By Lee Foster
High stakes gambling in Las Vegas isn’t limited to the casino tables. Bets are constantly being taken on the future of the city itself. What vision will prevail?
While gaming was the rationale for an earlier Las Vegas, investors in the new century wagered that entertainment, gourmet dining, upscale lodging, designer shopping, spas, clubbing, and fine art would be the tourism magnets of the future.
Some resorts in Las Vegas don’t even have a casino on their premises. It is said that about 70 percent of total resort revenue is from non-gaming activities.
One entrepreneur closely associated with this transformation is Steve Wynn, who has owned and sold some celebrated hotels, such as Bellagio, Mirage, and Treasure Island. Wynn’s own name adorns one current property.
Wynn was also a force encouraging more elaborate entertainments in Las Vegas, such as the Cirque du Soleil, with shows such as Zarkana, O, Zumanity, and Mystere.
Cirque, which now operates eight ongoing shows, replaced earlier attractions, such as the Siegfried and Roy magic-and-animal performances. Roy met a cruel fate in the jaws of one of his own prized tigers, so the Siegfried and Roy era has ended, except that some of the splendid cats are in a menagerie on display, the Secret Garden environment at the Mirage.
An example of the new mega-resort is Aria. The Aria restaurant, Sage, started with a James Beard Award-winning chef, epitomizes the fine dining emphasis of 21st century Las Vegas. Aria is like a modern reflection of Bellagio, a trend-changing establishment, whose Circo restaurant helped mark the celebrity-chef restaurant as a replacement for inexpensive buffet dining. The Crystals at City Center shops at Aria parallel the Via Bellagio as examples of upscale shopping, with a cluster of exclusive designer names. The Spa at Aria is also an industry leader in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas now has 155,000 hotel rooms, a number that few other destinations in the world can match. Anyone flying into McCarran International Airport, which is huge but well organized, may wonder if this is an underestimate. A Terminal 3 opened to host international flights from numerous countries. Despite the occasionally precarious economic times, Las Vegas has edged up to 42 million visitors a year.
In more detail, here is what awaits you in the new Las Vegas.
The Emphasis on Entertainment
The Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas, such as Zarkana, Ka, Zumanity, O, and Mystere, are in a class by themselves. One is tempted to suggest that they embody the genius of American showmanship, but that would be incorrect. The Cirque du Soleil originated in Montreal, so this new art form epitomizes the genius of North American collaboration. The imaginative energy of Cirque and the entertainment resources of Las Vegas have united in a spectacular way.
The genius of Cirque fits well into the Las Vegas mind set. Gymnastic feats, extravagant sets, inventiveness, and originality all epitomize the tradition of Las Vegas showmanship. It is amazing that, day after day, year after year, these Cirque shows continue to pack in the audiences. Mystere has been playing to packed audiences for an incredible record of 22 years as of 2015. It helps to have an audience of 42 million arriving in town each year.
Each staging becomes a signature part of the property hosting it. O plays at a theatre adjacent to the Bellagio resort. The venue was designed precisely for O, as it would have to be, because the performance takes place in a huge onstage pool that can be instantly filled with water or covered to become a stage.
Some Cirque performances are lyrical and difficult to describe. The nature of O is not easy to decipher. The word or letter O is a play on the French word for water, l’eau. The concept of infinity, the circle of life, and the elegance of pure form are said to be parts of the explanation. O is part circus acrobatics, part aquatic synchronized swimming, and part new age song and dance. What is the subject? The mystery of life, the joy and anxiety of existence? The official description suggests that O is a “celebration of life, love, and death.” Franco Dragone, creator of O, believes that “in theatre humanity tries to understand itself.”
Adding to these blockbuster entertainments is the enduring multi-year performance records of individual superstars. Celine Dion is an example. She has her own style, emphasizing intimate songs and an accompanying dance troupe. Celine Dion attracts legions of fans over several years. Such superstars will come and go, as exhaustion and burnout competes with the attentive energy required for a daily performance.
As another strategy to attract the masses, Wynn judged that a select collection of world-famous art could become a major tourist attraction in Las Vegas, which had never been known for this kind of interest. So he set out to acquire notable paintings, emphasizing popular 19th and 20th century masters, investing some $300 million. His Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art displayed some choice works, such as Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar, Paul Gaugin’s Bathers, and Vincent Van Gogh’s Peasant Woman against a Background of Wheat. Later, the collection changed, as paintings were bought and sold. But the public, awed by the amount of money paid for these treasures, lined up eagerly and paid an entrance fee to see them. Before Bellagio, cultural art in Las Vegas meant the Liberace Museum, now permanently closed, featuring the glitzy pianist’s outfits and instruments. While the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art could be said to have “purchased” high culture, shows such as Ka, O, and Mystere are original modern high-culture creations that reflect the sensibility of Las Vegas.
