I'm sure that everyone has seen the ads by now. And while what happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, what gets built in Vegas often doesn't stay there very long. After all, the town is known for constantly reinventing itself. In the 1990s, the place held a lot of promise. There were new attractions and elaborately themed hotels being built everywhere one looked. (And old ones being blown up in spectacular fashion.) However, as we near the end this decade, that promise seems to be largely unfulfilled. My most recent trip to Sin City has confirmed what I had known for some time now: Vegas is no longer the bastion of Disney-style themed entertainment I had grown to love.
Now it may seem odd to use the squeaky clean all American Disney name in the same sentence as the rather seedy image of Las Vegas, but the two entities are similar in many ways. Both take the customer (guest, gambler, sucker, or whatever term one might care to use) to an immersive environment that mimics some far off or unusual place. Both are vacation destinations that allow people to escape from their ordinary lives and experience an artificial recreation that at its core is fictional. I was recently lucky enough to attend a seminar by famed Walt Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter (creator of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Star Tours, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones Adventure, and, most recently, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage). One memorable remark he made was about how the baby boom generation was introduced to the idea of themed entertainment through the Disneyland television show as children, experienced the Disney parks when they were a bit older, and eventually saw the experience elevated in the form of Las Vegas when they were adults. (And he commented that perhaps one could make a lot of money from that group by building the first ever themed nursing home. But a detailed description of what that could entail is another idea for another blog.) And even Walt himself came up with an idea that has become a Vegas mainstay: in the plans for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (an actual working city, not the Epcot theme park as we know it today), there were to be enclosed recreations of city streets from far off corners of the world which would feature shopping and dining experiences for visitors. Sounds an awful lot like what can be found in the Venetian, Paris, and the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace, doesn't it? It's too bad Mickey's family friendly image prevents it from touching Vegas with a 250 mile long pole--Imagineering could probably build the best property on the Strip, even if had to use a different name to do it.
As MiceAge columnist Kevin Yee often points out, the goal is immersion toward illusion. Perhaps Vegas is more tongue-in-cheek in its wonderfully tacky world, but the devil is still in the details. And to borrow another Yee phrase, Las Vegas has been "declining by degrees" over the past several years, and as the era of family-oriented, theme park style experiences ended almost as it began, so too has my love of visiting the city. With these ideas in mind, bring out the cocktails as we take a trip from the Nevada border to the end of the Strip on a journey through Lost Vegas.
Neon still greets us as we leave California and enter Primm, NV (formerly known as Stateline). Why Whiskey Pete's is shaped like a castle when its theme is western still baffles me, but no matter. This casino is hold-over from long ago. Across Interstate 15 is Primm Valley. The giant Ferris Wheel no longer turns there. (Though I believe it can still be found operating in Irvine.) Instead, we can now go to a fashion outlet mall. Shopping is all well and good, but only clothing stores can be found here. Is it too much to ask for one electronics, music, video, or game store here? I'd even settle for a book store. I know that most of the money is made at these fashion-type places, but can't you give me something interesting to look at while the Mrs. runs up the credit card? Okay, the giant posters advertising the lingerie shops are nice I suppose, but when people are handing out those little cards advertising the escort services out on Las Vegas Boulevard, you're going to have to do better than that. Buffalo Bills is the newest and still most interesting of the three resorts. The buffalo-shaped pool is still present is still here, but the water slide is long gone. The railroad that ran to Primm Valley and Whiskey Pete's is sadly gone as well. A monorail will still take you to Primm Valley and you can transfer to Whiskey Pete's, but the charm of the railroad running through the western boom town has been lost. Coaster enthusiasts will be happy to know that the Desperado is still prominently featured, though I found the experience to be unpleasant now just as I found it unpleasant twelve years ago. The Adventure Canyon log flume is still open and still enjoyable. From a pacing point of view, the ride is a bit backwards (the drop comes early on, and the western scenery comes later). Guns which allow guests to shoot at targets make this ride unique among attractions of its kind (and the water effects controlled by patrons above can make for hours of entertainment for those who enjoy wetting the passengers). However, I can't help but think that some minimal investment could make this attraction much more appealing and much less static. A few sound effects (from the guns and the targets), and some limited motions from a couple of the figures could make the ride more immersive. Add a big strobe lighting dynamite explosion to the cave and the end and you've got yourself an excellent finale to a quality ride (and perhaps some longer lines for an attraction that is bypassed by many). The attractions at Buffalo Bills operate with very limited hours these days, and are even closed several times during the week. Disappointing for those who aren't there very long. (And who can really spend more than about two days in Primm, anyway?) A few miles up I-15, we arrive in Jean. The Gold Strike continues to provide a rest spot for weary travelers who can't quite make it all the way. However, the show-boat themed Nevada Landing sadly sits waiting to be demolished to make way for time share units, a trend we shall see is taking over as we enter Vegas proper.
