Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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15th Anniversary Special: The Most Important Things That Happened in Vegas for the Last 15 Years

I've been writing about Las Vegas on Vegas4Visitors.com for 15 years now and during that time there have been quite a few newsworthy events. The Titanic themed casino and the tic tac toe playing chicken certainly were big deals. But as I went back through the news from 1998 to 2013 there were some things that stood out as really newsworthy - they are what I think are the biggest news stories of each year.

1998: Bellagio Opens

Vegas4Visitors.com launched in September of that year, which was really the biggest thing to happen to Las Vegas since it was founded in 1905, but another important event happened about a month later: Bellagio opened. Las Vegas was already on an upward trajectory in terms of price, amenities, comfort, luxury, and entertainment but Bellagio changed the game in ways that had never been seen. It defined the upscale resort for Las Vegas and set a pattern that is still followed, to some degree or another, to this day.

1999: The End of the Theme Hotel Era

Three big hotels opened between March and September of 1999: Mandalay Bay, The Venetian, and Paris Las Vegas. The fact that the city added nearly 10,000 hotel rooms in the space of about seven months was noteworthy but it was only in hindsight that we could see that these three properties represented the end of the themed hotel era (yes, the Aladdin opened the following year but it was both a critical and financial failure). After this, hotels became more about luxury than about wacky themes and Las Vegas lost a little bit of its fanciful charm in the process.

2000: Merger Madness

On May 31, 2000 a $4.4 billion deal merged MGM Grand, Inc. (parent of MGM Grand and New York-New York) and Mirage Resorts (parent of Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio, and the Golden Nugget). On its own it was a big deal, both literally and figuratively, but it was primarily important for the wave of consilidation, takeovers, and mergers that would follow over the next few years. MGM Mirage bought Mandalay Enterprises; Harrah's bought Park Place Entertainment; Boyd Gaming bought Coast Casinos; and a host of other smaller and independent hotels got sucked up into the big corporate behemoths. It was like a giant, Vegas themed version of Monopoly and it changed the way the entire city did business and the way it did business with us.

2001: Coinless Slots

I was going to throw the biggest story of the year to the biggest bankruptcy in Nevada history, the $700 million belly flop that was the Aladdin. But in the end I had to tip it to the deal between Park Place Entertainment, then the parent company of Caesars Palace, Flamingo, and Bally's, and IGT Technology to add 15,000 coinless slot machines to their casinos on The Strip. The machines had already been in use in some locals casinos and had been tested here and there in Strip casinos, but this was the official beginning of the end for slot machines that took and dispensed coins. To say that it revolutionized gaming in Vegas is probably the biggest understatement of the last 15 years.

2002: The Beginning of the Nightclub Era

I really liked Caesars Magical Empire, the magic-meets-dinner-theater attraction in Caesars Palace. Its closure in 2002 was not a big deal in and of itself, but the reason that it closed was. The family-friendly entertainment destination shut down to make way for Pure, the first of the Strip's true mega-nightclubs. Yes, RA and Studio 54 were already drawing big crowds but Pure was different - huge, cutting edge, and an attraction all on its own. It signaled the end of the era where hotels would market to middle America and the beginning of the one where youth-oriented club culture would start to influence almost every aspect of the Las Vegas experience (see 2013).

2003: Entertainment Grows Up

Hollywood may have been the official Entertainment Capital of the World but Las Vegas has always been the undeniable Entertainment Destination of the World. The thing is that, with the exception of shows like Cirque du Soleil's Mystère and O, most Vegas entertainment in 2003 was of uniquely Vegas variety: showgirls, variety acts, magicians, female impersonators. Not that you couldn't find those things elsewhere, but they were the types of shows that you expected to find in Vegas. In 2003, the city got serious with the addition of Celine Dion and Elton John and the subtraction of Siegfried and Roy, whose long-running, purely Vegas extravaganza closed after Roy had a disagreement with a tiger. Those changes signaled a new wave of more grown up entertainment that would attract a worldwide audience.

2004: The Las Vegas Monorail Opens (then closes, then opens again)

The opening of the Las Vegas Monorail was not without its drama. Shortly after the $600 million boondoggle... sorry, transit system... opened, it broke down repeatedly, pieces of it fell off, and it eventually shut down all together while the operators made critical repairs. But all of that was a sideshow, really; a distraction from the real reason that the monorail was such an important story: nobody cared. Okay, almost nobody. The system has struggled financially since before it ever opened and went bankrupt because riders refused to show up, at least in the numbers the line needed to remain economically viable. This while the streets, sidewalks, buses, and taxis have gotten more crowded and, in the case of the latter two, more expensive. That getting around Vegas is a giant pain in the rear and people STILL don't want take the monorail is the real reason why this was the most important event of 2004. It was physical evidence of a lesson that Vegas needs to learn over and over again: don't do things your customers don't want.

