Almost from its 1904 birth as a tent city in the midst of an empty Nevada desert, Las Vegas reveled in its reputation as America’s wildest city - the perennial capital of ‘round-the-clock gambling, neon and glitz. And nothing hints that it is in danger of losing its title, thank goodness.
Although legalized gambling is sprouting across the country, Las Vegas remains one of the most popular U.S. vacation spots. There simply is no place like it. In the past year, three huge new hotels and casinos have opened - the pyramidshaped Luxor, the pirate-themed Treasure Island and the MGM Grand, a grandiose tribute to the movies - adding yet more wackiness to this wackiest of cities.
Almost overnight, the three plush resorts, each boasting the sort of fantasy rides and entertainment typically found in amusement parks, have transformed Las Vegas into a desert Disneyland. In doing so, they have enhanced the city’s somewhat controversial quest to attract families to what for decades was a risque adult destination.
In a city where the odd is normal, the three hotels have set a new standard for weird. No wonder the tourists keep pouring in.
At Treasure Island, the crowds in shorts and T-shirts hovering intently over the casino’s slot machines seem utterly oblivious to time. But each afternoon at about 4:25, they suddenly rise from their padded stools en masse and scurry for the exit. Out front, it’s time for the resort’s first big show of the day - and what a production it is. When I was there last month, I counted a costumed cast of 20, who re-created a bloody naval duel in the harbor of an old Caribbean pirate lair. The show is like a rousing historical novel come alive.
With appropriate fanfare, fullsized replicas of two sailing ships - a British frigate and a tall-masted pirate vessel - are soon blasting away at each other. Cannons boom, billowing clouds of flame shoot skyward, and crewmen tumble head over heels into a mock sea. On this Treasure Island, it’s the scruffy pirates who ultimately win, as the ornate British ship suddenly tilts sickeningly and begins to sink. In 10 minutes, the spectacle is over, and the crowds hurry back to the slots.
About a mile to the south on Las Vegas Boulevard - better known as The Strip - the theatrics at the Luxor are more subdued but nonetheless astonishing. Outside the 30-story, dark-glass pyramid, a mammoth orange sphinx broods mysteriously, its eyes beaming intimidating rays of colored light. Inside, hotel guests and visitors can pay $3 to board the Nile River Tour, a 15-minute excursion by barge through what in any normal hotel would be the lobby. At the 2,500-room Luxor, the lobby is so immense that there is plenty of room for a meandering river and a whole fleet of 20-passenger barges.
The Luxor’s brochure touts the trip as an “educational look at Egyptian mythology,” which means you see the hotel’s colorful murals and statuary depicting the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt, identified by guides who stand at the prow of each barge portraying archaeologists. Several times the barges enter murky tunnels, where thick mists suggest you may be lost in time.
Perhaps the oddest juxtaposition of fantasy and fact in Las Vegas is the enormous “Wizard of Oz” tableau that greets you as you step through the main entrance of the MGM Grand casino, which is across the street from the Luxor. There, ringed by row after row of slots, stand lifesize replicas of Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion as they appear in the movie. Behind them, at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, soars the gleaming Emerald City of Oz, while off to the side Glinda the Good Witch beams on the assembled gamblers and in the domed sky overhead the Wicked Witch hovers ominously as lightning flashes and thunder rumbles.
Child or adult, who can resist this scene? Enveloped by nostalgia, my wife and I succumbed to the adjacent slots, which feature a “Wizard of Oz” theme. My wife played the Ruby Red Slippers machine, on which Dorothy’s red slippers replace red cherries to indicate the jackpot; I favored the Yellow Brick Road machine, where the Wizard himself represented the big payoff. For 30 minutes, I plunked three quarters at a time into the device, pulled the lever and hoped for riches while the Wicked Witch darted back and forth above my head. But benevolent Glinda must possess greater power. Under her eyes, I walked away from Oz a winner by $34, and my wife did pretty well, too.
In the past, Las Vegas attracted visitors interested primarily in gambling. But to keep its rooms filled, the city now sees itself blossoming into one of America’s big entertainment centers, drawing increasing numbers of fun-lovers and young families for whom gambling is just one of many possible pastimes. Business is good, but nonetheless, some resort owners see possible dangers in this approach. Big-time gambling fuels the local economy, and it partially subsidizes the cost of hotel meals and lodging, keeping rates quite reasonable. The problem is that the non-gamblers, including children, who fly into Las Vegas take up precious plane seats that could be occupied by hard-core gamblers, who are apt to spend a lot more money.
As the debate on the city’s future continues, Las Vegas is plunging ahead with plans for more themed resorts. One mega-project recently announced, called New York, New York, will re-create the sites of the Big Apple, including a 200-foot-high Coney Island roller coaster. This month, ground-breaking is expected to get under way for a sculpted steel-mesh bubble around the older casinos at Glitter Gulch - the neonsplashed downtown area of the city at the northern end of The Strip. When the project, called the Celestial Vault, is completed, 15 animated floats choreographed to music and light will parade regularly overhead.
As for Las Vegas’s future as a family destination, I’m not sure. On several occasions, I saw parents at adjacent slot machines bouncing one or more toddlers on their knees. Maybe the kids were having fun, but I don’t think so. Another time, I watched a concerned father nudge his preteen son away from a long line of magazine racks filled with free pamphlets touting nudie shows, massage parlors and limousine services to legal brothels outside the city. On the other hand, a family with little or no interest in gambling can have lots of good clean fun in Las Vegas for less than they might pay at the Disney parks. At the Luxor, where I stayed, an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet costs about $10 per person, and a standard room for two begins at $59 a night (in off-peak periods), with children under 12 staying free.
Don’t go to Las Vegas looking for rest or quiet: This is a high-energy playground. Most wearying for me was the constant noise in the casinos, and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds everywhere, including the hotel swimming pools. You can’t easily avoid the crush, because the pathway to your room or to the amusement centers usually leads right past the slots. Watch out, or the devices will snatch every coin in your pocket. It happened to me, over and over again.
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: IF YOU GO Where to stay: The choices range from modest motels to mega-resorts. Dedicated gamblers may prefer a property in the downtown area’s Glitter Gulch such as the Golden Nugget, which is mostly off the path of the sightseeing hordes. Families may want to consider such fantasy-themed resorts as Circus Circus, Excalibur, Treasure Island and the MGM Grand which are on The Strip and offer attractions appealing to children. Caesars Palace and the Mirage, two other large resorts on The Strip, seem more suited to singles and couples. Where to eat: If you want to dine cheaply, consider one of Las Vegas’s famous and inexpensive buffet tables. Most of the hotels offer them at breakfast, lunch and dinner, but beware of long lines. CAUTION: Heavy second-hand smoke is pervasive in many of the casinos, and as a non-smoker I found it excessive at times. Several of the big casinos do offer smoke-free blackjack and other gaming tables - although even at them it is hard to escape the smell of stale smoke. The Imperial Palace’s Gallery of Imperial Legends, a casino room with 110 slot machines, is smoke-free. The Silver City casino, across The Strip from the Stardust Hotel and Casino, is entirely smoke-free. Information/reservations: Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, 3150 Paradise Rd., Las Vegas, Nev. 89109, (702) 892-7575. -Washington Post
Click here to comment on this story »