Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

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The Countdown: Top 10 Vegas News Stories of the Week

10. Picasso Exhibit Opens at Bellagio

It's still a bit strange to think of Las Vegas and fine art, but The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art continues to fight the good fight with its new exhibition, opened this weekend, entitled "Picasso - Creatures and Creativity." Organized in partnership with the Claude Picasso Archives, the exhibit showcases 43 works including 19 lithographs, 13 linocuts, 8 paintings, and three rare plates, each telling a different story and centered on Picasso's favorite theme, the human figure. The exhibition will take guests on a step-by-step journey through the famed artist's thought progression and creative process behind his painting and printmaking. "Picasso - Creatures and Creativity" is on view now through January 10, 2016. Read more about the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.

9. Mandalay Bay Debuts New Rooms

They have been making a lot of changes at Mandalay Bay - redoing the casino, revising the restaurant lineup, adding the Light nightclub and Michael Jackson Cirque show. Now they are moving on to the rooms and the hotel is offering a preview of the new look. King rooms are done in white and "cobalt" while Queen rooms will be in red and brown or purple and brown, each with a big mural over the bed, a minibar, a Keurig coffee machine, a flat screen TV, and lots of convenient power outlets. The first of the rooms will come online in July with the rest getting done by spring of 2016. Read more about Mandalay Bay.

8. Blue Man/Madame Tussaud's Combo Ticket

The Blue Man Group and Madame Tussaud's Las Vegas are teaming up to offer a combo ticket with admission to both for $79. This includes a "category C" ticket (meaning, not even close to the front row) to see the show at Monte Carlo plus one ticket to get into the wax museum at The Venetian, where you can also see and interact with replicas of the Blue Man Group just to create a sort of synergistic loop. Buy the two tickets separately at full price and you'd be spending $50 more. This is one of many combo offers Madame Tussaud's is offering including ticket packages with CSI: The Exhibit at MGM Grand and more. Note that you can only buy these tickets at the box office for the show or the attraction and not online. Read more about the Blue Man Group and Madame Tussaud's Las Vegas.

7. Celine Wants You In Her New Vegas Show

Celine Dion is returning to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on August 27 and she is calling on the public to help her open her new show. Fans can submit a video of themselves singing (live or lip-syncing) "I Drove All Night" and some of the submissions will get cut into a full length video that will kick off the new production. The rules: it has to be shot in a recognizable place in your hometown (a landmark, the "Welcome to..." sign, etc.), it can be you alone or with a group, and at the end of the clip you have to release a red balloon. Full details and submission guidelines are available at celine-bepartoftheshow.com. Come on Vegas4Visitors fans... I want to see one of you in Celine's show! Read more about Caesars Palace.

6. Earn Your "Coaster Cred" At Adventuredome

Thrill seekers on the hunt for some bragging rights are being invited to the Adventuredome at Circus Circus during July to earn their "Coaster Cred" by taking on seven of the park's extreme rides. Mention the promotion and you'll get a card that will get punched once you ride the roller coasters El Loco and Canyon Blaster, Chaos, Disk'O, Sling Shot, Inverter and Happy Feet: Mumble's Wild Ride 4-D inside the Extreme Ride Theater. Make it through all seven you can exchange your card for an official "Coaster Cred" t-shirt and lanyard that will make you King or Queen of the adrenaline junkie universe... at least inside this little corner of it. The promotion runs from July 1 through 31. Read more about Adventuredome.

5. Mac King Greets 2 Millionth Guest

If you haven't seen Mac King's show at Harrah's you really are missing out on one of the most entertaining and affordable experiences in town and he now has 2 million people to prove it. Mac celebrated his 2 millionth guest on Tuesday, June 23, 2015 by awarding lucky audience member Kevin Pogoda from Virginia a grand prize package which included a two-night stay at Harrah's Las Vegas, a Mac King Magic Set, Mac King's two books - "Tricks With Your Head" and "Campfire Magic," and a Mac King t-shirt. "It's amazing to think that I've been entertaining almost two million guests over the past fifteen years," said King just before the event. "A big thank you to all my pals and fans who have come out to support comedy and magic in the afternoon. I look forward to welcoming another two million guests here at Harrah's Las Vegas." So do we, Mac! Read the full review of Mac King's Comedy Magic.

