At an industry gathering a few months ago, the chairman of one of Las Vegas’ largest casino corporations looked an audience of his colleagues in the eye and said, “Las Vegas has truly become a total package with its paradigm changes in the areas of shopping, dining, and entertainment.” Legions of mafiosi would turn over in their graves. What about the gambling?
Las Vegas has always had dining and entertainment, but they were presented in a way that led customers right back to the casino. Give ‘em a little in the restaurants and showroom, then get it all back, and more, at the tables. The model worked like a charm, and it survived, for the most part, well into the ’70s.
However, in 1976 Atlantic City busted Nevada’s monopoly on legalized gambling. Other states followed New Jersey’s lead. Understanding that casino gambling is essentially the same everywhere, the Las Vegas honchos knew that their city had to become more than just a place to make a wager. It had to become a bona fide vacation destination. A decade of maneuvering and table-setting ensued, until two important events solidified the movement.
The first was the 1989 opening of The Mirage. The Mirage was the first-ever “megaresort,” an all-encompassing pleasure palace designed to provide everything you could ever want under a single roof. Since then, competition has ensured that each new megaresort has been somehow better than the one before it. Unless you live in a major city, there’s a good chance that a single megaresort has more hotel rooms, restaurants, and entertainment options than your entire hometown.
The second was a marketing angle that surfaced in the early ’90s touting a “family-friendly” Las Vegas. They may have invoked the entire family, but what they really meant was “nongambling spouse-friendly,” as in: “Honey, I know you hate gambling, but Las Vegas has plenty of things for you to do, too.”
The result? Las Vegas has become a vacation tour de force, incorporating elements of almost every other desirable destination in America - but at a fraction of the price. Why go to Phoenix for the clime when you can get the same weather in Las Vegas, plus better pools, at less expense? Why go to New York for the food when its best restaurants have been transported to the Strip? Why go to Rodeo Drive for shopping, Palm Springs for golf, or even Six Flags for thrill rides? All these things have been brought to one place, Las Vegas - and you don’t have to bet a dime to get them. The following is a look at the many activities Las Vegas has to offer the nongambler.
Hangin' by the pool
Las Vegas’ quintessential nongambling draw is the weather, and hanging by the pool is a premier daytime activity for nearly seven months, from about mid-March through late October. The pools in Las Vegas are unmatched for both scale and creativity - it’s that competition thing again. The Tropicana transforms its pool area into a tropical environment with a waterfall and an island, so the Flamingo converts its complex into a lush tropical water park with multiple waterfalls and big slides. Monte Carlo installs a wave pool, so Mandalay Bay builds a tidal wave pool suitable for surfing contests (it literally wiped out the pool bar during testing).
Other exceptional pools are located at MGM Grand, Luxor, The Mirage, Treasure Island, The Rio, Caesars Palace, and fresh off a recent renovation, Hard Rock. If you’re a sun worshiper, you might consider paying a little more to stay in one of these casino-hotels. But it won’t be that much more. During the hot summer months when a great pool is most important, these same hotels tend to discount deeply. Last July, Flamingo, Treasure Island, Monte Carlo, MGM, Hard Rock, and Luxor all offered rooms for less than $70 per night.
The biggest pool complex of all is located at Las Vegas’ water theme park, Wet ‘n Wild. Heading into its sixteenth summer of operation on the north end of the Strip, Wet ‘n’ Wild, with its flumes and rapids and monster Der Stuka water slide, is Las Vegas’ most successful noncasino entertainment enterprise. And though the price for an all-day pass has risen to the mid-$20 range in recent years, it’s an all-day diversion, especially well suited to teenagers and young adults.
Shop till you're broke
Who needs to worry about gambling when you’ve got Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Neonopolis to vacuum your Visa? For the new megaresorts, boasting of a unique shopping experience has become as important as detailed themes and celebrity chefs. Consequently, Las Vegas has exploded as a shopping mecca. And because it’s the casinos behind the new outlets, most of the great shopping is located in one three-mile stretch on the Strip.
