- The Rainforest Cafe — a jungle-themed restaurant with animatronics — was magical for me as a kid.
- The chain peaked in the 1990s then fell from popularity, but it's been on my mind for months.
- There are still 19 locations worldwide, and I went to one in Las Vegas recently. It was incredible.
For years, I went without thinking about the Rainforest Cafe — a chain restaurant characterized by its fake plants, animatronics, and indoor thunderstorms. I'd graduated to older, more refined palates, such as my local Chili's, because adulthood meant trading jungle themes for combo meal deals and sports on television.
But at some point, I had a flashback: a green tree frog with large red eyes and a snaky smile that either said "Come inside" or "I'm going to spit some unidentified rainforest poison on you." I remembered the ambient noises of the forest, fed to me through hidden speakers as I ran around the gift shop asking my parents to buy me a cuddly stuffed snake. I thought about the majesty of it all, with the fake sky above me cycling from day to night as I ordered macaroni and cheese, a drink in a souvenir cup, or a sparkling chocolate volcano. I wondered if as an adult, that childish joy would disappear.
The first Rainforest Cafe opened in Minnesota's Mall of America in 1994, and early on, it was a hit. A September 2000 story from the Los Angeles Times said the chain's stock traded as high as $25 per share in the mid-1990s, but its value plummeted alongside other themed restaurants around the turn of the century.
The LA Times wrote that Houston-based company Landry's Seafood Restaurants offered to buy the Rainforest Cafe in February 2000 for $125 million — or $5.23 per share — but a major shareholder stopped the sale. Landry's eventually took over anyway, offering $75 million at $3.25 per share a few months later.
The Rainforest Cafe lived on, albeit without the same popularity it once had. Some of its most iconic locations have closed in recent years, including one in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf and another in Chicago, whose 27-foot outdoor frog is one of the few things I remember from visiting the city as a kid. They were open for 17 and 23 years, respectively.
The Rainforest Cafe's rise and fall was a microcosm of the world around it. Themed restaurants were a product of their time, due to expire as the culture around them evolved. In 1998, a New York Times headline from reporter Charles V. Bagli painted the picture well: "Novelty gone, theme restaurants are tumbling."
"Industry analysts and restaurant consultants cite various reasons," Bagli wrote. "The food was often dismissed as terrible. The elaborate decor — rock-and-roll collectibles, racing cars, animatronic jungle habitats — was impressive but distracting."
Rapid expansion hurt the novelty, Bagli wrote, and the same Wall Street financiers who helped theme restaurants boom left them behind.
"The life cycle of theme restaurants has been a lot shorter than anyone expected," restaurateur Ron Paul told the Times. "It turns out that the consumer had a lot more entertainment alternatives."
Worldwide, the Rainforest Cafe still advertises 19 locations — including one that overlooks the Las Vegas Strip from the second and third floors of a shopping center. A few months ago, I decided I had to go.
As I walked into the shopping center, its white walls and square ceiling tiles reeked of commercial development — boring not because they had to be but because people would visit anyway, pulling out their wallets at the nearby Walgreens or Taco Bell Cantina. But at one entrance, bursting into the mall walkway, were fake vines, flowers, topiary, and pre-recorded sounds of the jungle, painting the bland facade of modern consumerism that surrounded me with a younger, more fun version of it.
My husband walked to the reservation counter while I ran into the gift store behind it, squealing at an animatronic snake that hung from a tree limb and squatting to greet a plastic alligator. A growl erupted nearby, and I looked up to see a robotic cheetah sitting on a display shelf of T-shirts for sale, wagging its stiff tail and arms near my head. The fact that it moved so unnaturally was part of the fun.—Alanis King (@alanisnking) May 5, 2022
We soon climbed a set of stairs to be seated in the restaurant level above. The deeper we got, the more it felt like the walls and ceiling were closing in on us — fake vines and flowers draped just over our heads, while wooden stairs and fencing made of knotted rope kept us on our path.
The cafe's signature green tree frog met me near the top, advertising a $19 "sparkling volcano" brownie with a stack of ice cream and syrup oozing from it. Of course I ordered one.
By the time we reached the dining area, I'd forgotten I was in a mall. Those bland white walls were miles away, and in front of me was a sparkling expanse of plastic forestry. The furnishings were aggressively '90s; cartoon animal illustrations lined the tabletops, while the carpet looked like someone poured a spinach smoothie into a lava lamp. (Some of the animatronics looked like they'd been in service that long, too).
Everywhere I looked was a new, captivating decoration: gorillas shaking trees and grunting into the wind, a plastic zebra peeking out from the vines, a large butterfly hanging from the ceiling, monkeys swinging from the branches, birds perched above the tables, elephants wagging their ears, and so much more.—Alanis King (@alanisnking) April 25, 2022
I stared at the fake starry sky as it transformed above me throughout the night, and I did a little hand drumroll every time the robotic animals set the stage for a waterless indoor thunderstorm and light show.
Sure, I only saw the restaurant with the lights dimmed. Perhaps it looks like a storage facility for a local carnival with them on. But magic comes from your imagination — and in mine, this place was mesmerizing.
While my husband and I waited on food and drinks, we took turns touring the restaurant floor. We watched two older women sit in a booth below a family of animatronic gorillas, constantly recording their movements and noises. (The servers later brought out a birthday cupcake for them, and I thought: "I only hope to be that cool in 40 years.")
I couldn't believe how many other adults were there without children. I went onto the outdoor dining balcony that overlooked the Strip, glancing over to see the people eating on the patio of the neighboring Bubba Gump Shrimp.
I laughed at their dinner choice. They had no idea what they were missing.
We ate a giant appetizer sampler tray, two entrées, and a chocolate volcano. We raved about the southwest egg rolls and spinach dip, and we ordered fruity alcoholic drinks like the "Green Python" and "Mongoose Mai Tai" (both very good, by the way). We took home the glass souvenir cups that came with them.
The plates hovered around $24 apiece. My husband said they didn't taste like $24 — his pasta was bland but salty, and our chocolate volcano had two scoops of ice cream and two "scoops" of whipped cream that just looked like ice cream. (I have the taste buds of an animatronic elephant, so I don't know what a $24 plate tastes like. You'll have to trust him.)
At some point, the restaurant photographer came by and posed us outside with the Strip in the background, offering free keychains with our photos in them. The Mongoose Mai Tais got me drunk enough that when they came back to ask if we wanted $20 photo prints, I handed them my credit card without a single question.
We probably should have noticed that in addition to the photos, the $24 plates landed us a nearly $200 bill after tip. But the thing was, we didn't care.
Before I went to the Rainforest Cafe that night in Vegas, I'd begun to doubt myself. I'd built up this image of the restaurant in my head — a living jungle, majestically cawing and growling and whistling at me as I ate overpriced appetizers.
But touring the city that week made me wonder: Was it all in my mind? Even the most beautiful themed buildings in Vegas feel like cheap imitations, because they are. Perhaps my plastic rainforest would be the same.
It wasn't. I had more fun at the Rainforest Cafe than I could have in any club or casino, perhaps fueled by the phantom joy of my childhood or perhaps because it truly was that magical. Either way, it didn't matter.
All that mattered was feeling like a kid again. It's something the Rainforest Cafe specializes in — and something none of us do often enough.