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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
September 16, 2013
15th Anniversary Special: The Top 10 Shows from 1998-2013
As we continue the celebration of the launch of Vegas4Visitors.com 15 years ago, we're taking a look at my favorites from the last 15 years. Last week I picked what I considered to be the best hotels and restaurants from 1998 to 2013 and this week we are turning our attention to shows and attractions.
As many of you know, at the end of each year I do a series of Top 10 lists, wherein I pick my favorite hotels, shows, and more. I did them every year except for the first, 1998, and in 2005 where I still had my picks for bests but didn't rank them from 1 to 10 like I normally do. I went back through all of those lists, plus the reviews and material that I have done for the last 15 years throughout the site, and have put together these anniversary editions.
These lists are all about historical perspective. What that means is you'll see things on here that don't exist anymore. You'll also see some current things ranked higher or lower than I would probably rank them if I was just looking at the last year. some of this I tried to do "scientifically," by averaging the item's rankings across the various Top 10 lists through the years but in the end it really just came down to my gut; asking myself "what has had the biggest impact on me and on Vegas in general over the last 15 years?"
Here are my picks for the best shows from 1998 through 2013.
The first Cirque du Soleil production in Vegas is still the best, purely Cirque production of them as far as I'm concerned. Filled with acrobatics that amaze and theater pieces that amuse, the show is still as visually stunning as it was when it opened 20 years ago. I have seen it at least five times and every time I am awed by what they were able to achieve and for that, it deserves the top spot on this list.
Here's another show I have seen four or five times and every time I do I laugh my ass off. King is a terrific slight-of-hand magician but first and foremost he's an entertainer, taking his hick-shtick to great, absured levels that will keep a big silly grin on your face from start to finish. That he has managed to do this for more than 13 years is a testament to how good he is.
This amazing Cirque du Soleil production took everything that company was good at - heart pounding aerialist work and eye-popping visuals - and wrapped it up into an emotionally resonant storyline for the first time. It was groundbreaking for both Cirque and for Las Vegas and remains so to this day. The 2013 accident resulting in the death of a performer in the show was tragic, but also shined a light on the incredible feats that these people do each night for our amusement.
4: Absinthe at Caesars Palace
Here are the basic rules for a Las Vegas show: don't be challenging because the audience doesn't want to think; don't be too dirty because the audience is easily offended; and keep your distance because the audience shouldn't be a part of the show. Absinthe breaks all of those rules - hell, it smashes them to smithereens, puts them back together, and then smashes them again - with the most gleefully profane, gasp inducing show you will ever see.
5: Garth Brooks at Wynn Las Vegas
Attending one of Brooks' stripped down concerts was like getting a master class in the art of music. The country legend took the stage with just a guitar and ripped his way through the history of not only his hits but others as well, as he showed how genres from country to Motown influenced his style. He has been, by far, the best headliner the Vegas Strip has seen in the last 15 years.
6: Penn & Teller at The Rio
Most of the big magic acts in Vegas had become a bit of a joke, with their hyper-drama and overly stylized trappings looking a little silly. Penn & Teller imploded the magic myth by exposing the con behind the illusion and yet still amazing you with the illusion itself. It's not going too far to say that they reinvented magic and they certainly changed the Vegas magic show.
7: Second City Improv at the Flamingo
I loved this show. An adjunct of the famed Chicago comedy troupe, these fast-thinking improv artists took random suggestions from the audience and incorporated them into the quickest, funniest show in town. The great thing about it is that it was always different, so you could go back again and again and never have the same experience twice. It was too good for Vegas.
8: Siegfried & Roy at The Mirage
So yes, by the end their show had become somewhat of a pleasant diversion rather than a must-see experience, but it was still packed at every performance and would probably still be today if Roy hadn't had that little disagreement with one of the white tigers. And historically, few shows have had as great an impact. The multi-million dollar extravaganza helped to usher in the Cirque du Soleil era and forever changed the way we viewed Las Vegas entertainment.
When it comes to classic Las Vegas entertainment, few have done it as well as this guy. Seeing his performances when he was on The Strip and now Downtown is like watching The Rat Pack resurrected. He is the quintessential showman, commanding the stage and with his voice and his easy going charm.
10: Michael Jackson ONE at Mandalay Bay
It has been awhile since a Las Vegas show has affected me as profoundly as this one did. A big part of it is the music of course, with classic Michael Jackson songs powering the action. But beyond that it captures a spirit of wonder that the singer liked to wrap himself up in, taking the acrobatics, dance, and staging to a whole new level that has restored my faith in Cirque du Soleil. This show will be around for a very, very long time.
