Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

Want to know what's happening in Las Vegas? You've come to the right place.

Each week you can come here to get the latest news, the juiciest gossip, and the best reviews for the most fabulous city in the world, Las Vegas. Hey... it says "fabulous" right on the welcome sign!

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The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week

10 - Jeff Civillico Celebrates Two Years

Congrats are in order to comic-juggler Jeff Civillico who celebrated the second anniversary of his show at The Quad this past weekend. He's keeping the show fresh by adding new bits to the production including the introduction of a camera that he wears so you can see the juggling from his perspective. If you haven't caught the high-energy, big-laugh production you really should - it's one of the best values in town and a fun afternoon diversion. Read the full review of Jeff Civillico's show.

9 - Jeff Dunham (and Friends) Setting Up Shop at Planet Hollywood

Comic ventriloquist Jeff Dunham is bringing his cast of puppet characters to Las Vegas with a planned residency at Planet Hollywood starting this fall. He'll be doing six shows a week in the former Peepshow theater starting November 28 and is currently slated to keep that schedule through at least May 31, 2015. Tickets go on sale this week and will start at $72. Read more about Planet Hollywood.

8 - Town Square Offering Shuttle

Town Square is one of the better shopping experiences near The Strip but most people don't go there because they have to take a cab or a bus (if they don't have their own car). Now you have no excuse. Town Square is offering a free shuttle that operates daily from the shopping complex to South Point, The Tropicana, Planet Hollywood, and the Fashion Show Mall. And don't forget, there's an outlet mall just a few blocks further down The Strip from it so you could do two shopping extravaganzas at once. Read more about Town Square.

7 - Neon Museum Expands

The must-see Neon Museum has expanded its facility to include a new area designed to accommodate special events like weddings and dinners. The North Gallery is on the north end of the main boneyard and has more than 3,000 square feet of outdoor space with about 60 rescued signs including new ones from The Palms, New York-New York, O'Shea's, and the Lady Luck. The space features and outdoor wedding chapel and accommodate up to 300 people. Read more about the Neon Museum.

6 - KISS Coming to the Hard Rock?

Entertainment reporter Jason Bracelin has a scoop in the Las Vegas Review Journal saying that the classic rock band KISS is going to be doing an extended residency inside The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. This has not been confirmed by the band or the hotel yet but according to the report, the gig will follow the pattern of other recent headlining stints by bands like Guns N' Roses which involved a few weeks' worth of shows. My guess is the guys will also probably wander across the street to the KISS themed miniature golf course and amusement center. Read more about KISS by Monster Mini Golf.

5- Iggy Azalea To Perform at Cosmo

The current owner of pretty much all things music - Iggy Azalea - will be doing a show at the Boulevard Pool at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas in July. Australian model-turned-rapper Azalea is ruling the airwaves with her hit "Fancy" and a cameo appearance on Ariana Grande's "Problem." The show will be Saturday, July 26 at 9pm. Tickets are on sale now and are only $35. Read more about The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

4 - Harmon Hotel Deconstruction Begins

Word on the street is that construction crews have begun the process of dismantling The Harmon hotel at CityCenter, the tower just opposite of The Cosmo that never got completed because of construction irregularities making it unsafe to occupy. This is surprising since the companies battling in court over the cost of the failed building are still awaiting final rulings on whether or not the building can actually be torn down or needs to be preserved for evidence in the trial. Although no one is commenting, my guess is what is happening is strictly cosmetic - removal of the exterior glass and other things that don't affect the structure of the building, which will get taken down later. In the meantime, watch for some pedestrian congestion in the area as sidewalks are minimized due to construction. Read more about the Harmon.

3 - High Roller Pricing and Hours Changes

The High Roller observation wheel at The Linq is changing how much it charges and when it spins... at least temporarily. For the rest of the summer through Labor Day, daytime rides are being discounted by $5 to $19.95 and they are adding a "family pack" option with two adult and two kid tickets for $50 during the day and $80 at night. They are also adding kid ticket prices permanently with those 12 and under riding free and those 13-18 $15 daytime and $25 at night. The new operating hours are noon until 2am. Read more about the High Roller.

