Robert Vicino wants it to be clear he’s not a religious man. He is, like a lot of Southern Californians I’ve met, what he calls “highly spiritual.” So when he talks about the apocalyptic “message” he received 32 years ago, it’s understood that message could have come from anywhere—god, the universe, aliens, the collective unconscious. It’s hard to say.
The truth is, he doesn’t remember much about how he received the message today. But he’s spent millions of his own dollars building giant underground doomsday shelters preparing for the gist: that the world as we know it is going to end, probably in the next few years.
“I was inspired with a very powerful message around 1980 that I needed to build a shelter for 1,000 people deep underground to survive something that was coming that was going to be an extinction event,” he explained in an extensive phone interview. “That’s it, that’s all I had. But it was powerful. So powerful that I had a successful business with 100 employees and I took time off to go up into the mountains and search on weekends looking for an underground mine or cave that could be cartoned and converted.”
Today, Vicino is the owner and founder of Vivos, a company that sells space in luxury survival complexes around the country. It's what he likes to call “life assurance”--mini underground cities, in effect, for people ride out the end of civilization in a community setting with good food, television, even a potential dating pool. He says demand has increased 1,000 percent this year compared to last—itself a 1,000 percent increase over the year before.
More than 100,000 people have applied for a space in one of his various shelters around the world, in various stages of completion, he says; more than 1,000 people have bought some kind of shelter from Vivos so far. Vivos sells smaller, family-sized shelters for individual purchase, but most of the clients so far have purchased space in the community shelters—a nice bulwark, one supposes, against the kind of isolation and poor planning that could turn a single-family shelter into a Donner Party reunion.
Entrance to a Vivos shelter.
“When we’re done, with the current shelters that are in tow or complete, we will only be able to accommodate 6,000 people,” Vicino said. “That’s less than one-in-a-million people on earth.” As far as he’s concerned, that’s “not enough,” but there’s only so much he can do. Business keeps growing, but he says he’s still several million dollars in the hole.
Not that he seems worried. He’s more worried about the people who don’t have an end-times contingency plan, he says.
“What are the other six billion, ninety-nine-whatever-it-is people going to do?” he said. “I’ll tell you what they’re going to do. They’re going to wait until the last minute and say 'Well, is this really for real? Is this really going to happen?’ And when they see it is when there’s widespread public notice from the government or somebody, or you look up in the sky and see it’s going to happen… Or a series of nukes has gone off or there’s a viral pandemic that’s spreading quickly. So when people really become motivated is when it’s too late to find a solution.”
Robert Vicino invented “Otto the Autopilot," in 1980's Airplane
Vicino wasn’t always in the doomsday business. Before that he was a real estate mogul, a businessman, and an inventor. According to United States Patent and Trademark Office records, he owns at least 12 patents, most of which involved inflating something with air. One design, filed in 1982, was for a bottle-shaped, inflatable “promotional device” for towing across water, the aquatic equivalent of an airplane banner. Another, filed that same year, was for an inflatable object that looked like a large soda bottle. More patents are awaiting approval, Vicino says. Most of the designs have been for devices whose sole function is advertising.
Inflatables may sound like a modest life’s work, but inflatables made Vicino rich. You may not know his face, but you almost certainly know his work. For the 1980 comedy classic, Airplane, he designed the inflatable “Otto the Autopilot.” In 1983, he famously mounted a 90-foot high, inflatable King Kong to the Empire State building. It was, in its way, a perfect symbol for the money-making potential that arises when real estate meets something monstrous and inflated. The sky is the limit.
About five years ago, Vicino says, he finally had enough money and security to put his dream into action, and hasn’t received a paycheck since. (He hopes to make a profit someday so he can at least stay in business, he adds.) Today, six underground complexes are underway in undisclosed locations around the country, including one in Nebraska, and another in the Rockies, respectively designed to accommodate 900 and 1,000 people. Another, designed to hold 2,000 people, is in the works, with “a ton of interest in Australia.”
Only one, located somewhere in Western Indiana, is fully stocked and ready to go. (The Rockies shelter, which is much bigger, is “virtually up and running,” Vicino said, but not quite ready.) Originally, the folks at Vivos thought it may be possible to build entirely new structures for their shelters. They quickly discovered that it was much cheaper and easier to appropriate one of the country’s many empty, underground shelter complexes already in existence, relics of the Cold War.
Vivos shelter plan and interior.
“These are nuclear blast-proof hard bunkers that were built by our government at a cost of probably $15 million or more back in the day, so you couldn’t really duplicate those things today for anything close to what we’re able to acquire them for,” said Steve Kramer, an early Vivos customer who has since become something of a de facto employee of the company, though not to the extent that he could quit his day job.
