Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week

10. Stupid Criminals of the Week: Wet 'n' Wild Robbers

Just a few weeks ago there was the story of the guy who robbed a Bellagio casino cage of about $40,000 with what turned out to be a BB gun and was then caught after going on a lavish spending spree that involved giving money masked with Bellagio stamps to hookers. This week we have the story of the three geniuses who managed to make off with more than $100,000 from the Wet 'n' Wild water park in an after-hours robbery that involved breaking into the vault room using codes that only an employee could know. A former employee of the park was caught a couple of days later in a room at Aria with more than $50,000 and deposit slips and money bags emblazoned with Wet 'n' Wild logos on them. He gave up the other two people involved in the heist, one of whom was also a former employee. People... although I am not trying to encourage anyone to commit a robbery, if you're going to do it, at least throw away the stuff that clearly indicates that the cash you are carrying is from the place you robbed. Read more about Wet 'n' Wild.

9. Petty Experience Offering Free Shuttle

I have gotten to do some really cool stuff in Vegas but one of the coolest was the Richard Petty Driving Experience, where I got to drive a NASCAR race car on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Ridiculous adrenaline rush! Now if you want to go do the NASCAR or muscle car experience they'll even give you a ride to the track. Starting September 3, the Petty Experience is going to be offering round trip shuttle service from Harrah's, Mirage, Treasure Island, Paris, and Excalibur. It's not cheap to do these things but I highly recommend it. Read more about the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

8. Revel Atlantic City Closing

Atlantic City's losing streak continued this week with the announcement that its newest hotel-casino Revel will close in September. The $2.4 billion just opened in 2012 but never turned a profit and a recent auction yielded no potential buyers. This means the boardwalk will have lost 4 of its 12 major casinos including the Atlantic Club, which closed earlier this year, The Showboat which closes at the end of this month, and Trump Plaza, which closes in September. This is throwing a bit of a scare into the casino markets around the country but the chances of something like this happening in Las Vegas are almost non-existent. There are too many companies itching to get into the market that any hotel that came up for sale would get snapped up pretty quickly.

7. Circus Circus Campground Closing

Although Las Vegas has always been a destination on its own, its location in the middle of the desert in between other major cities also made it a popular stopover for people traveling from one place to another. For those hitting the road in a motor home, the Circus Circus RV park has been one of the few places on or near The Strip with facilities available for people to park their Winnebagos and the like. First opened in 1979, it had more than 400 spaces, its own pool, and more but its days are numbered. The RV park will close in September to make way for the planned Rock City festival grounds, which will take up most of the land at the corner of Sahara and The Strip and will make its debut in May of 2015 with the Rock in Rio concerts. Once this RV park closes, the closest ones to The Strip will be near the Silverton resort a few miles south of Mandalay Bay. Read more about Circus Circus.

6. Rita Rudner Returning to Harrah's

One of my favorite entertainers is returning to the showroom that helped establish her as a Las Vegas favorite. Comic Rita Rudner will be performing her stand up routine at Harrah's on select Wednesdays and Saturdays starting Wed 9/17. I wish she was doing more dates more often but I guess you take what you can get, right? In a press release, Rudner said "I'm very excited to be returning to the Caesars Entertainment family. Right across the street from Harrah's is the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. With those winding escalators, I can accidentally shop forever!" Tickets go on sale Friday 8/15 through ticketmaster. Read more about Harrah's Las Vegas.

5. Ellis Island Buys Super 8

According to published reports, the owners of the small Ellis Island casino on Koval just east of The Strip has purchased the neighboring Super 8 motel, which is surprising only because I always presumed they were already owned by the same entity. The two share a parking lot and a portico that connects entrances to each building. Ellis Island is a favorite of locals and tourists alike for their low-limits gambling and their cheap eats. Read more about the Ellis Island restaurant.

4. 99-Cent Shrimp Cocktail Up to $3.99

The Golden Gate in Downtown Las Vegas practically invented the shrimp cocktail - or at least the 99-cent version of it. Their just-under-a-buck special was as much a part of Vegas history as was the hotel in which it was served. But time marches on and 99-cents became a $1.99 and then $2.99 and now, recently, the price has been raised again to $3.99. I guess it is unreasonable to expect something to stay the same price forever but it's still a bit of a bummer to see yet another thing in Vegas get more expensive. Read more about the Golden Gate.