Our first stop on the Strip is the Luxor. One of the most unique structures in Las Vegas, and one of my personal favorite resorts, the Luxor has had an interesting history. It opened with a one-of-a-kind, three part attraction experience. The first part was the simulator In Search of the Obelisk, followed by the multimedia/live stage show Luxor Live, and finally the Theater of Time film. It had an original story with original characters, and the overall idea of such a presentation is something never attempted by Disney or anyone else for that matter. In some way, it was attempting to break new ground by having the audience involved in a such an elaborate plot (which would, of course, make them curious enough to purchase three separate tickets). Sadly, like the short-lived Nile river cruise (Wikipedia: "According to the unofficial, albeit popular, ghost story, the Nile River attraction was removed because guests kept seeing ghosts of the three workers killed during the Luxor's construction whenever the river passed through dark tunnels"), the second two parts of the experience have been closed. The Luxor Live theater is now home to a the topless Fantasy show (perhaps the entertainment has improved). The Theater of Time is now the Luxor IMAX--rather comically, the theater still features lap-bars, a hold over from its days as a theme park attractions. The ancient Egyptian theme is marvelously detailed all around the resort, from the giant Sphinx out front, the statues at the entrance to the casino, the sand colored columns, the hieroglyphics, the obelisk, etc. Sadly, it appears that this will all be gone soon. According to Screamscape.com: "they are pretty much going to spend $300 million to renovate 80% the interior, removing most of the Egyptian theming, adding new restaurants and nightclubs instead." Truly tragic. The (properly Egyptian named) RA nightclub has closed, and this Friday the LAX nightclub is opening on property hosted by the always relevant Brittany Spears. Someone explain to me two things: 1) What does LAX have to do with ancient Egypt, and 2) What makes the Los Angeles airport appealing as a theme in the first place? Do you get your drink and then sit down in a tiny seat for five hours only getting up to use the restroom when the captain turns off the fasten seat belt sign and then get served lousy packaged food? Meanwhile, the Pharaoh's Pheast buffet, elaborately themed as an Egyptian dig site has been renamed simply "More" in MGM Mirage's latest attempt to be edgy (more of these to come). It won't be long before the fun atmosphere of this buffet goes into history along with the name. During my visit, the entire eastern face of the pyramid was covered in a giant ad for Absolut Vodka. Hopefully this a temporary promotion for the opening of LAX and not a permanent fixture.
Nearby, the Excalibur retains most of its Medieval castle theming and arcade. However, the cleverly named "Lancelotta-Pasta" has been re-Christened "Regale Italian Eatery" and the guillotine mock-up has been removed. As a wrestling fan, I would be amiss if I did not mention the short-lived WCW Nitro Grill that was once at the casino. It was a fun place, and I enjoyed the Hogan Burger there on one occasion (it was a barbeque bacon cheese burger, though, given its namesake, one would expect it to contain ham). I believe that the area that the restaurant occupied is now home to the Thunder from Down Under show, which I pray I never accidentally drunkenly walk into.
Next up, New York New York has recently renamed the Manhattan Express (themed as a crazy taxi ride around the city), simply "The Roller Coaster at New York New York." MGM Mirage thinks sleek and hip, methinks cheap and lame. Meanwhile, the new management at the Tropicana has eliminated the free slot machine pull at the casino's front entrance. Perhaps it's just as well. It was time for the property to be redeveloped anyway. Just off Tropicana Avenue is a Hooters hotel casino (formerly the San Remo). Don't get me wrong, I'm all for it. But if Hooters is going to open up a casino in Vegas, shouldn't they follow the town's interesting architectural trend and build one that actually looks like a giant pair of Hooters? See photograph below.
