June 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Veiled Vegas - June 1998 Current Issue
June 1998
Veiled Vegas

Theme casinos aer changing the face of the strip

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In the late 1980s, when developer Steve Wynn unfurled plans for a colossal $630 million resort with an erupting volcano, animal habitats and enough lagoons and tropical foliage to cover a small South Pacific island, few people knew a phenomenon was in the making that would change the face of Las Vegas.

It's called the theme casino hotel. While Wynn's 3,049-room Mirage was not the first theme property to grace the Strip (both Caesars Palace and Circus Circus opened more than 20 years earlier), it was the one that ushered in a whole new era of wildly eclectic gaming resorts unlike anything the Rat Pack ever knew. In less than a decade, many of the original hotels along the Strip have been replaced by such spectacles as a giant Egyptian-style pyramid, the MGM lion, a replica of the Manhattan skyline, an Arthurian castle and even pyrotechnic pirate ships. With plenty more theme projects still to come, incarnations of Venice, Paris and a lakeside Italian village (just slightly less extensive than their real counterparts) will soon follow.

That's entertainment
More than a passing fad, theme hotels will have an impact on Las Vegas tourism that cannot be underestimated, says gaming industry consultant Jennifer Kutcher, senior analyst for Coopers & Lybrand in Philadelphia. "Starting with Mirage, theme resorts have broadened the appeal of Las Vegas," she says. "People who once thought of Las Vegas as a place only for die-hard gamblers became interested in seeing it for themselves." With developers vying to outdo one another with evermore ambitious concepts, a sense of excitement has been generated by the theme resorts, she notes. "Everybody's curious to see the latest creation, whether it's a replica of the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower. Theme resorts have become part of the image of the city of Las Vegas."

Bruce Baltin, senior vice president for PKF Consulting in Los Angeles, is another gaming hotel expert who believes theme properties also have played a major role in helping Las Vegas evolve from a gaming mecca into something more. "Las Vegas is now about entertainment, not just gaming," he says. "It's become a giant theme park for adults where there are things to see and do everywhere you look. The theme elements at the casino hotels are all part of this entertainment, whether it's watching the ship battle at Treasure Island or the volcano erupt at Mirage."

Entertainment, everything from virtual reality attractions to lavish shopping arcades, is indeed a large part of what theme casino hotels are about. At Circus Circus, the resort not only offers circus-themed decor, but a genuine circus arena, complete with trapeze artists, acrobats, jugglers and clowns. A midway provides both old-fashioned carnival games and the latest video attractions. At its sister property, Excalibur, entertainment reflects the Arthurian style of the resort, with magicians, jugglers and singers giving impromptu performances in the Medieval Village shopping arcade.

While impressive showrooms have long been a trademark of Las Vegas hotels, entertainment venues often take on new dimensions at the theme properties. Luxor recently became the first hotel in the city to boast its own IMAX 3D theater, a 312-seat venue with an eight-channel, multidimensional, digital sound system. At Caesars Palace, a 66,000-square-foot dining and entertainment complex called Caesars Magical Empire offers a variety of private dining rooms and two elaborate theaters where magicians and illusionists perform.

Themed entertainment has become so much a part of the Las Vegas scene that traditional hotels are adding themed elements to stay competitive. Earlier this year the Las Vegas Hilton unveiled its $70 million "Star Trek: The Experience," a 40,000-square-foot entertainment facility that offers a simulated spaceship ride, memorabilia from the TV series, video games and a theme restaurant. The hotel also added a huge new casino called SpaceQuest, featuring high-definition "windows into space" that project changing panoramic views of Earth.

Some meeting planners are theming special events around the concept of the city's theme hotels. Lori Williams, sales manager for USA Hosts in Las Vegas, a destination management company, notes that a popular event for groups is the Viva Las Vegas party, which features costumed characters that represent the various theme hotels. "You'll have the Statue of Liberty from New York-New York, the lion from MGM Grand, the sphinx from Luxor, Merlin from Excalibur," Williams says. "It's gotten so that many people now identify Las Vegas by the theme hotels and their icons."