3. Small Fire at the Cosmopolitan Damages Rooms

The Las Vegas fire department responded in force on Friday, August 15, when they got a call that a blaze had broken out and was affecting several rooms on the 18th floor of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. It turns out that it was really just a small, but smoky fire in a trash can caused by someone throwing a lit cigarette into it. The smoke filtered throughout much of the floor and is estimated to have caused at least $10,000 in damage. No one was injured in the blaze but I can pretty much guarantee you that someone is going to have one hell of a security deposit charge on their credit card when they check out. Read more about The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

2. GameWorks Now Open

The family oriented amusement center GameWorks has made a return to Las Vegas with a new location now open at Town Square. The entertainment complex had been a fixture on The Strip for years with an outlet at the Showcase Mall by the MGM Grand but that closed last year. The new version has video games, bowling, an e-sports center, billiards, a cafe, and more. It's open Sunday through Thursday from 11am until midnight and Friday and Saturday from 11am to 1am. Read more about GameWorks.

1. High Roller Prices Increasing

There have been two barriers to getting more people to ride the High Roller observation wheel - the high cost and the height. If the price was the thing stopping you, you might want to run and take a spin before September 2nd because the daytime admission tickets are going back up to their original costs - $24.95 for adults. They had been running at $19.95 for the bulk of the summer but that's going to be ending right after Labor Day weekend. The night time tickets remain unchanged at $34.95 per person. Add $5 between 4 and 7pm or between 10pm and 1am and you can ride in one of their Happy Hour cabins, which features an open bar (although don't be expecting Patron and Grey Goose). By the way, if the height is the thing that has been stopping you from riding... sorry, it's still the tallest observation wheel in the world at 550 feet. Read more about the High Roller.

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Celine Dion Cancelling Vegas Residency Indefinitely

Singer Celine Dion shocked fans and observers last week when she announced that she was going to be suspending all performances and public appearances indefinitely while she deals with health issues both for herself and for her husband. All of her Las Vegas shows at Caesars Palace have been cancelled and there is no timetable as to when, or even if, she will be coming back.

"I want to devote every ounce of my strength and energy to my husband's healing, and to do so, it's important for me to dedicate this time to him and to our children. I also want to apologize to all my fans everywhere, for inconveniencing them, and I thank them so much for their love and support," said the singer. "I also appreciate the understanding of my long-term partners AEG and Caesars Entertainment during this difficult time."

Dion's husband Rene Angelil was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998 but recovered after surgery and treatment. The disease made a return in 2013 and he underwent another surgery in December of last year that involved portions of his tongue being replaced so he could still speak. Although the announcement did not give an update on Angelil's health, it is presumed that he is still battling the recurrence of the disease.

The singer has been having health issues of her own recently, having already cancelled several weeks' worth of shows due to what a spokesperson was calling an inflammation in her throat.

The step back from performing is not just at Caesars Palace; Dion has also cancelled an upcoming tour in Asia and all other public appearances.

Anyone holding tickets to the Las Vegas shows can get refunds via the outlet at which they made the purchase.

Celine Dion has been one of the most successful Las Vegas headliners in the city's history. She first debuted in 2003 in a production entitled "A New Day," which played to mostly sold-out audiences in the 4,000 seat Colosseum at Caesars Palace for five years. After a few years of a break, she came back in 2011 and has been doing regular shows at the hotel ever since.

There is no word yet on how Caesars will be filling their big showroom, which is finding itself without several of its big name draws. In addition to the cancellation of Dion's shows, Shania Twain's residency will end in December and Elton John currently does not have any performances scheduled. The only regular artists doing multiple shows there is Rod Stewart.

Word on the streets is that the hotel is looking to copy Britney Spears success at Planet Hollywood and get a youth-oriented headliner. They are hoping to find someone to debut at the end of the year around the same time as the hotel's new nightclub, located a few steps away from the Colosseum, opens.

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SLS Las Vegas Preview

More than three years after it closed, the former Sahara hotel will get a new lease on life this week as the SLS Las Vegas makes its debut. The completely revamped property will open to the public at 12:01am Saturday, August 23 after a VIP reception on Friday night.

The Sahara opened in 1952 and was one of the city's premiere resorts for decades but it declined over the years to become a second (or even third) tier property, mostly famous for its cheap rooms and $1 blackjack tables. It was purchased in 2007 by SBE, a hotel, nightlife, and restaurant company based in Los Angeles headed by Sam Nazarian. He closed the hotel in May of 2011 to begin preparations for turning it into a sibling to the company's SLS branded properties in Miami and Beverly Hills.

$415 million has been thrown at the hotel to modernize, expand, and renovate every part of it, with most of the buildings being gutted and rebuilt. Two of the existing hotel towers were stripped down to the concrete and got all new interiors and exteriors, a third tower was being rehabbed on the inside, and a fourth, low-rise building was torn down. The SLS has just over 1,600 rooms, several hundred fewer than when it was The Sahara.

