Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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15th Anniversary Special: The Evolution of the Las Vegas Casino

2013 marks the 15th Anniversary of Vegas4Visitors.com. 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.

From the time the first gambling hall opened in Las Vegas in the early 1900s to the time Vegas4Visitors debuted in the late 1990s, casino gambling didn't change a lot. Yes, there were some shifts in the popularity of certain games as cards and dice, which used to dominate the floor space, were overtaken by the slot machines that take up most of the room now. And certainly, slot machines themselves changed, going from mechanical "one-armed bandits" to electric and microprocessor driven machines that didn't even really need the "one-arm" to operate anymore.

But it wasn't until the 1990s that gambling really started to take a quantum leap forward, as the technology that powered the innovations in our daily lives started finding its way into the casinos. While the fundamentals are the same, the difference between the 1998 casino and the 2013 casino is almost too big to calculate.

In 1998, slot machines were still pretty basic. Most had three or five physical reels that were operated by a computer chip, called a random number generator, which made the determination of what would show on those reels the moment a player hit the button or pulled the handle. There were video-based slot machines that used a virtual set of reels instead of actual ones but they were not as popular yet; players didn't trust the technology.

Bonus games were only just starting to gain in popularity. Consider that the Wheel of Fortune machines, which added a second wheel spin to the reel spin, was only introduced in 1996.

If you wanted to play one you had to have cash, usually in the form of coins. Most only took coins or tokens to operate although the currency validators that allowed people to put in bills were becoming standard by that time. And of course all of them only dispensed coins when you cashed out, requiring plastic buckets to carry your winnings back to a change booth for redemption.

Most of those things have gone the way of the Dodo, as technology has dramatically reshaped playing a slot machine. Today, the basic slots with physical reels are not as easy to find, having been replaced by touch screens with 3-D graphics, multi-line video reels, and endless variations on bonus games that run the gamut from spinning wheels to animation and beyond. Even the traditional seats - you know, the kind you just sit on - are being replaced with ones that have built-in speakers and shake-effects.

While you can still find some retro coin-operated machines at places like The D Las Vegas, the modern slot machine almost has nothing to do with cash anymore. None of the modern machines take coins or dispense coins anymore and while they will take bills, they only dispense bar-code tickets that have to be redeemed or put into another machine.

The level of play has also changed. In 1998, penny slots were almost unheard of. I remember going to the old Gold Spike to find them; a handful of traditional reel machines at the back of the casino that I played as a novelty for about five minutes. Today, penny slots at many casinos outnumber other denominations although most of them require investments of $2 to $3 per spin to get the full payouts.

Other advancements in the last 15 years include the advent of server-side gaming, wherein the casino and/or the player can change the theme or denomination of the machine on the fly.

Speaking of themes, most slot machines in 1998 had them but they were of the generic Double Diamond, Blazing 7, or Wild Cherry variety. Today, popular culture and entertainment dominates, with movies, TV shows, music, and celebrities driving the action.

Table games have not had quite the trajectory that slots have but there have still been some sea shifts, also driven by technology. Whereas blackjack, craps, and roulette were, and are still, the most popular games in the casinos, most of the newer games feature bonus payouts and side bets that provide the kind of short-attention-span thrills that today's modern gambler seems to crave. As an example, play Three Card Poker at a Caesars Entertainment casino like Caesars Palace and a $5 side bet turns a simple game into a complex second chance that could win a player $1 million.

Technology has even replaced some live table games with large, multi-player virtual ones, turning roulette and blackjack into interactions with a video generated dealer and cards.

Of course not all technology has been as successful. Mobile gaming was supposed to be the next big thing, allowing players to wager from pretty much anywhere they wanted on pretty much any game they wanted. While it is offered in many casinos, it has failed to gain the kind of wide-spread acceptance the manufacturers hoped it would. Today most gamblers still want to sit in a chair (shaking or otherwise) in front of a machine or a person dealing cards rather than lounge poolside while placing bets on a tablet computer.

Another big change has been in the growth of players' clubs. In 1998 they existed but the primary way you earned comps was to make sure the pit boss was tracking your play at the table games. Today's players' club tracks your gambling at slot machines and even outside the casino, allowing you to earn points for doing things like having dinner or shopping. Now, getting a comped buffet is all done via mathematical formula instead of the whim of whoever happens to be watching you play blackjack.