4. Cosmo Sports Bar to Close

The new owner of the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas are wasting no time in jettisoning the underperforming aspects of the hotel. The usually nearly empty Book & Stage bar and sports book will be closing in mid-July and will be replaced by a new lounge. The original idea behind Book & Stage was to combine sports betting with live concerts but that didn't last for long and recently it has been a glorified sports bar. Details of the new space have not been released but it seems like a safe bet to say that it will be more upscale and chic to fit in with the Cosmo's overall trendy vibe. Read more about the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

3. Hottest June Ever in Vegas

I can attest to the fact that it was hot in Las Vegas in June - 113 degrees or thereabouts every day that I was there. But now the National Weather Service has officially declared June of 2015 as the hottest June ever in the city. According to the data, the average temperature at the airport was 91.9 degrees, besting the previous all-time average high of 91.5 degrees set in 2013. Of course this makes me wonder why airports always seem to be cooler than everywhere else in major cities but that's probably something to dig into another time. The NWS said more than half the days in June 2015 were above 105 degrees, with 18 in a row over that mark, obliterating the 1985 record of 12 days in a row. And it isn't getting cooler anytime soon - July is expected to be another record-breaking heat month.

2. More Changes at SLS

The struggling SLS Las Vegas, formerly the Sahara, is continuing to make changes to its lineup of clubs and restaurants to accommodate for the crowds that aren't busting down doors to get into to the place. Their primary nightclub Life closed its doors over the Fourth of July weekend and will be used as a special events space until they can come up with something else to do with it. For now the Sayers Club and Foxtail will take on the bulk of the party duties for the hotel. On the food side, their premier restaurant Jose Andreas' Bazaar Meat is completely revamping its menu this month, reportedly adding more choices from its sister restaurant in Los Angeles and including a tasting menu that will probably bring down the overall high price of eating there, an apparent problem since the well-heeled just aren't coming down to this end of The Strip. Meanwhile, there will be some smiles at the SLS with word that the Sayers Club is now hosting a version of Bonkerz Comedy Club with a rotating series of stand up comics on various nights. Read more about the SLS Las Vegas.

1. Pedestrian Bridges at The Strip & Tropicana to be Upgraded

The county is embarking on a $26 million project that will upgrade the pedestrian bridges that cross The Strip at Tropicana Avenue between MGM Grand, New York-New York, Excalibur, and the Tropicana. The project will replace all of the escalators, which break down frequently, the elevators, and wind screens along the bridges plus adding aluminum panels on the surfaces of the bridges to give them a little bit extra sparkle. The overhauls will begin early next year and should take about a year to complete so expect some inconveniences while the work is being done. These bridges are the oldest on The Strip, having opened in 1994 and ferry an estimated 130,000 people each day between the four casinos.

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Hotel Review: Westgate Resort & Casino

When this property first opened in 1969 it was called The International but it became the Las Vegas Hilton shortly thereafter, a name it kept for nearly 40 years. For the last few years when it operated under that moniker, the hotel was not actually owned by the Hilton Hotel chain but rather licensed the title in a deal that ended in 2011, after which the property became simply the LVH - the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. Not much changed in the few years it operated under that name, which was both good and bad (it needed some work).

Now the resort has gone through its most substantial change yet, becoming the Westgate Las Vegas, a hotel/timeshare hybrid that has providing the building with its first major overhaul in a decade. To say that it's about time is an understatement.

Most of the public areas are getting some attention, with a new casino bar just inside the main doors the primary sign that things are different. There is also new carpeting, floors, and wall-treatments but they aren't much different than they were before. It all looks pretty much the same, just spiffier.

The rooms are a different story. A chunk of them, now known as the Signature rooms, have gotten new decor treatments that are using some of the furniture and the overall design aesthetic from the former Westgate tower at Planet Hollywood (now Elara). They are heavy on the use of bold black, red, and purple with contemporary furnishings and other "Hollywood" inspired touches (think: pictures of Marilyn Monroe). The headboards and the bench at the foot of the bed are tufted leather and the mattresses are plushy comfort. Each has 60" LED flat screen 3-D TVs, coffee makers, mini-fridges, and all the other usual Vegas hotel room amenities (from safes to irons and boards and more).