Top 10 Attractions from 1998-2013
I totally cheated on this one. Quite simply put I couldn't narrow the list down to only 10 so I wound up combining the two attractions at Bellagio into one entry and then doing the same for The Mirage's attractions. A cop out, absolutely, but it points out how many fantastic things there are to do in Las Vegas. From museums to rides to animals to Strip-side shows designed to make you stop and gape, these are my picks for the best of the last 15 years.
1: Bellagio Fountains & Conservatory at Bellagio
Outside you have what is probably the most iconic bit of eye candy in all of Las Vegas with the dancing waters of the Bellagio Fountains while inside you have the ever changing, seasonal displays of wonder in the Conservatory. Individually they are top of the list attractions but put together they can't be beat. They opened about a month after Vegas4Visitors.com went online so what better way to celebrate our collective 15th Anniversary than to put these still-entertaining must-sees at the top of the Best Attractions list.
When the plan was first unveiled to turn Glitter Gulch into a pedestrian plaza with a giant light and sound show canopy above it, purists howled. Now nearly 20 years later it is impossible to think of Downtown Las Vegas without it. The increasing popularity of Fremont Street has breathed new life into the neighborhood and this has become even more of a must-visit attraction than it ever has been.
3: Pirate Battle at Treasure Island
For years the stunt show at Treasure Island was a silly bit of theatrical fluff, with pirates battling the British navy through high dives into the lake, special effects explosions, and a sinking ship. It was over-the-top Vegas fun and helped to solidify the strategy of putting something cool in front of the hotel to try to lure people inside of it. The day they changed it to the current, awful, offensive Sirens of TI show was one of the darkest days this city has ever seen.
It's been around in some form or another for years but the official opening of the full facility in 2012, with tours of the boneyard where old neon signs are kept, turned a best-kept secret into a world-class attraction. It is essential Las Vegas, celebrating the kind of history that the city can claim as its own.
In many ways, Las Vegas would not exist if it weren't for the mafia. The massive infusions of cash they put into the city from the 1940s through 1970s created the blueprint for the modern resort with forbearers like The Flamingo, The Stardust, and The Frontier. This completely engrossing museum embraces that fact while still exposing the seedy, inner workings of organized crime. Although only open for a little more than a year, it has already become one of the best attractions in Las Vegas and in the entire country.
6: The Volcano & Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage
When the Mirage Volcano first spewed to faux-lava life it literally stopped traffic and when the Dolphin Habitat came online it set the standard for Las Vegas entertainment that didn't have anything to do with a slot machine or blackjack table. Both are still delights; the kind of things that will have you filling up your photo rolls with shot after shot after shot.
7: Casino Legends Hall of Fame at The Tropicana
Las Vegas is getting better at respecting its history - look at the aforementioned Neon and Mob Museums for proof. But during the boom years, when classic was considered old and out-of-date, one of the few respites from blind progress was this ramshackle little facility full of memorabilia from long-gone casinos. Even though the physical facility is gone, they still induct people who influenced Vegas into the Hall of Fame so the attraction's impact is still being felt today.
8: Caesars Magical Empire at Caesars Palace
This interactive magic and dinner theater has been gone for years but I still think of it fondly. Located at Caesars Palace where Pure is now, the attraction mixed both big and small illusions with a lively dinner show and miscellaneous diversions like a ghostly piano that took requests. It was the kind of all-ages fun that Las Vegas is mostly missing these days.
9: Liberace Museum
Back in 1955, Liberace became the highest paid entertainer in the world with his $50,000 a week gig at The Riviera. This kitschy museum honoring all things bejeweled was one of the city's must-visit attractions as far as I was concerned, even if you didn't know who Liberace was. It closed a couple of years ago but the recent attention from the HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra" has renewed interest in the entertainer and a new version of the museum is being planned for Downtown Las Vegas.
This amazing facility looks back at the history of the Nevada Test Site just north of Las Vegas where they had above-ground nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and early 1960s. It's fascinating and one of the best museums in the country but for Vegas it proved that you could have an attraction that had substance and more than just visual flash.
