The $4 Billion Scheme to Recreate the Moon in Coachella
Moon USA rendering courtesy Moon World Resorts.

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The $4 Billion Scheme to Recreate the Moon in Coachella

Companies like Disney spend $4 billion on entertainment complexes, usually with the benefit of already owning billion-dollar movie franchises. How could any entrepreneur hope to compete?
March 18, 2016, 1:00pm

Next month, the Coachella Valley will be flooded with screaming fans looking to snap selfies and watch the second coming of LCD Soundsystem and Guns N' Roses.

When the crowds leave, they will leave behind a sleepy, dusty place. Pass through the midcentury-modern oasis of Palm Springs, continue past Indio and its now famous Empire Polo Club, and eventually you end up in the city of Coachella, where Michael Henderson wants to recreate the surface of the moon.

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"We're bringing space tourism to the masses," Henderson told me.

Think of him as a less wealthy Richard Branson, looking to give ordinary people a taste of space travel without the thrill of weightlessness or the $250,000 price tag.

His dream is called Moon USA and it won't come cheap. Many critics contend it's not feasible. The proposal calls for developers and corporate investors to put down $4 billion to build a complex with a convention center, 4,000-suite hotel, health spa, beach club, golf course and even a university-affiliated science and technology campus.

Every night, the entire 10-acre surface would be serviced so each visitor can have what Henderson called a "footprint moment."

The crown jewel of Moon USA will be the "fully functional and totally realistic lunar colony" spread out across 10 acres under "the world's largest and tallest sphere." It's supposed to extend 750 feet into the air, the same height as the Time Warner Center in Manhattan.

Henderson even hired a "space consultant" to help him out: Rick Searfoss, a retired NASA astronaut who has flown three space shuttle missions. In the park, tourists would don novelty spacesuits and board a ride that would launch them up 350 feet and then land them on "an exact replica" of a portion of the lunar surface.

It's an ambitious project on par with mega-developments from the top three players in the theme park business, which are Walt Disney Attractions, Merlin Entertainment Group (a British company that owns Legoland and Madame Tussaud's), and Universal Parks and Resorts, respectively.

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Those companies attracted more than 237 million visitors in 2014, according to a report from the Themed Entertainment Association, which noted that most growth in the industry "was concentrated in the top nine parks."

Companies like Disney spend $4 billion on entertainment complexes, usually with the benefit of already owning billion-dollar movie franchises. How could any entrepreneur hope to compete?

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Henderson speaks with a Canadian-tinged Irish brogue and is very concerned with topography. The hills, the craters, the valleys: every detail would be recreated faithfully from maps of the moon. Overhead, carefully placed stars would sparkle on the underside of the dome, while a suspended, small-scale Earth would rotate in the distance to mimic the exact orbital position of the moon. Imagine "The Truman Show," minus a sneering Ed Harris lurking in the dark.

Rovers would drive around on a recreation of the fine, powdery soil found on the moon's surface, sourced from a company in Europe. Every night, the entire 10-acre surface would be serviced so each visitor can have what Henderson called a "footprint moment." Buildings in the colony would be based on realistic concepts for lunar habitats and, of course, be sponsored by corporations.

While the moon part of Moon USA is obviously the draw, Henderson stressed that it's only a part of the project's appeal.

He envisions people paying $300 to walk around the lunar surface for a couple of hours, then spend the rest of the time lounging by the pool, eating gourmet meals and partying in what Henderson assured me was going to be the "best night club in the world." The hotel rooms would be located in the bottom half of the sphere, insulated from the lunar activity above.

Concept drawing courtesy Moon World Resorts.

It's safe to say Moon USA would stand out. Coachella (population 43,633) isn't exactly a metropolis. Currently, the city's biggest draw is its proximity to the alien landscape of nearby Joshua Tree National Park and the Salton Sea. By car, it's around two hours away from Los Angeles and four hours from Las Vegas, where Henderson's company, Moon World Resorts, Inc., previously tried to convince developers to build its lunar complex. It's a strange place to invest $4 billion.

"That is about the highest that I have seen for any theme park outside of Shanghai Disneyland," said Jim Higashi, a principal at Management Resources, a firm that provides management advisory services to theme parks.

"The moon is about the past, present, and the future. It isn't going anywhere."

Coming in June, the theme park and hotels that comprise Shanghai Disneyland will cost $5.5 million. That is for a project with one of the world's most famous brands behind it. Eventually, it will be home to such awesome attractions as a TRON rollercoaster complete with lightcycles and an entire Pirates of the Caribbean land. It also has the advantage of being located within three hours of 330 million people.

It seems odd that Moon USA would be in the same monetary stratosphere as Shanghai Disneyland. Henderson, however, thinks the $4 billion figure is justified. He also believes the has one advantage over the Disneys and Universals of the world. He has the moon.

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"In three years, people won't know what Hunger Games is," he said. "The moon is about the past, present and the future. It isn't going anywhere."

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The idea for Moon USA came after Henderson had knocked back a few bottles of Guinness in his Vancouver penthouse back in 2002.

Born in Ireland, he moved to the Canadian city ten years earlier. He and his business partner, Sandra Matthews, got a group of designers and other creative professionals together to "come up with the next spectacular thing in entertainment." (He bristles when people describe Moon USA as a "theme park." He prefers "sophisticated resort destination.")

None of their ideas really hit the spot. So he went home and tried to go to sleep.

"It was one of those tossing and turning nights where it's hard to turn your brain off," he said.

Annoyed by a bright glow, he walked into the next room, filled with architecture and engineering books, to turn off the light. But it wasn't on. The light pouring in through the blinds was from, you guessed it, the moon.

