In the early 1990s, a full-scale replica of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise almost landed in downtown Las Vegas. But, ultimately, the visionary project became just another desert mirage, making for one of the most fascinating stories in the history of the franchise, whose latest film Star Trek Beyond arrives in theaters this weekend.
Back then, downtown Las Vegas was a mess. Even as the Strip was surging as a tourist Mecca, the less familiar part of the city was becoming a haven for prostitutes and drug addicts — and the authorities wanted to do something about it.
Rather than indulge in the kind of massive building spree that has transformed Hollywood over the past decade, a Las Vegas re-development committee decided to seek outside ideas by hosting a competition for mammoth-size plans. They were looking for a new tourist attraction that would pull visitors to their part of the city as well as to the Strip.
“Downtown was losing the businesses,” says Gary Goddard, a designer, producer and entrepreneur who heard about the plan. “In old Vegas history, downtown was where the action was, but when the Strip started to grow with more and more hotels, the business flipped from 80 percent being downtown and 20 percent on the Strip to the opposite. So all the casino operators got together and put out an RFP [request for proposal] and they were looking for a project that must be world-class, it must generate publicity worldwide, it must draw millions and millions of visitors back downtown.”
There were many unique elements to the situation, not the least of which that the downtown hotel owners were willing to fund the project entirely and did not need it to show a profit. Their goal was solely to lure tourists to their hotels, casinos and restaurants.
Goddard called together his team. What if they created a gargantuan Star Trek attraction, he proposed? And not just an attraction, but a full-scale rendering of the Starship Enterprise? The project would be massive and also expensive.
“Originally they had budgeted $80 million,” he says, “but that was not necessarily the limit. They wanted [everyone] to know they were serious. There were eight or 10 hotels and casinos. They said, “OK, we’ll kick in $8 million or $10 million each. Everyone was prepared to put up the money and not make money back.”
Goddard approached the licensing department at Paramount Picture, which controlled the Star Trek franchise, and asked for the studio’s support. “I said, ‘Look, this is a roll of the dice. I can’t guarantee this is going to happen, but here’s our concept.’ The concept was to build the starship full size. I said, ‘It’ll become a monument like Mount Rushmore or the St. Louis arch. When people talk about man-made, incredible things around the world, this will be there.’”
The studio agreed to take the project to the next step on the condition that it receive an upfront licensing fee of $5 million once the Enterprise attraction was greenlit, and Goddard started to develop ideas, bringing in a former engineer at Disney Imagineering to assist.
“I said, ‘OK, how do we build this big floating disk? How do we build this in the desert and make sure it stands up to the winds and all that stuff?’ He did all the initial calculations and figured out that conceptually it could be done.
The Enterprise, Goddard notes, was never designed to operate on Earth. “It’s made to function in zero gravity.” But that created a logistical and technical nightmare.
“When you’re talking about grounding it here, that huge disk is an interesting engineering challenge,” he says. “We never got [as far as] the engineer drawings or the actual architecture. But in terms of the concept, we got along far enough that we could make sure it was doable from an engineering standpoint. We got enough of it done that we could run numbers on a per-square-foot basis for what it would cost.”
The answer was something in the neighborhood of $150 million to $160 million, without a proper restaurant, casino or hotel rooms, which would have added hundreds of millions of dollars to the budget.
With the design as it stood, “You would be able to take an elevator up to the top deck and look out,” says Goddard. “We were going to put a bar and restaurant in, but only [to serve] light food. We weren’t going to build a whole big kitchen up there.”
The drawings were finished; the mayor of Las Vegas and the redevelopment committee were excited; the Paramount licensing team was onboard. After another meeting with studio brass, Goddard returned to Las Vegas.
“I went to see the mayor and a group of three people representing the hotel group,” he says. “They’d gotten a commitment from the hotel owners to double the budget if we could land this. Then one of the hotel owners made [his] private jet available to fly the mayor and those representatives to Paramount for the big meeting.”
The team boarded the plane, documents and proposals in hand. That afternoon, they sat down with the Paramount group, fully expecting to get a green light — only, Goddard was stunned when a top executive from the studio’s parent company, Paramount Communications, said no.
“He says: ‘You know, guys, in the motion picture business I can put out a couple bombs. I’ll take a little heat in the press for a few weeks and then the next movie comes out and everything’s fine. But this, if this comes out and it’s a white elephant, it’s going to be up there forever.’”
Goddard tried to convince him, without luck.
“He basically said, ‘Well, I’m afraid it might tarnish the [Star Trek] name. It might do more harm than good.’ And he killed it.”
Goddard was devastated. His $150 million pipe dream had seemed like a no-brainer; he had had the financing in place and the support of the key Las Vegas players — and now it was over.
“A lot of people said to me in later years, ‘Why don’t you do it again?’ ” he notes. “Well, it’s a whole different model. The financing isn’t the same. That was a unique moment in time.”
Several years later, Goddard would return Paramount to work on The Star Trek Experience, another Las Vegas attraction, this one based at the Las Vegas Hilton. The Experience was built inside a pavilion and included an encounter with the Borg; but it was far smaller in scale than his original idea and didn’t come close to the vision he had once had.
Almost a quarter-century later, the loss of the Las Vegas Enterprise still smarts.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “This thing would still be there today. It would be bigger and more powerful than ever. It would have been a monument to the world. It would have been iconic.”