2005: Wynn Las Vegas Opens

Steve Wynn was responsible for the big story of 1998 with the opening of Bellagio but he was also responsible for the big story of 2005 and for very similar reasons. His Wynn Las Vegas took everything that Bellagio had done and kicked it up a few thousand notches, establishing a level of luxury - and a cost for that luxury - that the city had never seen. Keep in mind that in 2003, the average daily room rate for all hotels in Las Vegas was around $82 per night. That's an average for everything from the cheap no-name motels to Bellagio. By 2007 the citywide average was up to $132. Wynn Las Vegas and its frequent $400 per night rooms had a lot to do with that.

2006: CityCenter Breaks Ground

When they first broke ground on the massive CityCenter project in 2006, it was already destined to be the biggest, most expensive development in Las Vegas history with more than 7,000 units in multiple hotels and an estimated price tag of $4 billion. It was the height of Las Vegas hubris during an era when everyone was trying to outdo each other in terms of the scope and scale of the next big thing. That the cost would eventually balloon up to something closer to $10 billion, that it almost brought down one of the biggest casino companies in the world, and that one of the hotels never opened because of construction defects is almost parenthetical to fact that someone wanted to build all of this in the first place.

2007: The End of "Classic" Vegas

This is the year that two Vegas classics met their end, with the implosions of both The Stardust and The Frontier, which dated back to 1958 and 1942 respectively. The other classic hotels on The Strip quaked (figuratively speaking), with rumors running rampant that properties like the Tropicana (1958), Sahara (1952), and Riviera (1955) would all be following suit in short order. Billions of dollars were being thrown around like it was pocket change and if that kind of excess had continued it is almost certain that none of those hotels would still exist today. Of course, then 2008 rolled around and changed everything once again.

2008: The Recession

It's amazing what a little global economic meltdown can do to a place like Las Vegas. In the span of year, companies that were flying high were suddenly in big trouble with bankruptcies more common than showgirls. Development money dried up and while there were a few projects that had gone too far to turn back (CityCenter, for instance), some shut down all together. The massive $5 billion Echelon development that would've replaced The Stardust got mothballed, leaving steel and construction cranes looming over The Strip, while the Fontainebleau, a $3 billion hotel under construction next to The Riviera, went belly up and workers went home. Five years later, both are still sitting unfinished.

2009: CityCenter Opens

CityCenter has to get two spots on this list - one in 2006 for the groundbreaking of such an audacious project and this one in 2009 for opening despite the fact that the company that built it couldn't afford it, the city didn't need it, and the economy couldn't support it. While it may not have been a runaway financial success (yet), it certainly has been a critical success, racking up plaudits for its cutting edge design and state of the art technology. Just like Bellagio laid the groundwork for the luxury resorts of the first decade of the new Millennium, so to will CityCenter for the second.

2010: The Liberace Museum Closes

The phrase "end of an era" gets bandied about frequently (and frequently incorrectly) but in the case of the closure of the Liberace Museum it was completely apt. The attraction represented a very specific "type" of Las Vegas, where spectacle was expected and kitsch was king. You can draw a line directly from Liberace's eye-popping extravaganzas all the way to hotels like New York-New York, which succeeded on the same principles: entertain, amuse, and wow the audience. But by 2010, Vegas had gotten too serious for silliness like this and the museum hung up its rhinestone studded cape for the last time.

2011: The Sahara Gets Reinvented

For most of the last two decades the Vegas model for new development was this: close it, blow it up, and start from scratch. But the closure of The Sahara kicked off a new model; one that will probably be the dominant strategy for years to come. Instead of blowing it up and spending a few billion to start from scratch, the company that bought the place is spending a fraction of that - about $300 million - to renovate, remodel, and reopen it as the swank SLS Las Vegas. And thus the Imperial Palace begets The Quad, Lady Luck begets Downtown Grand, and Bill's Gamblin' Hall begets the Gansevoort. It will probably be a long time before a major Vegas hotel closes and gets completely scrubbed from the earth just to make way for a new resort.

