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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Las Vegas Update - CityCenter, Mirage Volcano and More!

Trip Report by Rick West

Recently, Theme Park Adventure took a trip across the Mojave under the cover of darkness; destination: Las Vegas.

We only had a few hours to spend in Sin City, and there was a lot that we hadn't seen before, so our work was cut out for us.

While I lived in Las Vegas for a few years, MGM Mirage's massive CityCenter was under construction. The $11 billion resort/casino/mall/luxury living/convention facility was the largest thing ever build in Vegas - actually, it's the largest privately financed development project in the United States. Ever! To see it with your own eyes is the only way to truly appreciate the mammoth size of this thing.
CityCenter sits on a sprawling 76 acres on the Las Vegas Strip. In comparison, Disneyland Park in Anaheim sits on roughly 85 acres (total - including "backstage" areas for Cast Members). So, to put it in theme park terms, CityCenter is just slightly smaller than Disneyland. No matter what terms you put that in, that means that CityCenter is huge. And the price tag - it's hard to even begin to fathom.

Within CityCenter's 76 acres sits some of the most extravagant luxuries in Las Vegas. The shopping mall, which acts as the property's centerpiece, is called The Crystals. Like many of the high-end shopping venues in Las Vegas, The Crystals is priced well out of the reach of mere mortals; in fact, the "lowest-end" shop we saw while exploring the mall was Tiffany & Co. And the only restaurant name we recognized was "Puck". Everything else was Italian and so high-end sounding that we really, simply disconnected.

And I think that is the major miss of The Crystals. We represent the majority of the population that visits Las Vegas - young to middle-aged Americans, mostly from Southern California. That segment of the population heads to Vegas typically with a couple hundred to a few thousand bucks to have fun with, usually spread between food, drinks, gambling and maybe a show somewhere. A nice room is good - but the majority of guests heading to Vegas are looking to get a room from $30 to $75; any higher then that, and you start your disconnect from the majority of visitors. People head to Vegas for a good time, looking to spend what they can afford; in today's economy, how anyone in Vegas expects tourists to pop several hundred dollars or more on a room alone - is hard to imagine. It happens; it happens every day. That's just not the majority of Americans these days.

Walking through The Crystals, I noticed several things. First, the mall is so new and so ultra high-end, it seems sterile; like a hospital. It's totally modern - even futuristic - and defenitely has incredible visuals to offer guests. At the end of the day however, it is so high-end that it may as well be an animal at a zoo. People walk by, look at it and move on. It's more of an extravagant "attraction" than shopping destination. I know that most of the people living in Vegas would never be able to routinely shop there. And most tourists don't fly in to Vegas and suddenly have the urge for a $20,000 shopping run. It's a whole other way of life for those who can and do exist like that - but not for most of us, ever. The mall itself is sleepy - while there are a lot of people walking through, very few are buying. Likewise, as we walked through a looked at the "zoo animal" shops - the employees looked almost bored, staring right back out at us. You could almost hear them thinking, for the love of God... just come in and say hello! I haven't talked to anyone in hours!

The trick with a mall such as The Crystals is that the merchandise they do sell is so expensive, one sale a day (or maybe every couple of days) is enough to pay rent and keep their doors open. It's a weird concept for most to think about, but that's the way it is for retailers like this. Plus, the companies that can afford to call The Crystals "home" have enough financial clout on the back end to withstand any sagging sales they might encounter in Las Vegas. And God knows, MGM Mirage won't let The Crystals fail - the money will come from somewhere to save face and deem the mall an "absolute success" at CityCenter.

There are some very cool "interactive" and visual displays, sculptures and elements set throughout The Crystals that kind of make walking through worth it; water funnel elements, illuminated ice columns and futuristic "trees" make The Crystals worth the trip alone. People can and do connect with these things - and it shows, by the amount of attention these displays get versus the traffic in and out of any of the mall's stores. The bottom line is, if you have the time, The Crystals is well worth a looksie. Just don't expect to find a Panda Express or Forever 21 on the property - that ain't this mall. If you do get turned around in The Crystals there are large touch-screen directories along the way that are really impressive; absolutely a fantastic, modern touch that has a good amount of "wow" behind it, as most people are use to standing and staring at large static mall map displays with the store listings lined up in columns.

