Star Trek: The Experience, a Las Vegas attraction that ran from 1998 to 2008, was more than just a place to visit. It was, as its title suggests, an all-encompassing experience, an unparalleled opportunity for fans to be teleported into the Trek universe and become part of the story. There’s been no other theme park attraction as immersive since (though some are getting close), and there’s certainly been no other Trek-themed attraction where guests can mingle with such a swath of Trek characters, from proper Starfleet Officers, to surly Klingons, to the commerce-loving Ferengi.
It’s been over a decade since The Experience closed, but those who visited it still remember their time there fondly. And while its two rides — The Klingon Encounter and, later on, The Borg Invasion 4-D — remain two of the best ride experiences ever created, the attraction is also an object of its time; an encapsulation of late 90s Star Trek that could only exist at that moment. You got a taste of that 90s kitsch when you walked through the displays the History of the Future Museum, and you could simply marinate in it at Quark’s Bar, where you could imbibe Trek-themed food and drink (Cardassian ale, anyone?) while watching Ferengi haggle prices in the gift shop.
For many of the crew members who worked there, Star Trek: The Experience was more than just a job — it was a vocation, a calling to become an indelible part of the Star Trek community that congregated in the Las Vegas Hilton each day. StarTrek.com interviewed three former crew members — April Hebert, Vernon Wilmer and Bonnie Gordon — to learn about their time working on The Experience. Read on to get an understanding on what the attraction was like for those who worked there, including some of their favorite interactions with their 20th and 21st century guests.
Getting Into Character Was Fun, Even When There Was a Lot of Makeup Prep
Crew member roles were varied, with the characters people played ranging from deadly serious Vulcans, to nervous Ensigns, to very assimilated members of the Borg. “I had the privilege of being two distinctly different characters,” April Hebert, the longest serving crew member of The Experience, recalls. “I was the very staid and proper Vulcan professor T’Pril who was assigned to the Timestation [the in-character name for the attraction; a place where people from the future can mix with guests from the present day] in order to study humanity in the late 20th, early 21st century; and Commander Tahryn, a cranky, annoyed Andorian officer who had been sent to the station in what she believed was retaliatory punishment for some violation of the Andorian Code of Honor.”
Vernon Wilmer also had two major roles during his time at The Experience. “For the first few years I exclusively played ‘Borg 7 of 16,’ which was a joy, but later I also got to play a Starfleet Commander, which took much less makeup time and allowed me to be handsome. I had the best of both worlds!”
As one of the youngest crew members, Bonnie Gordon often played a Lieutenant Commander in The Klingon Encounter’s transporter room. “I used to love messing with the other cast members,” she recalls. “I would always be the first Starfleet Officer that the guests would see and interact with. If it was a long day and we had been doing shows back to back, I would change up my accent with each group coming though, so my other castmates would never know where my officer was from until I spoke.”
Interacting With Guests in Unscripted Ways
Crew members were not only in character during the rides, but also on the floor around Quark’s Bar and the History of the Future Museum. It was this seamless interaction between in-character crew members and guests that was one of the most memorable parts of The Experience, and something that other themed attractions are just beginning to offer.
“Floor character jobs were entirely improvisation based on very carefully curated backstories,” Hebert explains. “We had to be on our toes at all times; we never knew if the people we were talking to were going to be tourists who just wanted to have fun with us or lifelong Trekkies who were trying to trip us up!”
Hebert remembers a particular interaction she had with a guest that she’s sure left an impression. “I was once again portraying my Vulcan character, and was standing near the bar entrance when a woman wandered in…she said, ‘Hey! You’re one of those guys that pinch necks and make people pass out, aren’t you?’ I said that indeed, many Vulcans are capable of incapacitating a person using the nerve pinch. She dared me to do it to her, and I assured her that I would never be allowed to harm any human on the Timestation. She insisted she wanted to see it, so I look around the bar realized that Quan, one of our Ferengi, was sitting on a barstool with his back to me…so I said to the woman, ‘I will not do it to you, human, but it goes a little something like this.’ Then I reached over and pinched Quan’s neck; I don’t think he had been listening to our conversation, but his response was perfection—he flung his head up and back, then straight down onto the bartop and went limp and completely motionless. The woman just stood there, shocked; everyone else in the bar was laughing uproariously. Quan didn’t move for five minutes.”
Unexpected glitches provided even more improv opportunities for crew members. “Once we got stuck on the bridge for an extremely long time with a group of tourists,” Gordon recalls. “We had to delay them as long as possible. I took this as a fun opportunity to improvise and pretend I was a Starfleet Ensign who was a huge enthusiast of the 21st century. I asked them tons of questions regarding ‘slang’ and rap music…it was pretty funny!”
The Experience’s Bittersweet End
Star Trek: The Experience closed at the Las Vegas Hilton on September 1st, 2008, and while it was supposed to open again in another location, those plans never materialized. “We all new something special was about to end,” Gordon says, recalling the end of The Experience’s run. “We put in all of our energy and heart into those last days.”
The attraction had a formal decommissioning ceremony, where Hebert, as the crew member with the longest tenure, received the United Federation of Planets banner that had hung in the attraction. “In that moment, we were all like family,” Gordon recalls. “I’ve never seen so many Klingons crying.”
Will Trek fans ever be able to visit an attraction like The Experience again? The future holds many possibilities, but one thing is certain—no new attraction will be exactly like the one at the Las Vegas Hilton, in part because having standalone themed attractions, à la The Rainforest Café, is a model that the industry has moved away from. One thing is certain though—the Vegas attraction will always hold a special place in the hearts of the crew members who worked there. “Times have changed,” Wilmer says. “Trek has changed, but Star Trek: The Experience will always be remembered by the family it created.”
Vanessa Armstrong (she/her) lives in Los Angeles and writes words about many things. You can find more of her work at www.vfarmstrong.com or by following her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.