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Circus Circus celebrates 20 years of adventure under the dome

Before Adventuredome opened its doors 20 years ago, one question was on the tip of the nation”;s tongue: Could a theme park in Las Vegas — the adult Disneyland, Sin City, a town with a curfew for kids younger than 18 — be successful?

Only months after opening, Adventuredome, or Grand Slam Canyon as it was originally called, had its answer: No. At least, not in its original form.

People came by the thousands to see this $75 million theme park at Circus Circus, a first of its kind for Las Vegas, the world”;s gaming and showroom mecca. But the experience left them confused, frustrated and not likely to return.

After eight months, the park closed.

Fast forward 20 years and Adventuredome is a giant, pink success, holding its own with comparable theme parks around the world. In 2012, 3.3 million people walked through its doors, compared with 3.5 million at California”;s Knott”;s Berry Farm, according to the Global Attractions Attendance Report.

Through August, the public can celebrate the park”;s birthday with a variety of specials. The party kicks off Thursday with cupcakes, confetti and lots of clowns and fanfare. Also Thursday , all-day ride prices will be rolled back to 1993 opening-day prices. The first 50 guests to purchase an all-day pass will get a free birthday hat and T-shirt. Circus Circus clowns will sing “Happy Birthday” at 11 a.m. and fire off the confetti cannon. Free cupcakes will be available while supplies last.

Tom Nolan, vice president of theme park operations for Adventuredome , will preside over it all. It”;s been an incredible journey, he says, a roller-coaster ride of sorts. Nolan started as an operations supervisor in 1993. He couldn”;t even ride roller coasters back then; he was a white-knuckler, a guy who could almost leave finger impressions on the safety bar from gripping it so tightly.

His boss recognized that fear as a potential problem for a theme park employee, so he took Nolan under his wing and taught him how to ride the roller coaster. The trick, Nolan says, is to breathe.

No one in the early days imagined the park would have to close its doors and revamp the theme just a few months into operation. The whole thing seemed doomed.

“I think people who visited a theme park were expecting rides,” Nolan says of those initial guests. “But they got dinosaurs.”

Yep. That”;s right. Dinosaurs. Eight giant ones that were spread throughout the five-acre park. You couldn”;t ride these dinosaurs but you could read the informational placard in front of each one. They were somewhat interactive, with the dinosaurs spitting water on guests.

The indoor park was inspired by the Grand Canyon and originally featured river-rapid rides, two lagoonlike pools, a lazy creek and a re-creation of a pueblo .

The theme did not catch on.

When the concept was developed, Circus Circus was owned by Circus Circus Enterprises and Nolan wasn”;t privy to the park”;s early plans. Now, MGM Resorts International owns the hotel and its attached theme park. Since the transfer of ownership, the reasons behind the Grand Canyon theme have been lost or forgotten, Nolan says.

The animatronic dinosaurs were cool but they didn”;t really provide guests with an activity. The four rides — the Canyon Blaster, the Twist and Shout Water Raft ride, Rim Runner and Hot Shots Lazer Tag — did little to encourage guests to return.

The park closed in early 1994. Forty-five days later, it reopened with several new rides and no dinosaurs. The park”;s popularity grew. The name change in 1998 helped increase its online visibility, another key to its long success.

Now, it features 25 rides and attractions, including a midway and some family-friendly rides such as bumper cars, a swinging ship, a miniature roller coaster, an airplane ride and a miniature Ferris wheel. There”;s an immensely popular IMAX theater featuring 3-D and 4-D rides. Disk”;O, the park”;s newest ride, was added in 2007. It spins around while the floor drops out from underneath. There”;s miniature golf, live clown shows and other activities.

The roller coaster has always been the most popular ride and averages more than 1 million riders a year.

One reason for the Adventuredome”;s success has been management”;s willingness to change, Nolan says. Every two years or so, they try to introduce a new ride to freshen the park up. Unfortunately, they reached capacity long ago. Because it”;s an indoor park with no room to expand up, down or out, they must remove existing rides to make way for new ones, he says.

Later this year, a new roller coaster, El Loco, will debut. The popular Rim Runner was removed to make room for it. Although the removal made some people unhappy, the new roller coaster will be a special treat for those who are into thrill rides, Nolan says.

And, as they have done since 2002, Adventuredome will morph into Fright Dome in October. The merging of the theme park with a haunted attraction for that month has helped keep visitorship high during that season .

Starting in 2001, the park began averaging 4 million visitors a year. In 2002, the Adventuredome had its best year, recording 4.5 million visitors, making it the park with the 11th highest visitorship in the country, according to the magazine Amusement Business. The park ranked higher than SeaWorld and Six Flags Valencia that year.

Although attendance has dipped since the recession started, the park has continued to be successful.

“We”;ve really tried to fill every corner of the park with something entertaining,” Nolan says.

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.

JOIN THE PARTY

The Adventuredome”;s birthday celebration lasts through this weekend but the entire month is full of specials. Among the deals:

THURSDAY

Throwback Thursday offers prices reverting to opening day, 1993. A premium, all-day ride pass for people 48 inches and taller is $12.95. Junior passes, for people 33-48 inches, is $8.95.

— The first 50 people to purchase all-day ride passes will receive free T-shirts and birthday hats.

— Sing “Happy Birthday” at 11 a.m. and enjoy free cupcakes while supplies last.

— Enjoy meal deals at the Main Snack Bar for $20, including a 16-inch pizza with two medium soft drinks or two cheeseburgers with one large order of fries and two large soft drinks.

FRIDAY THROUGH SUNDAY

Premium all-day ride passes will be $20; junior all-day ride passes will be $16.95. Other specials include:

— Free commemorative button with the purchase of an all-day ride pass.

— $20 meal deals at the Main Snack Bar.

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