Standing on The Strip in 1965
Picture yourself walking out onto the pedestrian bridge that goes from Bellagio to Bally's. You're about halfway across and suddenly you step into one of those pesky time portals that seem to pop up when you least expect them and you are rocketed back to 1965. Lyndon B Johnson is president; the first combat troops have been sent to Vietnam; The Sound of Music is the highest grossing movie of the year; and radio has been taken over by a British Invasion of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Of course your biggest problem, besides the fact that you were sent back in time unexpectedly, is that the pedestrian bridge you were standing on doesn't exist in 1965. Luckily there's a truck full of mattresses that just happens to be stopped underneath you and you land in pillowy softness, unhurt. Sometimes time travel works out well, don't you think? Anyway, you climb down and take a look around at The Strip in 1965.
The first thing you notice is that the street is a lot narrower than it is in 2013. Instead of the 12 lanes and tree lined median that are at the intersection of The Strip and Flamingo, it is only two lanes in each direction with a wide dusty center median and turn lanes that cut across. The cross street, which is now the eight-lane wide Flamingo Road, is just a narrow, two-lane ribbon cutting off into the desert.
The second thing you notice is that Caesars Palace isn't there. Instead of the Roman splendor all you see on the northwest corner of the intersection is dirt, construction equipment, and the very first bits of what will eventually become the hotel when it opens a year later, in August of 1966.
You start to turn to the right and notice that on the northeast corner of the intersection, where the Gansevoort Hotel (once Bill's and Barbary Coast) is under construction, is a little motel called The Desert Villa. At the corner is a driveway leading to the mid-century modern (or I guess, it's just "modern" in 1965) lobby building and behind that a center parking lot surrounded by one- and two-story motel buildings. There's a pool toward the front, more or less where the pedestrian bridge from Bally's comes across the street in 2013.
Just beyond that is The Flamingo, completely unrecognizable as the hotel it is in your time. The building starts a few feet further south, taking up what is a driveway entrance in 2013, and stretches along to the north. Although it's more or less in the same place, it sits further back from the street but that's just because, as mentioned, the street isn't as wide in 1965.
Once the building gets to where Margaritaville is located in 2013, it angles back away from The Strip and there is a parking lot stretching north beyond that. None of the high-rise towers have been built yet; all of the rooms are in low-rise units behind the main casino building in rings that surround the pool. Although you can't see it from where you're standing, that pool, a descendent of the original that opened with the hotel in 1946, is located more or less where Carlos 'n' Charlies and the casino off of the main lobby are at in 2013.
Keep turning to the right and where you'd expect to see Bally's, Paris Las Vegas, and Planet Hollywood to be, there is a mini-Strip of four motels. The first is called the 3 Coins and it's located, more or less, where driveway to Bally's is at in the time you have come from. Where the walkway into Bally's is at is nothing but desert and dirt. The 3 Coins has a contemporary desert lobby, all swooping lines of stone and glass, with a two-story motel stretching out behind it. A sparkling blue pool is located toward the front, visible from The Strip.
Next in line is the Bonanza, an Old West themed casino and motel that takes up a narrow chunk of land that goes back from The Strip along what is the northernmost edge of Paris Las Vegas in 2013.
Beyond that is The Galaxy, another small motel with a modern design.
Finally, is the Tally Ho, a fairly large (at least in comparison to the other three), English themed motel that has a big building in the front that contains restaurants and entertainment, but no casino. Located where the northernmost part of Planet Hollywood is in 2013 (more or less where Cabo Wabo Cantina is), this property will get transformed the following year into the first iteration of The Aladdin.
Complete your turn to the right and now you are looking at the southwest corner of the intersection. Where you'd expect to see the dancing fountains in front of Bellagio is a tall hotel tower and the main porte corchere of The Dunes. A space-age style building sits just to the south of the main entrance that contains the Dome of the Sea restaurant, designed to make diners feel as though they are dining underwater. Behind the tall hotel tower are a series of low-rise motel units and beyond that, more or less where the main Bellagio hotel tower is in 2013, is a parking lot and then a golf course that stretches all the way down to the back of what is New York-New York in your world.
That domed restaurant looks pretty cool so that's what you start walking toward only just before you get there, the time portal pops up again and you are thrust back into 2013 and find yourself standing in the Bellagio lake.
Time travel can be a real pain sometimes, can't it?
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Second Act Award of the Week goes to The Act nightclub, which was ordered by a judge to tone down some of its more risqué cabaret shows after a lawsuit from the Venetian/Palazzo. The shows included simulated sex and drug use, which a judge found to be in violation of the contract that the club had with the hotel. A spokesperson for the club said they would try to find ways to redo the acts so they don't run afoul of the judge's order but are concerned that they won't be able to attract the kinds of crowds they were getting with the toned down content.