2012: Downtown Las Vegas Hits the Big Time

While The Strip continued to struggle back toward something like normalcy, Downtown Las Vegas not only rebounded but excelled. The resurgence was driven by new bars and clubs along the Fremont East Entertainment District and major new attractions like The Smith Center, The Neon Museum, and The Mob Museum. When Vegas first started, Fremont Street was the only place to be. Now it's back to being one of the best places to be.

2013: TBD

I have to wait until the end of the year before I can pick the biggest story of 2013 but there are already several candidates. The dominance of nightclubs on Vegas culture was solidified with the opening of Hakkasan Las Vegas and Light, which are expected to help drive the party spots on The Strip to more than a billion dollars of revenue this year. This was also the year when resort fees became the standard instead of the exception. The commencement of construction on non-gaming attractions of The Linq and the New York-New York/Monte Carlo park is absolutely worth noting, showing a massive shift in the types of things that casino companies are investing their money in. And then of course there's Britney (keep reading for more details on that one). Scoff if you want but if it works, it could have a huge impact on the city. Like I said, there are lots of things in contention but we'll see what wins when I do my end of the year Top 10 lists.

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Britney in Vegas

It was probably the worst-kept secret in the history of Vegas and by the time they announced that Britney Spears would headline two years of shows at Planet Hollywood, pretty much everyone already who may have cared (and a lot of people who didn't) already knew. Of course that didn't stop them from busing more than 1,000 people out into the middle of the desert at insane o'clock in the morning to create massive flip-card pictures that the organizers claim were visible from space.

Stop and think about that for a second... aliens look at earth and see Britney Spears looking back at them. It's a wonder it didn't start an intergalactic war.

I'm joking of course (as are many), but in the end the joke may be on us. Say what you want about Britney, she is still a force to be reckoned with. A lot of people thought she was "over" a few years ago but she clawed her way back and became the top grossing female artist of 2012 and continues to rack up number one hits worldwide. Her latest single, "Work Bitch" is already a Top 10 hit on iTunes and is climbing the Billboard charts.

Unlike headliner stints from artists like Celine Dion and Elton John, whose days of having songs on pop radio seem to mostly be over, Britney is still a current pop hitmaker. True, she's not Lady Gaga or Beyonce, but she knows how to create a buzz around whatever she does and this will probably be no exception.

The shows will start December 27, 2013 and will run through 2015. There will be a total of about 100 shows, performed on periodic dates throughout the year (not on a set schedule). The first 16 shows, which include a New Year's Eve concert, are on sale now and the rest will come online in chunks as they are announced. It's an exclusive deal for North America so if you want to see Brit in concert you have to either come to Vegas or go overseas.

Tickets will start at $59 and go up to $179 for standard seats and there will be a limited number of VIP and meet and greet packages available for more money than you can probably afford. To be specific, that's $500 for front row seats and up to $2,500 to meet Britney after the show.

Although specific financial details were not released, it is rumored that Britney will be pulling in over $30 million for the two years' worth of shows.

The production will be staged in the big theater that dates all the way back to 1974 when it opened at the original Aladdin hotel as the Theater for the Performing Arts. It was preserved and updated when the hotel was demolished and the new Aladdin built around it. The theater was redone again as PH Live when the property became Planet Hollywood. Now it is being revamped once again from a 7,500 seat traditional theater to a 4,000 seat nightclub/classic showroom style space that will feature booths and tables, a dance floor, and regular theater seating.

So, will it work? It's hard to predict anything in a town like Vegas but it certainly is interesting. Britney's fans were teenagers when she first hit the scene in the late 1990s so now they are in their twenties, the kind of folks who visit Vegas not to gamble but to party at the city's clubs and bars. It's a demographic that Las Vegas covets but this is the first time that an artist in residence is aimed at them so who knows if it will work. Tickets for the first 16 shows through February 2014 went on sale on September 20 and within hours several of them were already almost sold out.

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Show News & Notes

Britney was not the only big news in the world of Vegas entertainment this week. We also have a big anniversary, a confirmed return, a couple of rumored ones, and a new show for a Vegas performer.

