Weekly Column by Rick Garman

Want to know what's happening in Las Vegas? You've come to the right place.

Each week you can come here to get the latest news, the juiciest gossip, and the best reviews for the most fabulous city in the world, Las Vegas. Hey... it says "fabulous" right on the welcome sign!

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15th Anniversary Special: How Implosions Gave Way to Makeovers

2013 marks the 15th Anniversary of Over the next few weeks, I'll be doing a series of articles about the big differences between Las Vegas of 1998 and the Las Vegas of today.

Back in the heady days of the Vegas building boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, no existing Vegas hotel was safe. Legends like The Sands, The Desert Inn, The Dunes, and The Aladdin all got closed down and blown up to make way for newer, bigger, and better hotels like The Venetian, Wynn Las Vegas, Bellagio, and, well, The Aladdin (which may not have been a better hotel but it was certainly newer and bigger). Even more recently, The Stardust and The Frontier both got scrubbed from The Strip landscape to make way for new megaresorts.

Those hotels haven't materialized yet, mostly because of the great recession that started in 2008 and has had lingering effects that ripple to this day. Around the country, there is talk of a "new frugality," where the days of excess and unlimited spending are giving way to a more reasonable approach to individual finances that puts a heavier emphasis on saving and budget-minded activities. That's bad news for Vegas, a city built on the concept of excess and unlimited spending, but like the people who visit it is finding a way to keep the fun going without breaking the bank: the makeover.

Instead of getting imploded an older hotel gets a facelift designed to give it new life and draw new audience. The level of the makeover can vary from purely cosmetic, with new decor and furnishings, to structural, with new additions to or changes in the existing building, to extreme, where the entire place is basically stripped down and reborn.

Granted, this is not a new concept. The Tropicana is a great example of a cosmetic makeover, which dumped the dusty tropical theme it had for years for a sparkly white South Beach look in 2011; the New Aladdin got both a cosmetic and a structural overhaul back in the mid-2000s that turned it into Planet Hollywood; and the Westin Las Vegas shows what you can get when you gut an old hotel like The Maxim and start over from the bare concrete and steel.

But all of those happened while other hotels were getting imploded and rebuilt from scratch all around them. The default was to start from zero as opposed to today where companies are finding ways to reinvent without resorting to dynamite to do so. While there are several on the drawing boards, there are no ground-up new hotels currently under construction in Las Vegas and there are no existing hotels (that we know of) that are threatened with implosion.

The comparison is fairly stunning. Between 1988 and 1998, more than a dozen major ground-up new hotels opened in Las Vegas including The Mirage, Rio, Treasure Island, MGM Grand, Monte Carlo, Orleans, and Bellagio to name a few. Between 1998 and 2008 the number is even higher with hotels like Mandalay Bay, Venetian, Paris, Palms, The Cannery, Red Rock Resort, and Wynn Las Vegas coming online. Between 2008 and 2018 the number will most likely be four - M Resort, CityCenter (which does have three separate hotels), The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, and the planned Resorts World Las Vegas. (note: hotels like the upcoming SLS Las Vegas and Gansevoort don't count because they are overhauls of existing buildings, not new construction. There may be other new properties that could get announced, planned, and built by 2018 but certainly not very many.

Cosmetic overhauls have recently been completed or are underway at several hotels in Vegas. Terrible's has recently been rebranded as Silver Sevens after some decor changes to most of its rooms, part of its casino, and its restaurants; Mandalay Bay is undergoing a major overhaul that is transforming the look and feel of its casino and adding new restaurants, shows, and nightclubs; The Palms has gotten a new look in its casino, new restaurants, and remodeled rooms; and even locals favorite Palace Station is getting some upgrades with a new casino bar and steakhouse.

Structural upgrades are happening up and down The Strip, most notably at the former Imperial Palace and at New York-New York and Monte Carlo. The old IP is in the midst of a big time makeover that is giving it an entirely new look and feel on the outside and the public areas that came with a new name, The Quad. The Flamingo, next door, is also getting some structural updates as it plans to integrate into The Linq, a new entertainment plaza under construction between the two hotels. That $500 million project will create a boulevard of stores, restaurants, and nightclubs leading back to what is being billed as the world's tallest observation wheel.

