Las Vegas

The smart money continues to bet on family gambling as the rollout of new mega attractions continues.

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Auguste Renoir is said to have believed that widespread evidence of tastelessness is the result of prosperity. In his view, during good times too many people have the means to express themselves-with unfortunate result on the aesthetic environment.

Of course, in Renoir's time, many persons of established good taste thought the new Eiffel Tower was a blot on the Paris skyline.

We've come a long way since then, and nobody appears to think a jumbo re-creation of, say, the Place du Casino at Monte Carlo, is a blot on the Las Vegas skyline-or even out of place in the ever-shifting sands of the Nevada desert. That goes for the giant guitar at the Hard Rock Casino, too. And ditto ditto for a 1,149-foot combo space needle/hotel/casino/thrill ride/vantage point that also provides perhaps the loftiest trio of wedding chapels in any state that doesn't require a blood test or waiting period.

Las Vegas has been in a continuous roll-out mode for new megahotel/resorts for several years. When we last visited, the paint wasn't yet dry on the MGM Grand. In the three years since then, the buildings mentioned above have opened, a downtown street has been converted to a covered mall/lightshow venue, and a good start has been made on several other projects. They're all altering the skyline to general applause while helping preserve the character of the neighborhood.

The most immediately obvious new addition, pretty much at the north end of The Strip, is Stratosphere Tower. Las Vegas megaprojects lend themselves to superlatives, and Stratosphere Tower can support as many of them as any recent project. For example: It's "the tallest free-standing observation tower in the United States" (eat your heart out, Auguste-the Eiffel Tower is a comparatively squat 984 feet), features "the world's highest roller coaster" (909 feet), and its Big Shot is "the only ride in the world that shoots straight up." One could say, as the Stratosphere Casino people do, that the Stratosphere and its tower "define the top of the Las Vegas Strip."

You do get a heck of a view from either of its observation decks. One is enclosed, the other is open air. From the open air deck you also get a good look at the soles of those seated on the Big Shot above and can hear them scream as they are shot, as though from a giant elastic band, 160 feet up the spike atop the tower. On the only marginally slower trip back down, they bounce.

The roller coaster, which normally whizzes around the tower's rounded roof, wasn't running the days we visited. An attendant told us it was down for "enhancements," including "higher seats so the view will be better."

For those seeking a possibly longer and more stress-inducing ride, the "pod" atop the tower also has three wedding chapels and a "team of Bridal Consultants." The Top of the World restaurant, which turns 360 degrees in about an hour, features entrees from $13 to $25. And don't forget the big casino downstairs.

Most of the last few years' rollout has been on or reasonably near "The Strip," the stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that runs approximately from Stratosphere down to Luxor. Along The Strip you go by the Barbary Coast, Caesars Palace, King Arthur's realm (Excalibur), MGM, Treasure Island, and such now old-timey names as Stardust, Harrah's, and Flamingo.

Down past the British Navy's voyage of perpetual defeat, beyond the tropical volcano's flaming eruption, not far from the Roman palace where an automaton Bacchus revels in laser light, you'll find the brand new Monte Carlo.

The casino was inspired by the Place du Casino in Monte Carlo, which is a quartier in the principality of Monaco. The original, according to Britannica, is "a luxuriously beautiful playground for the world's rich..." The Las Vegas version is impressive, too, with the big advantages that it's handy and you don't need to be rich. A Grace Kelly impersonator posing by the classical statuary would be a nice touch. They have no Grace, but you can stop at the Unocal station next door to fill up the tank. Let them try that in Monaco.

At Monte Carlo you might imagine yourself as an international high roller, or perhaps James Bond, suavely gambling in an atmosphere of continental sophistication, a wave pool, and incongruously driving music.

This would be more of a challenge at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Located perhaps a mile from The Strip on Harmon Avenue, it's the building with a several-story-tall guitar by the door.

Hard Rock's manager was quoted in The New York Times as saying that the Hard Rock is an alternative to Caesars Palace and that on questioning the visitors, he discovered "More than eight out of ten rate us as awesome. Now that just blows me away."

The Hard Rock casino does seem to attract a younger crowd than some other casinos; it was fairly full of apparent early bloomers on our visit. Loud rock music mixed with the ringing and clattering of mechanized gambling quite well. Gold and platinum records in the now-quaint LP format decorated the walls along with electric guitars of provenance impressive to the initiated. Even the coffee tables in the lobby were glass showcases of rock memorabilia.

Nearby attractions include the pool, which has a beach of genuine sand, and the Hard Rock Store, where the music seemed a bit louder and where you can buy HR hats, jackets, towels, socks, golf balls, and other items. In the casino, planet earths, illuminated from within, hang from the ceiling and glow blue and green.

The earth theme is important to the hotel/casino and the Hard Rock Cafe just outside. This is more impressive once you get by the ecological implications of building a large casino/hotel in the desert.

You enter the cafe by passing over the suggestion "Save the Earth." The memorabilia-crammed interior includes 20 busts of Elvis in the center, a gold Cadillac convertible forming a canopy over the bar, and many more gold and platinum LPs. Fare runs to hamburgers, sandwiches, BBQ chicken, steak, fish. The "Save the Earth" idea includes providing recycling bins, donation of the proceeds from certain slot machines to save the rain forest (pull a handle, save a tree), donations to the needy. And don't forget what a service to the environment taking that big Caddy off the road was.

All this action on and reasonably near The Strip wasn't necessarily doing downtown Las Vegas a whole lot of good. Getting people away from The Strip and to the downtown casinos, tacky to be sure but lacking The Strip's gold-plated glitz, was a problem.

But downtown did have its advantages. For example, gambling in a number of casinos, rather than one or two, is a lot easier on downtown's Fremont Street as the casinos are close together. They waste little time or space on things the hard-core gambler might consider inessentials, such as Sphinxes and Brooklyn Bridges. On the other hand, downtown didn't have the big, new, fantasy-themed casinos. What to do?

Why, if the answer had been any more obvious, it would have bitten you: Recast five blocks of Fremont Street just off Las Vegas Boulevard as a "dynamic environment" and "unique outdoor venue." As Ross Perot might say, "Problem solved."

In this case, dynamic environment means the street has been turned into a pedestrian mall with trees, mist-spritzers to cool the air, and a huge canopy that mitigates the sun's effects over most of it. The people-friendliness is compromised, however, by the lack of drinking fountains and benches.

That huge, arched canopy has a 540,000-watt sound system and 2.1 million lights. If all of them were turned on at once, "the output would equal 7.8 megawatts" according to the Fremont Street people. If you're going to create a "light and sound extravaganza" it's the only way to go. After dark, a flashing, loud, energetic show on the canopy's underside along its four-block length delivers on the promise.

The approximately ten-minute, periodically repeated, presentation can vary. On our visit, the show was "Viva Las Vegas," a tribute to Vegas stalwarts like Frank, Sammy, Dino, and, of course, Wayne Newton. It takes dozens of computers, over two hundred speakers, and all those lights to create the desired effect. It's quite a show and quite a technical feat. The Las Vegas tourism people hope all this makes Vegas your kinda town.

If it doesn't, try New York, New York. That megahotel/casino near the far end of the strip is scheduled to open in December. You vvcan't miss it: Look for the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and a few other prominent components of the Manhattan skyline looming over Monte Carlo. Take a good supply of quarters.

This article was first published in November 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Your AAA California/Nevada TourBook is a good guide to Las Vegas and vicinity attractions. The AAA Travel Agency can book accommodations for you and help you with the many package tours available. AAA's Las Vegas map can be handy, too.

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