The basic footprint of the rooms has not changed - most are the typical rectangle although some at the junctions of the three wings of the building have a little extra room. The reason that this is important is that they are not the big, luxury sizes that you'll find at newer hotels like Wynn or Bellagio but they still have plenty of room to stretch out.

The so-called Premium rooms are leftovers from the LVH and Las Vegas Hilton days, with standard hotel furnishings that aren't going to get anyone too excited. All of the rooms will be converted to the Signature style over time. For now, it's probably worth the extra $20 or so per night that it would cost you to get one of the newly renovated rooms but if it's more than that, the older ones are perfectly fine (and can be a bargain to boot).

Only a few hundred rooms are actively being marketed as timeshares right now so you can still consider this a traditional hotel. Eventually the bulk of the property will be sold but rooms will most likely but put into rental pools so you'll be able to stay here without buying in. And while they do have people around waiting to sell you a timeshare, they are fairly low key so no one is going to chase you down the halls waving brochures at you. They like to consider themselves classier than that.

The entertainment lineup has changed as well. Actress/singer/health-food advocate Suzanne Somers is doing a cabaret revue in the main lounge and there are a few other acts that might be worth a glance including the Prince tribute band Purple Reign. With other hotels going after contemporary acts like Britney and Mariah this feels like a decidedly old-school choice, which has proven to not necessarily be a bad thing for hotels like the Flamingo where throwback acts like Donny & Marie and Olivia Newton-John are drawing in lots of ticket buyers.

As if a Suzanne Somers headlining gig wasn't enough to prove its retro bona fides, the Westgate is also going after Elvis. Back when the hotel first opened as The International it was home to several years of concerts by Elvis and there is still a bronze statue of him in the lobby to commemorate his time at the hotel. Now, the hotel has partnered with the late singer's estate to run an exhibit of memorabilia that they don't have room to display at Graceland.

Graceland Presents Elvis features a massive museum and gift shop comprising more than 25,000 square-feet where the Star Trek attraction used to be. There's also a wedding chapel, although you can't get married by an Elvis impersonator here. Again, they want to be classier than that. A series of Elvis-themed productions is also planned for the main showroom, which got a makeover to turn it back into the traditional booth/table layout it had when The King played here.

The casino area has gotten some upgrades as well. There are some new machines and tables although this is still a small casino, made even smaller by the square-footage taken up by the new bar. People who like the seemingly endless casinos at places like MGM Grand and Venetian may find this one a little too wee, but others will appreciate the intimacy. The sportsbook, which bills itself as the largest in the world, is getting a high-tech makeover with new video screens, mobile integration, VIP boxes, and more.

The former Spacequest casino area will reportedly be turned into a nightclub/dayclub operation with a new pool added but for now it's the sales center for the time shares. Speaking of new pools, the main one was expanded when they redid the recreation deck with new surfacing, cabanas, and lounge chairs. It's nice, but still a little spare compared to the lush jungles of The Mirage or Flamingo. A new fitness center is up and running by the new pool and a Suzanne Somers branded spa is coming soon.

Restaurants are also getting revamped with a new deli, Sid's Café, already open and more on the way.

The hotel will remain a stop on the Las Vegas Monorail system, which makes getting to and from The Strip a bit easier. That's important since it's too far for most people to walk to get to the things you want to see.

Room rates have remained relatively affordable. Unlike most major hotels in Vegas, where weekends are usually more expensive than weeknights, this one fluctuates in often unexpected ways. Since it is next door to the Las Vegas Convention Center, it tends to draw bigger crowds during the week and so you'll often see prices higher on a Tuesday than you will on a Saturday but not always. Expect the lowest in the $40 per night range for the Premium rooms and another $20 on top of that for the newer Signature rooms. Those rates can soar up to closer to $200 on really busy nights but I'd say the average is around $100 plus the $24.64 per night resort fee (includes tax).

No matter what name it has operated under, this hotel has always offered nice (if not terribly exciting) accommodations, often at reasonable prices and that seems to be continuing with the new ownership. Now that's a retro attitude that I can embrace.