The new rooms try to do a lot with relatively little space. The Story Tower rooms will be 325 square feet, about half the size of the standard accommodations at places like The Venetian, and less than the average of modern hotels that run in the 400-500 square-foot range. They come with one king bed or two double beds and feature plush mattresses, high thread count linens, 55-ince HDTVs, wireless Internet, and high-end bath amenities.

These rooms are aimed at the youth market, not only for their relatively low price point, but for their cool touches like a vanity that doubles as a mini-bar.

The World Tower rooms are a bit larger at 360 square feet and will add a work desk and a couch at the foot of the bed plus a bigger bathroom. The primary audience for these rooms is intended to be the business and convention visitor, so there is a whole host of tech features designed to keep people connected while on the road.

The top of the heap Lux Tower rooms are 425 square feet and have a French boudoir design scheme complete with mirrors above the bed and a long couch under the windows. These are intended to serve the primary gaming and leisure traveler with luxurious appointments and swank furnishings.

If those aren't high end enough for you, there are four penthouses that have been designed by singer and actor Lenny Kravitz, each with extravagant decor and amenities and footprints that go upwards of 3,300 square feet.

The rest of the building has getting a similar extreme makeover. The roller coaster and NASCAR related attractions are gone and the casino, lobby, pool, and other public areas have been completely redone not only with a swank, modern decor but with a revised layout.

The main casino is about 56,000 square-feet, about the same size as it used to be when it was the Sahara, but new from the ground up with around 800 slot machines and 74 table games. By way of comparison, that's about half the size of The Venetian's casino so it's definitely more intimate. There is a race and sports book run by William Hill and a high limit lounge.

There is also be a separate boutique casino paired with a Jose Andres restaurant featuring a few table games but no slots.

Speaking of food, the dining offerings are up few rungs on the epicurean ladder from the NASCAR cafe days. SBE, the company that is creating the hotel, is mostly famous for its roster of restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami and many of those will be making their way to the Vegas hotel. They are:

  • Bazaar Meat is the new steakhouse concept by Jose Andres, whose posh Bazaar restaurants in Beverly Hills and Miami are considered to be foodie heavens. Instead of the traditional steakhouse experience, this one will have more small plates and shared dishes with a distinct gourmet twist.
  • Katsuya by Starck is a sister to the sushi restaurants in Los Angeles, Miami, and Dubai that serves up some of the best rolls and robata grill offerings around.
  • Cleo is another Los Angeles transplant that serves a wide variety of Mediterranean specialties with both Greek and Turkish dishes.
  • Ku Noodle is another Jose Andres restaurant that focuses on Asian cuisine.
  • Umami Burger often winds up near the top of those "Best Burgers" lists for their inventive toppings of things like truffles and bacon lardons.
  • 800 Degrees Pizza already has one location in Las Vegas but gets a sister here at the SLS, serving up their quick-cook, made-to-order pies.
  • The Griddle Cafe is crazy popular in Los Angeles for their wild breakfasts (Frosted Flake and strawberry pancakes!) but the Vegas version at the SLS is open 24 hours.
  • The SLS Buffet offers some unique food twists on the standard Vegas buffet with Mediterranean, Indian, Japanese, and wood-grilled stations among the offerings.
  • The Perq brings another LA favorite with gourmet coffee, handmade gelato, and pastries.

Nightlife will include a 20,000 square-foot dance club called Life that opens on to its own rooftop pool. It hosts daytime parties called, naturally, Daylife. There is also an ultralounge space adjacent to the main pool called Foxtail that turns into a nightclub late nights and offers a day club experience while the sun is shining. The Sayers Club is a live music venue, also transplanted from Los Angeles, with a Strip facing patio. Two more casino and lobby bars round out the drinking part of the program.

Furthering the LA resort feeling is a series of boutiques from famed Tinseltown retailer Fred Segal, plus a high end spa and a fitness center.

Those looking for a blast-from-the-past version of The Sahara will most likely be disappointed. There is virtually nothing left of the old hotel except the walls. Everything else was sold at auction after the hotel closed. Having said that, they do have a couple of nods to the building's history with Sahara playing cards as part of the carpet design in some spots.

Room rates are starting at around $150 during the week and around $230 on the weekend for the smallest Story Tower rooms. Add about $20-$50 for the World Tower and another $100 for the Lux tower rooms. There is a $25 per night resort fee that covers the usual amenities like Internet and gym access.