Billion-dollar babies
Very much a product of their own success, the high profits enjoyed by Las Vegas theme casino hotels have laid the ground work for more ambitious projects with astronomical price tags. And in Vegas, too much is never enough. For example, Mirage Resorts Inc., which developed the $630 million Mirage and the $430 million Treasure Island resorts, is now getting ready to unveil Bellagio, a 3,000-room property set on 122 acres of the Strip. The cost of the megaproperty has been estimated at nearly $2 billion. Features include an artificial lake adorned with fountains and surrounded by lavish gardens. Public areas will display an extensive collection of European artwork, including original works by Picasso and Matisse. Also planned are 14 restaurants and 125,000 square feet of meeting space. Inspired by and named for a village on the shores of Italy's Lake Como, Bellagio is set to open Oct. 15 of this year.

Another theme resort to soon alter the Las Vegas skyline is The Venetian, which also is expected to cost about $2 billion. Constructed on the site of the imploded Sands Hotel Casino, The Venetian Casino Resort will eventually have 6,000 sleeping rooms. Phase One, which will encompass 3,036 sleeping rooms, is scheduled to open in April 1999 (no date has been set for the completion of Phase Two), and will include 30 restaurants and the expanded Sands Expo Center, with 1.6 million square feet of meeting space. Venetian-inspired elements include replicas of the Doges Palace, Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.

Hilton Hotel Corp.'s version of the City of Lights is coming to the Strip in early 1999, complete with replicas of the Eiffel Tower, L'Arc de Triomphe, the Paris Opera House and even the Seine. The 2,900-room Paris Casino Resort also will feature a working winery, gondola rides, a French-influenced shopping arcade and 130,000 square feet of meeting space.

What makes their costs so high? Blame the frosting, not the cake. Baltin notes that guest rooms are downright basic when compared to their grandiose surroundings. "In most cases, the money is being spent on landscaping, water features, the casinos and other public areas," he says. "It's not going into the rooms."

For Vegas only?
While theme casino resorts have had a huge impact on Las Vegas, the concept has been slow to take hold in other gaming destinations. In Atlantic City, a first glimmer of a theme property was seen last June with the opening of Wild Wild West. Designed to resemble a Western frontier town, the attraction features a casino, restaurant and shopping complex connected to the 1,255-room Bally's Park Place.

Likely to become Atlantic City's first full-fledged theme hotel is the 670-room Resorts Casino Hotel, purchased from Merv Griffin last year by Sun International. Following an 18-month renovation to be completed late next year, the hotel will be known as the Beach Club, and its decor and amenities will reflect a beach theme. And Mirage Resorts' Steve Wynn hopes to repeat his Las Vegas success in Atlantic City with Le Jardin, a 2,000-room casino resort with a garden theme, scheduled to break ground this fall. So far, however, the project has been delayed by a legal dispute with former development partners, highway access issues and other problems.

Still, the theme concept is likely to remain a largely Las Vegas phenomenon, believes Coopers & Lybrand's Kutcher. "Atlantic City will never equal what has happened in Las Vegas. Land is not as available, and there are many more restrictions on development."

Alan Feldman, spokesperson for Las Vegas-based Mirage Resorts, agrees, adding that Las Vegas provides the perfect environment for theme resort development. "Las Vegas is a blank canvas where there aren't the traditions and taboos that you have in most places," he says. "Here you can let your imagination go."