So what will the next 15 years bring? What will casino gaming look like when Vegas4Visitors.com celebrates its 30th anniversary?

No one knows for sure, of course, but everyone agrees that technology will become even more of a driver of the casino evolution. Today's hyper-connected, tech-savvy young adult is tomorrow's gambler and they will demand more than just cards on a table or spinning reels to keep them amused. Fully portable and community based mobile experiences will probably be the norm and developers will try to find ways to incorporate virtual reality style theatrics like holograms. Plus, there's all the stuff that no one has invented yet. In 2028, the multiline 3-D video machines with surround-sound and touch screen displays could seem as quaint as the reel machines that dispense coins do today.

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The Last Bastion Fails: Downtown Hotels Succumb to Resort Fees

The war is over and we have lost. Owners of The D Las Vegas and The Golden Gate in Downtown Las Vegas have announced they will be adding $20 per night resort fees later this month, a move that will most likely be followed by the rest of the Downtown hotels sooner rather than later.

Resort fees have become the norm in Las Vegas with all of the hotels on The Strip charging them. They range from $10 to $25 plus tax per night and usually give guests access to things like Internet, gyms, and some other miscellaneous items. At most hotels the fees are mandatory, regardless of whether you use the services included in them or not.

Up until now Downtown Las Vegas was resisting the trend, with only The Plaza charging a $10 per night resort fee. The Golden Nugget recently added a $5 per night "Downtown Destination" fee that is just a surcharge and doesn't get you anything other than the privilege of staying there.

The D and Golden Gate fees are among the highest in town and will almost certainly pave the way for other Fremont Street properties to follow suit. I'd expect the Boyd Gaming portfolio of The Fremont, The California, and Main Street Station to go next since their sister hotels like the Gold Coast and Orleans recently all raised their fees up to $10 per night.

As of this writing, of the 75 hotels I am tracking on the Resort Fees page on Vegas4Visitors.com, only 13 are not charging resort fees. Once Downtown falls, there will only be seven - a handful of the off-Strip properties like M Resort and The Cannery.

The hotel operators continue to insist that the fees are good for consumers, allowing them to lower their regular rooms rates and include more for it. The D and Golden Gate, for instance, are now offering rooms as low as $21 per night during the week but that price is effectively doubled once the $20 resort fee is added in.

Getting a comped room isn't necessarily going to help you either. Many hotels are now charging the resort fee regardless of whether or not you are paying anything for the room. I just stayed at Mandalay Bay and had to pay $75 plus tax in fees for the three nights.

Being able to advertise low rates is what is driving a lot of this. When most people search for hotels on websites like Travelocity and Expedia, they sort the results by price. Research shows that hotels that do not show up first page of those search results get far fewer bookings so having a low price to advertise is key, regardless of what the actual end price winds up being.

But in the end it is all about money. One widely reported statistic reads that the money you pay in resort fees is an 80-90% markup for the services they cover. These fees are generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for Las Vegas hotels each year.

And it's not just Las Vegas. A quick visit to ResortFees.com shows that hotels across the country are embracing the fee frenzy. Most major resorts and hotels in tourist centers like Orlando, Palm Springs, Miami, Atlantic City, and throughout Hawaii are now charging the nightly fees.

Visit the Resort Fees page on Vegas4Visitors.com for the latest list in Vegas.

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Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The Legend Award of the Week goes to singer and entertainer Eydie Gorme, who passed away last week after a brief illness. Gorme and her husband Steve Lawrence, were Vegas institutions for decades, performing at the classic hotels up and down The Strip both as headliners and as opening acts for The Rat Pack and others. Steve and Eydie were married in Las Vegas in 1957 at the original El Rancho hotel that was at the corner of The Strip and Sahara. Gorme was 84.

The Blackout Award of the Week goes to The Flamingo, which lost power to a portion of its property last week due to a construction mishap at the Gansevoort next door. One of the hotel towers was without power for most of the day and parts of the casino and retail areas were affected as well. This comes just weeks after a plumbing problem shut down a hotel tower, the food court, and one of the showrooms.

The Good Cause Award of the Week goes to the 27th Annual Black & White Party to be held at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel on August 24th. The event is a fundraiser for Aid for AIDS of Nevada and will feature performances by cast members of Chippendales, Divas Las Vegas, Rock of Ages, Recycled Percussion, V the Ultimate Variety Show, Vegas! The Show, and others. Tickets are available at www.afanlv.org.

The Yeehaw! Award of the Week goes to The Venetian, which is bringing back Tim McGraw and Faith Hill for an extension of their Soul II Soul concerts. The country-western music legends will perform occasional weekends between October and April for a total of 20 shows. Tickets are on sale for Venetian players' club members August 13 and for the general public on August 17 and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.

The Change of Heart Award of the Week goes to New York-New York for apparently changing their minds about getting rid of the 9/11 memorial tribute that used to be in front of the hotel. Some of the collection of items that people left on the fences at New York-New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was on display along the sidewalk but that was removed a few weeks ago to make way for new construction. At the time, hotel officials said it would not return but now they are saying it will, they just aren't sure where or when. We'll see.

The Construction Alert of the Week goes to Treasure Island, which has received approval to move forward on a 46,000 square-foot expansion at the corner of Spring Mountain and The Strip. A three-story building will be added that will include restaurants and retail outlets including a new car showroom. Construction should get underway before the end of the year with a first-quarter 2014 debut so there may be some construction inconveniences if you are coming across the bridge from the Fashion Show Mall.

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Attraction Review: Exotics Racing

Admit it: as you are sitting there in rush hour traffic in your sensible Ford or Toyota or Honda, what you are really wish was that you were behind the wheel of a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a McLaren, or some other exotic supercar. And you wish that all that traffic would disappear so that you could really put the petal to the metal.

For you I offer Exotics Racing, a driving experience that puts you behind the wheel (or in the passenger seat) of some of the most gorgeous pieces of automotive artwork ever produced. Their fleet of more than 40 cars is like a teenage boy's fantasy: Ferrari F30 F1,430 Scuderia, and 458 Italia; Lamborghini Gallardo, Superleggera, and Aventador; Porsche Cayman, 997 Turbo S; McClaren MP4-12C; Mercedes SLS AMG; Audi R8; Aston Martin Vantage; Nissan GT-R; and more. Each of these machines is more car than most people will ever need, both in terms of performance and price, but they are perfect to at least play with for a little while.

The facility is located at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway but they have their own proprietary 1.2 mile road course with 7 turns (one of which features an 11% banking), a chicane, and an 1,800 foot straightaway where you can really let loose. It is marked with various colored cones to give you visual cues on when to break, when to turn, and when to hit the gas.

You are able to book 5, 7, 10, or 20 laps in any of the vehicles and can do combinations of vehicles if one will just not do. Your experience starts with an opportunity to see all the cars, sit in them, and take pictures. Then its off to the classroom where you are given the basic rules and strategy, a track overview, and a lot of upsell pitches (add a video, add extra laps, add a second car, etc.).

Next you hop in a Porsche Cayenne SUV to get a quick ride around the track to give you a bit of familiarity with it and then it's off to meet your instructor.

Each instructor is well versed in the intricacies and eccentricities of each car, knowing how far they can be pushed, when, and where on the track. In other words: listen to them. They will guide you to your best possible lap times.

I got to do the Ferrari 430 Scuderia and it was a thrilling, and kind of scary, experience. I drive fast whenever I am not sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on the 101, but there is a huge difference between 85 on the open, straight interstate to Vegas in my Edge Sport and 115 in a Ferrari barreling down the straightaway toward a 90 degree right-hand turn. You want to go faster, throw it into the curves harder, and wait longer to hit the brakes but your brain just won't let you at first. The only bummer in getting the cheapest 5-lap packages is that you are just starting to get the hang of it when the experience is over. If you can afford it, go for one of the packages with more laps or multiple cars.

Although you definitely will want to do the driving, also throw in a couple of laps in the ride-along experience if you really want a sick thrill. The professional race car drivers take a Corvette Z06 and put it into terrifying, almost sideways drifts around the corners that will have you either screaming like a little girl or grinning like an idiot. For the record, I did the latter.

Thrills like this certainly aren't easy on the wallet. Prices vary by car with the cheapest Porsche coming in around $200 for 5 laps and the most expensive Lamborghini around $500. Throw in extra laps, extra cars, a recording of you piloting the car along with lap times and speed, a t-shirt, and other commemorative stuff, and you could easily go over $1,000 for a couple of hours of entertainment.

If you are impressed by supercar level technology, can appreciate fine automotive craftsmanship, or simply want to drive really, really fast in a totally cool car, Exotics Racing is worth every penny.

Exotics Racing
6925 Speedway Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89115
702-405-7223
website
$99-$3500
Varies
Vegas4Visitors Grade A

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Hotel Review: The Palms

The crucial difference between "current" and "classic" has to do primarily with the amount of effort you put into it. Pay a lot of attention to what's happening in the world, learn lessons from your own past and the past of those around you, and throw a lot of time, money, and elbow grease at the issue and you can stay "current" for a long time. Anything less and you risk sliding into "classic" territory, which is not necessarily a bad thing unless you're a Las Vegas hotel. Here, "classic" can mean irrelevant.

The Palms started out as the epicenter of "current," with a line-up of hip nightclubs, celebrity chef restaurants, and a starring role on MTV's "The Real World" leading the way toward party-central and even pop-culture dominance. But that was more than a decade ago, when tweeting meant making bird noises, a smart phone was one with speed dial, and slot machines were things with reels that accepted and dispensed coins.

Not willing to slip into "classic" territory, The Palms has thrown a great deal of time, money, and elbow grease into revamping the hotel. There's a lot different here - the casino has an updated look, the pool area has been redone, rooms have been revamped, nightclubs and restaurants have changed, and more. The overall effect is contemporary, of-the-moment, and, well, "current."

The hotel, located just West of the Strip on Flamingo road (across the street from The Rio), has let go of its old Vegas-meets-Palm-Beach decor scheme in favor of something more dramatic, with bolder colors and visuals dominating the space especially in the rooms.

The accommodations in the Ivory Tower (formerly the Palms Tower) have all gotten an overhaul, turning what were nice but fairly forgettable rooms into ones that definitely leave an impression. A neon-colored mural dominates one wall with a set of eyes acting as the primary focal point. Some may find it disconcerting (they seem to follow you around the room) but most will be too busy taking pictures of it to Tweet to their friends to worry about it.

The beds are pillow-top soft, the furnishings are plush and vividly colored (fuchsia and electric blue are common), and the amenities plentiful and modern from 46" HDTVs to ports for just about any electronic device you happened to bring with you. Other standard equipment includes a desk, high-speed Internet, iron and board, safe, and hair dryer.

Bathrooms are on the smallish side and have been renovated to only include showers (no tubs), but they are sleek and comfortable as long as you aren't intending to share it with anyone else for an extended period of time. The frosted glass and stone accents certainly make them prettier than your average commode.

The biggest problem I had with the room was not with the room itself but with what was happening outside it. The hotel's very popular Ditch pool parties on Friday and Saturday afternoons include a nightclub-worthy sound system that was turned up so loud that the booming bass was literally shaking the windows of my 22nd floor room. My room happened to overlook the pool so I was getting the worst of it but I could hear it in the hallway at the far opposite end of the tower so you can pretty much rule out trying to take a nap unless you have a really good set of ear plugs. The good news is that this is only from late morning until late afternoon - the bass from the rooftop nightclubs is really only a problem for the rooms on the few floors directly beneath them.

Rooms in the Fantasy Tower didn't get the "eye"ful of a remodel but are still nice in a traditional way. Earth tones dominate the color schemes and they have all of the amenities that the Ivory Tower rooms do. You just probably won't be taking any Tweetable pictures of them unless you happen to be staying in one of the Fantasy Suites, epic bits of Vegas silliness that feature everything from the space where they filmed "The Real World" (stripper pole included) to an indoor basketball court.