Of course, the marquee names - Tiffany, Gucci, Chanel, Armani - are distinctly unbudgetlike. But none of them have rules that say you have to buy, and window-shopping in Las Vegas is like no place else in the world. Maybe your mall at home has a merry-go-round. Las Vegas malls have talking statues, changing skyscapes, and singing gondoliers plying real canals.
The statues and skyscapes can be found in “the shopping wonder of the world,” the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. The Forum debuted in 1992 as an exquisitely detailed Roman marketplace packed with trendy designer shops, and its 240,000 square feet promptly became the most profitable retail space in the world. A 1997 expansion doubled the Forum Shops in size and added an FAO Schwarz toy store that has every bit the feel of the New York outlet immortalized in the movie Big. A second expansion brought the mall to nearly 800,000 square feet with some 135 stores. A 150-foot-tall replica of the circular Pantheon temple will be the focal point of the new area, joining two existing shows that run on the hour: Festival Fountain, an animatronic quarrel between Roman gods featuring an intoxicated Bacchus, and Atlantis, an animatronic quarrel between Atlantis gods, featuring the sinking of the lost city and a 50,000 gallon aquarium swimming with tropical marine life.
A mere quarter-mile up the Strip is the 500,000-square-foot Grand Canal Shops at the Venetian, with 72 stores and 15 restaurants. This is the place with the singing gondoliers. You can hop a ride on one of the gondolas for a half-mile float along a real canal that weaves around the shops, for $10.
Desert Passage features separate highly themed sections, including Gibraltar Gate, which opens into a Moroccan-themed area sporting the architecture and fragrances of southern Spain and North Africa; Harbor Gate, a North African harbor village complete with a huge anchored steamship and regularly scheduled thunderstorms; and the Lost City, featuring a live indoor spice market.
The Luxor-Mandalay Bay project touts itself as the first retail development in the country to link two major casinos with one department store-a 225,000-square-foot, three-story Nordstrom, the first in Las Vegas.
Neonopolis, downtown’s 250,000-square-foot, four-level contribution to the mall madness, figures to be a bit more budget oriented, as are the Belz outlet stores on the southern edge of town and the Fashion Outlet mall 30 miles south in Primm.
Everyone knows that Las Vegas is a haven for cheap eats, but not everyone knows yet that it’s a haven for good eats as well. Food fanatics who plan their vacation itineraries to culminate with that one great meal at the end of the day can do no better.
There’s just no arguing it anymore: Las Vegas’ culinary status now ranks with that of any city in the world. Moreover, nowhere in the world are there as many name eateries and celebrity chefs within mere minutes of each other. Can’t get reservations to Le Cirque at Bellagio? No problem. Picasso is in the same casino, and it was nominated for a James Beard Award last year. Or walk across the street to Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio at the Venetian. Or try Coyote Cafe or Emeril’s at MGM Grand, Aureole at Mandalay Bay, or Nobu at Hard Rock.
Too expensive? Just slide back into the old Las Vegas. So what if the El Cortez’ gourmet restaurant, Roberta’s, doesn’t have a celebrity chef and was named for the casino owner’s wife. It still serves a monster porterhouse, including all the sides, for under a sawbuck. And, of course, there are those buffets, which are bigger and better than ever. In high-end casinos like Bellagio and The Resort at Summerlin, lunch can include sushi, halibut, and calamari ceviche, sauteed shrimp, fresh-grilled steaks, lamb chops, and creme brulee for dessert. The tab? A mere $16. Try that in New York, Paris, or Venice (the cities, not the casinos).
Much like the dining scene, entertainment has gone upscale too. The Broadway show Mama Mia at Mandalay Bay, or either of two Cirque du Soleil productions at Treasure Island or Bellagio will cost you $75-$100 per ticket. But you can always opt for the hip impersonator show American Superstars at the Stratosphere for $36.