The “downtown” casinos along Fremont Street eyed the competing “strip” casinos and all their growing attractions with much concern. To spruce up Fremont Street, the movers and shakers decided to transform it into a pedestrian mall and install a massive vaulted and electrified canopy overhead. This Fremont Street Experience canopy shows six-minute light shows at the top of the hour each evening. The 2.1 million lights in the canopy can be programmed with any possible color in a computer-generated tour de force. Fremont Street is a lively bar scene, while the Strip is more of a club scene. Fremont Street emphasizes value rather than ultra luxury. One lively aspect of Fremont Street is its First Friday street celebration of visual and performing artists.
A zipline on Fremont Street now allows celebrants to fly like screaming raptors down the full length of the the canopied street. Off Fremont, at 300 Stewart, an attraction known as the Mob Museum highlights the grip on America that the mob achieved. The era of Prohibition saw a rise in mob activities, with criminals providing many Americans with the alcoholic beverages they desired. At the Mob Museum, you can pose in a simulated police lineup and blast away with a tommy gun at your perceived enemies. Mug shots of famous mobsters and paraphernalia of their craft adorn the museum. Be sure to take in the Mob Museum, which is located where it should be, in Las Vegas. Also known as the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement, the museum is housed in the former federal courthouse, scene of famous 1950-1951 hearings to expose organized crime in America.
Fremont Street and downtown is a balance to the Strip and a lively place to encounter. On the Strip, each major resort is a world unto itself, but Fremont Street downtown is a more egalitarian street-party atmosphere, open to all. Free live bands pulsate on three stages. Street entertainers perform their stunts and are ready to pose for photos, asking for tips. Bars along the street provide go-cups as participants dance or watch spray-paint artists create their drawings, which are for sale. Partying folks with their go-cups walk down the street, high fiving policemen wheeling by on bicycles.
Revitalization of the downtown has been the theme of recent years. The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, located in Symphony Park, provides the city with performance spaces exceeding anything in the past. Check to see what’s playing during your visit. Many of the downtown properties have been renovated, such as the Plaza Hotel. Restaurants have been revitalized or created anew, such as Oscar’s Steakhouse.
As mentioned earlier, if shopping can be considered a form of entertainment, then Las Vegas could be said to outdo California’s Rodeo Drive in that category. A stroll around Crystals at City Center adjacent to Aria or down Via Bellagio at Bellagio takes the visitor past boutiques of Giorgio Armani, Prada, Channel, Tiffany & Company, Moschino, Hermes, Fred Leighton, and Gucci. The Shopping Mall, a runway celebration with ongoing fashion shows adjacent to dozens of major retailers, continues this 24/7/365 vision of upscale merchandising in Las Vegas.
Beyond Downtown Fremont and the Strip there are some further Vegas cultural stops to consider, but an insider perspective can be useful. The services of longtime Vegas residents, Babs Daitch, who was Frank Sinatra’s social secretary, and Richard Hooker, are available at http://lasvegaspopculturetours.com. Ask them to take you to three stops. First is the Neon Museum, aka the Boneyard, a repository of the neon sign technology that illuminated Las Vegas from 1928 to the present. As casinos and resorts desired ever greater signs, some fans gathered the discarded remnants, which are a treasure of earlier glitz. Second is The Nevada State Museum, which has expected natural history presentations of geology and fossils. But the only-in-Vegas element at the museum is a new collection of an 8,000-piece wardrobe from the closed Folies Bergere show, a sartorial record of the showgirl and showboy culture during the 50-year run at the Hotel Tropicana in Las Vegas. Finally, ask them to stop by the museum/house of Antonio Morelli, the band leader at the Sands Hotel, where Frank Sinatra flourished. Morelli’s midcentury-modern house was one place where the Rat Pack, including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior, hung out and rehearsed.
Will Las Vegas Continue to Flourish?
Will the well-to-do traveler choose Las Vegas because of the upscale entertainment, hotels, shopping, and fine dining?
The titillating appeal of potential sin in Las Vegas continues to allure, capsulized in the marketing motto, “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.” This implicit marketing mantra appeals to a large class of travelers, women and men, who would like to get lucky at something other than slots.
Las Vegas is innovative in the boy-meets-girl aspect of travel. The club scene thrives in the nightlife world, such as in the 1 Oak Club at the Mirage. However, Las Vegas has also evolved a “daylife” as well as “nightlife” style of club, taking advantage of its year-around warm weather and outdoor pool settings. Club Liquid at Aria is an example of this “daylife” fun. The club is for adults only, with a cover charge, and emphasizes pulsating music, drinks, and a party atmosphere, where everyone at the party is wearing only a bathing suit.
Doomsayers continue to predict that the Las Vegas bubble will burst, that too many new hotels have been built and they’ll never be paid off. The prediction of doom for Las Vegas requires constant revision as the destination shows resilience, adjusting to economic downturns, but avoiding any apocalyptic collapse.
Who knows when the next winning or losing card will be dealt? Big bets have been placed.
Las Vegas: If You Go
For overall tourism information on Las Vegas, the source is the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Bureau at www.lasvegas.com.
One dominant player on the scene, MGM Resorts, owns many of the landmark properties, from Aria to Bellagio. Details are at www.mgmresorts.com.
For an overview of the state of Nevada as a travel destination, see www.travelnevada.com.