Updated February 3, 2022 - 2:44 pm
Anticipation hangs in the air — no, wait, that’s our breath that we’re seeing suspended before us. It’s cold, but things are heating up.
“It’s like waiting for fireworks,” a bundled-up blonde woman observes in front of Area15 on Wednesday evening, noting the Fourth of July-like sense of expectancy.
Those fireworks come soon enough, sparks-spewing pyrotechnics countering the wind-driven night chill. And with that, it’s go time.
Goggles-sporting guides lead the way. The illuminated obelisk beckons, cradled in a steel tower criss-crossed with illuminated spires. Liftoff is ready for lift off.
It’s Wednesday night, and Area15’s new open-air balloon ride is getting its official launch.
Think of it as a steampunk “Around the World in 80 Days,” with craft cocktails and 360-degree panoramic views of the Strip in place of transcontinental flight.
At the base of the attraction is a themed bar made to look like a lost desert hang for wayward aviators.
There’s antiquities here: A typewriter rests on one table; encyclopedias are strewn about, a nod to those long-lost days of manual research, when learning the genus of an ostrich wasn’t as simple as hitting the Google button on the internet machine.
To make the past feel indivisible from the present.
“It is meant to evoke the last place some aeronauts and astronauts drank and dreamed of building a tower,” explains Michael Beneville, Area15’s chief creative officer, addressing the crowd as Liftoff welcomes its first riders. “And they did.”
Beverage in hand, it’s time to board.
Building a mystery
He remembers standing in this space when that’s all it was: open space.
Michael Beneville recalls surveying the then-barren parcel of land that would eventually become Area15 with Winston Fisher, CEO for Area15, years back.
“Winston and I stood in this parking lot with our two respective teams, it was an empty lot that stretches from the highway to Palace Station, and we thought, ‘What would we put here?’” says Beneville, cald in a disco-ball shiny silver suit. “This was born out of its proximity to the Strip, which is close, but that’s the other side of the moon in terms of the natural traffic flow of a visitor.
“What would make them go across the highway?” he continues. “And we thought the only thing that would actually do that would be a geunine curiosity about, ‘What the hell is that?’”
Area15 was built on these kind of open-ended questions.
Since opening in September 2020, the complex has featured a number of attractions, like Meow Wolf’s immersive art experience Omega Mart and the winding maze of booze that is Lost Spirits, that pointedly leave something to the imagination, that keep visitors guessing about what it is they’re taking in, exactly — and in doing so, ideally keeps them coming back.
It’s worked so far.
Not only does curiosity kill cats, it also lines coffers: In its first full year of operation, Area15 drew nearly two million visitors, with the smash success of Omega Mart leading the way, drawing over 800,000 guests alone.
Liftoff is the latest addition to Area15’s arsenal of the far-out.
While certainly packing more straight-forward kicks than puzzle-piecing together the 60-plus experiences that comprise Omega Mart into a coherent whole — what isn’t? — the core idea is the same, that when you’re up there in the sky looking this way and that way, you’re forming your own narrative of what it is you’re choosing to see.
“I think it’s ironic,” Beneville notes, “that a lot of places that are about imagination don’t leave much to the imagination, you know?”
Seven minutes in the heavens
“3-2-1 liftoff!” everyone says in unison, voices elevated like the rest of us will be soon enough.
Seat belts clicked into place, cell phones confined to see-through cases worn around the neck so that they won’t be dropped, the steady ascension begins.
It’s a gradual climb, allowing any clammy-palmed acrophobes to keep a leash on their nerves.
People chatter; teeth chatter.
Dance music plays as pink and blue lights pulsate.
At the top of the attraction, the 16-seat gondola spins slowly; you can take everything in without turning your head.
“It’s an observation deck of sorts,” Beneville explains.
You can see for miles in all directions — mountains to the west; man-made grandeur to the east — your feet dangling above the parking lot 13-stories below.
It’s a mix of sophistication and simplicity, a space-age structure housing hot air balloon technology that dates back nearly 250 years; a futuristic ride posited on the primal thrill of being really, really high up in the air.
Seven minutes later, we’re back on the ground.
The ride’s over; the rides have just begun.
“It’s not a billion dollar thing,” Beneville says of Liftoff, which is now open to the public. “It’s actually some cinder blocks, some cool art, some couches that are painted — and a helluva cool ride.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram