Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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New Year's Eve in Las Vegas

I have a shocking admission to make: I have never spent New Year's Eve on the Las Vegas Strip.

Don't get me wrong; I have been in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve before. One of my very first trips back in the 1980s was over the holiday weekend and I remember sort of vaguely looking up from the slot machine I was playing at The Stardust as people shouted "Happy New Year" and that was pretty much it. I spent the Y2K New Year's in Las Vegas at a Bette Midler concert (they passed out little pen lights in case the power went out - they all read "I Flashed Bette Midler"). I watched the big fireworks show one year from my hotel room at The Stratosphere with my parents and brother.

But I have never been outside on The Strip with the teeming hordes at midnight until last week. My first time will also most likely be my last.

New Year's Eve is the busiest day of the year in Vegas with an estimated 335,000 people jamming the city to drink, party, and yell "whooo!" a lot. To provide context, that would be almost 1/5th of the entire population of the Las Vegas metropolitan area and more than twice the number of hotel rooms in the city.

The party starts early. I was walking on The Strip at about 9:30 in the morning and they were already selling hats, glasses, noisemakers, and HUGE drink containers outside every souvenir shop I passed. Barricades and fences were being installed around places that didn't want to get trampled and people were out in force, many already with cocktails in their hands.

The street shuts down at around 6pm and people start jockeying for prime fireworks viewing position shortly thereafter. The show is one of the biggest in the world, with more than 800,000 individual fireworks blasted from the roofs of seven hotels up and down The Strip.

For the record, if you want to be on The Strip for this, they say the best place to be is near the entrance to The Forum Shops where The Strip curves to the northeast. That way you'll be able to see all the way to the south for the hotels participating in the fireworks festivities and also to the north up to The Stratosphere, which usually caps the pyrotechnics display on that end of The Strip.

I came outside at about 11:40pm and managed to make it about 20 feet from the door of Planet Hollywood and was stuck. There was no way to go any further and no way to go back; no way to go anywhere, really, so I just stopped and accepted that this was where I was going to welcome 2014. From me forward all the way to the railing of the lake where the Bellagio Fountains are located was wall-to-wall people; a sea of humanity all jammed together just to be able to count down from 10 and yell "Happy New Year!"

Most of the crowd was fairly genial. I witnessed a few raised voices and some shoving as people tried to finagle their way to better (or at least other) positions, but for the most part it was surprisingly calm. And it wasn't just in my little chunk of the madness. The local police reported only 17 arrests overnight and that was in the entire city - only seven were on The Strip and all of them were for minor offenses that mostly involved drunken stupidity.

There were no reports of serious injuries either.

I'm at a loss as to why anyone would want to do this every year. It was insane and uncomfortable and both hot and cold at the same time and a girl named Kayla spilled her beer on me and I got waaaaaaay too familiar with the people standing around me if you know what I mean. But I'm glad I did it once just so I can say that I did and know that I never need to do it again.


Coming to Vegas in 2014: Hotels

Three new hotels are expected to debut this year, all of which are revamps of existing properties.

SLS Las Vegas will be an extreme makeover of the former Sahara on the north end of The Strip, much of which was torn down or gutted and is being transformed into a swank, nightclub inspired sister property to the SLS hotels in Miami and Beverly Hills. It will feature 1,600 rooms, several celebrity chef restaurants, multiple clubs and lounges, shopping boutiques from Fred Segal, a pool, spa, and completely redone casino. It is expected to debut late in the year, probably November or December.

The former Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon on the Center Strip across the street from Bally's is also getting a major overhaul that will include new rooms, a new lobby, an updated casino, a rooftop pool and nightclub, a restaurant from Giada De Laurentiis, and more. It was originally supposed to be branded as a Gansevoort hotel, the chain of luxury boutique inns that has outlets in New York and elsewhere, but that deal fell through under scrutiny from gaming officials. The hotel doesn't have a name right now but it is still expected to open by spring of this year.

Down the street at Mandalay Bay, THEhotel is finally dumping its goofy name and getting a top to bottom remodeling to become a Delano branded property. It'll be mostly cosmetic in nature but there will be a new restaurant and lounge on the main floor to go with it. That should be complete by the end of 2014.

Several other existing hotels are doing makeovers or expansions.

New York-New York and Monte Carlo are currently in the midst of a construction project that will dramatically change the fronts of both of those hotels. New restaurants, bars, and shopping venues are being added, including a flagship Hershey's World store, and a park will be built in between the two properties. Most of that should be open by spring of 2014.

Treasure Island is adding a new three-story shopping complex to the corner just across from the Fashion Show Mall. It will feature several stores including a CVS and should be open by the end of the year.

Bally's is adding a new shopping and entertainment complex in front along The Strip called the Grand Bazaar Shops. It will have more than 150 stores and restaurants when it opens in late 2014.

Harrah's is going to be completely remodeling its casino with all new machines, new carpeting, and a new layout. That should be complete by spring of 2014.

The Tropicana will be adding a three-story mall in front of the hotel but that project is not expected to be complete until 2015.


Coming to Las Vegas in 2014: Shows & Attractions

Makeovers are also happening at a couple of major Vegas shows.

Zarkana by Cirque du Soleil at Aria Las Vegas is getting a revamp to add new acts, characters, music, and more. It is closed now and will reopen at the end of January.

The long running showgirl extravaganza Jubilee! at Bally's will be getting an update in 2014. New costumes, cast, songs, and production elements will be added but much of the classic bits such as the Samson and Titanic numbers will remain. The show will close January 30, 2014 and reopen in March.

The hit musical Mamma Mia!, featuring the songs of ABBA, will be making a return to Vegas at The Tropicana in May of 2014. The show played for more than five years at Mandalay Bay.

The only new production currently slated to bow in Vegas opens this week. It is PANDA!, a bizarre sounding show that mixes acrobatics and kung fu in the story of a panda trying to save the woman he loves. It's at the Palazzo starting January 7.

There are rumors that the musical Spider Man: Turn off the Dark will be coming to Wynn Las Vegas but not until 2015.

As far as attractions, the much anticipated SlotZilla zip line will be making its debut in February of 2014 on Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas. Designed to look like a giant slot machine, it will feature four traditional seated zip lines and four "zoom lines" that will propel riders face down, in superhero style flying position, the length of the Fremont Street Experience.

Organizers are still saying that they are going to open a zoom line attraction at The Rio as well called Voodoo Skyline but I wouldn't hold my breath. There are rumors of money woes.

The High Roller observation wheel will be the tallest of its kind in the world when it debuts this spring behind The Flamingo and The Quad. It will stand at 550-feet tall and feature 28 pods that will give some pretty spectacular views of Vegas.

Meanwhile SkyVue, the other observation wheel that was under construction across from Mandalay Bay, appears to be dead in the water although the people behind it swear it will happen.

The Adventuredome at Circus Circus will be adding a new roller coaster called El Loco in February. It will feature a 70 foot climb that is followed by an over and under backwards dive that will create 1.5 negative vertical G's.

The hugely successful Wet 'n' Wild water park will get some cross-town rivalry when Cowabunga Bay opens over the Memorial Day weekend. Located in Henderson, not too far from Sunset Station, the new park will feature several slides, rides, and pools spread across 23 acres.

The South Point is adding a new 60 lane bowling center and events facility that is expected to open in late 2014.

Finally, the Liberace Foundation says they are still planning on bringing a Liberace Experience branded museum back to Las Vegas at Neonopolis. They hope to have it up and running by the end of 2014.


Coming to Vegas in 2014: Restaurants

Bally's has closed its long-running steakhouse and will be replacing it with a branch of BLT Steak, a chain with outlets in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, Atlanta, Miami, and Hong Kong to name a few locations. It should be open by March.

Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef and Iron Chef America fame will be opening an eponymously title Japanese restaurant at The Mirage in the spring of 2014. It will replace the existing Japanois restaurant.

The name Daniel Boulud may be familiar to Vegas visitors from the chef's eponymously named restaurant that operated at Wynn Las Vegas for years. That place closed but Boulud is not done with Vegas and plans to open a branch of his New York City restaurant DBGB Kitchen & Bar at Palazzo this spring. The restaurant will be more casual (and cheaper) than the high-end joint he ran at Wynn and will focus on pub grub style food with a French Bistro twist.

Guy Fieri, the celebrity chef and TV host (of the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives), will be opening his first restaurant in Las Vegas this spring. The UNLV graduate will have a yet-to-be-named eatery at The Quad that will face The Strip.

Giada De Laurentiis, the Food Network star, will be bringing her cooking specialties to a restaurant in Las Vegas in the new hotel that is being created out of the bones of the former Bill's Gamblin' Hall. It should open in the spring.

Steve Martorano will open a second outlet of his popular Italian restaurant at Paris Las Vegas in 2014. It will go into the once occupied by Le Provencal. His original restaurant at The Rio will remain open.

Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill fame will be opening a burger joint at Crystals at CityCenter sometime in the next couple of months.

Lastly, a new Hash House a Go Go is slated to open at The Rio in February or March.


Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The Happy Trails Award of the Week goes to Zack Hale Jr., who passed away on December 26th at the age of 87. Hale provided the original voice for Vegas Vic, the iconic neon cowboy that has loomed large over Fremont Street since 1951. In the early years the sign would "speak" every 15 minutes and say "Howdy pardner! Welcome to Downtown Las Vegas!"

The Happy Trails Part II Award of the Week goes to the National Finals Rodeo, the big cowboy-palooza that takes over Las Vegas every December only not after 2014. The organization behind the event has decided to relocate it to Florida for 2015, but don't worry... a new rodeo event is reported in the planning stages that will keep the spurs jangling in Las Vegas for years to come.

The Grand Slam Award of the Week goes to the Denny's at Casino Royale on the Las Vegas Strip, which has closed to undergo a renovation and expansion project. It is project to reopen in early 2015. In the meantime, if you are intent on getting a Denny's fix, there is another one down the street next door to the Hard Rock Café, one a little to the north just past Wynn Las Vegas, and the Downtown Denny's at Neonoplis.

The Changes Keep on Coming Award of the Week goes to the MGM Grand, which continues to renovate the property by adding new restaurants, bars, and shows. Beacher's Madhouse debuted last week; a new food court is now in business; a new Mexican restaurant debuted called Hecho en Vegas; the latest restaurant from Michael and Jenna Morton called Crush is now open; and a new sports pub will be going into the space once occupied by the Lion Habitat and should open in a few weeks.

The Grr, Arrgh Award of the Week goes to the Walking Dead series of slot machines, which are breaking sales records for the company that manufactures it, Aristocrat Technologies. They say more than 800 have already been requested, making it the biggest debut in the company's history. The games should be showing up in Las Vegas casinos any day now.

The I'll Believe It When I See It Award of the Week goes to the latest proposal for a new sports arena/hotel project called All Net Arena and Resort. The $1.3 billion project would include a 22,000 seat arena, a luxury hotel, restaurants, a spa, and more and would be built on the land once occupied by Wet 'n' Wild on the northern end of the Strip next to the upcoming SLS Las Vegas. The people behind the proposal say they have the money lined up and just need to get the requisite county approvals before they can break ground later this year.

The Too Much of a Good Thing is Not Enough Award of the Week goes to the exhibit of Liberace memorabilia at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which has been extended through February 28. It features costumes, a piano, a car, candelabras, and more from the late entertainer. The exhibit is free although a donation to the Liberace Foundation, which organizes music programs for kids, is appreciated. It's open daily from 3pm until 10pm.


Show Review: Britney Spears

I'll get to Britney in a minute, but first we need to dig into a little bit of background and context.

The entertainment scene in Sin City has seen a couple of seismic shifts over the last few decades. Up until the 1990s, it was mostly a haven for has-beens; people whose careers had seen better days but still had enough retro-nostalgia currency to lure a mostly older, moneyed audience into the showrooms. Cirque du Soleil came to town in 1993 and lended an air of legitimacy and substance to the proceedings and then Celine showed up in 2003 and made the city safe for big name headliners will real musical chops. Everyone from Cher to Bette Midler to Elton John to Garth Brooks followed quickly and Vegas became one of the top entertainment destinations in the world.

The scene may be poised for another massive shift as the nightclub culture begins to dominate the conversation. It is projected that once all the numbers are added up for 2013 that most of the top 20 grossing nightclubs in the country will all be in Las Vegas (17 of the 20 were in Vegas for 2012) and that cumulatively they will ring up more than a billion dollars worth of revenue. They lure a younger crowd of mostly 20- and 30-somethings and although it's not clear where they are getting their money, they certainly have a lot of it and are willing to spend it on ways to amuse themselves in Las Vegas.

But while there are a lot of different nightclubs competing for that audience's attention, there are precious few shows that offer much appeal to them.

Enter Britney Spears.

Love her, loathe her, or not care enough to have an opinion one way or another, it is impossible to deny Britney Spears' impact on the pop music scene over the last 15 years. She was the best-selling female artist between 2000 and 2009 and has moved more than 100 million albums since her career started. Her hits like "...Baby One More Time," "Oops! I Did it Again," and "Toxic" are widely considered to be among the best pure pop songs ever produced and her concert tours are usually sold-out, stadium-sized affairs worldwide.

Although certainly not the musical powerhouse she was back in the early 2000s, Britney was the top grossing female entertainer in 2012, so not only does she have relevancy to an audience of people who were teenagers in 1999 but to young adults who are heading to nightclubs today. That those might be the same people is what some would call synergy.

Spears has started what is being billed as a two-year residency at Planet Hollywood. She will be performing at least 50 shows a year through 2015 and it is a North American exclusive, which means if you want to see her in concert you'll need to either come to Vegas or go to another continent.

The shows are being held in the newly revamped Axis Theater, which dates all the way back to 1974 when it debuted as the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts. When that hotel was imploded, the theater was preserved and the new Aladdin was built around it. Now operating as Planet Hollywood, the resort has updated the theater with a couple of dance floor/pit areas built into the stage, some nightclub style VIP booths, and updated theater seating throughout the rest of the room. It's nice enough to look at but the drink servers heading up and down the aisles to handle the bottle service tables down front are frequent blockers to the on stage action for anyone sitting adjacent to the aisles they tred often.

So what about the concert? Well, it's exactly what you would expect a Britney Spears concert to be: big, spectacle sized entertainment with lots of complicated staging, special effects, and dancing. Two dozen of her songs are covered including the aforementioned mega hits like "Toxic" and "Oops" plus "Circus," "Slave 4U," "Boys," "Crazy," "Work Bitch," "Womanizer," "Scream and Shout," and more.

The visuals are impressive. Various set pieces include a video and confetti-based snowstorm; Britney flying in wearing massive angel wings; an S&M themed dungeon that included rain falling from the ceiling; and some tricky video panels that emulate mirrors. What most of them had to do with the actual songs they were backing is probably up for debate. "Toxic," for instance, took place on and around a massive tree with a jungle background and Spears flying through the air from its branches. Is this the "poison paradise" mentioned in the lyrics or just a cool thing to look at? Probably best to not look for deeper meaning here.

Instead, look at the dancers, who bust their way expertly through some of the best choreography currently being performed in Las Vegas. This is serious, world-class stuff here and the troop is executing it with precision and passion. Britney acquits herself well in the middle of all of it, doing simplified versions of what the dancers around her are doing but with enough attitude and performance style that it makes up for the fact that she isn't 18 anymore.

What you don't get is much in the way of singing, although anyone who goes to a Britney Spears concert and expects to hear her actually sing has probably not been paying attention for the last 15 years. According to the press material she is "singing to track," meaning she is not lip-syncing per se, but rather singing live over a recording. Feel free to split that particular hair any old way you want to.

You also don't get much in the way of spontaneity. It's all slick and well-produced, with every moment rehearsed down to the microsecond. There is no gratuitous chatting with the audience; in fact she didn't say much at all in between songs and what she did sounded like it was part of the script. For me that created a huge disconnect, making it impossible to get drawn in on anything more than a toe-tapping level.

I was also a little disappointed in some of the arrangements. The crisp syncopation of songs like "Slave 4U" and "Me Against the Music" was smoothed out by the live band backing, making it feel almost lounge-ready instead of calling you to the club. And the first half of "Toxic" was done as a dreamy, ethereal ballad before busting loose into the uptempo swing. Considering the fact that the song is only three minutes long, that seems like a strange choice.

In the end, though, it is not a Cirque-level substance or a Celine-style musicality that is important here, it is the spectacle that matters most. This is live entertainment for the nightclub set, all flash and sound and fury that dissapates the moment you step off the dance floor. On that level the show is a success and we may very well be looking at the future of Las Vegas entertainment.

Britney Spears
Planet Hollywood
3667 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Show Times/Dates Vary
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B