I will have a full review of the hotel soon.

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The North Strip's Rebirth?

We've heard this story before. It was around 2007 and The Strip was flying high with a huge influx of tourists bringing ridiculous amounts of cash with them. With the bulk of the South and Center Strip sections either already occupied by massive mega-resorts or new ones like CityCenter and The Cosmopolitan under construction, the attention focused on the North Strip, where plenty of opportunities for redevelopment existed.

The old hotels that took up the bulk of the land fell like dominoes with the Algiers making way for the $4 billion Fontainebleau, the Stardust biting the dust for the $5 billion Echelon project, and the Frontier riding off into the sunset so they could build the $5 billion Plaza Las Vegas complex. It was rumored that the Riviera, Circus Circus, and Sahara would all be on the chopping block soon as the new developments opened and forced the older hotels out.

Of course then the global recession struck in 2008 and most of that went out the window, leaving half-built hulks and empty lots in the places where some of the most famous of Vegas' early casinos once stood.

With the opening next week of the SLS Las Vegas, the North Strip is poised for its next shot at a rebirth. If everything goes as planned this section of The Strip will have some of the biggest, newest, and most interesting resorts in Vegas.

By way of definition the North Strip is defined as everything north of Spring Mountain/Sands and starts with the Fashion Show Mall on one side and Wynn Las Vegas on the other, then ends at The Stratosphere. Currently the only major resorts in between those are the aging Riviera and Circus Circus and the new SLS Las Vegas, which opens next weekend as a complete overhaul of the old Sahara.

Just north of the Fashion Show, where the Frontier once stood, is where Australian billionaire James Packer is planning on building a new multi-billion casino-resort to add to his portfolio of properties in Sydney, London, and Macau. Details are scarce at this time but they are saying that whatever it is will open in 2018.

Right next door, where the Stardust used to be located, will be the $4 billion Resorts World, an Asian themed property from Malaysia company Genting Berhad, which runs casinos in that country, The Philippines, and New York. It will have 3,000 rooms, a 100,000 square-foot casino, two dozen restaurants, a 4,000 seat theater, a giant aquarium, and more. That is slated to open in 2017.

Just south of the SLS Las Vegas is the former Wet 'n' Wild site where a developer has just gotten approval to build the All-Net Resort, a non-gaming facility that will have a 22,000 seat retractable room arena, a 500-room all-suite hotel, and a 300,000 square-foot outdoor shopping complex. They are aiming for a 2017 opening of that as well.

And then across the street from the SLS Las Vegas is the empty plot of land that will become the Vegas' biggest festival grounds called Rock City. With multiple stages, street scenes with food and merchandise vendors, zip line attractions, and more it will make its debut next May with the Rock in Rio festival.

If all of these things actually happen - and that's a big if - you can expect to hear more announcements soon for big plans to replace or modernize The Riviera and maybe some sort of reboot of the partially built Fontainebleau, both of which may have to be torn down before they could do anything substantial with them.

Let's reconvene in a few years and see how all this turns out, shall we?

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Las Vegas for a 21 Year Old

I got an email from a friend of a friend looking for advice for a friend of theirs - a 21-year-old young man from the UK who will be visiting Las Vegas for the first time in a few weeks.

As most of you know, I am not 21. I'm not sure that I ever was 21, but if I was I have definitely forgotten what it was like. Having said that, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try to view the possibilities and pitfalls of Las Vegas through a fresh set of eyes.

Although not every 21 year old is created equally, there are probably enough similarities that creating an itinerary full of generalizations like this one is not going to be too far off the mark. Having said that, I apologize in advance if there is some stereotypical thinking in here that doesn't apply to the 21 year old in your life.

I'd guess that the predominant factors in creating a good Vegas experience for people of this demo are going to be cost and proximity to alcohol and the groups of similarly aged people who drink it.

A first timer in Vegas really should stay on The Strip but here you really have to make a trade-off of money for comfort. Unlike other cities where you can often find small, affordable gems tucked in amongst the higher priced hotels, on The Strip the cheap places are, well, cheap. You can probably get a mid-week room for as low as $25 at someplace like The Riviera, maybe $35 at Circus Circus, and a few bucks more at someplace like The Linq or Excalibur. To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong (usually) with the rooms at the hotels but they are often small and can be shabby since they are high-volume accommodations that draw people who don't treat the furnishings with the same kind of care that people who stay in $300 per night rooms do.

Then again, you're 21 and as long as there is a bed, a shower, and toilet to puke into after too many Jager bombs, you're probably not going to care about things like thread counts and plushy robes. For an audience that isn't going to be doing anything in the room other than sleeping, these accommodations are fine.