Henderson was never really into astronomy. He never had dreams of becoming the 13th man to walk on the moon. But that night, he was inspired.

"From a marketing perspective, this moon concept is a no-brainer," he said. "Nothing else has that brand recognition. It's the biggest billboard in the world. And it's free."

Anyone with land and money can build a theme park, provided they conduct all of the necessary studies and get the right permits. It's the intellectual property that is the problem. How do you build an enticing attraction without the rights to Spider-Man or Harry Potter?

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Henderson's solution was to adopt the freely available and widely recognized brand of the moon and build an entertainment complex around it. He called up his partners and they met the next day in a French bistro, where he said they sketched out concepts for his idea on paper placemats. He seemed pleased with the origin story he told me.

"It's going to make a great movie," he said.

The company is also looking at sites in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America, he said. Henderson wants to sell his moon idea to regional licensees, who would then build, own and operate the properties.

It's an arrangement that is hard to swing, noted Bob Rogers, founder of BRC Imagination Arts, a company that designs attractions for corporations and museums.

"More than half of the radius around Coachella is going to be jackrabbits, and jackrabbits don't buy tickets."

Usually, it's a developer with deep pockets who comes up with the idea, funds a feasibility study to see if it makes any financial sense, and then builds it. On the surface, Rogers said, Moon USA seems "numbers-challenged."

The first problem is the location. You usually draw circles around the proposed location to determine how many potential ticket buyers live within an hour, two hours, etc., of the site.

"More than half of the radius around Coachella is going to be jackrabbits," Rogers said, "and jackrabbits don't buy tickets."

Most of the tourists visiting the Coachella Valley are older, pointed out Higashi, not exactly the millennials who might flock to a resort's nightclubs and upscale restaurants.

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The next problem is with the concept itself. Sure, the moon has illuminated the night sky for eons and possibly allowed for the emergence of life on Earth, but it's also kind of old hat.

"I don't know how many kids these days have trouble going to sleep because they're dreaming of going to the moon," Rogers said.

He wondered why they wouldn't try to recreate Mars, where NASA wants to land astronauts sometime in the 2030s. (He joked that Moon USA could simply "paint the rocks red.")

Finally, there is the issue of scale. Rogers think that the project could be built if it wasn't so ambitious. The proposed hotel has about as many suites as Las Vegas behemoths like The Venetian, which boasts 4,049 rooms. The plan also calls for a space that is more than twice the size of the 720,000-square-foot Los Angeles Convention Center.

The Los Angeles Convention Center. Photo: Shutterstock

And then there is the gigantic dome. Henderson insisted that it had to be huge to give people space to wander around and absorb the atmosphere without feeling crowded. At most, there will be 1,000 people allowed on the surface at any one time. The whole point is to make visitors feel like they are actually on the moon, not crammed into an attraction at Disneyland.

"If we built it 100 feet tall," he said, "it would just be another planetarium."

How close is Moon USA to being built? Henderson said that Moon World Resorts is working with more than 100 corporations to make the project a reality. The plan is to kick off a 24-month permitting process now, spend 48 months building, and then open to the public by 2022.

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The city of Coachella, however, doesn't seem to be taking the project very seriously.

"It is hard to express any opinion about a project that exists only as poorly rendered graphic designs," David Garcia, Coachella's city manager, told Motherboard in an email.

"The Moon project currently has no site, no developer and no investors and has not approached the city about any development proposal," he said. "Almost all our contacts on this project have come from the media."

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In a presentation, Moon World Resorts claims the project has attracted $15 million in investments. Still, that's not even a drop in the $4 billion bucket and the group faces plenty of other challenges as well. California has some of the strictest environmental and building regulations in the country, meaning there could be complications with erecting a 750-foot sphere in the middle of the desert.

Not that the city doesn't welcome development. Garcia said Coachella "works hard to be a business friendly city" and regularly works with developers to "speed their entitlement process and eliminate red tape and delays." There is little doubt that a project the size of Moon USA would be a boon economically to the area. Moon World Resorts claimed the project would create 8,000 permanent jobs and 3,000 temporary construction jobs.

Welcome to the Moon Bar. Concept art courtesy Moon World Resorts.

Provided Moon USA wasn't a total bust, it would drastically change Coachella forever, said Rogers, who noted that few people had heard of Anaheim before Disney came to town in 1955.

An influx of new money could drive home prices and rents up, worried Jazmin Martinez, a local college student. The city is 96.4 percent Latino and the median household income is $37,748, according to the latest Census data. Martinez told Motherboard that her "worst nightmare" would be the community she grew up in being displaced "by a bunch of greedy billionaires and white male tech bros."

Coachella could grow even faster if Return to Aztlán is ever built. Proposed last year, the theme park would include a 200-foot pyramid, a hotel, a 10,000-person concert venue and a "Quetzalcoatl flying serpent slide."

Both projects require one vital, missing piece: money. Henderson assured me that Moon USA could find funding among U.S., Chinese and Japanese corporations. It wouldn't be the first U.S. theme park (sorry, "resort destination") in a far-flung locale without a global brand behind it, but it would still be a rare sight. Investors don't like risks; they like sure things and positive ROI.

So for now, Moon USA remains just a dream. Rogers and Higashi are both skeptical of the project, but they both pointed out a few reasons why it could work. Southern California probably has more people equipped to build and design expensive attractions than any other place on Earth. Land is relatively cheap in Coachella. Despite hot summers, the weather is pretty good, with very few rainy days to scare away visitors.

And while $4 billion is a lot of money, it's conceivable that a few people with deep pockets and and dreams of playing out their Neil Armstrong fantasies could come up with the cash.

"What's that saying?" Rogers said. "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood."