Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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15th Anniversary Special: How Nightclubs Changed Las Vegas

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.

A lot has changed in Las Vegas in the last 15 years but perhaps no change has been as dramatic as the shift in the nightlife landscape. Not only has it exploded in popularity it has, in many ways, become the driving force behind the way Sin City works.

This may be a shocker considering today's Las Vegas but in 1997, a year before launched, there were no major nightclubs at the big hotels on The Strip. None. Zero. Zilch. The closest you got to a full-fledged nightclub experience was Cleopatra's Barge at Caesars Palace, which was (and still is) a glorified hotel lounge with a kitschy theme and a microscopic dance floor.

By the time this site went online in September of 1998, things had started to change and the Las Vegas would never be the same.

Although it doesn't really get the credit it deserves, the first major hotel with a nightclub was The Rio, just off The Strip. Its Club Rio opened in 1997 and while popular, it was considered more of an attraction for locals than tourists. Foreshadowing the future, I wrote this of it: "I hated this place for its almost draconian dress code, $20 cover charge, and snooty staff but the young, trendy, party types in town don't seem to mind."

Then in December of 1997 came the shot heard round The Strip with the opening of Studio 54 at the MGM Grand. Patterned after the famed NYC nightclub of the same name it was a multi-level, high-tech party spot that was the first to really cater to tourists. It was a stunning success and was followed shortly thereafter by Ra, an Egyptian themed nightclub at Luxor.

An interesting bit of Vegas trivia... Ra was originally supposed to be called Stargate and was going to have memorabilia from the Kurt Russell movie of the same name.

There were only a few other nightclubs worth mentioning in 1998. Drink, located at the corner of Harmon and Koval Lane, was a standalone facility that looked a lot like today's mega-clubs do with multiple rooms, VIP booths (that often had celebrities), and high prices everywhere. It was actually a pretty fun club if I remember correctly but it closed when the land was going to be redeveloped for a major hotel-casino that never happened. The building is still there.

Utopia was a popular nightclub on The Strip in a standalone facility just north of the MGM Grand. Now a theater and occasional after hours club, the building hosted a once a week rave that was quite famous (or infamous) in its day.

And of course we can't forget about The Beach. Located just across the street from the Las Vegas Convention Center, it was a frat boy's dream come true with bikini babes serving shots, various games and amusements, and a dance floor playing party rock. It also closed to make way for a new hotel that never happened.

But Studio 54 and Ra were crazy successful, with epically long lines of people willing to pay outrageous cover charges to get in and outrageous drink prices once they did. Suddenly every hotel wanted to have a nightclub and over the next few years they sprang up all over The Strip. Mandalay Bay opened with rumjungle in 1999 and Paris Las Vegas debuted Risque. Bellagio had the original Light nightclub, the Hard Rock added the instantly popular Baby's, and The Mirage took flight with JET. When The Palms opened in 2001 it focused on nightlife as a major draw from top to bottom, with ghostbar and Rain nightclubs drawing huge crowds. By the time Wynn Las Vegas opened in 2005, it was just a given that a major nightclub would be part of the offerings. Today it has three of them.

Most of the major hotels on The Strip have at least one nightclub and some have multiple. In some hotels the nightlife options take up more square footage than the casino. Despite the competition, they generate ridiculous amounts of revenue with eight of the top ten grossing nightclubs located in Las Vegas. If you combine the money made at just those eight clubs you come up with a number just shy of half a billion dollars in 2012. Marquee at The Cosmopolitan, XS at Wynn Las Vegas, and Tao at The Venetian all pulled in over $70 million apiece last year.

And it just keeps going. Many of the original nightclubs that opened in the late 1990s and early 2000s are gone, replaced by bigger and better ones. Studio 54 gave way to the enormous Hakkasan, JET is now 1 OAK, Light became The Bank, and rumjungle became Light (how's that for symmetry?).

What is perhaps the biggest signpost for the future can be found at the north end of The Strip , where the former Sahara is being reborn as the swank SLS Hotel. The company that owns property made the bulk of its fortune of of nightclubs in Los Angeles and Miami and even runs one in Vegas (Hyde at Bellagio). The press releases for the new hotel barely mention that there will be a casino and focus instead on the nightlife and dining elements for which the company is famous.

Could we see a day where a major hotel in Vegas opens without a casino and goes strictly for the nightlife action? Well, probably not. But the influence of nightclubs on the development of Las Vegas hotels will continue to grow and the boundaries between gaming, dining, and clubbing will erode even further. You may not have a hotel that eschews a casino for a nightclub but you will probably have at least one where the casino and the nightclub are virtually indistinguishable.


Parking in Vegas

Recently I had something happen to me that has never happened in all my years of covering Las Vegas: I lost my car.

I was staying at Mandalay Bay and had been in and out of the parking structure several times, almost always finding a spot in the same basic area. But this time I had been in a hurry, the garage was busy, and I just grabbed the first spot I could find and ran for the escalators. When I came back for my car several hours later I was at a complete loss and wound up walking up and down the aisles pressing the button on the remote control, hoping to hear the horn honk. It took me awhile but I finally found it and then promptly got caught in an epic traffic jam trying to get out of the structure. The entire ordeal cost me almost an hour of my life that I'll never get back.

Part of the problem is that the parking structures at the big hotels on The Strip are so vast and often so confusing that it's easy to get turned around. At Mandalay Bay, they recently redid the structure so that it funnels all exiting traffic out the back onto Frank Sinatra Drive. This not only has created some weird dead ends and what seem like endless loops inside the garage but it has created a logjam at the exit since there is no traffic light there.

Distance is also often a problem with using the parking structures, as in the amount of it you have to travel to get where you are going. The massive, almost impossible to navigate garage at the MGM Grand seems to be located in another county; park at the farthest end of it and the walk to the front of the hotel is almost half a mile. The same goes for the structure at Planet Hollywood, which requires you to walk through the entire mall and a big chunk of the casino just to get to your room. Aria and Caesars Palace have similar distance issues if you aren't going to the portion of the casino they happen to adjoin.

Other structures I try to avoid are the ones at The Quad, which is old, dark, and has narrow aisles and spaces that are difficult to use, and pretty much all of them in Downtown Las Vegas, which suffer from similar problems. About the only ones along Fremont Street that I ever consider using are those at The Golden Nugget and at Neonopolis. The latter you have to pay for if you stay for longer than an hour, but it's totally worth a couple of bucks.

The best parking structures by far are found at The Cosmopolitan and The Palazzo. Located underneath the hotels, they are easily accessed from the street and have short escalator or elevator rides to the heart of the casino or hotel. The Cosmo even has a neat trick where each space has a light above it that glows red if occupied, green if not. It allows you to quickly scan down the aisles and see if there is a space open instead of driving endlessly up and down them hoping to catch a break.

The Mirage and Treasure Island garages are pretty good; relatively easy to get in and out of and with relatively short access bridges to the hotels. Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas are easy once you get in them and have doors that open almost directly into the casinos, but access both in and out is tricky, requiring crossing traffic that doesn't believe in the concept of yielding. Try to leave right after a show or event and you will get caught in a traffic jam.

You could avoid the whole mess by using the valet, but these days you often don't have a choice. Hotels are increasingly restricting their valet parking at peak times to guests or to upper tier players' club members. Some have gone so far as to start charging for the valet, a worrisome trend. And then there's the time commitment. No matter how long it may take to find a space and walk from it to the hotel and back again, it will almost always take less time than waiting to collect your car from the valet when you're ready to leave. Not too long ago I made the mistake of trying to leave the MGM Grand valet on a Sunday and it took almost an hour to get my car.

The trick here is to look for alternate valet parking options. For instance at Caesars Palace, they have three valets - the main one at the front of the hotel, which is almost always packed; the Forum Shops valet, which is usually a lot less busy; and the Colosseum valet, which is always a ghost town except for when there's a show going on.

About the only way to completely avoid parking drama in Vegas is not have anything to park. But using cabs, buses, the monorail, or your feet to get around can be expensive and/or time consuming and it usually restricts the what you are able to see and do on your trip to Vegas.

So if you are driving be prepared to do battle when it comes time to park your car and again when it's time to leave. Of course that's presuming you remember where you left it in the first place.

A tip... snap a picture with your smart phone of your car and some point of reference like a post with a number on it. I wish I had thought of that.


Strip Carjacking Ends in Tragedy: How to Stay Safe in Las Vegas

Jesus Magdaleno was in Las Vegas to celebrate. The California Highway Patrol officer was with friends and family for his bachelor party in advance of a September wedding, staying at The Flamingo. On Sunday, August 18, he and his brother-in-law Felix Cruz had just retrieved Magdaleno's pick-up from the valet and were putting luggage into the bed of it when James Montgomery allegedly jumped into the driver's seat and stole the truck. Magdaleno and Cruz jumped into the bed as it sped away and were seen waving for help as the truck sped down Flamingo Road, running red lights. It ended a few minutes later when the pickup truck crashed into an SUV in front of The Rio and both men were ejected from the back of the truck. Magdanleno was declared dead at the scene and Cruz died a few days later.

It was the second attempted carjacking at a hotel valet on The Strip in less than a week. In the first incident, an off-duty police officer was getting his car from Excalibur when someone jumped behind the wheel. The officer shot the suspect.

Despite these headline generating incidents, Las Vegas is, by and large, a relatively safe place to vacation. Violent crime is rare, especially on The Strip, but like any major city there is always a risk any time you are out in public.

I have redone my tips for protecting yourself in Las Vegas based on the recent carjackings and a few other incidents that have occurred in other places. They are:

And You Are...

Never open your hotel room door to anyone you aren't expecting, even if they identify themselves as hotel staff. It'll only take a second to call the front desk and verify that the guy standing outside your door really is just there to put a mint on your pillow.

If People are Lurking, Wait

When you are going to your hotel room, be sure to pay attention to other people in the hallway. If you see anyone who looks even remotely threatening - you know, like an 82-year-old woman with a walker - wait a few moments before you open the door to your room. You can pretend to be looking for your key or you can just stand there if you feel like it, but waiting until the hallway is clear will ensure that no one will try to come in the room with you.

Lock and Bolt Your Door

I know this sounds ridiculously simple but a lot of people use only the auto-lock feature on their door and don't bother with the extra security features while inside. Most Las Vegas hotel rooms have additional bolts, locks, or chains that can increase safety and while they are never foolproof, they do put an extra level of security between you and someone who wants to get inside.

Privacy Please

One little trick that I use all the time is to put up the "Do Not Disturb" sign on my door whenever I leave the room. This is the same effect as leaving the lights on when you leave the house, signaling to would be burglars that there is someone inside. If they have a choice between a door with a privacy sign on it and one without they will probably be more likely to choose the one without.

Use the Valet

How many times have you driven to a hotel's self-parking area only to find it so full that you wind up having to park in the furthest corner of the upper-most floor? That can put you and your vehicle at risk, especially if you are planning to head back to your car late at night. Valet parking is free at most major hotels in Las Vegas so why not use it? If the valet at your hotel is full, consider trying one at a neighboring hotel. For instance, if you can't use the valet at The Mirage, go to Treasure Island and then take the tram between the two hotels.

Take Your Keys

Most hotel valets will leave your car running when they return it since most people simply get inside and drive away. But if you have luggage to load, turn off the car, take the keys, and lock the passenger compartment especially if you have valuables inside. It's too easy for someone to steal the car or stuff inside of it while you're distracted. Note that this tip applies at gas stations as well. Most people leave their cars unlocked while they are pumping gas and thieves can easily open a door and take whatever is within reach while you aren't paying attention.

Let Them Have It

If you see someone trying to steal something you own the natural inclination is often to fight back, but this puts you and everyone around you at risk. Your life is more valuable than your property.


Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The Implosion Award of the Week goes to the Harmon, the never-completed hotel at CityCenter, which has finally been cleared by a judge for demolition. The building at the front of CityCenter, across Harmon from the Cosmo, never opened after alleged construction defects left it unsafe and it has been tied up in legal battles ever since. MGM Resorts has not said how they will bring down the building or specifically when nor have they determined what will go on the land once it's gone.

The More Sauce Please Award of the Week goes to Red Rock Resort, where a new branch of Lucille's Smokehouse BBQ has opened. The chain has another outlet next to Green Valley Ranch Resort.

The Kitchen Is Closed Award of the Week goes to Bartolotta at Wynn Las Vegas, which will be closing temporarily from November 3 through December 21 while they remodel the restaurant. Wing Lei at Wynn will also get a makeover and will be closed from October 8 through December 21.

The Kitchen Is Open Award of the Week goes to Tom Colicchio's Heritage Steak, which is now open at The Mirage. It took over the space adjacent to the rain forest atrium that was home to Kokomo's since the hotel debuted. Colicchio is most famous for being the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef.

The Dance Floor is Open Award of the Week goes to ghostbar, the popular ultralounge at The Palms, which recently reopened after getting a top to bottom refresh of the decor.

The I'll Drink to That Award of the Week goes to Caesars Palace, which will be opening a new champagne lounge called Fizz. It's the brainchild of Elton John's husband David Furnish and will feature high-end bubbly plus small plates created by the singer's personal chef. It will be located between the Colosseum and The Forum Shops mall and should be open by the end of the year.


Attraction Review: Mirage Dolphin Habitat & Secret Garden

Since it opened with The Mirage in 1989, Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat have been the best un-Vegasy thing to do in on the Vegas Strip. If the general mayhem and excesses of Sin City are getting to you, come here and watch a white tiger strut or a dolphin leap and what happens in Vegas will stay somewhere outside the gates.

Originally constructed and operated as two separate facilities, the two attractions have been merged into one with a single entrance and admission. Of the two, the Dolphin Habitat should garner most of your attention.

It is easy to have some pangs of environmentally conscious guilt over the idea of dolphins in captivity, but all of the animals were either rescued or born here and it is considered to be one of the most well-run and most highly respected facilities in the world. The trainers and staff have an obvious affection and respect for their charges and the animals themselves seem to be flourishing, with some of them living well past their 30-year life expectancy (which is about double what they get to in the wild).

A regular admission gets you unlimited time around the multiple pools, where trainers regularly exercise and show the dolphins. Although there is a regular schedule of Sea World style performances, the real serene bliss comes just from hanging out poolside, watching them swim and occasionally splash or otherwise interact with people.

If you want to get more involved than just a spectator level, there are several programs that will allow you to do so. A VIP tour can be arranged for small groups taking you behind the scenes to both facilities; a Trainer for a Day program gets you into the pool as you feed, learn how to give commands, and swim with the dolphins; and the Painting with the Dolphins program unleashes a creativity streak for both you and the animals as you make a masterpiece.

I got to do the latter program and it was a blast. First, a trainer gives you the basic do's and don'ts, which add up to listen to everything the trainer says and do whatever they tell you. Dolphins don't like surprises. Next you get a blank canvas and pick your three paint colors and head toward the pool.

The trainer dips a specially crafted brush into the paint and the dolphin holds it in its mouth while you hold the canvas out over the pool. The dolphin comes up out of the water and literally paints a picture for you. Your input is mostly limited to choosing which color goes on the brush and which area of the canvas to have the dolphin focus on. It's a giddy thrill, especially since you get to keep the final product.

My dolphin painting buddy was Osborne. Check out the pictures in the gallery above.

Afterward you get some dolphin 101 from the trainer, educating you on their bodies, their habits, and even their personalities. The biggest surprise for me? That the texture of their skin feels like vinyl. You get to touch them and even issue a few basic commands. It's more fun than it has any right to be.

Prices for the painting experience start at $200 and the trainer experience starts at around $500 depending on the season. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Totally!

The Secret Garden, meanwhile, is basically a small zoo that houses animals once used (or descended from animals once used) in Siegfried & Roy's magic show that played at the hotel years. That show ended spectacularly badly when Roy had a disagreement with one of the white tigers and in case you are wondering, no, that particular tiger is not on display here.

Instead you get a menagerie of big jungle cats that mostly just lays around in the shade, which is much smarter than the idiots standing in the hot sun trying to take pictures of them. Don't get me wrong, the animals are beautiful and it's cool to see them, but it's not a terribly exciting thing. I mean it's not like you get to watch them stalking a wounded gazelle or anything.

I loved this attraction when I first visited more than 20 years ago and I still love it today.

Mirage Dolphin Habitat & Secret Garden
The Mirage
3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
$19.95 Adults
$14.95 Children 4-12
Free Kids Under 4
Mon-Fri 11am-5:30pm
Sat-Sun 10am-5:30pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A


Restaurant Review: PUB 1842

Michael Mina isn't as much of household name as some of the chefs in Vegas but it isn't for lack of trying. He has four restaurants in town including this, his interpretation of a gastropub at MGM Grand.

The gastropub concept can be fun and interesting if done right and here, it is. The name is in reference to the year that pilsner beer was invented and although that particular bit of history happened in the Czech Republic, this place has more of a London pub feeling to it. There are red doors that evoke the classic UK phone booths and wood walls done in British racing green along with plaid fabrics. A big bar with lots of flat panel TVs over it dominates the room and there are booths and tables scattered throughout. It's a nice space - casual and comfortable.

The menu is more eclectic than your typical gastropub with everything from homemade pickles to a lobster bake. In between you'll find twisted bar food like chicken wings done in a chipotle lime glaze and corn dogs made out of lobster for appetizers; salads topped with barbeque pork or fried chicken and honey hot sauce; burgers topped with peanut butter and bacon jam; and bacon wrapped hot dogs served with pico de gallo. Fish and chips, roasted chicken, steaks, seafood, and Italian sausage and peppers are just a few more examples.

We started with the lobster springs rolls, which came highly recommended by our server and for good reason. Fluffy batter, lightly fried, with moist meat inside and a creme fraiche dipping sauce. Perfect!

For main courses we tried the organic half chicken with sundried tomato jalapeno, the bacon wrapped hot dogs, and some of the BBQ they had cooking in their own pit including ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and corn on the cob. The chicken easily won the contest, with a crispy skin and meat so juicy it practically slid off the plate. The BBQ was a little on the vinegary side for my tastes but still good, especially the brisket that fell apart when you looked at it funny. The dogs were not terribly special but it was a hot dog wrapped in bacon and so that automatically makes it good.

A side of macaroni and cheese with black truffle and smoked gouda put it over the top.

For a capper check out their unique "cake & shake" combos: chocolate layer with a chocolate malted; lemon curd chiffon with orange vanilla frappe; and so on. Fun and tasty to boot.

And of course don't forget about about the pub part of PUB 1842. They have more than 50 beers including pilsners of course but also ales, stouts, lagers, and more. If you can't decide, get one of their beer wheels which offers tasting portions of eight of them. A similar sampler plate is available for their barrel-aged cocktails, which are strong in both flavor and punch.

Prices fall strictly into the "not bad" category with most appetizers under $15, burgers and sandwiches all under $20; most entrees under $30; and only the steaks going over $40. As long as you don't go too crazy with the beer and the booze you could easily do a very satisfying meal here for less than $40 all-in.

A special shout out to the service, which was fantastic - friendly, knowledgeable about the menu, considerate to my eating limitations, and infallible in terms of guiding us in the right direction. Nicely done.

As mentioned, Michael Mina has been around in Vegas for a long time but now he has really gotten my attention.

PUB 1842
MGM Grand
3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Sun-Thu. 11:30am-12apm
Fri-Sat 11:30am-1am
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+