I'm just saying . . .
That brings us to the MGM Grand. There is perhaps no better example of wasted potential than this big bad complex. The hotel opened with the Grand Adventures theme park attached to it. It may not have been Disneyland, but the place had a lot going for it. It wasn't a hodgepodge of carnival rides, it offered some truly unique experiences. It had a river boat ride that included special effects demonstrations. It was something like the Jungle Cruise combined with the Universal Backlot Tour. It also had an underground geological ride. It was half simulator, half dark ride. Most scenes were viewed on a screen at the front of the cabin, but occasionally the side windows would open up to reveal actual sets. Pretty cool, and I can't help but think something like this would be right at home at Epcot. The park also had an indoor roller coaster (The Lightning Bolt), a haunted mine ride, rapids and a log flume. It was an excellent start, and it is a true shame the park was never allowed to grow and develop. Perhaps it was the desert heat that killed Grand Adventures, and perhaps it was the change in direction from MGM's management and Las Vegas in general. In either case, it was short lived. A third of it was removed for a new pool complex, and the park continued to operate only seasonally (ironically, only during the summer, when the park was most unbearable to visit). Eventually, the remainder was developed into condos. Again, this trend for condos and timeshares is growing. The notoriously humble Donald Trump is getting in on the action and MGM Mirage is developing City Center across the street.
The MGM Grand had another great attraction outside the theme park. The casino was themed to The Wizard of Oz, and the main entrance was home to the "Revealing the Wizard's Secrets" show. The show was amusing, but the real treat was the preshow area: guests could follow the yellow brick road passed figures of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Wicked Witch, before entering the Emerald City to see the show. The Wizard hung down from a balloon, while the witch was projected onto a broomstick on the domed ceiling. (See Ozzy's Adventures for photos and further details.) The whole area gave way to more casino floor and the lion habitat. When the attraction closed, a sign stated that it was being moved to the Grand Adventures theme park. It obviously never made it there.
The new Aladdin was a wonderfully themed project that was perhaps a victim of bad timing. (A middle-eastern theme may be unappealing to guests, in light of 9/11 and related political events.) The desert passage and the casino floor were detailed in true Vegas fashion. The casino has been changed into Planet Hollywood over the past couple of years. I question the vitality of this theme--Vegas isn't all that far from Los Angeles. Besides, wasn't Hollywood supposed to be MGM Grand's theme? Kind of? Oh well, it's hard to tell these days. To add further confusion to the situation, there is a large Planet Hollywood location inside the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace.
The Bellagio perhaps signaled the beginning of the end. The theme was there. The place was beautiful. But the hotel had a peculiar policy. While all of the other hotels on the Strip let patrons of all ages explore their grounds, Bellagio denied access to anyone under 18 who was not staying on property. The message was clear: Vegas is no longer a place to bring your family. It is not a theme park. This is the direction the town has gone (though this policy remains rather unique). Despite the change in marketing, there are still a lot of families who come to town, as Al Lutz pointed out in his recent article, Stilettos and Strollers. It seems to me that excluding such a large demographic from your property just isn't good business, but I suppose management has its reasons.
I come not to praise Caesar's Palace, but to bury it--Caesar's is another one of my favorites that has declined over the past few years, though its fate does not appear as bad as Luxor's. The spectacular Race for Atlantis 3D IMAX motion simulator ride that used an animatronics show in the Forum Shops as its preshow, and had its own mythology created around it, has vanished without a trace like the mythical island it is named for. The Omnimax theater can no longer be found. A collection of small 3D simulator rides was removed to make way for a third expansion of the Forum Shops. While the first two sections of the shops were elaborately Roman themed and contained unique atmospheric statue shows, this new section opened up with a small fountain and several dozen mannequins wearing Victoria's Secret lingerie. An attraction to be sure, but one that can be found at any mall. The Virgin Megastore has also shut its doors, a sad sign of the digital download era (I shall bemoan the downfall of Tower Records at another time, however). I was happy to see that the FAO Schwartz toy store, with its giant Trojan horse out-front, was still open for business. The animatronic Cantina Band from Star Wars was no longer there, though. Perhaps the third floor of the store wasn't the best location to sell drinks, but the band was one of those great little details that has been lost, and was great fun for anyone who was even a slight Star Wars fan. Elton John now plays the casino regularly and he even has his own store there. I was able to resist the urge to buy a pair of "The Bitch is Back" panties, however. A couple casinos down, Treasure Island has been renamed simply "TI," and has had most of its pirate theming ripped out. Score another one for MGM Mirage's "cool" factor.
