Lost Vegas – When Your Favorites Are Gone Forever


The decision-makers of Vegas may want you to forget all about what “used to be”, but not me…

Everyone knows about the ever-changing face of Vegas. While the publicity machine churns out NEW! BETTER! BEST! in the hopes of grabbing your attention (and getting a fair share of your travel stash), they fail to mention that, in the process, you might be losing your favorite Vegas “whatevers”. Most times they’ll disappear, with no hope of returning and never to be mentioned again. In today’s round of “Lost Vegas”, I’ll share some of my own fond memories…and perhaps a couple of tears.

Chef Kerry Simon passed away in 2015 after battling MSA disease, a form of Parkinson’s. His death was preceded by the closing of two Vegas restaurants, Simon’s at Palms Place and KGB Burger Bar inside Harrah’s. While I was fond of Simon’s for its location and ambiance, it was the food at KGB that drew me back many times.

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My favorite item there was the Thanksgiving Turkey Burger, a one-of-a-kind holiday celebration on a bun: big juicy turkey patty, stuffing, cranberry relish and sprouts topped off with a layer of turkey gravy. That belt-buster was even better when washed down with a Captain Crunch milkshake.

My favorite KGB server, Chris, used to offer his own variation of the Crunch shake, topping it with strawberry syrup. All the better to evoke memories of morning cartoons with a bowl of Crunch Berries, the best variety of Captain Crunch.

Kerry’s legacy will live on at Carson Kitchen, his final culinary offering to Sin City. We’ll miss you, Mr. Simon…and those fond recollections of Thanksgiving and Saturday mornings in front of the TV.

From there we move to Neonopolis, the troubled downtown shopping/entertainment complex which has been mired by a history of failures. The biggest one-two punch came with the simultaneous closings of Krave Massive and Drink and Drag.

Both businesses catered primarily to the LGBTQ crowd, but Drink and Drag was much more of a progressive mix of gay and straight. This nightclub/bowling alley was the epitome of Vegas oddities, mixing lip-syncing drag queens, pool tables, tasty food and muscular shirtless bartenders into one wild ride.

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Always a blast, especially for those with an open mind, Drink and Drag quickly became a hit. The former Jillian’s location offered big entertainment–and a very unusual evening on the town…for chump change. Unfortunately, there was more behind-the-scenes drama than a truckload of divas sharing a dressing room. Management and liquor-license issues ultimately closed the doors, taking sister club Krave Massive (one level up) with it.

The final incarnation of Strip mainstay Krave never really took hold downtown, despite a temporary life at Rio, which kept the brand in circulation during the construction phase. Promising to one day become the biggest gay venue in the world (complete with a rooftop pool) Krave Massive was more like Krave Minor…it lasted only four months. Most sections of the club were never completed, and those that were accessible lacked…a lot.

The former occupant of that third-floor space didn’t fare much better. Galaxy Theaters at Neonopolis once offered mainstream movies to downtown visitors and residents. What started off as a 14-screen multiplex was later downsized to 11. The theater complex was poorly maintained and drew a frequently rough customer demographic. It even operated without air conditioning (unthinkable in the desert heat) for the last several months of its existence.

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The theater was closed abruptly on the eve of the new Star Trek reboot on May 7th, 2009. Neonopolis frontman Rohit Joshi explained that without digital projection upgrades, Galaxy Theaters would need to “maintain its competitive edge” by shutting down. With logic like that, it’s no wonder that Neonopolis continues to sit mostly empty.

Speaking of Star Trek, the former Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton continues to garner mentions at the annual Trek convention at Rio. Offering rides, character experiences, weddings, dining, a mock-up of “Quark’s Bar”, gift shops and a museum, Star Trek Experience drew visitors from all over the world. For many, it was the only reason to visit the otherwise-floundering Hilton (now a more successful Westgate Hotel Casino).

Star Trek entrance

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At one point, Rohit Joshi (him again) promised to reopen Star Trek Experience at Neonopolis, in conjunction with a new Star Trek film on May 8, 2009. Obviously that didn’t work out so well. These days, the casino portion of the Star Trek space is being used by Westgate timeshare sales people as a presentation room. A curious end to an otherwise-legendary exhibit.

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In the 1990’s, it seemed like every casino wanted to have thrill rides – IMAX simulators, roller coasters, sometimes even an entire amusement park. A few remain, but two of my favorites are long gone. The first I experienced, on my inaugural trip to Vegas, was the High Roller. No, not the observation wheel at the Linq, but a roller coaster that once wound around the top of the Stratosphere. That slow-moving train was more about the height than the dips, but I’ll never forget stepping into the car, looking over the edge and saying “I must be insane to do this”. High Roller was closed and dismantled in December of 2005.

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Sahara Hotel was home to Speed: The Ride, a fast-moving coaster that shot riders from inside the building onto the Strip. It turned them upside down, then sped up even faster for a jaw-dropping vertical climb. Once the train came to a stop, it ran backwards and returned to the station through a cool misty fog, all in a very rapid 45 seconds.

Speed was dismantled with the closure of Sahara and was slated to be rebuilt near Mandalay Bay under the shadow of a second planned giant observation wheel called SkyVue. Years later, the pylons for that stalled project remained unfinished and the property has a “For Sale” sign on the corner of the lot. Was Rohit Joshi involved in this venture? We can’t help wondering…

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Free attractions were once a popular way to lure people into the casinos…and hopefully to keep them there. Now that gambling is no longer the hot ticket, every available space seems to be destined for retailing. Hence, the removal of the white tiger pool at Mirage for a burger joint, the lions at MGM Grand for a sports pub, the Sirens and Pirates at Treasure Island for a CVS Drugstore, and on and on.