2 - Hidden Prizes Hits Vegas

The trend of Twitter fueled scavenger hunts has hit Vegas with @HiddenCash and @HiddenPrizesLV both sending people scrambling around town to find the secret stashes of cash and prizes. Here's how it works - envelopes are left in random places and the clues to the location of the envelopes are tweeted. Anyone finding the envelopes is encouraged to tweet a picture of themselves with it and to "pay it forward." So far prizes like free tickets to the Mandalay Bay Shark Reef have been featured. The people behind them are anonymous, or try to be - @HiddenCash was "outed" as PayPal millionaire Jack Selby. Follow @HiddenPrizesLV to join in on the fun.

1 - Vegas4Visitors.com on Frommer's Radio

I was honored to be on the Travel Show hosted by Arthur and Pauline Frommer this weekend. I got to speak to the legendary travel experts about what is happening in Las Vegas and we talked about the trend toward non-gaming attractions, the changing demographics of Vegas visitors, nightlife culture, music festivals, and more. You can hear the podcast via the player below and my part start around the 19 minute mark.

You can hear all of the Travel Show podcasts at frommers.com/podcast/.

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Traveler's McCarran Airport Video Goes Viral

Richard Dunn of Georgia turned what could have been a boring and uncomfortable night in Las Vegas' airport into a music video that has taken the world by storm and generated a response from none other than Celine Dion herself.

After getting bumped from not one, but two flights because of overbooking, Dunn was facing an overnight stay in McCarran International Airport. Instead of spending time at the slot machines inside the terminals, he decided to make a video just to keep himself amused and to have something to send to his wife back in Atlanta.

Using his iPhone, a roll of tape he was given by an airline employee, and various things like his luggage and a wheelchair to capture moving shots, Dunn spent about 3 hours shooting shots of himself lip-syncing in the deserted terminal to Celine Dion's version of "All by Myself." According to interviews Dunn has given, the Terminal 3 space where he shot the video was mostly deserted save for a few employees who "had seen worse" and let him have his fun.

He edited the video when he got home and posted it just to amuse himself and his friends but within a few days it had gone viral and, as of this writing, has been viewed more than 14 million times.

One of those views was from none other than Celine Dion herself, who posted a video on her YouTube channel with a special invitation. You can watch both videos below.

All by myself from Richard Dunn on Vimeo.

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First Friday to Get Bigger

The Las Vegas First Friday event has become one of the most popular, most successful festivals the city has with thousands attending throughout Downtown Las Vegas and the Arts District to experience the food, music, art, and amusements it has to offer. It's a big event now and starting later this summer, it's going to get even bigger.

Beginning with First Friday on August 1, the traditional First Friday "footprint" will expand with happenings throughout Downtown Las Vegas, including the Arts District, Symphony Park and Fremont East. The epicenter will remain along Casino Center Drive at Charleston Boulevard in the middle of 18b, the Arts District.

They will also have monthly themes. The ones scheduled for the rest of 2014 are:

    Friday, August 1: Wonderland, a festival of fantasy, surrealism and imagination inspired by the classic Lewis Carroll books, including a fully-immersed community art installation

    Friday, September 5: Harvest Festival, celebrating the bountiful goodness of the fall season

    Friday, October 3: 12 Years of First Friday, a unique commemoration of First Friday with "12 Months and Mythology"

    Friday, November 7: EnLIGHTened, a full-out visual celebration of light in all of its forms

    Friday, December 5: Round-Up, First Friday goes a little country recapping the past year and welcoming visitors and cowboys joining the Las Vegas community for the National Finals Rodeo (NFR)

First Friday has always been strongly committed to environmental concerns, operating as a Styrofoam-free event and offering a composting program for responsible waste disposal. Starting in August they are upping that commitment by becoming the first large-scale event in Las Vegas, and one of few events in Nevada, to replace water barrels with concrete ballasts to secure structures. While this change increases the workload for the First Friday team, it will save Las Vegas approximately 84,000 gallons of water per year. First Friday is also implementing a no-flyering policy to reduce waste and litter on the downtown streets.