At a Glance

Highs

Nice rooms; can sometimes get a real deal here.

Lows

Not the best location in town.

Location: 5

Not in the boonies, but far enough that you'll need a cab (or the monorail).

Price: 6

When it's cheap, it's very cheap. When it's not...

Value: 8

A lot of bang for your buck.

Rooms: 7

Newer rooms are nice; older rooms are fine.

Casino: 7

Not my favorite place to gamble, but okay.

Amenities: 9

Lots of goodies in your room.

Facilities: 8

Lots of things to do here.

Service: 8

New owners have put an emphasis on friendly service.

Fun: 5

I don't think of this place as being a lot of "fun."

Bonus: 7

A fine hotel but not the best.

The Westgate Resort & Casino
Just Off The Strip
3000 Paradise Rd.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
800-732-7117
website
3,174 Rooms
$49 and up double
Avg:$100-$155 per night
Resort Fee: 24.64 per night including tax
Vegas4Visitors Rating: 70

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Show Review: Suzanne Sizzles

Say the name Suzanne Somers and you usually get some fairly predictable responses. The 70's era jiggle sitcom "Three's Company," on which she played the bubble-headed Chrissy, is the most obvious. Lots of people know her from her recent stint on "Dancing with the Stars." Some people think of the Thighmaster, the exercise device she hawked on endless infomercials. And still others know her from her long line of healthy living books on exercise, eating, and more.

What most people don't usually think is "singer."

That's too bad because she is one and a pretty good one to boot. In fact, after "Three's Company," Somers spent years as a Vegas headliner in the 1980s at the hotel that was then known as the Las Vegas Hilton. Today it's the Westgate and Somers has come home, putting on an entertaining show of jazz influenced covers and charming storytelling.

She's performing in the cabaret theater, a relatively small space with a stage just barely big enough for her and her five-piece band. That's okay, because with a show like this one intimacy is the key. Somers is pushing 70 years old and while she looks great, her days of splashy, high-energy production numbers are probably wisely behind her.

The set list is mostly made up of standards - Peggy Lee's "He's a Tramp," Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," Ella Fitzgerald's version of "Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing)," Sinatra's "World on a String," and Barry Manilow's haunting "Fool To Let You Go" as examples. Most are done with jazzy inflections and arrangements and while Somers may not be Ella, she nails the complex rhythms, modulations, and dynamics with ease.

But the real fun of the show is Somers chatty, conversational style, which she puts to good use in between songs. She tells stories of her sudden burst of fame with a tiny role in "American Graffiti," her sitcom days, her years in Vegas, her stint on "Dancing," her books, her famous friends, her USO tours, and yes, even the Thighmaster. Somers never leaves the stage, keeping up the patter even when she's changing costumes behind a screen. She's charming, funny, self-deprecating, and completely relatable. You can't help but like her and her joy in performing is infectious.

There are no French Canadian acrobats or dramatic special effects or high-kicking dancers or even big feathered head dresses, but this is one Vegas showgirl that knows how to make an audience have a good time.

Note that while Somers is booked at the hotel into 2016, the show is not performed every week. Check the website for the schedule.

Suzanne Sizzles
Westgate Resort & Casino
3000 Paradise Rd.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
800-222-5361
website
Tickets: $79-$350
Show Times: Tue-Sat 7pm
Not Weekly; Check Schedule
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+

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Vegas4Visitors Museum: The History of The International/Las Vegas Hilton

By the early 1950s, Las Vegas was booming. Major resorts like The Sahara, The Desert Inn, and The Dunes were opening on The Strip and people were flocking to the city in numbers that were surprising everyone. Lured by the bright neon lights, the Sin City naughtiness (topless dancers!), and the ability to wager on just about everything, Las Vegas was in its prime.

But the one thing the city famous for betting didn't have was its own horse racing track. These days, of course, you can wager on horse races pretty much anywhere in the world, but in the early 1950s if it wasn't happening in front of you, it was lot harder to place a bet on it.