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Many others are removed due to costly maintenance and staffing expenses, like Rio‘s Show In The Sky, the Gods of the Festival Fountain (moving statues) at Caesars Palace Forum Shops, the lobby aquarium at Mandalay Bay and the Roman centurions that once strolled through Caesars Palace. Some attractions just yield to the times, like Merlin’s Dragon Battle at Excalibur…and the Sphinx water/laser show and Nile River Ride, both at Luxor.

What favorite attractions, features or offerings do you miss in today’s Vegas? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Photos: Sammasseur, Greg C., Banner photo via Cuningham Group Architecture

If You Build It On The Sidewalk, They Will Come. Maybe…


Vegas is utilizing every available space to sell you something – with mixed results.

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Taking in the north half of the Strip from the 26th floor of Wynn’s original tower, I was reminded of a trend that has swept over Vegas in recent years. An amazing amount of new stores, bars and restaurants have risen where once was nothing but sidewalk.

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Sugar Factory restaurant in front of Fashion Show Mall. The CVS/Avengers annex that replaced a pirate ship’s dock. Gilley’s and Starbucks over the wooden “boardwalk” of Treasure Island. One of the newest is Wynn Plaza, the fourth retail corridor at Wynn/Encore resort. All have sprung from what is now considered “wasted space”.

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Rhumbar at Mirage was one of the first to initiate this approach. Using square footage from decorative faux grass and shrubbery, the lounge/patio opened in March of 2009. Tellingly, it arrived around the same time that the casino’s White Tiger Pool was removed in favor of BLT, a gourmet burger joint.

This entire section of Mirage was once accessed by a “people mover” or electric walkway. As was the philosophy of the new “megaresort” concept, people-movers and free attractions would lure pedestrians inside from the Strip, where they’d hopefully stay to gamble and more.

But with this decade’s falling interest in slot machines and table games, the wise men of Mirage opted to replace that expensive tiger pool with something that could potentially generate alternate income. At the same time, the people-mover was replaced with a conventional concrete sidewalk, a cost-cutting measure that reflected the new business model.

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Sidewalk

Soon after, Paris Hotel Casino ripped out the gorgeous La Fontaine des Mers fountain and constructed Sugar Factory restaurant and store in its place (it later became HEXX Kitchen + Bar). Then HEXX was topped with a second level for Budweiser Beer Park. That made two bar/restaurant concepts on a spot that was once just eye candy.

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Interestingly, now that Sugar Factory has relocated to Fashion Show Mall, it holds the dubious distinction of rising up not once but twice from Vegas Strip sidewalks.

Once the practice of using every available inch of sidewalk space for retail took hold, entire sections of Las Vegas Boulevard literally became Strip malls. So long Bally’s fountains and gardens, hello hideous Grand Bazaar Shops.

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Sidewalk

As shifting trends have turned Las Vegas into an oversized Mall of The Americas, visiting the casinos is no longer a must-do activity. Why bother to go inside when you can eat, drink and shop right on the sidewalk?

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Monte Carlo, the rather generic-looking MGM Resorts property that was once fading into indifference, was rebranded into the even more generic-sounding PARK MGM. The first step in that process was…you guessed it…the retail-ization of the hotel’s frontage. Out went sculptures and a large fountain, in came Double Barrel Roadhouse, 800 Degrees Pizza, Boulevard Creamery and more. Decorative flourishes were gutted and replaced by pale colors and some cheap-looking olive green paint. Boring!

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This time, the build-out was so extreme that the hotel is essentially hidden from view. Would you even recognize it now from the photo above? It would seem that, as with casinos, the hotels themselves are now becoming a side offering.

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The retail-ization of Las Vegas Boulevard eventually spread to Downtown’s Fremont Street. Underneath the four-block canopy, a wide-open pedestrian mall is now packed to the max with kiosks, vendors, bars and patio lounges (that require a drink minimum to take a seat).

Binion’s is the best example of how Downtown casinos shifted their focus from interior to the sidewalks. Exploring the property, you’ll find numerous examples of a time when guests stayed and played indoors.

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Sidewalk

On the second floor, a buffet and the Gee Joon Asian restaurant are collecting dust. In the basement, a once-popular 24-hour Coffee Shop is abandoned as well.

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The back half of the casino floor, where guests once checked into the hotel (shuttered since 2009), is nearly forgotten. The poker room, original home of the World Series of Poker, has also been put to rest.

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But out front, thriving Whiskey Licker Bar and Cowgirl Up  Cantina would have you believing that all is well inside the historic property. Outdoor revelers raise their glasses and park their bums on saddle-shaped stools, most never venturing into the aging property. New visitors might never realize that a 366-room hotel once operated there.

Of course, outdoor offerings are no guarantee of success. When Lady Lucky reopened as Downtown Grand in 2013, a great deal of fanfare centered around activities planned for adjacent Third Street. Sidewalk gambling, movie screenings and indoor/outdoor dining and an open-air nightclub (courtesy of Richard Sandoval’s “Commissary”) were rolled out. Not one of those things took hold.

Then the folks at Downtown Grand took yet another cue from the Strip and announced an outdoor urban park called The Quad. Utilizing empty lots and part of a parking garage, The Quad was to feature a stage, tavern, fitness center, nightclub and climbing wall. If all of this sounds familiar, perhaps you’re thinking of LINQ Promenade or The Park at New York NY. Surprisingly, it all fell through in favor of an additional hotel tower, currently under construction.

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And so it goes…the constant reinvention of Las Vegas. Eventually, visitors while tire of the heat and venture back into the casinos that put Sin City on the map. Until then, the white tigers will be waiting.

Photos: {Sammasseur, Flickr]