Finally, the First Friday Foundation is starting a new concert series called Under the Lights Las Vegas, a full evening of music, art and entertainment presented by OFF SIXTH and Downtown Project and Downtown Container Park on Friday, June 20 from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. From musicians to DJs to custom art, Las Vegans can enjoy an evening of global entertainment while supporting the First Friday Foundation and cultivating Downtown Las Vegas. Tickets are $26 and can be purchased online at www.underthelightslv.com. One dollar from every ticket purchased directly benefits the First Friday Foundation and supports their ongoing commitment to cultivating and inspiring the art scene in Las Vegas. The concert series also features events on July 18 and August 15 with musicians' announcements at a later date.

Read more about First Friday Las Vegas.

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Vegas' Casino Siblings

MGM Resorts won the first casino license last week for the state of Massachusetts and plans to build an $800 million casino hotel in Springfield. When it opens in late 2016, it will feature a 250 room hotel, a 125,000 square-foot casino, restaurants, a movie theater, a bowling alley, shopping, entertainment venues, nightclubs, and more.

This is just the latest expansion that a Las Vegas gaming company is taking outside of Las Vegas. These days, most of the major casinos in Sin City have siblings somewhere else in the world. This is important to you because if you're a member of the players' clubs at these casinos, you can earn points at a place closer to home and then use them for trips to Vegas later.

MGM Resorts is the biggest gaming company in Vegas, operating more than a dozen resorts including Aria, Bellagio, Vdara, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, The Delano, The Mirage, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Luxor, Excalibur, and Circus Circus. Outside of Vegas they operate a Circus Circus branded property in Reno; Gold Strike casino-hotels in Jean, Nevada and Tunica, Mississippi; the Bellagio-evoking Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi; and MGM Grand branded resorts in Detroit, Macau, and Sanya, China (the latter of which is non-gaming).

Caesars Entertainment may be the second biggest in Vegas but they are the largest casino operator in the world, with dozens of properties across the US and Canada. In Las Vegas they operate Bally's, Caesars Palace, The Cromwell, The Flamingo, Harrah's, Nobu, Paris, Planet Hollywood, The Quad, and Rio. Elsewhere in Nevada they have a Harrah's at Lake Tahoe, another in Laughlin, and another in Reno plus a Harvey's in Lake Tahoe. You can also find Harrah's, Horseshoe, Bally's, and Caesars branded properties in Phoenix, Arizona; near San Diego, California; Joliet and Metropolis, Illinois; Hammond, Indiana just outside of Chicago; southern Indiana; Council Bluffs, Iowa; New Orleans and Bossier City, Louisiana; Biloxi and Tunica, Mississippi; Kansas City, Missouri; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Cherokee, North Carolina; Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Ontario, Canada.

Boyd Gaming is big in the local Las Vegas market with hotels including Orleans, Gold Coast, Suncoast, Sam's Town, The California, Fremont, and Main Street Station. Elsewhere they run the Par-A-Dice near East Peoria, Illinois; the Blue Chip in Michigan City, Indiana; Delta Downs and Sam's Town in Louisiana; the Imperial Palace and Sam's Town in Biloxi and Tunica, Mississippi respectively; and Borgata in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The Las Vegas Sands Corporation only has three hotels in the United States including The Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas and the Sands in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Internationally they operate three hotels in Macau, China and anotehr in Singapore.

Wynn Resorts operates Wynn and Encore in Las Vegas plus a Wynn branded property in Macau, China but they are working on more including vying for one of the casino licenses in Massachusetts so they can operate a resort near Boston.

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Hotel Review: Nobu Hotel Las Vegas

Back in the good old days - you know, when Las Vegas casinos had money to burn (or at least acted like they did) - old hotel towers didn't fade away, they were imploded, often in a shower of crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics.

In today's more austere times that sees Vegas companies saddled with all the debt they racked up in the good old days, old hotel towers neither fade away or implode in, they get reborn, remodeled, and revamped into something more contemporary and competitive with the increasingly demanding market.

