Spicing up fun with a little terror Ride: Zoom up like a bullet. Plunge down like a falling safe. All from 921 feet in the air. And have a good time!

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LAS VEGAS -- Any moment, you're about to be blasted 160 feet up in 2.3 seconds -- faster than the space shuttle liftoff -- before plummeting beyond the speed of gravity. So you ask yourself: How did you end up in this situation, strapped in a red harness, a human rocket about to be launched from a platform 921 feet in the sky, near the tip of the tallest building west of the Mississippi?

Then, with some giddiness, you remember: Your boss ordered you to do it.

Unspeakably terrified, you're about to embark on a thrill ride -- "The Big Shot" -- atop the newly opened Stratosphere Tower, a 1,149-foot monument to the excess of Las Vegas and the cultural addiction to razzle-dazzle, something always new, always bigger.

The Stratosphere Tower is that. It is higher than the Seattle Space Needle (605 feet) and the Eiffel Tower (984 feet), and almost within reach of the Empire State Building (1,250 feet).

"The idea was that this will be the new icon of Las Vegas," says Stratosphere spokesman Thomas A. Bruny. "It's great to have a 1,100-foot marketing hook, and I think it'll be a while, literally, before someone tops us."

Eye to eye with helicopters

It could have been worse -- the developers wanted it to be 1,825 feet high. But the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn't allow it. At that height, the Stratosphere would have interfered with air traffic. As it is, helicopters hover at eye level. And below, the giant neon Strip, the famed battalion of casinos, is a glittering speck.

From these heights, there is no hint of the cacophony at ground level -- the seniors, strollers and street walkers adrift in a multicolored haze of slot machines, video poker, baccarat.

No hint of souls beckoned to cheap prime rib, ATM cash machines at every corner, polyester lounge acts, "exotic room service" pamphlets littering the arid sidewalks.

The spectacle is sanitized from the top of the Stratosphere. It is a behemoth weighing about 50,000 tons with nearly 290 miles of reinforced steel bars.

From there, the only sensation is the unpleasant recognition that you are buckled in an open-air contraption -- a chair facing the clear Las Vegas desert evening -- that is about to be yanked up the mast of a tower, reaching 1,081 feet at four Gs.

It's not for everyone. "What would it take?" pondered Vegas visitor Pat Brown of San Antonio. "A life or death situation."

You remember the farewells. Blackjack dealer Pat Dunbar of the Barbary Coast casino offered her best wishes, "if you live to tell about it." Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones asked for a description of the ride, as a prelude to testing it herself.

Steve Rypka, the Stratosphere's technical director, offered an assurance: "It's only two seconds of sheer terror. After that, it's a piece of cake."

Remarkably, there are long lines for this: 127,000 people paid $7 in admission just to ride the high-speed elevator up the tallest freestanding observation tower in America in its first week -- instantly making the Stratosphere the No. 1 attraction in Las Vegas after its opening April 29.

You've seen the type. Unabashed tourists in khaki shorts and black socks. Open-neck shirts that glow in the dark. Sharkskin suits accompanied by painted escorts in spandex.

It's all an acceptable garish illusion, just as long as you don't wear a coat and tie in Las Vegas. That would be weird.

Elvis sightings aren't, though you haven't seen the King yet. Nor is there anything unusual about swashbuckling pirates swinging from make-believe ships outside a hotel. In a town built on fakery within fakery, nothing is bizarre, not even the fact that the 74-year-old mother of the deputy city manager of Las Vegas was catapulted up the Big Shot.

"It's one of those things you have to do in life," explains 25-year-old Shoshana Hawley of Las Vegas. "It's a rush."

Then again, how many had just learned of the first thrill-ride mishap? A piece of the motor broke off the "High Roller," the world's highest roller coaster, which whirls along the rim of the Stratosphere at 35 mph, 909 feet above ground.

"It's safe, there's no doubt about it," says Paul K. Wilkins, Las Vegas' deputy director of planning and development. "There were concerns about the height of it, but it's no different than any mountain."

Ah.

You try not to think about mishaps when you've paid another $5 for a thrill ride that launches faster than NASA's space shuttle, which rockets to 156 feet in 4.8 seconds. No need to remind yourself of the 1993 fire -- seen for miles -- in the tower's scaffolding. Forget about the ice machines, not all of which are technically sound, in the Stratosphere hotel-casino below.

"They're working out the kinks," says guest Cheryl Davis of Reading, Pa.

Most important, deny what happened earlier in the day, when the Big Shot was temporarily shut down, apparently for some maintenance work. How long, you had asked, was the ride closed?

"Since we lost that person," replied attendant Derek Brumley.

He was almost as funny as the posted warning signs:

"During this ride, you will experience jarring motions. Pregnant women or individuals who would have experienced or are prone to the following medical conditions should not ride: Neck injuries, back injuries, arthritis, claustrophobia, motion sickness, dizziness, heart conditions, seizures, other serious medical conditions."

And take off loose shoes; the force of the blast otherwise will blow them off.

Warnings may be in order for another thrill ride under development: Up to 48 passengers will scale the leg of the tower inside a fake gorilla that growls and moves its arms, legs and head as it climbs to about 630 feet. Just in case that isn't enough, the gorilla will shudder and suddenly drop several feet during the ride.

The startling thing is, no one in Las Vegas had thought of the gorilla ride earlier. Not that entrepreneurs have been idle. Excess, after all, is expected.

The latest example of it is "New York New York," a hotel under construction with a few add-ons to give the feel of the Big Apple. Among them, a 150-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Launch at last

Big deal, you think, quivering on the Big Shot, at an elevation of 921 feet. There is nothing between you and a loud hiss, as if from a water main about to explode.

You have no recollection of what they told you, that air fills a chamber, which pushes a piston down, which pulls the ride up by a bungee-like pulley.

No, all that comes to mind is to seek moral support. Instinctively, you turn to the people next to you -- Jim Bricker and Jen Vassos -- 18-year-old college students from Colorado. Bricker thinks the ride is "cool." Vassos is more rational; she is a tad nervous.

You shut your eyes, grip the bars of the harness and

BOOM!

Aaah!

Body shoots up like a champagne cork. Breath cut short. Sudden mid-air suspension. Then

Aaah!

Free fall. Stomach in throat. Skin pulls against face.

Then, as the ride begins to slow to smaller and smaller bounces, you hear Elvis.

This is not the afterlife. They are blaring his tune over the loud speaker.

"Viva Las Vegas."

Pub Date: 5/29/96

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