I need to back up - and before writing any further about the rest of the CityCenter interior, I need to say a few things about the exterior...

Finding your way in to CityCenter is half the battle, kids. The complex is so big, that if you happen to drive right in like we did, you will find that it is very similar to cruising into LAX or any large-scale international airport. On-ramps, off-ramps, "Return to Terminals"-type roads, overhead people-mover/monorail-type trains zipping by, towering structures and lots of people directing traffic and taxis. To say it's confusing is an understatement of epic proportions. It is awesome on one hand because of the sheer size; intimidating on the other, because you just simply have no clue where the hell to go! I actually wanted to simply self-park the car and finally had to stop and ask where I could go to do that. Once we got directions (all CityCenter employees that we came into contact with were very nice - not at all stuffy, which is kind of expected at a high-end property such as this), we were on our way into the CityCenter parking garage. The confusion only continued a bit once more, as we were stopped and asked where we were going, Aria or The Crystals. Aria is one of CityCenter's towers, and is also the home to the property's only casino. Apparently, depending on your destination, the employees at CityCenter direct you to different parts of the under-property self-parking garage.
We arrived at Valet, which isn't what we wanted, but were assured by employees that it was free of charge. Knowing how the system works, I knew it wasn't truly free and that we'd have to tip them (unless we wanted to feel like tightwad losers) when getting back to our car. Whatever. We just wanted to get IN finally and SEE this thing. So away went the car into "complimentary" parking and into The Crystals we went.

Vegas tip for the beginners: There is actually very little in Las Vegas that is "free". Those "free drinks" you get when you sit at the slots or at a table game - they aren't free. When you order a Rum and Coke and the server takes 10 minutes getting back to you, how much cash have you cycled through the machine waiting for her to return with your free drink? How many $10 hands of Blackjack have you played? And when she does return, you really should feel obligated to tip at least a buck for your service, because honestly, those ladies work their asses off day and night; tips is where they make their money, really. Regardless of how badly I'm losing, I never tip less than a buck a drink, whether it's a cocktail or a beer.
Free rooms? Not unless you sign up for a slot club card somewhere and drop some cash in the casino; only then are you invited back (typically only from Sunday - Thursday) for a "free room". Because they know you're a player and they know just as well as you do that you're gonna come with more cash to feed the machines.

Valet parking - unlike the rest of the world, you can have your car valet-parked in Vegas and not pay a dime when you pick it up. It's really awkward though - like when you decide to stiff the guy at the car wash that's just busted his ass off cleaning your car in 90-degree weather while you sit inside and sip your Starbucks waiting for him to raise his towel in the air to let you know he's done. No matter how badly the casino has beaten me up, I will tip a valet between $2 and $5; these men and women are working in the desert heat, running like crazy people to fetch your car and bring it to you. A couple bucks won't kill you - and if it does, you should not be visiting the casinos anyway, kids. Period.

There are absolutely really helpful Las Vegas tipping guides out there on the Internet that will back up my crazy calculations and personal advice.

Okay, so once we actually had the car parked at CityCenter and ventured through The Crystals (bumping into Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria at a red carpet event she was holding inside one of the mall's entertainment venues), we found our way to Aria.

Aria is one of the towers that make up CityCenter. It also is home to the property's only casino, as well as numerous restaurants, lounges and shops (all high-end, of course; no $.99 shrimp cocktails at Aria, I'm afraid).

The check-in counter area at Aria is stunning; gorgeous, elegant and when we went, absolutely decorated for the large Asian population visiting, celebrating the Year of the Tiger. Just beyond the check-in area lies the casino.

Looking at it, the first thing that came to my mind was how dark it is. The casino at Aria is not light and cheery - it is dark, busy and it actually works. The dim lighting may put off older visitors or may be intimidating to others; it doesn't matter, because that's not Aria's target audience. This casino is gunning for young, or young-ish (or at least those that still feel young-ish), hip spenders looking for a sophisticated experience and a clean, ultra-modern experience. And I think the casino delivers that. The machines were packed with players and the tables were all full when we went through. Everyone seemed to be having a good time - from the guests to the floor staff. The machines at Aria are all new - and video. They may exist, but as we walked through, I don't recall seeing one reel machine at all; it was row after row of video slots.