Such is the case with the old Centurion Tower at Caesars Palace, now the sparkly "new" Nobu Hotel Las Vegas. Originally constructed in 1971, the Centurion was one of Caesars first major expansions coming online only 5 years after the hotel first opened. It aged, as things do, and was eclipsed by the newer, bigger, and fancier towers like Palace, Augustus, and Octavius that followed it, leaving the Centurion to be the relative "cheap seats" in the otherwise high-class joint that is Caesars.

The new version is a partnership between Caesars and Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, of the Nobu Japanese restaurant fame. Chef, along with investors like Robert DeNiro and designer David Rockwell (who did the eye-popping Cosmopolitan), helped set the direction for the boutique hotel-within-a-hotel concept that involved a top-to-bottom remodel. Rooms, bathrooms, hallways, elevators; everything is brand new. While there are some things that are inescapable when updating an old building such as lower than modern-day standard ceilings, it is amazing what $30 million can do to erase pretty much every trace of what was there before.

The entry to the hotel is along what is now called Nobu Way, in between the Colosseum casino area and the main domed gaming pit. For those intimately familiar with the hotel, it's right next door to Cleopatra's Barge, the nightclub/showroom where Matt Goss performs regularly.

The lobby is more of a wide elevator bay hall but it is lovely, with intricately carved wood on the walls and ceiling, plus lots of amber lighting and glass accents. It has a Zen minimalist spa feeling to it, setting a tone that is distinctly different than the visual overload that is most of the rest of Caesars Palace.

The trouble here is that there really isn't enough room for people to check in and out. They were offering in-room check-in but the last time I stayed that was not available so you were fighting for staff attention amidst a sea of people and baggage.

The rooms seem bigger than they actually are in terms of square footage. While they may not be as big as those in more modern Vegas buildings like Venetian or Wynn, they are still plenty big for most. They come with a king or two queens, a big leather sofa capable of seating 6, a built in desk and entertainment center, a massive flat panel TV, a closet, and all of the usual conveniences like an iron and board, safe, robes and slippers, and the like. Above and beyond the usual include items such as Nobu approved mini-bar selections (Japanese popcorn and chilled sake? Yes, please!), turndown service with pillow and bath options, Nobu-scented sleep oils, an iPad docking station, and soft Italian sheets among other goodies.

The design scheme extends the Zen Asian theme that incorporates nature inspired artwork, hand-painted murals, and lots of sleek, modern furnishings. The color-scheme is a little muted for my taste - all slate grey and subtle browns - and it feels a little spare compared to other, more elaborately designed properties, but the end results is undeniably lovely.

Don't forget the bathrooms, easily the most unique on The Strip. While everyone else goes for marble and expanse, these use their relatively compact footprint and heavy use of Asian inspired design to create a beautiful retreat. Teak fittings, stone tiles, and a deep bowl shaped basin are modern yet comfortable. An oversized walk-in shower comprised of traditional black Umi tiles offers multiple shower heads and a teak bathing stool, a commodity seen in traditional Japanese bathhouses. Bath amenities include a selection of products by Natura Bisse in a signature rosemary and white tea scent designed exclusively for Nobu Hotel.

Guests of Nobu have access to all of the Caesars Palace amenities including pool, spa, casino, restaurants, entertainment and more. One of the extras you get for staying here is room service items from the big Nobu restaurant at the base of the tower.

The other is the stellar service. The staff here tries to treat the hotel as an island apart from the Caesars insanity, calling guests by name and offering extra attention even when you don't think of it. They called to offer to print my airline boarding pass. We'll just leave out the part where I wondered how they knew I had checked in for my flight via my phone from an entirely differently hotel.

Unsurprisingly, it is not cheap to stay here. Figure in the $200-$300 per night range during the week and $300 and up on the weekends. As usual those prices will flex with demand so you might seem them lower and you might see them a lot higher. Nobu also charges a $25 per night resort fee that includes Internet service, access to the Caesars Palace fitness center, and local calls.

