Click on any picture to see a larger version.
If advertising executives ever decided to create an honest slogan for Las Vegas, it might be “Nothing Succeeds Like Excess.” That certainly describes its main tourist magnet, a six-kilometer stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard called “the Strip.” Perpetually clogged with human and vehicular traffic, the Strip is a mind-boggling array of giant casino/hotels. Some of them are self-contained fantasyland theme parks for adults, decked out as whimsically vulgarized representations of world landmarks. Others have only massively overstated opulence as their theme; their rooms, shops, and restaurants sport price tags that make most people’s wallets quake in terror.
Whatever their concept, they’re all designed and built to overwhelm and disorient the senses, so you’ll surrender to the irresistible lure of what makes all this excess possible: Gambling, or to use the official term, “gaming.” But even if you don’t succumb to that temptation, you can have a fine time gawking at the gaudiness.
I can show only a small sample of what there is to gawk at—
none of which, by the way, is actually in Las Vegas! When its
development began in the 1940s, the Strip was outside the city limits.
Casino owners adamantly refused to let the growing city engulf (or tax)
their properties. Many visitors to “Las Vegas” unwittingly spend their
entire vacation (and bankroll) in the Township of Paradise, an unincorporated
area of Clark County, Nevada that also includes the airport.
Caesars Palace (properly spelled without an apostrophe) is the
prototypical Las Vegas theme park hotel. Before it opened in 1966, hotels on
the Strip followed a rather generic formula. Perhaps they might have an exotic
name— like the Sands, Dunes, or Desert Inn, all of which are long gone— to
acknowledge their location. So motel magnate Jay Sarno decided to build a
extravagant European-style resort that invoked the legendary decadence of the
lead-addled Caesars who presided over the Roman Empire’s declining days.
Despite initial skepticism and outright ridicule, Caesars Palace not
only succeeded but inspired imitators to even greater gaudiness.
Successive corporate owners have repeatedly expanded and remodeled it to
keep up with the enhanced excesses of other Strip hotels. They kicked up
by numerous notches the riot of Roman-style architecture, columns, and
statuary. Along the way they also added some flashy anachronisms, like a
copy of the 18th century Trevi Fountain (the one that’s supposed to
ensure your return to Rome if you throw a coin into it).
The Egyptian-themed Luxor is named for the temple complex across the Nile
from the “Valley of the Kings” tombs, with a not entirely coincidental
suggestion of luxury. As you’d expect, it’s an immense pyramid. Because
it’s close to the airport, federal aviation restrictions prevented it from
reaching the full height of the Great Pyramid at Giza. So it’s a mere 36 stories
and 107 meters high. The pyramid’s black facade covers rooms that feature
slanted windows. I suspect I might feel a bit creepy staying there— the real
Egyptian pyramids were tombs, after all. As is de rigueur for any Las
Vegas mega-hotel, Luxor boasts a suitable set of superlatives. The rooms
overlook “the world’s largest atrium,” over 820,000 cubic meters inside the
pyramid. Besides the usual casino and convention halls, that atrium houses an
IMAX theatre and a complete replica of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
At the top of the pyramid are 45 xenon lights that project “the world’s brightest beam of light” into the sky, reportedly visible from airplanes 440 kilometers away in Los Angeles. The justification for this lavish expenditure of kilowatt hours is the supposed Egyptian belief that the souls of pharaohs entombed in pyramids would be borne into heaven on a beam of light.
The entryway to the pyramid is a replica of the Sphinx at Giza. (Never mind
that the pyramids and Sphinx at Giza are nowhere near Luxor, and were built
some 1,500 years before Tutankhamen and the “New Kingdom” period that inspired
the hotel’s theme.) Perhaps to compensate for the forced reduction in the size
of the pyramid, the sphinx is two stories higher than the real one and
includes the blue and gold paint long ago worn away from the original.
A half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower soars 140 meters over Paris
Las Vegas. The designers claim to have obtained Gustav Eiffel’s
plans for the original tower and followed them with perfect accuracy,
down to the placement of the rivets and the paint colors. One leg of the
tower’s base is inside the casino, apparently the only place it would
fit. You can take a very overpriced ride on the ascenseur
(elevator/lift) for a panoramic view of the Strip, or travel 30 meters
up to the expensive restaurant on the “first floor.”
The outside of Paris Las Vegas reproduces a mélange of Parisian
landmarks, including the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the
Opéra. The casino, restaurants, and shops inside suggest a 19th
century Parisian neighborhood. Signs are in fractured French— but at
least the signs for les toilettes are authentic— and the ceiling
is a painted sky in the perpetual twilight of sunset to maintain the
dusky lighting standard in all Las Vegas casinos. It makes the hour-long
(or more) wait to get into the renowned pan-Gallic buffet almost
The Venetian Las Vegas reaches an even higher level of outrageous
opulence. It’s built around a Disneyesque mishmash of Venice landmarks.
The exterior includes sections of the Doge’s Palace, the Rialto Bridge,
and a lake with gondolas. The owners brag about the effort they expended
to capture an authentic look. The gondolas, statues, columns, and tiles
are supposedly exact replicas of the Italian originals.