If you're looking for the real peace and quiet(er) spot, The Palms Place tower, located on the far west end of the hotel's property, is a residential/rental complex with condos that are both owner-occupied and in rentable. They range from one bedroom suites with full kitchens, Jacuzzi tubs, and fireplaces all the way up to multi-story palaces that are bigger than your average suburban home. Leonardo DiCaprio is reportedly one of the people who owns a unit here but I doubt he puts his in the rental pool for you to crash in for a few nights. Don't steal anything if you do.

The casino dominates most of the main floor and it offers everything you need in a casino including all the latest slots, a lot of video poker machines, a sports book, keno and poker rooms, a high-limit salon, and all the table games you may want. The 2013 update includes new carpeting and wall treatments that blend into the background allowing the banks of new slot machines, updated tables, and big new center bar to dominate the space. Frequent specials such as free donuts on National Donut Day make this a fun place to gamble but I found it's reputation for having good payouts to be overblown. Perhaps luck just wasn't on my side.

Around the fringes of the casino you'll find some restaurants and other diversions like a food court with a McDonald's and Panda Express among others, a 14-screen movie theater complex, a fully-equipped spa and salon, and much more. There are also restaurants and nightclubs atop the room towers including the fantastic Alizé, which offers some of the best views in town.

Interestingly, the nightclubs at the hotel are the one thing that haven't gotten a huge amount of the makeover attention. Moon, the high-energy dance club and ghostbar, the swank ultra-lounge are pretty much the same as they always have been although competition has made them a little less must-worthy. There are several other bars including one, The View, focusing on billiards and other parlor games and a tiny slip of a place called Scarlet that used to be a sundry shop, thus proving they will turn any space they can into one that serves over-priced drinks.

There are some downsides. First, the elevators to the guest rooms in the main tower are located in the same area as the entrance to some of the clubs. This means that on many nights you're going to have to negotiate your way through ridiculous crowds of trendy party-goers - not a lot of fun when you're exhausted and just want to go lie down.

Those party-goers can be annoying if you are the type to get annoyed by those darned kids and their shenanigans (insert shaken fist here). If it's a Friday or Saturday night, just stick near the penny slots or the keno room and you'll probably never see them.

Prices are pretty good - as low as $129 on the weekends and as low as $99 during the week, although most of the time they are higher to much higher than that. Note that there is also a mandatory $20 per night resort fee that covers things like Internet and gym access.

Casino and restaurant staff members are generally friendly and willing to help. Front desk and nightclub staff often come across as brusque. Not sure why this is but it's been like that pretty much since they opened the doors.

Of course all of this is the 2013 version of The Palms designed to stay current with the times. I wonder what the 2014 version will look like.

The Palms
Just Off The Strip
4321 West Flamingo
Las Vegas, NV 89103
866-942-7777
website
450 Rooms
$79 and up double
$150-$200 per night
Vegas4Visitors Grade: 83

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Shopping Review: Amber Unicorn Books

You remember books, don't you? Those things that you read that are made of paper that you have words on them and have weight and smell and a tactile sensation other than your finger swiping a piece of glass over and over and over? Yes, printed books still exist and although you may not be able to put 100 of them your suitcase the way you can on your tablet computer, there is an undeniable tug at the senses one gets from picking up something real instead of something virtual.

That's the basic reason for the existence of Amber Unicorn, a charming little used bookshop a few miles west of The Strip that champions the printed word.

Myrna and Lou Donato run the store with the kind of passion that is rare in most business owners these days. Their first store, Donato's Fine Books, was a Vegas institution for nearly twenty years until the couple retired in 1997. Although they were officially out of the bookstore business, they kept collecting and by 2008 they had so many books they decided to open this new store.

They a little bit of everything (fiction of all stripes, self-help, metaphysical, photography, military, arts, rare and first editions, etc.) and a lot of few things, including more than 20,000 cookbooks. You could lose yourself for days pouring through the collection, looking for classic recipes that could be made new again.

The place is brightly lit, well organized and labeled, and has the air of a boutique library rather than a musty used bookshop.

Fans of real, honest-to-goodness books should make a special trip here. Good news: if you don't feel like lugging your finds back home on the airplane, they will ship them to you.

Amber Unicorn Books
West of The Strip
2101 S. Decatur Suite 14
Las Vegas, NV 89102
702-648-9303
website
Mon-Sat 9am-6pm
Sun 9am-4pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+

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