The Britney B*#ch Award of the Week goes to Planet Hollywood, which is expected to be finally, officially revealed as the home to a Britney Spears headlining residency during her appearance on Good Morning American on Tuesday, September 17. The worst-kept-secret in Vegas has been rumored for months but the formal announcement on Tuesday is expected to include a schedule that will see Spears perform in the main theater roughly 25 weekends a year for two years.
The Winter Wonderland Award of the Week goes to the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which will once again transform its Boulevard Pool area into a winter-themed attraction complete with an ice skating rink, picnic tables, fire pits, and more. The rink will be open to the public for $15 (plus $5 if you need to rent skates) and will be open from November 22 through January 5. Monday nights will feature holiday movies, Wednesdays will have a club DJ, and Thursday will have retro music for skaters.
The All Dried Up Award of the Week goes to the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian, which is without a canal through October 9th. The indoor waterways that wind through the mall have been drained while they service them. The outdoor canals are still in operation so if you want to ride a gondola, you have to do it outside.
The Pity Award of the Week goes to the Sirens of TI show at Treasure Island, which will go dark starting October 29th while they work on the new shopping mall that will be built at the corner of the hotel along The Strip. It gets the Pity Award because they are planning on bringing it back starting December 30th - I had hoped they would just kill it all together. Whether it will be any different, and hopefully better, is yet to be seen. Don't hold your breath.
The Frickin' Fee Award of the Week goes to the upcoming Downtown Grand hotel, which has announced plans to charge a resort fee when it opens this fall. The $11 nightly charge will include Wi-Fi, a bottle of water, a cup of coffee, local and toll-free calls, and a coupon book. It joins the Golden Nugget, Plaza, Golden Gate, and The D as the only Downtown hotels currently charging a resort fee, but expect the rest to follow suit soon.
The Big Wheel Keep on Turning Award of the Week goes to the High Roller observation wheel, which saw the symbolic completion of its outer rim this past week. It will be the world's tallest such wheel when it starts turning early next year and will take about 30 minutes to ride for about $30.
Hotel Review: Silver Sevens
Terrible's is Terrible no more.
The hotel that had been named for the original owner (Ed "Terrible" Herbst) has gotten a makeover and is now Silver Sevens. But this came with more than just a new name; there was also a $7 million renovation of the rooms, casino, sports book, and more.
The Tuscay village style buildings are light, bright, and airy. The casino is a very compact 45,000 square-feet - about a third of what you'll find at The Venetian for example. While small and densely packed with machines and tables, it exudes a pleasant, if somewhat low-rent, atmosphere. There are worse places in town in which to lose your money.
They have a lot of slots, most of which are multi-denomination, plus plenty of video poker, table games (roulette, blackjack, and craps), keno, a nice bingo hall, and a new race and sports book that is small but high-tech and well-put together with big screen TVs and plush chairs. To be honest it looks a little out of place in the otherwise pedestrian casino.
The pool area sits in the center of the hotel, and it is nice - perhaps not the landscaped wonder of The Flamingo but still nice. It's not overly large and there are no extras like say the wave pools or lazy river rides that you'll find at some of the Strip monsters, but there is plenty of foliage for decoration and shade and a crystal clear pool so hey, who's complaining?
There are a total of 325 rooms that come in two sections. The low-rise motel-style buildings date back to the 1970s but got the big renovation with serene and cool blues, dark woods, and some frosted glass for effect. A lot of money went into upgrading them and they come equipped with simple but fine furnishings, coffee makers, pay-per-view in-room movies, hair dryers, coffee makers, free Wi-Fi, 24-hour room service, and alarm clocks plus 42" plasma televisions. King rooms have an extra few feet of space with a couple of chairs and a table while deluxe rooms are the same but with about 10 more feet of width. Suites add writing desks, living room furnishings, and more.
A six-story tower was added in 2006 and these rooms did not get the recent makeover. That's okay because they are still in good shape. There isn't anything substantially different about the standard rooms found here than in the older portion of the building except they are a few square feet bigger (but not enough that it makes a difference). There are a bunch of Jacuzzi suites here that feature living rooms with a wet bar and comfortable furnishings, two bathrooms, and a whirlpool tub. First floor rooms facing the pool area have nice little patios for relaxing.
In terms of meals you have a couple of restaurant options on site (a 24 hour café and a buffet) and many more within walking distance in the immediate neighborhood.
One other important note for travelers is they also have regular airport and Strip shuttle service included in the resort fee.