Down the street, New York-New York and Monte Carlo are getting a similar pedestrian friendly attraction added, with the fronts of the hotels being completely revamped to feature new dining and retail outlets including a big Hershey's store. That will eventually spill back into a park that leads to a proposed 20,000 seat arena behind the two hotels.

In between them, Bally's is getting both a cosmetic upgrade to many of its rooms and a structural one with the planned renovation of the front of the building to add in a Grand Bazaar concept of shops between the sidewalk and the front entrance.

Meanwhile, Treasure Island is planning to revamp the corner of their building where the pedestrian walkway crosses over from The Fashion Show Mall to have new restaurants and retail space along The Strip.

The extreme makeovers are also in full swing on The Strip and in Downtown Las Vegas. The former Bill's Gamblin' Hall is being completely gutted so it can be reborn as the swank Gansevoort Las Vegas in 2014; the former Sahara is getting a top to bottom overhaul (that involves tearing down and rebuilding some of the property) so it can become the equally swank SLS Hotel Las Vegas in 2014; and the former Lady Luck got stripped to the concrete so it can be revamped into the upcoming Downtown Grand, which is set to debut this fall.

The economic recovery is slow around the country but especially in Las Vegas, where visitation numbers are up but spending is down - part of that new frugality as visitors come back to Sin City but don't want to drop as much of their hard earned cash as they used to. As long as that is the reality under which Las Vegas is operating, expect makeovers to be the norm instead of the exception.


Resort Fee Update

Another month, another set of fee updates as five hotels in Las Vegas up their nightly rip-off... I mean resort fees, another adds one, and another tries to make it something other than what it is.

On The Strip, The Quad has raised its nightly resort fee from $10 to $15 but now includes access to the fitness center. If you're sitting there thinking, wait a minute... a $15 fee for a hotel that often barely charges $30 for a room? And that those rooms are not very nice? Yes. Welcome to the new Las Vegas. There are rumors abounding that this could herald a much-needed makeover of those rooms but that is not official yet.

Off The Strip, all of the Boyd Gaming properties have raised their fees to $9.99 across the board. The Orleans went up from $6, Suncoast from $5, Sam's Town from $4.50, and Gold Coast from $3. All of them now include up to 1mb of Internet service for up to three devices, but if you go over that (which you will if you plan on doing anything other than checking your text-based email), they will charge you extra for it.

Note that Boyd's Downtown properties including The California, Main Street Station, and The Fremont are remaining fee free for now.

Speaking of Downtown, The Golden Nugget instituted a $5 nightly charge last month that they originally called a Fremont Street Fee, designed, they said, to help pay for the Fremont Street Experience, which they partially fund. Now that fee is being called a Downtown Destination Fee and comes with a "savings book" that will allegedly get you discounts at Downtown businesses, museums, and attractions.

Meanwhile, the Westin Las Vegas on Flamingo Boulevard has finally caved to pressure and added a nightly "amenity fee" of $19.95 plus tax. That covers all the stuff that other hotels are calling resort fees like Internet, fitness center access, in-room coffee, and local and toll-free calls.

Check out the fees and what they include at all of the major hotels on the Resort Fee page.


Meatloaf to Open RockTellz & CockTails

If you look at a list of the top-selling albums of all time you see a lot of what you'd expect: Michael Jackson, The Eagles, Pink Floyd, Whitney Houston, and so on. It all kind of makes sense until you scan down the list and sitting there is Meat Loaf? Really? Yes, really. Mr. Loaf's classic "Bat Out of Hell" released in 1977 has sold more than 30 million copies. That's more than any other album by ABBA, Backstreet Boys, Queen, and U2 just to name a few. Heck, that's more than any Michael Jackson album besides "Thriller."

Meat Loaf will be the lead-off artist in a new show opening at Planet Hollywood called "RockTellz & CockTails." It will feature a VH1 "Storytellers" style vibe with musicians telling stories and chatting with the audience about their life, career, and songs in between performances of their biggest hits. For Meat Loaf that will be songs like "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights," and "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)."

The show is designed to feature a rotating series of headliners and Meat Loaf will be doing the first 18 dates between September 26 and November 5. Shows will be Thursday, Saturday, and Tuesday at 7:30pm. Tickets, which are on sale now, range from $69 to $149 for regular admission and (a jaw-dropping) $750 for a chance to meet Meat.