And those aren’t even the real low-enders. Tickets to the comedy clubs and improv shows run less than $20, as do the more modest afternoon productions. The lounges, which are still free, remain a staple in every major casino.
Affordability is a powerful draw, but what’s really tantalizing about the Las Vegas entertainment scene is the variety. A look at a representative schedule for a week reveals options ranging from a Glenn Miller big-band dance at the Stardust ($15) to a B-52s concert at the Hard Rock ($47). You can find dedicated venues for swing, salsa, blues, and jazz. You can even ride a mechanical bull and take free line-dance lessons (at Gilley’s in The New Frontier). Big concerts come to the arenas at MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay. More intimate shows play Mandalay Bay’s House of Blues or the Hard Rock’s Joint. Name bands perform free concerts on weekends at the Fremont Street Experience downtown.
And you don’t have to go back to your hotel room at 2 a.m. Fancy L.A.-style nightclubs such as Club Rio (The Rio), Studio 54 (MGM), RA (Luxor), and Baby’s (Hard Rock) jump until the sun comes up. Or hang out with the locals at miniclubs like Club Madrid (Sunset Station), the Railhead (Boulder Station), or Trax (Palace Station). Las Vegas’s six microbreweries at Main Street Station, Holy Cow!, Ellis Island, Monte Carlo, Barley’s, and Sunset Station also serve ‘til the wee hours and are favorite meeting places for casino personnel coming off the swing shift. You can even bowl 24 hours a day at the Orleans, Gold Coast, Showboat, Santa Fe, and Sam’s Town.
During the day, you can watch first-run movies in state-of-the-art theaters built into the local casinos all over town. Or check out a futuristic theater such as Omnimax at Caesars Palace or the giant 3-D IMAX screen at Luxor. Watch a football game while eating $1 hot dogs in a casino sports book. Or check out the highest-tech arcades on the planet; the best ones are within walking distance of each other on the Strip’s south end at MGM, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Luxor, and GameWorks in the Showcase Mall.
Las Vegas’s first attempt to seduce the white-knuckle crowd was a pronounced failure. “Wimpy” was the verdict of the teenaged taskmasters who came in the early ’90s to test the inventory at MGM Grand’s new amusement park. That’s changed. Las Vegas now lays claim to a half-dozen rides worthy of must-try status. In fact, no less an adrenaline aficionado than daredevil Robbie Knievel recently cited Stratosphere’s Big Shot as one of his five favorite rides in the country. And though the rides are located in six different places, they’re still close enough that you can do the entire circuit in a single day.
Beginning at the north end of the Strip, the Big Shot at Stratosphere is something like a giant slingshot. It fires you 160 feet up a needle that stands at the top of the tower (that’s a fifth of a mile high), then drops you in a zero-gravity free fall; tickets are $25 including tower admission. The Canyon Blaster at Circus Circus is touted as the nation’s only “indoor, double-loop, double-corkscrew” roller coaster; tickets are $5. Race for Atlantis at Caesars Palace is a sophisticated combo of state-of-the-art motion simulation and 3-D computer graphics; tickets are $10. Manhattan Express at New York-New York is a fast and furious roller coaster that runs around the faux Big Apple skyline; tickets are $12, sometimes more on holidays.
To ride Desperado, you’ll have to travel 40 miles to the town of Primm. But if you’re into great coasters, it’s worth it, since Desperado is one of the fastest and tallest in the country, reaching 90 m.p.h. on the 225-foot first drop. Tickets are $6.
Vegas’s other big draw is the $70 million Star Trek: The Experience attraction at the Las Vegas Hilton. It’s a motion simulation ride in tandem with a one-of-a-kind Star Trek museum. Tickets are $14.95.
Tamer rides for tots are found at the MGM Grand Adventures park, open from April to September, and the indoor Adventuredome at Circus Circus, which is open year-round.