Inside, the Venetian’s casino games and luxury shopping are done up in
an imitation Italian village, under yet another painted twilight sky.
(Caesars Palace also has a twilight sky; I don’t know who was first with
it.) But the unique gimmick here is the (expensive) ride in an authentic
gondola, piloted by an authentic singing gondolier. If the desert heat
makes an outdoor gondola ride unappealing, you can go to the indoor
Grand Canal Shops for your gondola ride on— what else— the
Grand Canal, complete with a replica of Piazza San Marco.
New York-New York is possibly the most audacious— or
outrageous— of the theme park hotels. The hotel rooms are in
twelve skyscrapers that form a one-third scale tableau of the Manhattan
skyline. The tallest is a 47-story, 161-meter version of the Empire
State Building. In front of the towers is, of all things, a roller
coaster. Inside the casino building are fanciful replicas of Central
Park, Times Square, Greenwich Village, and Wall Street (where you’ll
find the casino’s cashier). If you or your wallet aren’t up to a fancy
restaurant, you can feast on a Nathan’s Famous hot dog. Then chew on a
pretzel just like the one that thoroughly gummed up my retainer during a
childhood visit to the Big Apple.
The fantasyland New York City isn’t just Manhattan skyscrapers. There’s
a pool representing New York Harbor, with fireboats and a half-scale
copy of the Statue of Liberty. There’s also a one-fifth-scale replica of
the Brooklyn Bridge. The pseudo-skyline never included the World Trade
Towers, since it invokes an idealized Art-Deco New York City
of the 1930s. But soon after 9/11, visitors started offering
memorials on the fence surrounding the “harbor.” The management has
since made a permanent exhibit of those tributes in protective glass
All this theme park extravagance is merely the glitzy wrapper on the main reason for the resorts’ existence, the casino. Though the decor may vary, all the casinos are pretty much alike: Cavernous, dimly-lit halls with neither windows nor clocks that might give gamblers any idea that it might be time to stop. There are areas for the famous table games of blackjack, roulette, and poker, as well as a sports betting room full of television screens. But most of the hall is filled with blinking and clanging slot machines, in a dizzying maze that visitors must negotiate on the way to hotel rooms, restaurants, shows, or the loo. Few can resist the pervasive temptation to taunt Lady Luck.
Slot machines were originally mechanical devices, named for the slots
into which gamblers fed coins. But today’s versions are fully
computerized and no longer use coins. They accept only paper money or
tickets; and their built-in printers dispense any winnings as bar-coded
tickets (accompanied by the synthesized sound of jangling coins as a
vestigial concession to their heritage). The “slots” are responsible for
the distinctive droning sound that permeates all the casinos. Each of
possibly thousands of machines beeps, buzzes, and clangs in the
appropriate key of C major. Together they make the music of “dough”
ceaselessly draining from wallets and bank accounts.
Across the street from New York-New York is a storybook medieval castle called Excalibur. It has all the necessary accouterments, including a moat, a drawbridge, suits of armor, and heraldic banners. Its design was appropriately inspired by Neuschwanstein, the nineteenth-century Bavarian fantasy castle of Mad King Ludwig II.
Kitschy rather than opulent, Excalibur is decidedly less
pretentious than many Las Vegas mega-resorts. There are no gourmet restaurants;
and instead of shops that sell overpriced luxury goods, there are purveyors of
overpriced tourist tchotchkes. Excalibur is a remnant of a time, in the recent
past, when Las Vegas didn’t take itself quite as seriously as it does now.
The MGM Grand is a theme park hotel that has lost its theme. During the 1990s, casino owners tried to promote Las Vegas as a destination for families as well as for gamblers. The MGM Grand’s response was an Emerald City inspired by The Wizard of Oz. (The Excalibur’s castle also represents that era.) When the family-friendly fad faded, they sent the Wizard back to Kansas with Dorothy and Toto.
What’s left is a “City of
Entertainment” on a Grand scale. It’s the world’s largest hotel, with
over 5,000 rooms. The 1.6-hectare casino is the largest in Las Vegas.
And in front is “the largest bronze sculpture in the western
hemisphere,” a 45-tonne lion. But the Emerald City exterior still glows
after sunset, thanks to green stripes and green spotlights. Maybe the
owners couldn’t find anything garish enough to replace it.
If you tend at all toward cynicism, walking around the Strip might inspire thoughts about what future archaeologists might discern from the ruins of the mega-resorts. I can predict with some confidence that such ruins won’t include anything that exists today. The Strip hasn’t been around very long; El Rancho Las Vegas, the first modest hotel, opened in 1941. But the construction industry in Las Vegas must be nearly as lucrative as gaming. Hotels are continually getting demolished and replaced with bigger and gaudier ones as the properties change hands. Nearly everything I’ve shown on this page was built in the 1990s. When the centennial of the El Rancho Las Vegas arrives in 2041, the Strip will surely look nothing like what’s pictured here. For what good is a fantasyland— in Paradise, no less— if it isn’t constantly updated to reflect current fashion?