Cirque du Soleil is celebrating its 20th anniversary in Vegas (Mystère opened in 1993) with the return of their all-access Cirque Week. Scheduled for November 9-16, the event features a series of behind-the-scenes tours, classes, and lectures that any Cirque fan should be drooling over. This year you can:

  • Watch a rehearsal for Zumanity and attend a Q&A session with the cast and crew
  • Get a demonstration from the fire artists featured in O
  • Attend hands-on workshops in juggling, clowning, music, and more from the cast and crew of Zarkana
  • Learn about the backstory of the characters in Mystère
  • Interact with the giant puppets used in KÀ:
  • Attend a dance workshop from the cast of The Beatles LOVE
  • Learn the classic Thriller choreography from the cast of Michael Jackson ONE

Ticket packages include entry to all of the week's events plus tickets to Cirque shows. On the low end is a two-show package that includes Mystère and any other Cirque show in Vegas is $125 per person and the high end is a package that includes all eight shows for $585. You can get more information and tickets at http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/promo/cirque-week/home.aspx.

Meanwhile, down the street at MGM Grand, the former room used by the adult show Crazy Horse Paris will become even MORE adult when occasional Vegas favorite Beacher's Madhouse moves in for a long term gig. The show, which played on-and-off for years at the Hard Rock Hotel, is probably best described as a circus sideshow mixed with burlesque theater and a healthy dose of the Jerry Springer Show. Expect little person cover bands (Tiny Kiss and Tiny Britney Spears are fan favorites), dancing Oompa Loompas, peekaboo strippers, foul-mouthed puppets, contortionists, and more than a little bit of alcohol fueled insanity. It's definitely an acquired taste that often crosses - and then obliterates - the line of good taste so it will be interesting to see how it works in the middle of a big casino on The Strip.

In the rumor world, there's one floating around that Mamma Mia! may be coming back to Vegas. The Broadway hit musical, which features the music of ABBA, played at Mandalay Bay for five years and is still drawing audiences around the world with its touring productions. There is no confirmation from anyone official yet but the rumors are placing it in the newly revised showroom at The Tropicana by early next year.

Similar rumors are persisting about a Vegas run of the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon for sometime in late 2014, probably at a certain Italian themed hotel that rhymes with Schmenetian.

And finally, one of the highlights of the cast of Peepshow was always singer Josh Strickland, whose powerhouse voice and easy on the eyes appeal, have made him a fan fave. Now that the fairy tale themed show has closed, Strickland is moving his talents to Vegas! The Show, where he will become a lead singer starting at the end of September. One of my favorite shows and one of my favorite Vegas entertainers? I'm there!

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Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The I Know What I Want to Do for Halloween Award of the Week goes to the Neon Museum for its Boneyard Bash, a zombie themed Halloween party that will also celebrate the attraction's first anniversary. Scheduled for October 25, 2013, people are encouraged to put on their best undead-wear and party amongst the neon signs with food, drinks, entertainment, and giveaways. Tickets are $75 or $125 for a VIP reception and can be purchased through the Neon Museum website.

The Zipped Up Award of the Week goes to the proposed Voodoo Skyline zip line style attraction at The Rio, which was supposed to be open by now but is apparently a little short on cash. How short? At least $75,000, the amount they are trying to raise on indiegogo.com, a crowd-funding website that tries to get "investments" from the public. I'd say the odds of this ever actually happening have just gone way, way down.

The Makeover Award of the Week goes to Bally's, which debuted its new Jubilee! Tower rooms this week. The newly revamped rooms include upgraded decor, pillow-top mattresses, a refrigerator, flat-panel television, mp3 docking station, coffee maker, new fixtures in the bathrooms, and more. Rates start at $99.

The Alliteration Award of the Week goes to the newly delayed Delano hotel, the name that was supposed to be on top of what is now called THEhotel at Mandalay Bay. The rebranding and remodeling was originally set for the end of the year but has now been pushed back until at least summer of 2014. They say it's because demand is so high they can't afford to close down the rooms to remodel them.

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Restaurant Review: La Comida

Restaurateur Michael Morton has had an interesting journey in Las Vegas. His restaurants and nightclubs at The Palms including Rain, ghostbar, Moon, N9NE Steakhouse, and more helped establish that hotel as one of the preeminent destinations for cool vibes and good food. That partnership ended (somewhat acrimoniously) in 2011 and Morton moved on to other ventures like this, his first Downtown Las Vegas restaurant and one of the few in Downtown Las Vegas that are worth going out of your way for.

Located right around the corner from Fremont Street, just steps from The Commonwealth bar and El Cortez hotel, the place is charming from the beginning as you walk down a Mexican garden inspired path to the main door tucked away off the street. The restaurant is a sunny space with big windows and doors opening up onto a sidewalk patio and it has a bit of a unfinished adobe vibe, with exposed brick and concrete mixed with gorgeous dark woods, metal work, and stained glass throughout.