Hence the idea for the Las Vegas Park Race Track. The 480 acre project had its groundbreaking in 1949 on a plot of land just east of The Strip and just across the official city limit at what is now Sahara Avenue. Money trouble delayed construction several times over the years but when it finally opened in 1953 it had a track for horse racing, a multi-tiered grandstand, stables, a club house, a bar and restaurant, and parking for 6,000 cars. It also had one a revolutionary idea - slot machines. While so-called "racinos" are common today, the Las Vegas Park facility was the first and only one in the country to offer a combination of gambling like this.

Trouble started almost immediately when the wagering system they had installed caused long waits to place bets. Despite numerous attempts to fix the problems, the track declined quickly and closed in bankruptcy just a few years after it opened. The facilities rotted in the Nevada sun for the better part of a decade until two big chunks of the land were sold off, one to create the Las Vegas Country Club and the other to build the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The rest of the land was purchased in 1967 by Kirk Kerkorian.

Kerkorian had amassed a fortune in aviation, starting with a charter service that flew gamblers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas that he eventually built into a full-service airline known as Trans International.

He invested some of his airplane money in Las Vegas, first buying land across the street from The Flamingo in the early 1960s that he rented to the folks who built Caesars Palace there. His roughly $1 million investment was sold to Caesars in 1968 for a reported $9 million.

But Kerkorian was not satisfied with being just a landlord - he wanted his own Vegas hotel and so the former Las Vegas Park Race Track land became the site for his first major play.

When it opened on July 2, 1969, The International was the largest hotel in the world with a 30-story, three-wing tower housing more than 1,500 rooms; the world's largest casino at 30,000 square-feet; the largest pool in the state; a 1,600-seat showroom; restaurants and lounges; and more, all built at a then staggering cost of $60 million.

True to its name, the hotel had an International theme. Rooms were designed with Paris, London, and other far-flung cities in mind and they even had a Buckingham Palace style guard out front. The rest of the property had a similar jet-setting flair to it.

Kerkorian was also a Hollywood player, buying MGM studios in the same year. This allowed him to leverage his Tinseltown connections to make a big splash with The International. Barbara Streisand and Peggy Lee provided the opening night entertainment and luminaries such as Cary Grant and Lucille Ball were in attendance.

But the biggest boon to the hotel was the headlining stint that started in a few weeks after it opened by none other than the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley. His record-breaking series of more than 700 shows played at the hotel until 1976 and helped cement The International as a destination resort even though it wasn't directly on The Strip.

Kerkorian, who also owned The Flamingo on The Strip at that time, sold both of the hotels to the Hilton Corporation, which rebranded them the Flamingo Hilton and the Hilton International (later the Las Vegas Hilton). The property only carried The International name for about two years.

Kerkorian went on to build the original MGM Grand on The Strip, now Bally's.

In the 1970s, as the name changes started taking place, so too did an expansion. Two of the three wings of the property were extended in 1975 and 1978, adding more than 1,000 rooms and expanding the recreation deck to include tennis courts and more. More shopping, restaurants, and entertainment were also added.

On November 21, 1980, tragedy struck on the Las Vegas Strip when a devastating fire broke out at the MGM Grand killing more than 80 people and injuring more than 700. Some of the blame for the high casualties was placed on the lack of a comprehensive fire alarm and sprinkler system and in the way the hotel was designed, which effectively funneled smoke from the ground floor fire up into the hotel towers.

Because the MGM Grand and Las Vegas Hilton were both built by the same companies, it was feared that they might have the same design flaws so a retrofitting started in early 1981. Sadly, it didn't happen in time.

A fire broke out at the Las Vegas Hilton shortly after 8pm on Saturday, February 10, 1981. Eight people died including one that jumped from the 16th floor to escape the flames. While certainly a horrific tragedy in its own right, the lessons learned from the MGM Grand fire helped saved countless lives as the local news media broadcast warnings to guests to stay in their rooms and not venture into the smoke-filled hallways.

The exact cause of the blaze is still debated to this day but unlike the MGM Grand fire, which was later ruled to be an accident caused by an improperly installed electrical conduit, the Las Vegas Hilton fire is known to have been arson.

23-year-old Phillip Bruce Cline, a busboy at the hotel, was originally hailed as a hero. He was the person credited for discovering the blaze in an eighth floor elevator lobby and reportedly ran from door to door alerting guests. Later, Cline admitted to having started the fire himself but his story on how, exactly, that happened has changed over the years. At first he said he and a friend were smoking a marijuana cigarette in that elevator lobby when it accidentally caught the curtains on fire. The story took a turn later, when Cline said he was having sex with the man on a couch in the lobby when the cigarette ignited the upholstery.

