A wondrous slice of Las Vegas history

Moments before the ribbon was cut Friday to open the Las Vegas Springs Preserve — the Las Vegas Valley Water District’s new, 180-acre educational complex on Valley View Boulevard — I was wondering if my 5-year-old would enjoy being dragged along with Mom for the grand opening ceremony of the $250 million attraction.

As we walked toward the opening, I spotted water district boss Pat Mulroy and worried this was to be a morning of speeches. Then, out of nowhere, the little hand in mine dropped to point excitedly, “Solar panels!”

We had walked under the parking structure topped with rows of photovoltaic cells. My son’s interest in all things space made him see what I had missed. “It’s just like the International Space Station,” he said.

After brief remarks and a musical interlude with kites, the springs once again began flowing, only this time to whet an interest in a renewable lifestyle — not just for the little one, but for his mom, too.

This is a place anyone new to Las Vegas should visit for a glimpse of the town’s dusty history. But it’s also a spot all residents can point to with pride and anyone concerned about ecology can hold up as a sustainable role model.

We started in a recreated box canyon, water trickling on both sides of us, as we wound around looking at cactus, rocks and small caves.

“It looks like Red Rock,” my son declared.

Next stop was the Ori-gen Experience, a massive building featuring water to walk over, push around, dig in and cower from.

The digging came in a cool hands-on activity section which could have held my son’s attention for an hour or more. He was using a hand-held bulldozer to build a mountain that he would erode moments later by turning on the water.

He pushed and pulled different models of geologic forces and marveled at the history of what is now Summerlin, without a Howard Hughes in sight.

He was busy trying to track animal sounds when a preserve employee (maybe I should call them rangers), said excitedly: “Hey, do you want to watch a gecko eat?”

We watched as the lizard peeked out from under a rock at the cricket bounding up and down in front of him. We waited just long enough to realize the gecko wasn’t hungry before the employee said, “Come on in here, it’s about to start.”

“It” was a flash flood. It careens down the desert hillside and rushes directly under your raised platform. The feature begins with a little desert animal primer by two naturalists on a video. The sky gradually darkened, lightning flashed and a crack of thunder sent Jackson gabbing for my hand.

He’s seen flash-flood warning signs while biking in Pueblo Park. He wanted to find higher ground, and stepped onto my foot. But once he saw the water safely going under us, he really enjoyed it.

Then it was outside for live animals. We saw bunnies, lizards, a sidewinder and its den, and an outdoor area for a kit fox. We also saw a desert tortoise burrow.

We also spent time in an American Indian hut and dug up artifacts in a sand box. We had to look up our discovery — a kettle spout. We also saw the first of the gardens (there are eight acres of them here). This one was growing corn and squash and other vegetables.

More hands-on stuff led us back to the Ori-gen building, but not before Jackson remade old Fremont Street with foam windows, shutters and doors on a pegged streetscape.

The rail car drew us back inside, where the exhibits stress the human history of Las Vegas. The effects that make history more alive for an adult can seem very real to a 5-year-old.

“What are they selling?” he asked, when we passed a re-creation of the land auction that led to the city’s founding.

On the rail car, my son took a seat as if this were the Disneyland Railroad, the video in the windows leading him to say, “It’s like we’re moving.”

Then we found the games. Both mother and child spent way too long on adjacent video machines. We were both smitten with the “Pac Man” rip-off “Lawn Gobbler.” Maybe we had been in the sun too long.

The only way I got Jackson away from a shooting game where he was zapping energy wasters for eco points was to remind him he hadn’t yet seen the children’s play area.

The unique outdoor playground has a snake bench, a child-sized train with lifelike sound effects and places to dig, climb and move water from bucket to tube.

This was not a place my son wanted to leave. He was mad later that day when a television news report mentioned the hiking trails. “Mom, we have to go back,” he said. “I didn’t have enough time.”

That’s his critique, and I don’t disagree.

Prices range from $6.95 to $14.95 for Nevada residents (www.springspreserve.org). Looks like we’ll be springing for the annual pass.

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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