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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 the concept, they’re all designed and built to overwhelm and disorient the senses, thereby facilitating 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) was the prototype Las Vegas theme park hotel. Before it opened in 1966, hotels on the Strip were plain and generic. At most they might have an exotic name— like the Sands, Dunes, Aladdin, Sahara, and Desert Inn, all of which are long gone— to acknowledge their location in the Mojave Desert.
Jay Sarno made his initial fortune building motels, first in Georgia, then in Texas and California. During a gambling trip to Las Vegas, he decided that what the town really needed was an opulent resort that would loosen visitors’ wallets by indulging their fantasies of the exotic. He realized that notion in an 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 even outright ridicule, Caesars Palace not only succeeded but inspired imitators to even greater gaudiness. After Sarno sold the property in 1969, a succession of 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, including a copy of the 18th century Trevi Fountain. It’s the fountain that’s supposed to ensure your return to Rome if you throw a coin into it.
The Egyptian-themed Luxor is an immense pyramid. It’s named for the temple complex in Thebes, across the Nile from the “Valley of the Kings” tombs, with a not entirely coincidental suggestion of luxury. Because it’s so close to the airport, federal aviation restrictions prevented Luxor 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 have slanted windows. I suspect I might feel a bit creepy staying in one of them— 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. That atrium originally housed an IMAX theatre and a complete replica of Tutankhamen’s tomb. But a renovation— begun in 2007 but stalled by the Recession— obliterated the Egyptian theme in favor of a more generic collection of “upscale” lounges, bars, restaurants, and showrooms.
The entryway to the pyramid is a replica of the Sphinx at Giza. 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. The owners planned to demolish the Sphinx as they effaced the Egyptian theme, before renaming the property “The Pyramid.” But they relented when focus groups consistently preferred to keep the Egyptian name and exterior.
Luxor’s designers took some liberties with Egyptian history and geography. The iconic pyramids and Sphinx are in Giza, which is nowhere near Luxor. They were also built during the “Old Kingdom” period, some 1,500 years before Tutankhamen and the “New Kingdom” era that inspired the hotel’s original theme.
A half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower rises 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 paint colors and the placement of rivets. 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 offer a Hollywooden vision of a 19th century Parisian quartier (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 standard dusky lighting found in all Las Vegas casinos. The setting makes the hour-long (or more) wait to get into the renowned pan-Gallic buffet almost tolerable.
The Venetian Las Vegas is based on the same idea as Paris Las Vegas, but reaches an even higher level of outrageous opulence. This time it’s a Disneyesque mishmash of landmarks in Venice (the city in Italy, not the Venice in Los Angeles).
The exterior includes sections of the Doge’s Palace, Saint Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge, and a miniature lagoon 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.)
The unique gimmick here is the (expensive) ride in an authentic gondola, piloted by an authentic singing gondolier. If the desert sun and heat make 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 second replica of Piazza San Marco.
New York-New York is possibly the most audacious— or outrageous— of Las Vegas’ fanciful versions of world cities. 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 a roller coaster claimed to offer the world’s first “180-degree heartline twist and dive maneuver.” If that’s not exciting enough, you and your Significant Other can get married “at 67 mph” (108 km/h) on the 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 soft pretzel just like the one that thoroughly gummed up my retainer during a childhood visit to the real 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 New York-New York represents an idealized Art-Deco Manhattan 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 cases.
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 sports betting rooms full of television screens. But most of the hall is filled with blinking and clanging slot machines that form a dizzying maze visitors must negotiate on the way to hotel rooms, restaurants, shows, or the loo— a design Jay Sarno first devised for Caesars Palace. Few can resist the pervasive temptation to taunt Lady Luck.
Slot machines were originally mechanical devices, named for the slots into which gamblers fed coin after coin. But today’s versions are fully computerized, and no longer use coins. They accept only paper money or tickets; their built-in printers dispense any winnings as bar-coded vouchers that can be redeemed at the cashier. As a vestigial concession to their mechanical heritage, the machines play the synthesized sound of jangling coins as they print the vouchers.
The “slots” create 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 and Luxor’s original Egyptian interior also represent 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. Those putative ruins probably 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 (or as their corporate owners merge and consolidate). 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?