Fire investigators doubted both versions of the events. They were never able to find the mysterious man that Cline reported to have been having a liaison with and eventually discovered that the fire had four separate points of origin on four different floors. Cline was convicted of eight counts of murder and was sentenced to eight consecutive life terms.

In a 2011 jailhouse interview with the Las Vegas Review Journal, Cline changed his story yet again. He now claims there was no other man but that his roommate had given him a marijuana cigarette laced with cocaine and PCP, which he smoked in the eighth floor elevator lobby. He says that potent combination of drugs is what caused him to intentionally light the curtains on fire, although he says he did it for no particular reason and never intended to hurt anyone. This still does not explain the four different ignition points of the fire, though, and most people associated with the still pin the blaze as an intentional act of mayhem.

Interestingly, some also blame Cline for the MGM Grand fire. He was working at that hotel when the November 1980 blaze broke out and conspiracy theories abound that he set that fire as well, even though investigators definitively ruled out arson.

The hotel was closed in the fire's aftermath but reopened quickly even as workers continued repairing the damage.

The massive race and sports book, still billed as the world's largest, was added in 1986.

In the early 1990s, the hotel added a massive new sign at the front of the property, touted as the highest freestanding sign in the world at more than 365 feet tall. A fierce windstorm destroyed part of the sign in 1994 but it was rebuilt and remains standing today.

In 1998, the hotel underwent its most dramatic change yet when it partnered with Paramount to open a $70 million Star Trek themed attraction. It included a memorabilia museum, a space-themed bar, and an immersive tour with costume-clad actors and a motion simulator ride. The Spacequest Casino opened at roughly the same time, turning an area near the lobby into a intergalactic themed gambling destination that tried to make it seem as if you were playing the slots inside a space ship. Fun touches included "windows" that showed planets and stars passing by and bathrooms with interactive screens that supposedly analyzed whatever you were leaving behind, so to speak.

That same year, Hilton spun off its gambling properties into a separate company known as Park Place Entertainment. By then they were operating the Las Vegas Hilton, Flamingo, and Bally's.

Park Place turned around and made a deal to sell the Hilton to Edward Roski, Jr., who was mostly known in Vegas for building the Boomtown hotel and casino along Interstate 15 (which today is The Silverton). That deal collapsed into a flurry of lawsuits and Park Place held onto the property until they bought Caesars Palace and renamed themselves Caesars Entertainment. That new entity sold the Las Vegas Hilton to the investment firm Colony Capital in 2004 for $280 million, who entered into a deal with Hilton to keep the name of the hotel in place.

Colony transferred the hotel to one of its subsidiaries, Resorts International, which consolidated it with other gaming properties in Atlantic City and Tunica, Mississippi.

Also in 2004, the hotel became one of the stops on the Las Vegas Monorail route.

The Star Trek attraction and the bar area closed in September 2008. There had been word that it would get moved Downtown to Neonopolis but that never happened. The Spacequest casino remained open for a time but was eventually de-spaced, so to speak, and turned the big screens that showed the planets into giant TVs showing sports.

The deal for the Hilton name ended on January 3, 2012 and the Las Vegas Hilton became known as LVH-Las Vegas Hotel. Nothing other than the signs really changed.

The hotel sunk into a foreclosure sale in 2012 and was sold off to the Goldman Sachs, who owned the loans on the property, and another investment firm, Grammercy Capital. They ran the place for about a year until it was sold in June of 2014 to Westgate Resorts, a major timeshare operator. They immediately rebranded the property as The Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino and announced plans to convert it to a timeshare property.

In 2015, the new owners started rehabbing the hotel. Rooms were revamped, new restaurants and entertainment was added, the pool area was expanded and redone, and the casino was remodeled. An Elvis themed attraction, done in partnership with the Graceland estate, took over the space where the Star Trek attraction had been, bringing the hotel full circle in terms of its relationship with The King. The former Spacequest casino was turned into the sales center for the timeshares.

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