As they stood, however, the Cold War shelters were by no means livable in any but the most Spartan sense. They still required millions of dollars in refurbishing.
“In each one there’s $10 million-dollar-plus retrofitting and outfitting,” Kramer said. “You can’t just move in. They have to be completely redone. The whole chemical and biological filtration system is replaced; there’s new generators that are put in; new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems are put in; they go through the plumbing—basically that’s all changed, like the septic tank; then there’s all of the food and the outfitting and the furniture. So it’s a major, major, major outfitting.”
The Indiana shelter is large enough to hold 80 people comfortably for an entire year, with all the food, water, and off-grid generator supplies a massive shelter deep underground requires. At least two members with separate keys are required to open the facility, which otherwise stays closed. Technically, any two members have access at all times, though Vicino noted it takes three hours to shut down the facility once it’s opened. Ideally, an event like Superstorm Sandy isn’t enough to open it up, he says. It’s for apocalypse-level doom only.
Still, he thinks everyone will be on the same page if the shit hits the fan. “We prefer, and we’ve asked [members], ‘Do not, either start it up or shut it down unless we’re there or you need to.’ I mean, if it’s an emergency, do what you gotta do.”
Standard rooms in Indiana are outfitted with two bunk beds to hold four people, with access to shared bathrooms. Spots there are still available for $50,000 per adult, $35,000 for children. (Before it opened, spaces were $35,000 per adult—still the going price at the bigger shelters that aren’t yet ready). Other, more luxurious accommodations have their own bathrooms and common spaces, and go for $85,000 a person. From the looks of a video tour available on the group’s website, the Indiana location includes common area amenities like a home theater with leather recliners, dining rooms, multi-user kitchens, a Laundromat, and a very ominous soundtrack. (“Join us for the next Genesis,” it reads.)
“What Vivos is, is a modern-day fortress or citadel, where our members are safe and secure, with all the supplies they need to ride it out. And we can defend the facilities. So if the rest of the world’s gone crazy, our people will at least be in a safe haven,” Vicino said. He wouldn’t elaborate on how, exactly, the fortresses were armed. But he emphasized that they're equipped for “not offensive, but defensive measures.”
“I can tell you, you will never get into the compound. And if you do, once the shelter’s locked down, unless you’re in the military, you’re not getting through the door.”
Talking to Vicino, I was surprised at how laid back he seemed for a guy who spends so much time thinking about the end of the world. Call it the confidence of a 6’8”, 300-pound man with enough money to spend millions of dollars building doomsday fortresses big enough to invite friends and family. He is also, of course, a salesman. His intensity mounts as he describes his favorite end-of-world scenarios. But he isn’t the typical redneck, right-wing militia type one often associates with the "doomer" and "prepper" sets. Vicino isn’t the type to stock high-powered assault rifles and spend weekends down at the shooting range. In fact, Vicino didn't even own a gun until about a year ago.
“I bought a home shotgun," he told me. "And it’s sitting in the attic, to tell you the truth. I’ve never shot it.” He insists the people who buy spaces in his shelter are like him: multi-ethnic, multinational professionals of all different religions. “Our people have a survivor mentality, but they’re not survivalists,” he said. “They’re not hoarding food and guns and ammo and camo gear in their garage or their basement. Instead, they bought Vivos.”
Chichen Itza at night (via)
There’s a bit of antagonism between Vicino and the survivalists, some of whom have taken to threatening him and threatening to besiege his shelters recently, Vicino said. Kramer, who owns three spaces at the Indiana shelter, noted that there was no love lost. “Survivalists really kinda hate us,” he said. “And we thought we would really appeal to them. But, you know what? They go through so much work… and they don’t like us because people just basically write a check.”
Kramer says he first became interested in buying space with Vivos after his son came home from school one day worried about the end of the Mayan Calendar, when some people believe the world will end, or at least radically change (two days from now, at the time of writing).
A few years and a trip to the Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza later, and Kramer's worries have shifted. Like Vicino, he worries more about asteroids, pole shifts, volcanic eruptions, worldwide economic collapse, and nuclear and biological terrorism—one or several of which, they believe, will happen in the next few years. Both pointed to the possibility of a solar storm like the so-called “Carrington Event” in 1859, which shut down telegraph lines around the world; some scientists, they note, say such solar activity is expected to peak next year, shutting down the world’s communication systems, plunging it into chaos.
Still, Vivos plans to open the Indiana shelter for the few days surrounding Dec. 21, just in case. Neither Kramer nor Vicino believes that the world will end this week (Kramer and his family intend to stay put at home on Friday). After all, most of the shelters won’t be available until after the Mayan Calendar has ostensibly “ended.”
“We’re not doing this for December 21,” Vicino said. “I don’t believe that December 21 is the end of the world. But I do believe we are in end times.”