La Comida is Spanish for food and here that translates into a relatively small but flavor intensive menu of Mexican and Latin influenced cuisine. This is not 99-cent soft tacos and rubbery cheese quesadillas, this is the real stuff; the kind of local and regional specialties that you'd find cooking in real kitchens as opposed to served through fast-food windows.

Consider starting with the chicken tortilla soup, done with a spicy chipotle tomato base and loaded with delicate white meat and crunchy strips. It's a bit on the fiery side so you have been warned, but if you can stand the heat it is well worth it.

The huevos rancheros and spare ribs in green tomato salsa also looked tempting in the appetizer section.

There is a taqueria section on the menu with chicken, pulled pork, and various seafood options but we went for the signature specials. The enchilada de pollo went way beyond the standard versions to include perfectly seasoned chicken in tender tortillas topped with a chocolaty mole sauce; the puerco ahumado was a deliciously tender portion of pork shoulder, mesquite smoked and served in a red chili adovada sauce; and the pollo al horno is a half-chicken roasted mixiote style inside leaves with poblano peppers, squash, and a garlic and tomato achiote sauce.

Of course we stayed for dessert. The tres leches cake is a little bit of heaven on a plate, with a delicate vanilla-cinnamon dough soaked in condensed, sweetened, and evaporated milk. Start with one of their kick ass margaritas and end with that cake and it almost won't matter what you have in between.

Everything tasted homemade and beyond fresh, with the kinds of flavors that you can't get at a fast-food Mexican joint or even at most dine-in ones.

Prices are more than reasonable for this caliber of restaurant and certainly cheaper than what you'd pay for similar food on The Strip, but still a bit higher than what most Downtown eateries charge. Salads, appetizers, and ceviche are between $8-$13; and main courses are between $9-$22 with most hovering around the $15 mark. Throw in one of their $9 margaritas, dessert, tax, and tip and you're looking at about $35-$40 per person although you can obviously do it cheaper if you cut out the booze and grab a bag of M&Ms at the concession stand of whatever show you're going to see, but you'll hate yourself for it later.

Service was great - knowledgeable about the menu and helpfully patient with our gringo inability to grasp some of the more obscure parts of it.

La Comida is exactly the kind of restaurant Downtown Las Vegas has needed to help establish it as a foodie destination and should challenge the ones that come after it to raise their game. Gauntlet officially thrown.

La Comida
100 Sixth St.
Las Vegas, NV 89101
702-463-9900
website
Mon-Thu 11:30am-11pm
Fri-Sat 11:30am-2am
Mexican
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A-

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Show Review: Human Nature

You when think of Motown, you naturally think of four white guys from Australia. Or you might once you have seen "Human Nature."

Their first stand in Vegas was in the painfully old-school showroom at what is now The Quad. This new production, which has been upgraded in just about every way, is in a modern, comfortable theater at The Venetian. It makes a huge difference to have well-padded, movie-theater style seating instead of the straight-backed banquet chairs and cave-like booths of yesteryear.

Presented by Motown legend Smokey Robinson, the Aussie quartet, that nation's most successful recording group, delivers a high-energy show that covers a wide variety of R&B classics. The quartet does tight harmonies on about two dozen songs including "Dancing in the Streets," "Stop in the Name of Love," "Shop Around," "ABC, 123," "My Girl," and "Uptight" to name a few.

The vocals are impeccable and in this incarnation of the show they take more time to let them shine. While the six-piece band that backs them is terrific, the wall of sound in the previous version of the show sometimes overwhelmed the intricacies and nuances the harmonies. Now there are more of the quieter, intimate moments that really show how talented these guys are.

Standout moments are when they go a cappella on songs such as "Just My Imagination," "People Get Ready," and "Ooh, Baby Baby" and "unplugged versions of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "I'll Be There." Their vocals are an impressive blend of street corner doo-wop, barbershop quartet, and boy band white-boy soul and I loved being able to hear more of them.

There is nothing more to the show than the music and the Motown style choreography (and the occasional video clip during costume changes) but the foursome is filled with an almost stereotypical Australian roguish charm that is endearing and an energy that is infectious.

So yes, fans should be thinking of four white Australians the next time they want a Motown fix.

Human Nature
The Venetian
3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
866-641-7469
website
$74-$118
Thu-Mon 7:00pm
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A

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