PHOTO BY KELLY GARNI
The haunting, post-apocalyptic landscape of the Rock-A-Hoola sits unattended and largely undisturbed since closing in 2004. Over the years, the Mojave Desert has gradually reclaimed much of the landscape, with mesquite trees growing up between cracks in the concrete and sand drifting into the pools.
PHOTO BY KELLY GARNI
Columnist Sarah Jane Woodall outside the enterance to the closed Rock-A-Hoola water park, a place that should be a warning to Las Vegas.
Many Las Vegans these days are keeping a hopeful eye trained on the High Roller – aka that fabulous, ridiculous Ferris wheel being constructed center-Strip - widely regarded as an omen of long-overdue economic rebirth and prosperity regained. Forget all that meaningless recession-era talk of diversifying our economy into other fields beyond gaming; who needs solar panels or wind farms when we have a Ferris wheel?!
If we build it, the thinking seems to go, they will come. “They” being hordes of free-spending tourists that will save us all from underwater mortgages and bankruptcy proceedings. “They” will once again keep us in Louis Vuitton buttplugs and under-the-muscle breast augmentations. “They” will put us back behind the wheel of leased Bentleys.
Nowhere else in the rational world could such simple carny shtick inspire such enthusiasm, but here we are.
Well, gee, I hate to burst your bubble of greedy optimism, Vegas, but I’ve just returned from a place that irrefutably proves your optimism to be just what it is – sheer folly. There’s a similar landmark in the desert nearby, and it stands as a lonely testament to precisely what Vegas might one day become, if we’re not careful.
If you’ve ever driven to L.A., you’ve probably seen this place yourself: out in the middle of nowhere, in the most desolate reaches of no-man’s-land between Vegas and Barstow, an abandoned water park sits rusting in the desert sun, just off Interstate 15. A sun-bleached billboard advertises this long-forgotten and ill-conceived “Rock-A-Hoola” water paradise. But aside from the billboards, all that’s left are busted-up buildings, empty concrete basins and a spindly forest of dilapidated waterslide support arches.
I’ve driven past it a million times, and have always wanted to stop, but you know how it is: when you’re on the road, you just want to get to your destination. Ain’t nobody got time to be stopping at no abandoned water park!
Thankfully, a photographer friend invited me out there the other weekend for a photo shoot, so I finally had a good excuse to go check it out. I packed my lipstick, my sunglasses and a showgirl costume, and headed out into the desert to see just what the Rock-A-Hoola was all about. And I’m here to tell you, it was sobering!
First built in the 1960s as Lake Dolores, this unlikely oasis in the desert rose up as a destination for water-sports enthusiasts and weary travelers on the L.A.-Vegas route: a full-service campground built around the shores of a 273-acre lake, fed by natural underground springs. Over the years, bells and whistles in the form of water slides, arcades and hamburger stands were added, until the place had become a full-fledged family fun destination in the middle of the most desolate country this side of Baghdad.
Lake Delores flourished in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but struggled as the ‘90s wore on. A desperate attempt at re-branding in the 2000s saw the place renamed Rock-A-Hoola, with a cheesy fake ‘50s motif, but it was all to no avail. The place ended up closing for good in 2004 after an employee was horribly mangled on one of the waterslides, becoming a paraplegic and successfully suing the park for millions of dollars in damages.
Ever since then, the place has sat unattended and forlorn in the baking desert sun, genteelly languishing in a fabulously photogenic state of decay, subject only to occasional molestation by ravers, skateboarders, graffiti artists and the rare amateur nude model.
Over the years, the Mojave Desert has gradually reclaimed much of the landscape, with mesquite trees growing up between cracks in the concrete and sand drifting into the pools.
Walking through the haunting, post-apocalyptic landscape of the Rock-A-Hoola waterpark serves as a sobering reminder of what the future of the Vegas Strip might be. By 2045, is it really that far-fetched to imagine a similar landscape, walking down what used to be Las Vegas Boulevard? A rusted-out pyramid, covered in sand drifts. A decaying, Planet-of-the-Apes-esque Statue of Liberty holding court over a barren intersection filled with nothing but cockroaches and tumbleweed. A dried-out basin in front of a ghostly, deserted Bellagio, now home to nothing more than ghosts, faded dreams and vomit stains.
If you listen closely, you might still hear the faint caterwauling of a demented French-Canadian chanteuse echoing through the empty streets: “Neeeeear….faaar….whereEVer yooou aree….”
And presiding over it all, the rusting hulk of our ultimate folly: the High Roller. Frozen in mid-revolution, its carriages having fallen one by one like wilted rose petals, shattering on the unforgiving concrete below and now covered in pigeon shit, porno cards and the piss of a thousand radioactive homeless hookers.
A city’s hopes and dreams cannot possibly be sustained by the fragile Tinkertoy skeleton of a cheap carny attraction.
Vegas, I implore you: heed the warning of the Rock-A-Hoola water park! Get relevant or, one day, we’ll be just another abandoned curiosity on the road from L.A.- Salt Lake City. And ain’t nobody got time for that!
SARAH JANE WOODALL is a one-woman culture festival. Read more at her blog, wonderhussy.com.