analysis: Baseball, theme parks work in Florida, but not Southern Nevada

Beyond the Sun

KEY WEST, Fla. — Florida and Southern Nevada have a lot in common when it comes to the tourism industry.

Both have agreeable spring weather, especially compared with the frigid Northeast and Midwest. And both count on visitors to boost their respective economies.

So, when it came time for a little spring break, a colleague and I opted to give the Florida Gulf Coast and the Florida Keys a look.

Several months ago, KOA Kampground and Airstream struck a deal that enabled franchisees to acquire some of the silver trailers to become permanent fixtures at the campground. Among the first KOAs to get them was the recreational vehicle park at Circus Circus.

When I wrote about the Strip’s newest additions, I asked if any other KOAs in tourist destinations had done the same thing. The other early entrant was KOA’s property on Sugarloaf Key, about 15 miles east of Key West. So, I booked a reservation and it was off to the southernmost destination in the continental United States with a mission to do my part to stimulate the tourism economy.

Based on what I saw in my weeklong Florida stay, the death of travel and tourism in this economy has been greatly exaggerated. Granted, it was spring break for many people, and Florida is a huge spring break destination. But the reality was that things were hopping.

My friend and I flew on four Southwest Airlines flights — all of them had every seat filled. (In fact, every plane had more passengers than seats since each flight had a generous number of children who sat on their parents’ laps.)

The campground at Sugarloaf West was near capacity. I’m guessing it may have been full had Florida not had several days of rain. Just north of Miami, the area got more rain in 48 hours than Las Vegas gets in an average year.

The souvenir shops of Key West were bustling and at least one boat eco-tour we tried to book had no seats available for the next five days.

My colleague and I attended Major League Baseball Grapefruit League baseball games in Fort Myers and Clearwater. Both were sold out.

That got me to thinking about Southern Nevada’s close encounter with attracting teams for spring training in the ’90s and a major-league team a few years ago.

The idea was to package the development of a baseball facility to accommodate two teams, thus assuring that there would be games every day in March.

That seems to be the current spring training trend and it has been successfully accomplished with the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres in Peoria, Ariz., the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals in Surprise, Ariz., and the Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks in Tucson.

Imagine how popular Las Vegas would be in March to the sports fan — Major League Baseball every day with popular teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels and the Chicago Cubs coming to town for games at the same time that there’s legal wagering on college basketball games in our local sports books.

Unfortunately, the economics of the plan didn’t pencil out and Las Vegas is still without any major-league sports presence.

It would have been interesting to see how well the players would have liked it. Las Vegas would have been a distant outpost for spring training Cactus League games, more than 200 miles away from the teams that train in the Phoenix area and more than 300 miles from those based in Tucson.

That, in fact, is one of the shortcomings of spring training in Florida — the training venues are a good distance from each other, although there are several clustered around each other in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, Orlando, Tampa Bay and Fort Myers. Arizona’s willingness to build spring facilities has resulted in some teams abandoning Florida for Arizona with the Dodgers and Cleveland Indians making the move this year and the Cincinnati Reds making the switch next year.

Is it time for Las Vegas to take another swing at spring training, especially considering that the Las Vegas 51s minor-league franchise has a new affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays, which trains at a tiny stadium in Dunedin on Florida’s Gulf Coast? Don’t get too excited about that becoming reality. The White Sox and Diamondbacks already are talking about abandoning Tucson, citing travel issues and a Las Vegas-to-Phoenix trip for Cactus League teams would be even more onerous than Tucson to Phoenix.

South Florida newscasts last week reminded me of Las Vegas’ recent flirtation with attracting a major-league baseball team full time.

You may recall that the Florida Marlins once looked at moving that team to Las Vegas although some thought the team was using that as a gambit for a new stadium in Miami. When the city promised to work toward building a stadium, the courtship between the Marlins and Las Vegas was off.

Last week, government leaders in Miami took the next step toward fulfilling its promise with a vote by the Miami-Dade County Commission to move forward with a new $625 million stadium with a retractable roof. So, it seems the Marlins are on their way toward getting what they wanted and Las Vegas is still without a major-league team.

The latter part of my Florida trip was spent in the Tampa Bay area so my friend and I, both roller-coaster nuts, paid a visit to Busch Gardens.

Once again, there was evidence that people are willing to spend money for a good time.

The park, a cross between an African-themed zoo and home for thrill rides, was packed on a Sunday afternoon with guests paying $65 to $75 apiece to get in. And that’s before the cost of food, souvenirs and other concessions.

The successful spring break weekend at Busch Gardens brought to mind Las Vegas’ ill-advised attempt in the ’90s to capture the family market.

There have been scattered hits but mostly misses in the development of theme parks in Las Vegas. The hits: Circus Circus’ Adventuredome and the thrill rides atop the Stratosphere Tower. The biggest miss: MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park, which once stood where the Signature at MGM Grand towers are today.

Wet ’n Wild, a water park that once operated just south of the Sahara, had quite a following and with our summer heat, a water park seems like a gold mine waiting to happen.

But the landlord of the property where Wet ’n Wild stood had resort ambitions that have gone unfulfilled, and a group that envisions an indoor-outdoor water park with the prospect of an indoor ski hill near the southern end of the Strip has been set back by the poor economy.

MGM Grand’s theme park flopped because it lacked any exciting rides. The thrill rides that dot the Southern Nevada landscape have had some moderate success. The Stratosphere’s Big Shot attraction is still the thrill-ride king, and roller coasters at Primm’s Buffalo Bill’s, New York-New York, Circus Circus and the Sahara have fans.

The Desperado at Buffalo Bill’s once had the longest drop among coasters in North America and Circus Circus Adenturedome’s Canyon Blaster had the distinction of having the most inversions of any indoor coaster. Even the Roller Coaster at New York-New York, formerly known as the Manhattan Express, was among the first to have an unusual C-shaped track that turned riders upside down in midflight.

Could a big-time theme park thrive in Las Vegas? Experienced developers such Busch, Six Flags or Disney could pull it off, but naysayers always will point to the failure of the city trying to brand itself as a family-friendly experience of the ’90s as a good reason not to try it. Besides, companies such as Disney aren’t about to damage their family image on a place like Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is an adult destination and its success will lie in its ability to satisfy adult customers and not children.

As appealing as crowded theme parks and sold-out spring training stadiums may look during this economic downturn, they may be more the domain of Florida than Southern Nevada.

Richard N. Velotta covers tourism for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at 259-4061 or at [email protected].

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