The newest major casino is the Wynn. And this is a symbol for everything that is wrong with the direction that Vegas is going. The place has no theme whatsoever. No rides and attractions. The place apparently has a luxury car dealership inside. What kind of people go on vacation to buy a luxury car? I certainly hope I never meet them. The resort opened with an art gallery, but it quickly went out of business and the art was scattered throughout the resort. Still, I might be persuaded to visit the property to see Spamalot. Is it just me, or does this Monty Python show seem tailor-made to play at the Excalibur? Meanwhile, wouldn't The Producers, currently playing at Paris Las Vegas, be perfect for New York New York?
As we head toward the end of the Strip, Circus Circus, the first family friendly property in Las Vegas still welcomes guests. Its theme park, the Adventuredome (originally known as Grand Slam Canyon), remains operational, and, aside from a few of its dinosaur features, most of the attractions are still intact. Perhaps it has fared better because it is enclosed and shielded from the Nevada heat. The hotel's midway is also still open. However, the aging resort is scheduled for a major renovation in the next couple of years. If recent history is any indication, I have a feeling neither the park nor the midway will make it through the remodel, though I may be wrong. Perhaps MGM Mirage will make one last attempt to win over the in crowd and rename the place "The Cirque."
Like the Stratosphere at the end of the street, the Sahara went against the trend and actually added "Speed: The Ride," a shuttle-loop style roller coaster a few years ago. What NASCAR has to do with the Sahara desert is anyone's guess, however.
But even with all these issues, isn't Vegas at least still a good place to lose your quarters? Well, not exactly. It turns out that the slot machines (and video machines, etc), no longer take change! You have to spend at least a dollar to even play the penny machines. Now, I'm smart enough to know that playing these machines is a sucker's game. (If everyone was winning, these casinos wouldn't be making nearly as much money as they are, after all.) So, if these machines aren't good for getting rid of my spare change, just what exactly are they good for? All your money comes out in little receipts which you have to take to machines to turn back into cash. Two things: this is obviously designed to make you spend more money than you wish, and the lack of the clanging of the change takes a lot of the fun out of it. (And sound effects played through a speaker are no substitute).
But if we're going to take the cash out of gambling, let's go a step further. Certain hotels (including those at the Walt Disney World Resort), allow guests to charge purchases directly to their hotel bill through their room key. Why not let Vegas visitors use their keys in the slot machines? It would make it easier psychologically to sit down and play, and many gamblers would have no idea how much they've lost until they saw the bill at the end of their stay. And remember, the titles of the movies you order do not appear on the receipt! They've already found other unique ways to charge your room: during my recent stay at Buffalo Bills, there was a large basket of goodies left on the table in the hotel room. Bottles of water, M&Ms, Snickers, toothbrushes, pretzels, and peanuts all sat in the room as if benevolent gifts from the resort to its loyal customers. Of course, if any of these items were missing when you check out, you will be charged about two dollars for each of them. Even if you manage to see the price sheet before digging into this feast, that two dollar water starts to look awfully tempting after a day of walking around the desert. And I have no doubt that this practice is fairly common throughout other hotels as well.
Vegas is no longer the land of cheap buffets and family vacations. While Vegas in its current form may have strong appeal to those who merely wish to drink, gamble, and dance, the town has very little appeal to me. However, one has to wonder what will happen in ten years when these same people are looking to vacation with their children. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back in the other direction, and the days of an immersive themed environments and high tech thrills and storytelling will return and so will I. Until that day, the "world's greatest playground" just doesn't seem like that much fun.