Wonderlands In The Nevada Desert Want to jet to Monte Carlo or New York City, slip back in time to King Arthur's court or meet up with Dorothy and Toto? No need to travel around the world, just hit the Strip. Here's a roundup of current Las Vegas theme casino hotels, including meeting space

Caesers Palace
The original theme casino property, Caesars Palace brought the grandeur of ancient Rome to the Las Vegas Strip in 1966. Continually expanding, Caesars added a lavish dining and entertainment complex called Caesars Magical Empire in 1996 and a new guest room tower at the end of last year, bringing its room count to 2,500 and total meeting space to 170,00 square feet. (702) 731-7110

Circus Circus
Circus Circus made its debut on the Strip in 1968 as the first casino to court the family market with Big Top entertainment that includes a circus arena with trapeze artists, high-wire daredevils, acrobats and clowns. Two guest room towers offer a total of 3,800 rooms; also on site are six restaurants, a domed amusement park called Grand Slam Canyon and 15,250 square feet of meeting space. (702) 734-0410

Re-creating the world of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the 4,032-room Excalibur sports a castle design, complete with moat, drawbridge, towering stone walls and displays of armor. A medieval-style arena features the nightly King Arthur's Tournament dinner show. Excalibur offers 12,226 square feet of meeting space. (702) 597-7777

Hard Rock Hotel and Casino
An offshoot of the theme restaurants, the 300-room Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is filled with rock 'n' roll memorabilia and such touches as a lobby chandelier hung with 32 gold saxophones. Rock stars perform at The Joint, the hotel's 1,200-seat showroom, and at the Hard Rock Beach Club, music is piped into the pool. An expansion with 350 rooms, several restaurants and poolside function space is scheduled for completion in spring 1999. (702) 693-5000

Ancient Egyptians never saw anything like Luxor, the 4,476-room, pyramid-shaped hotel where guests enter beneath a massive sphinx to find a soaring atrium filled with artifact reproductions from Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings. Rooms are reached via "inclinators," elevators that travel at a 39-degree angle up the 350-foot pyramid. Also on site: eight restaurants and 20,000 square feet of meeting space. (702) 262-4000

MGM Grand Hotel Casino
Now billing itself as the City of Entertainment, the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino has broadened its original Wizard of Oz theme to better reflect the full gamut of MGM's movie-making and show business history. With a $700 million expansion in progress, the 5,005-room resort already sports a new exterior with a giant shimmering gold lion, 60-foot-high video screens, spotlights and a dramatic fountain. The new 380,000-square-foot MGM Grand Conference Center gives the resort more than 500,000 square feet of meeting space. (702) 891-7777

The Mirage
Widely credited with inspiring a new wave of colossal theme casinos when it opened in 1989, Mirage re-creates a tropical paradise; it's lobby is a 90-foot-high atrium filled with royal palms and a 20,000-gallon aquarium. Also on the grounds: a dolphin pool and the Secret Garden, home of the white tigers that perform in the Siegfried and Roy show at the resort. Outside the 3,049-room property is a lagoon with waterfalls and a giant volcano that "erupts" every 15 minutes. Mirage offers 100,000 square feet of meeting space. (702) 791-7111

Monte Carlo
Its architecture inspired by Monaco's Place du Casino, Monte Carlo brings a touch of 19th-century elegance to the Strip with fanciful arches, chandeliered domes, marble floors and gaslit promenades. The 3,014-room property offers 21,900 square feet of meeting space. (702) 730-7777

New York-New York
Bringing the New York City skyline to the Las Vegas Strip, New York-New York's 2,035 guest rooms are housed in towers resembling only slightly smaller versions of the Empire State Building, Century Building and Chrysler Building. Other mock-Big Apple attractions: a 150-foot-high replica of the Statue of Liberty, a 300-foot-long Brooklyn Bridge and a Coney Island-style roller coaster. Meeting space totals 11,900 square feet. (702) 740-6969

Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson's novel of pirate lore inspired the 2,900-room Treasure Island. Waves lap in the man-made Buccaneer Bay at the hotel entrance as the pirate ship Hispaniola battles the British frigate Britannia, and pirates and sailors fire pyrotechnic volleys. Treasure Island has nine restaurants and 15,526 square feet of meeting space. (702) 894-7111


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