Another Vegas tip: If you're not a fan of video slots, you'd better either give up playing or switch to tables, because all slots will be video before too long; that's evolution and it's much cheaper for the manufacturers and casinos - the extinction of reel machines everywhere eventually is a sure and safe bet, folks.

The casino at Aria uses the MGM Mirage Players Club card - so if you're a member (and you should not be playing at any casino without a slot card if you ever intend on visiting again), your card will work here just as well as it does at Excalibur, Luxor or Bellagio. We didn't play at Aria - but I imagine that's in the cards at some point in the future. Our trip was cramped for time, so we had time to look and move on, which is what we did...

CityCenter Las Vegas is so huge it uses its own internal tram system to take people to either side of the property - be it Monte Carlo to the property's south, or Bellagio to the north. The tram is free, and runs 24/7. The design itself is very futuristic and very appealing - the stations are very sterile and clean, with LED screens announcing the arrival times of various trains and their destinations. If ever we looked into the future of Las Vegas, this was it. You feel less like you're on the Strip and more like you're in a science fiction movie when waiting for one of CityCenter's trams.
Riding between the buildings of CityCenter aboard one of the trains, I couldn't help but look up at the towering structures that make up the property and be overwhelmed. The other buildings that make up CityCenter are Vdara, a 57-story hotel-condo tower; The Harmon Hotel and Spa, a 25-story boutique hotel; Mandarin Oriental, a 47-story hotel-condo tower; and the Veer Towers, twin 37-story condo towers that each lean five degrees in opposite directions from the center. CityCenter is a massive property that lies well out of the graps of casual Vegas vistors, and thus, will likely be lost and go unnoticed to most - which is the awesome irony of having such a huge and expansive property right on the Strip.

CityCenter's luxurious offerings are its own worst enemy, in my opinion. It's too rich. Too extravagant. And being as such, it will be an instant disconnect for the majority of tourists visiting Las Vegas. In fact, even considering the huge marketing that MGM has done for CityCenter online and throughout Southern California in the way of billboards and online ads - most fans of Las Vegas are virtually clueless about what CityCenter is, and those who do know... show little interest. In today's harsh economy, who the hell wants to be reminded that most of us can't afford luxury or live life like those people, you know? The Crystals is open to everyone, the machines at Aria's casino will pay out just as much as Excalibur's or even Circus Circus', the employees are very friendly wherever you turn. CityCenter itself however, is too big, too expensive and ultimately, is too "cold" for most people to connect with. And that is a serious long-term problem, I think. It will be interesting to watch CityCenter mature over the years; to see what tweaks MGM has to make in order to create a more welcoming, warm environment. Time will tell.

Should you check out CityCenter when you visit Las Vegas? Absolutely; it's a stunning property. Do I expect you to walk away raving about it being so awesome? Not at all. CityCenter is kind of a "been there, done that" resort, high on outrageous luxuries but completely lacking when it comes to basic connections with the common man.

We rode the CityCenter tram over to Monte Carlo, and walked from that resort to Excalibur, where we had dinner at Dick's Last Resort - a far cry from the other worldly elegance of the CityCenter restaurants. But like the average Joe, we go to Las Vegas to have fun. And Dick's Last Resort at Excalibur is just that - rowdy, loud, adult-oriented fun. They serve a decent steak and friggin' awesome mashed potatoes, kids! One word of warning - Dick's is LOUD at night. If you're cool with that, I would absoutely recommend it to anyone! It's what adult fun in Las Vegas is all about!

Excalibur itself has unfortunately, taken a turn for the worse since I left (I worked there for three years as a supervisor in the casino for the Players Club), with a change in management and a major shift in operational standards. I never thought I'd see the day that a Strip casino would have Beer Pong as one of its offerings. When I worked there, it was understood that Hooters was one of our main competitors at the south end of the Strip; it was never in the plans however, to become a secondary Hooters. Seeing Beer Pong and billards tables introduced to the Excalibur gaming floor really bothers me - already forever burdened with the stigma of being a "white trash casino"... this type of offering certainly has supported that general stereotype.

