Why Did a Casino Build a Roller Coaster in the Desert?

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Photo by Shawn Jipp, CC BY 2.0

Las Vegas is one of the most famous entertainment destinations in the world. It has over 130 casinos within the city’s borders, just over 50 of which are near or on the Las Vegas Strip.

The state of Nevada has many more casinos though. As of January 2020, there were 441 in the entire state, with many in Henderson, Ely, Paradise, Reno, and Winchester. These casinos have helped to make Nevada the 5th most popular state among foreign tourists and one of the most popular ones among domestic travelers too.

As a result, an enormous part of the state’s economy is fueled by tourism and casinos. So much so, some developers built three of them in Primm, an area close to the border with California, and equipped them with some unique attractions.

Whiskey Pete’s

The first of these to open was Whiskey Pete’s Hotel & Casino, which began welcoming guests in 1977. The venue serves three main types of customers:

  1. Those from nearby California who want to play casino games since casinos are not permitted in their state
  2. Visitors on their way to Las Vegas who want to play some games while en route
  3. Visitors on their way back from Las Vegas who want to use the last opportunity to place bets before they re-enter California

Although close to the border and offering a respectable range of casino games, a quality restaurant, and many hotel rooms, the resort needed ways to attract customers. One of the first ways they did this was to acquire the car that the infamous Bonnie and Clyde were killed in. It was placed on display inside the casino, requiring anyone who wanted to see it to walk past the gaming tables and slot machines.

Buffalo Bill’s Resort & Casino

These gimmicks would still be necessary years later when the owners would open two more resorts at the site; Primm Valley and Buffalo Bill’s. The former would get a wide selection of retail outlets to encourage shoppers to stop as they drove past, while the latter would get something much more visible.

The Buffalo Bill’s resort opened in 1994 with a whopping 592 hotel rooms. With over 61,000 ft of gaming space, the casino packs in all the games you’d be familiar with if you’d played in an online casino.

Having a casino on the border and some gimmicky attractions wasn’t enough for the resort’s owners though, so they set about building a record-breaking roller coaster that would run alongside the surrounding roads, including Interstate 15.

Desperado Roller Coaster

The casino’s owner wanted a roller coaster visible from the Interstate, creating curiosity among those driving past and encouraging them to stop and see what it is. This was certainly achieved, with the 209 ft hyper-coaster running around the outside of the casino, through the parking lot, and against the perimeter of the site.

This wasn’t just any roller coaster either. It was built at the height of the Coaster Wars, where theme park owners were battling with each other to build the tallest, fastest, longest and steepest coasters in the world.

Desperado at Buffalo Bill’s was a contender in this battle, although it didn’t officially hold the top spot. When it opened in August 1994, it had the tallest roller coaster lift hill in the United States but was beaten to the world record by the Pepsi Max Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, a theme park in the north of England.

Desperado took the record for the steepest drop though and was officially announced the “tallest roller coaster in the world” by The Guinness Book of World Records in 1996.

Enter Through the Casino

Like the Bonnie and Clyde Car, the Desperado roller coaster required guests to walk through the casino to get to it. When it first opened, the ride ran seven days a week, with guests paying just a few dollars to board.

Today, it runs less frequently, with no official schedule published on its website. It had been closed for a while but began running again in 2019. Some have speculated that the coaster might be closed permanently and torn down, although there has been no official confirmation of this and apparently, the casino’s owners intend to keep it running for the time being.

Not the Only Attraction

While the Desperado is the most visible attraction from the outside, there are plenty of other facilities at Primm Valley, Buffalo Bill’s, and Whiskey Pete’s designed to encourage passersby to stop.

The Adventure Canyon Log Flume also runs from inside the Buffalo Bill’s casino, providing a novel ride experience that isn’t as fast, tall or steep but is still exciting. At $10 a ride, it’s $5 less than Desperado, but it packs a powerful punch.

There’s also a movie theatre which opens each day from noon and the 6,500-seat Star of the Desert Arena which is used regularly for rodeos, boxing matches, and concerts. Upcoming performers include Gladys Knight, Three Dog Night, and Snoop Dogg.

Drivers can also fill up their cars at the casino resort

Drivers can also refill their car with fuel or charge their EV battery, with showers and laundry facilities available for truck drivers. They can also refill their stomachs with more than a dozen restaurants and cafes, including Starbucks, Panda Express, McDonald’s, and Subway. These too attract people who hadn’t initially planned on stopping in Primm to play casino games, but who may take the opportunity while they’re there.

The concept of building a roller coaster in the desert is a strange one. Hyper-coasters like Desperado are usually built within major theme parks, such as Goliath at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Given that Buffalo Bill’s hasn’t run its coaster much in recent years would suggest it has become a burden rather than an asset. However, the long-held strategy of building facilities that attract the passing trade to come to the casino is sound, as proven by the Bonnie and Clyde car in the 1970s and current its refueling and dining facilities.

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