Keep in mind however, that as with all resorts on The Strip, each of the above adds on exorbitant "resort fees" that range from $15 to $22 per night. You get things like Wi-Fi and gym access for the money, but just beware that the $25 room rate you see is really going to be more like $50 when you add in fees and taxes.

An alternative would be to stay in Downtown Las Vegas. Here, similar prices will get you much nicer accommodations at places like Downtown Grand, The D, and the Golden Nugget. Go with the simple but still nice rooms at a place like Main Street Station or The Fremont and you'll get not only low rates but ones that don't come with resort fees on top of them (at least as of this writing).

Downtown is booming these days with all sorts of fun, affordable restaurants and bars both on Fremont Street and the East Fremont District. Examples of good cheap eats include American Coney Island, Eat Downtown Las Vegas, Big Ern's BBQ, Pinches Tacos, Radio City Pizza, the Bier Garten, and The Commissary while fun bars include The Commonwealth, Insert Coin(s), and Atomic Liquors. Plus you've got SlotZilla, the Downtown Container Park, the Neon Museum, and the Mob Museum as attractions in the area so there is more and more to do.

But if the 21 year old in question really wants the true Vegas experience The Strip is the place to be. If you want something just a little nicer than the bargain basement places and are willing to play a few bucks more for it, check rates at places like Harrah's, Bally's, Luxor, and Treasure Island.

For food, if you really want to go budget, you should stick with the low-cost food courts because even the lowest of low cost interesting restaurants are going to run you $10-$15 at lunch and $15-$20 at dinner. If you can swing that, look at places like KGB and Bobby's Burger Palace, which have the best burgers in town; Capriotti's and Earl of Sandwich for the best sandwiches in the world; the "secret" pizza place at The Cosmopolitan; Pink's Hot Dogs for the classic LA experience; the Meatball Spot just so you can say you ate at someplace that Britney Spears kind of owns; or any of the mid-priced restaurants like Sugar Factory, Double Barrel Roadhouse, Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen, Hash House a Go Go, or Gilley's.

In terms of things to do, start with the free attractions like the Bellagio Fountains and Mirage Volcano and then pick and choose some of the ones that cost money like the thrills of The High Roller, the VooDoo Skyline, and the New York-New York Roller Coaster.

And of course there's the nightclub scene, which is one of the most exciting and extensive anywhere in the world. To be frank, most of the big clubs are all pretty much the same - long lines, high cover and drink prices, packed dance floors, and no place to sit down since all of the tables are reserved for bottle service. If that's all you need out of a club, close your eyes and point - Hakkasan, XS, and Marquee are the biggest of the big both in terms of popularity and floor space. If you want something a little more interesting, try Light at Mandalay Bay, which has Cirque du Soleil performances woven into the experience, Body English at the Hard Rock with its more intimate vibe, or Beacher's Madhouse and its Miley Cyrus video come to life aesthetic.

And don't forget about the day clubs. Just about every hotel has one, where they transform their pools into dance clubs with DJs, bars, and frivolity. Daylight at Mandalay Bay and Rehab at the Hard Rock are among the more popular.

Most 21 year old guys will probably want to go to a strip club even if they don't admit it out loud to friends of their parents. If that's the case, stick to the big ones in high traffic areas like Sapphire Gentlemen's Club on Industrial right behind Treasure Island or Larry Flynt's Hustler Club down near Mandalay Bay. They are pricier than some of the off-the-beaten-path ones but it's worth it for a lot of reasons that range from safety to the overall quality of the experience.

Most younger audiences aren't interested in gambling but if the 21 year old in question is, Downtown is a great place to do it because the limits are lower, the dealers are friendlier, and the pace is slower - all of which helps newbies.

So that's all the things that a 21 year old should do, but what shouldn't they do? First and foremost, remember that there are lots of people out there who are looking to take advantage of 21 year olds making their first trip to Vegas. Stick to the main tourist corridors of The Strip and Fremont Street in Downtown, don't accept drinks or offers to "party" somewhere (be it a room or especially in someone's house) with people you don't know, watch your valuables to guard against pickpockets especially when doing things like watching the Bellagio Fountains, and most importantly, don't keep pumping money into a slot machine because you are absolutely sure it's going to hit. It probably won't.

For more information about staying safe in Vegas, check out the Health & Safety section of the Resource area on Vegas4Visitors.com.

I'm going to open this topic up to my Facebook audience this week and see if we get any other good do's and don'ts for the 21 year old in Vegas.

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