Another mainstay of the billion-dollar megaresort is the free spectacle. Since The Mirage debuted its spewing volcano, several such creative draws have been developed by the casinos to lure tourists to their doors. These big-budget productions are tremendously entertaining and are presented multiple times daily with no obligation to the spectators. Every one is worth seeing, especially with children in tow.
First the indoor spectacles. The Festival Fountain and Atlantis shows mentioned earlier both feature lifelike talking statues and play on the hour in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace (702/893-4800). Sam’s Town’s Sunset Stampede laser-and-dancing-waters show stars a howling animatronic wolf; it plays four times daily (702/456-7777). The Sky Parade in the Masquerade Village section of The Rio is a Mardi Gras parade suspended from the ceiling, with singers and dancers in floats tossing strands of beads to the crowd. It plays every two hours except Wednesdays (702/252-7777).
The remainder are staged outdoors. These may be canceled for inclement weather; when they are, there’s usually prior notification. The Mirage volcano erupts with fire and sound effects every 15 minutes (702/791-7111). The Fremont Street Experience light-and-sound show plays downtown on the hour after dark (702/678-5777). Bellagio presents an elaborate display of dancing waters and lights timed to music in intervals of either 15 or 30 minutes. And the best of them all is the pirate battle at Treasure Island. Three times a day, the sirens try to lure pirates to their doom. The pirate-technics are awesome (702/894-7111). If you can only see one, it’s the pirate show!
Vegas side trips
When you think of it, Las Vegas proper is only one attraction in the spacious and varied southern Nevada theme park, with its giant lake, monumental dam, and stunning red-rock scenery - especially if your vacation extends longer than the average 4.3 days and you have some time to explore.
Visitor profiles indicate that 25 percent of Las Vegas tourists travel to another destination in the vicinity during their stay. Favorites rank in this order: Lake Mead/Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon, Laughlin, Bryce Canyon, Death Valley, and Valley of Fire.
Excursions to Bryce Canyon or Death Valley require a major commitment of time. The Grand Canyon can be done in a half-day, but it’s expensive; a flight-seeing trip to the Grand Canyon, for example, runs $150-$300, depending on how fancy you get. Laughlin is inexpensive, but it’s really just another gambling town. The other destinations are quick turns and are worthy of consideration as an alternative not only to gambling but even to spending all of your time in the city. Hoover Dam is the most popular, Valley of Fire is the most spectacular, and a place called Red Rock Canyon is most convenient.
Hoover Dam is located 40 miles southeast of Las Vegas. In addition to viewing the dam, one of the world’s most colossal construction projects, there are tours and a visitor’s center. You’ll see the majestic Lake Mead on the way, which is the largest man-made lake in the United States. It’s an awe-inspiring sight cradled between rugged multicolored desert mountains. There’s actually a lot to do on the lake-ride the Desert Princess stern-wheeler, rent a boat, fish, snorkel, or swim - if you decide to make a day of it.
Valley of Fire, a Nevada state park, is 55 miles northeast. Here you’ll encounter some of the most breathtaking scenery in the entire Southwest. The fiery red sandstone turns the surface into what seems like another planet, as if you’ve been beamed into the midst of a Star Trek episode. The thrill is akin to seeing the Las Vegas Strip for the first time. The whole trip takes from four to six hours to complete.
And more yet
We haven’t talked about the Bellagio’s fine-art exhibit, the MGM Grand’s lion habitat, or The Mirage’s dolphin pool. We haven’t mentioned ice-skating at Santa Fe, simulated racing at Sahara, the view from the Stratosphere tower, Madame Tussaud’s at the Venetian, or the King Tut Museum tour at Luxor. We haven’t considered health spas, minor league baseball, bungee jumping, the fabled Liberace Museum, or even good old-fashioned people-watching.
The truth is, you could spend days, weeks, even months in the new Las Vegas and never resort to a slot machine for entertainment. No doubt Bugsy’s still turning!
Anthony Curtis is publisher of the famed consumer newsletter Las Vegas Advisor, published by Huntington Press, 3687 S. Procyon Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89103.