Forget the loud music and scantily-clad women dancing for players in the Party Pit... other Strip casinos now have that and it's very profitable; ridiculously profitable. But Beer Pong? Meh. It's hard to imagine any of the other MGM properties making room for such a thing. In my opinion, it's a bad, bad move. You will never convince me that a Beer Pong table brings in more revenue than a bank of slot machines. Never. It's impossible. And if the argument from management is that it's to appeal to the younger crowd, to make them feel more at home so they are comfortable playing and gambling - I say that Excalibur doesn't need to appeal to that segment of the population because they've come to party and drink anyway - NOT give the casino any kind of serious play! Hello!
Two of Excalibur's really nice restaurants have been closed for good, Regale and Sir Galahad's Prime Rib House. Galahad's was operational only part of the time when I worked at Excalibur, but Regale, the Italian restaurant was always busy and was always very good. It truly sucks that these have been shuttered, leaving a food court, Camelot Steak House, the Roundtable Buffet, Sherwood Forest Cafe and Dick's as the resort's only dining venues. I don't understand the killing off of Regale at all - but whatever; it's done and Excalibur management did it for whatever reason. It takes the value of the property down several more notches in my opinion. In fact, the only reason left for me personally to ever visit Excalibur is to say hello to old colleagues and friends. That's it. The property itself is a wash. Once grand and classy plans under the direction of CEO Renee West have long since been abandoned, and she is gone - now running Mandalay Bay. I see dark times ahead for Excalibur. Definitely not the direction the property was going in when I was there, and that's a real shame.

The casino at New York New York has been remodeled, and looks good. It's very busy, and there is a much nicer Party Pit area than Excalibur's. New York New York has never been a favorite of mine, so we wandered through to and from Excalibur without really stopping to look.

Monte Carlo is Monte Carlo - in my opinion, it's always been a "blah" property, with nothing much to offer in the way of originality or wow factor. For us, it was just a Starbucks stop and quick walk-through. If the CityCenter tram station wasn't there, I doubt I'd ever return.

On the other end of the tram route is Bellagio, which remains one of the most beautiful and classy properties in Las Vegas. From its stunning floral displays in the Conservatory (celebrating Year of the Tiger when we visited) to its awesome fountain show on the Strip... Bellagio is and always will be a Las Vegas classic. It's always a pleasure visiting. And this time, we found something really naughty at Bellagio, just a short walk from the CityCenter tram station: the world's largest chocolate fountain inside the Jean-Philippe Patisserie. This floor-to-ceiling masterpiece stands 27 feet tall, circulating more than 2,100 delicious quarts of dark, milk and white chocolate per minute as dumbstruck guests stand and gawk. We did! It's amazing and definitely worth a trip to Bellagio to see the next time you're in Las Vegas!

Our mid-Strip excursion was to see the new Volcano show at Mirage, which recently opened after an extensive $25 million rehab that lasted most of 2009. The word that best describes the new show: PYRO! Lots and lots of it! Now set to a driving musical score, the Volcano erupts bigger and better than ever before and guests along the Strip are treated to huge blasts of fire not just from the mountain itself - but from the lagoon in front of the resort now as well.

The only down side to the new Volcano show is that it is really short. Really short. Prepare to wait many times longer than the actual running time of the show - but know that it is worth it, down to the very last fire-filled explosion!

Most tourists watching seemed to really like it, which is great! In all honesty, I really thought that the management at MGM would dumb-down and economically downsize the show. That isn't the case, because what the show lacks in time is made up by intense presentation of music and pyro. The Mirage Volcano is a major piece of Vegas history and I'm very happy to say, lives on, continuing to remain one of Sin City's most beloved and well-known icons!

Between CityCenter and Mirage also sits Caesar's Palace, perhaps the leader of the pack when it comes to historical as well as classy Las Vegas resorts that have withstood the test of time. Caesar's is always gorgeous - and while we didn't venture in, we walked in front of the resort and took in its sheer awesomeness as we passed by! Always a pleasure to visit Caesar's whenever we have the opportunity. We were simply out of time this trip.

Back into the car we got (after tipping the "complimentary" valet) and away we went into the night, back across the Mojave, home to Los Angeles. Our trips to Sin City are frequent and always with the intent of seeing something new to report on.

In the coming weeks, we will return to Vegas and will bring back a trip report of our favorite newest spot to play on the Strip... Encore!

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