You can get tickets at the Planet Hollywood Box Office, by phone at 702-785-5395 or through Ticketmaster.


Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The Combo Meal Award of the Week goes to the Mob Museum and the Neon Museum, which are offering a combo ticket that gets you admission to both attractions for a discount. The ticket costs $30, which 30% over buying individual tickets, and is available at the Mob Museum box office. Note that you have to do both attractions on the same day and you must make reservations for the Neon Museum tour.

The Happiest Place on The Strip Award of the Week goes to the Fashion Show Mall, which is about to debut a new Disney Store, complete with only-in-Vegas merchandise like a showgirl Minnie. The 5,400 square foot facility is set to open August 7.

The Most Fabulous Place on The Strip Award of the Week goes to Marquee nightclub at The Cosmopolitan, where you'll be able to find a new weekly gay and lesbian event called "Freedom" every Sunday night. The new club night will cater to the LGBT crowd but be open to anyone with an open mind. It joins similar weekly "gay nights" at Bond at The Cosmopolitan (Wednesdays) and Revolution Lounge (also Sunday) at The Mirage.

The Going to the Dogs Award of the Week goes to Vdara, which has just added a new dog stay program. Guests can bring one dog up to 75 pounds or two combined up to 75 pounds for $50 per night (plus a $75 cleaning charge for the whole stay). It includes a doggie treat, dining menu, crate, bowls, and a dog walk park.

The Storage Award of the Week goes to New York-New York, which has closed its Tribute to Heroes memorial to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as construction on a new pedestrian plaza continues. The memorial sprung up after the attacks when passersby left cards, notes, photos, and other mementos in honor of those who dies in New York City attacks and the hotel eventually built display cases to hold some of it. Those cases have been removed and the memorabilia will be put into storage while they try to find a suitable home for it elsewhere. It will not be reinstalled at the hotel.


Show Review: Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil

In the storm of tabloid headlines that dominated the later years of Michael Jackson's life and his untimely (if not terribly unexpected) death in 2009, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he was, undeniably, a musical and entertainment genius. There is a reason that his "Thriller" is the best-selling album of all time, with more than 45 million copies sold around the world. His impacts on pop music and pop culture are almost too big to comprehend and coming up with a proper showcase for all of it seemed impossible.

But Cirque du Soleil is good at impossible and they have constructed a show at Mandalay Bay that is both a fitting tribute to Jackson's musical legacy and a stunning piece of pop entertainment in its own right.

The theater has been redone from its "Lion King" and "Mamma Mia!" days to include massive video project walls flanking the stage and speakers built into the seat backs in front of you and in the headrests. The result is that you are virtually surrounded by sight and sound, immersed in the action that takes place on all sides and above.

There is a storyline of sorts that involves four young adults who are trying to rescue stolen bits of Jackson's iconic costumes - the rhinestone studded glove, the black fedora, the sunglasses, and the loafers with sparkly socks. They are battled along the way by random bad guys and, at times, the props themselves.

But it is the King of Pop's songs that take center stage here with remixed and remastered versions of many of his biggest hits. Each is paired with a set piece featuring acrobats, aerialists, gymnasts, dancers, magicians, and other visual wonders that evoke the visuals created by Jackson in his videos or concerts instead of simply rehashing them in a live setting.

The first couple of numbers are a bit of Cirque's throw-it-all-on-the-stage-and-see-what-sticks production strategy, with things happening everywhere you look during "Beat It" and "Tabloid Junkie." But the first truly unforgettable moment happens a few minutes in during the lesser known "Stranger in Moscow." Rope artists twirl during a winter scene that builds from a few virtual flakes on the video projection walls to a full-on snowstorm inside the theater, complete with actual bits of frozen water drifting down on the audience. It's a breathtaking moment.

And they keep coming from there. "Bad" features a riff on the gangs in the video, riding in on zip lines and bouncing around on what can best be described as a giant rubber band; "Smooth Criminal" has a team of gymnasts doing wild flips on an inflatable stage; an absolutely genius-level animator (the dance style) twists and turns his way through a solo set to a mashup of "Human Nature" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" (that had better be on the inevitable soundtrack); "Earth Song" uses a giant screen to project dramatic shadows that seem to blend with one another in impossible ways; "Dirty Diana" has a pole dancer doing a PG version of the style; a team of acrobats uses hats in a twirling, twisting sleight of hand routine with "Wanna Be Startin' Something;" and so on.