Those costs might not be out of line if this truly was the boutique hotel experience they are trying to create here, but let's be honest: once you step out of the elevators you are thrust right back into the mega-resort madness of Caesars Palace with its crowds, noise, and roughly seven thousand mile trek to the garage, the valet, or The Strip.

Fans of the brand should absolutely give it a shot. You get a gorgeous, peaceful room with the Nobu touch plus all that Caesars has to offer. For everyone else I think it should depend on prevailing rates. A quick check showed that these rooms are usually even more expensive than the Octavius rooms at Caesars Palace, which are bigger, have better views and higher ceilings, and more traditionally plush furnishings.

Nobu Hotel Las Vegas is a success from a design, service, and atmosphere perspective but I think there are probably better overall options for hotel rooms in this price range.

Nobu Hotel Las Vegas
Center Strip
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
866-227-5938
website
181 Rooms
$149 and up double
Average: $150-$250 per night
Resort Fee: $25 per night plus tax
Vegas4Visitors Grade: 83 (out of 100)

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Las Vegas History: El Rancho

June 17 marks the anniversary of the end of what most consider to be the hotel that started it all. Let's take a look back...

The beginning of The Strip begins with El Rancho, the first resort on what would become one of the most famous pieces of real estate in the world.

By the late 1930s Las Vegas was booming but the action was taking place along Glitter Gulch, Downtown's Fremont Street. This is where Vegas got its start and where the bulk of the casinos, bars, and entertainment could be found.

Outside of the city limits (which ended at what is now Sahara Ave) was mostly desert and a lonely highway, US 91, which wound its way from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. There were a couple of small gambling parlors and nightclubs out there but for most part it was nothing but dirt and scrub brush.

That all changed in 1938 when Thomas Hull drove from his home in LA to Vegas and his car broke down just outside city limits. As he sat there in the hot Nevada sun, waiting for a tow, Hull looked out at the empty desert and envisioned a cool, blue pool that he could dive into.

The thing that made that moment important is because of who Hull was - a hotelier who built and managed major properties in California including the famed Hollywood Roosevelt. This was a man who could do more than just dream of a pool in the middle of the desert, he could build one.

His vision came true on April 3, 1941, when El Rancho opened. Built at a then princely sum of $425,000, the hotel had 63 rooms, a casino, what is believed to be the first all-you-can-eat buffet (cost: $1), a showroom, and a pool, of course, located right out along the highway.

The entire property had a western theme that included riding stables and the rooms done as cabins, each with their own kitchen, a porch, and a lawn.

The hotel was a hit, luring all types of people from the average Joe to celebrities. It expanded in 1942 bringing its room total to over 100.

Hull sold El Rancho in late 1942 and it bounced around between different owners until 1945 when it was purchased by Wilbur Clark, the man who would go on to create the famed Desert Inn. He sold El Rancho in 1946 to raise money for his new baby and the hotel entered years of flux with different owners, many of whom sued each other to gain control. It all ended up in the early 1950s with the property being awarded to Bendan Katleman, the nephew of one of the owners from the mid-40s. Interestingly despite all the wrangling, El Rancho is believed to be one of the few early Las Vegas properties to never have been under the control of the mafia.

Katleman remained in control all the way until June 17, 1960 when a fire broke out in the main building housing the casino, the restaurants, and the showroom. Within minutes the wood frame structure was fully engulfed and burned to the ground - a complete loss. The rooms, which as noted above were in separate bungalows, were not affected.

The cause of the fire was never fully determined although it is believed to have started in a dressing room. Rumors that the mafia, unhappy that they were shut out of El Rancho's profits, started the blaze have mostly been discounted.

The bungalows operated as a motel without the main building for a period in the 1960s but eventually shut down and were either torn down or carted away to other locations. The last of the remaining structures was demolished in 1978, creating a vacant lot that remained vacant for decades.

The lot has been the subject of many grand plans throughout the years including ideas to build a Titanic themed resort and a massive CityCenter-like complex, but none have come to pass. Now the plan is to convert it to a Rock City branded festival ground for concerts and the like. It will be the host for the Rock in Rio US festival, slated for May of 2015.

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