All of this sounds great and I could stop right there with a qualified recommendation but one of the biggest lures here has to be the price. I have seen mid-week rates starting at $31. That is not a typo. $31 for all of the stuff mentioned above is beyond "steal" territory and ventures into "grand theft." Regular rates will rarely go over $50 on the weekdays and almost never go over $100 on the weekends, although that does not include the aforementioned $3 per night resort fee. The only thing you have to remember is that sometimes a cheap room draws... well, let's just say that some of the people who stay here aren't as "well-heeled" as those that go to the Bellagio for instance.
As long as your expectations are firmly in check, I'd recommend this hotel even if you couldn't get in for that cheap - and during busier weeks and weekends you won't. It's a quiet, friendly little place, away from all the Vegas hubbub but close enough (about 1/2 mile from The Strip) that you can visit regularly.
Show Review: Le Rêve
In Las Vegas, things that last a long time usually evolve over time. Sometimes that evolution is subtle and sometimes dramatic, but those things that grow and change and refuse to remain static are often the ones that can keep people entertained over the long haul. Le Rêve at Wynn Las Vegas is a great example of how can a show can evolve from derivative to unique, from challenged to challenging, and from good to absolutely fantastic.
When this water-themed show debuted at Wynn Las Vegas in 2005, the Cirque du Soleil style theatrics and acts seemed like carbon copies of O at Bellagio but it was accompanied by dark imagery that was at times disturbing. A clearer and less threatening storyline, enhanced special effects, new acts, and an integration of ballroom dancing have set it apart as its own creation and it is a stunning one at that.
Created originally by Franco Dragone, the man who created Cirque du Soleil's O, Le Rêve has many of the same thematic elements, most notably the giant water tank that people dive into, swim through, and do dramatic aerial stunts above. As with "O" the conceit can be a bit limiting but part of the show's evolution has been to emphasize more of the aerial stunts and dramatic Latin dance numbers, making it a richer experience.
The story, such as it is, is pretty much the same as it was - a person falls asleep and then wanders through an aquatic dream world of angels and demons, hopes and fears, comedy and drama. The big change from the original, however, is that the lead character is now a woman returning home from a date with a handsome man. This shift has proved seismic in the overall tone of the show, turning it into a romantic quest - a stumble through the kinds of insecurities we all feel when exploring the boundaries of a relationship. While I could've done without the unnecessary "love is hard" type lyrics that have been added to some of the previously instrumental-only songs, it is still a huge improvement.
Gone are the misogynistic and homophobic overtones that many people picked up on in the early version of the show, even though many of the set pieces that evoked those feelings are pretty much the same. For instance a human sculpture segment, where two men angrily lock bodies while showcasing almost unbelievable feats of strength, is virtually identical. But whereas before it came across to many as a war between the two sides of human sexuality with the gay side taking a very serious beating, now comes off as a battle between the two sides of the woman's boyfriend's personality - is he a good, loving, caring man or is he a jerk?
That's not to say that all of the disturbing imagery is gone but that's not necessarily a bad thing. One particularly affecting segment looks like an aerial ballet of angels falling to earth (or water, as the case may be), only to have some scooped up by a grim-reaper-esque figure collecting the dead and the rest reeled back up into the heavens, screaming as they go. Whether or not that's the intended meaning behind that part the show, or whether that's how you'll interpret it, is almost irrelevant. The very fact that these elements exist to challenge the willing members of the audience who want something more than people diving into a pool is noteworthy.
But for those who do want the mindlessness, Le Rêve can still deliver on that. It is certainly darker than similar shows but it now contains enough humor and all of the eye-popping visual stunts and set pieces that people have come to expect from this particular genre.
The addition over the last couple of years of some new numbers keeps it fresh. Another aerial ballet involves a massive puppet; a version of a fan dance uses soaring, billowing fabrics; and a lovely snowfall accompanies acrobats performing in a birdcage, a rope, and a lamp post suspended above the pool. The ballroom style dance is also enlivening. Mostly Latin inspired, the dancing couples are championship caliber even before you consider the fact that often they are dancing on narrow, wet walkways and sometimes actually up to their ankles in water. How they manage to do that without sacrificing the aesthetics of their choreography (or breaking their ankles) is nothing short of amazing.
It's almost not a real comparison anymore since, other than the water aspect, they are completely different shows now but if you were to force me to choose between them I would pick Le Rêve over O. Its heart-stopping acrobatics and diving mixed with the emotionally resonant storyline and visuals make it a more complete theatrical package and an experience that you will remember long after you leave the theater.