In a show full of standout moments there are a few that really take things to a different, incredible level. "Billie Jean" pays homage to the lighted sidewalk visuals in the original music video with dancers in lighted suits walking up walls and strobing across the otherwise darkened stage while "Thriller" enhances Cirque's fairly standard trampoline routine with a zombie and graveyard setting.

The latter is a terrific example of how the production uses the iconic choreography to dramatic effect, weaving it in and out of the staging in moments that will spark the sense memory of just about anyone who ever saw one of Jackson's videos. The action subtly moves from the trampolines to the front of the stage and suddenly the dancers are doing the full routine that inspired many an '80s teenager to get up and move like a zombie. And the moment in "Smooth Criminal" where the entire company goes into a gravity defying lean is nothing less than ovation-worthy.

The emotional capper is with a brilliantly realistic hologram of Jackson dancing and seemingly interacting with others on stage during the still-inspirational "Man in the Mirror." I'm not ashamed to say that I got a little teary eyed, not over the loss of the admittedly damaged man but over the void that loss created in the world of popular culture.

Which brings up an important point, or three. The production touches briefly on some of the lesser scandals in Jackson's life, from his bid to buy the Elephant Man bones to his supposed predilection for sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, but the bigger scandals are left wisely unmentioned. There is a little bit of hagiography, but for the most part they don't attempt to turn Jackson into some sort of saint. They just let his music and imagery do the talking and the moon-walking.

In the end you probably have to be at least passingly familiar with, and not completely averse to, Jackson's music to appreciate this show. If that's you, your reaction may be like mine to LOVE, the Cirque production featuring music by The Beatles, which is that its fine and many of the set pieces are cool but it doesn't really speak to my generation of music appreciation.

This show totally does. I was in high school when "Thriller" came out in 1982 and was one of those geeks trying to emulate the zombie choreography. Jackson's music, dance, and style helped to shape my tastes and therefore it is difficult to view ONE objectively outside of that lens.

So take the following with as many generational and artistic preference grains of salt as you'd like: Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil is the best show in Las Vegas and one of the most exciting, awe-inspiring, and joyful shows anywhere. In a word: thrilling.

Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil
Mandalay Bay
3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Sat-Wed 7 & 10pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A


Show Review: Jeff Civillico

Afternoons in Vegas can be an uninspiring time (wow, it's hot) and afternoon shows in Vegas can be the same (wow, they're not). For the most part they are smaller in terms of production value and ticket price and are often attended by tourists who just want an air conditioned place to sit for awhile that doesn't involve cards or spinning reels.

So it takes a special breed of performer to be able to get over those hurdles and only a few exist in Vegas. Mac King is certainly one of them and Legends in Concert has a certain appeal. Now you can add Jeff Civillico and his show at The Quad to that short list.

A world-champion juggler by the time he was 15, Civillico can keep just about anything in the air - balls, rings, clubs, food, bowling balls, chainsaws, fiery batons, light up batons - you name it and he can probably juggle it. And he may be doing so while perched on a unicycle or balancing on a teetering piece of wood.

But like Mac King, whose magic almost becomes secondary to the comedy, Civillico uses juggling as a base from which to build a very entertaining, highly interactive, off-the-cuff performance that is as sly as it is laugh-out-loud funny. His hyperactive energy sometimes even masks how quick-witted he is, leaving big chunks of the audience a beat or two behind the jokes that he seems to be making up as he goes along.

Audience participation is a big element here that gives the production an anything-can-happen vibe. From two guys enlisted to help Civillico get on to a tall unicycle (and then mercilessly teased about it for the rest of the show) to kids brought up to spin plates, the audience and its ringleader are never quite sure where a particular bit is going to go.

It's also a very family friendly show, with kids actively encouraged to attend and join in the fun. The good news for those of us without kids (on purpose) is that Civillico doesn't dumb down the comedy to a 9-year-old level.

In addition to being a good value all on its own, buying a ticket means you also get discounts on other shows and dining including things like 30% off at Hash House a Go Go and $25 Divas Las Vegas tickets. Offers changes so check with the box office for details.

Afternoons are a lot more interesting in Vegas with Jeff Civillico around.

Jeff Civillico
The Quad
3535 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Sat-Mon & Wed-Thu 2:00pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A