Sin City Shutdown – Is A New Era Ahead?


Las Vegas is poised to flip the power switches back ‘on’. Will it rise from the ashes and learn from its mistakes?

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On March 17th, 2020, Governor Steve Sisolak shut down the City of Las Vegas, along with the rest of the state, for a minimum of thirty days. In order to slow the rampant spread of COVID-19 aka “Corona Virus”, all non-essential businesses were ordered to shutter. This included bars, hotels, casinos, indoor-dining restaurants, gyms, spas, salons, movie theaters, shows, most stores, parks, recreational attractions and much more.

                                Caesars Palace Forum Shops and Bellagio….both empty…

Thousands upon thousands of people are currently out of work (myself included). Very few are receiving compensation from their employers during this dark period, leaving homes and families at risk for multiple hardships. Can a town that’s already endured major drops in tourism due to 9/11, 2008’s economic collapse and the 10/1/17 massacre rebound from yet another cataclysm?

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                  The party is over on Fremont Street…at least for the time being…

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             An insider source requesting anonymity sent these astonishing photos…

Will the stuffed suits in powerful boardrooms learn from their own mistakes…ones that were already dragging our tourist industry downward? What can be done to lure people back…and will we see a return to the perception of Las Vegas as a value destination? One can only hope.

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                  A darkened Wynn/Encore offers hope to the remaining few passers-by…

The days leading up to the Governor’s declaration were filled with unbearable tension. Grocery store shelves were plundered as major Strip productions shuttered one by one. Next came the closing of buffets and restaurants, then entire hotels and casinos.  Working parents suddenly had to figure out what to do with their children when all schools closed down this week.

                                 Town Square near McCarran Airport is a ghost town…

As in other cities around the world, mundane activities like getting a haircut or meeting friends for lunch are no longer part of our lives. Everything has changed in just a matter of days. Once it became clear that this was our new normal, a friend and I entered “survival mode”. I was just laid off from two regular writing gigs (supposedly temporarily, but who knows?) and he needed a place to live, so now I have someone to share expenses with…and lean on at the same time.

Having resided for 14 years in hurricane-prone South Florida, this writer was used to disaster preparation as a routine activity. Stock the pantry, refill prescriptions, get extra pet food and litter, withdraw cash from the ATM, gas up the vehicles and charge everything that uses a battery. Then comes more drastic steps like buying plywood to board up the windows, checking/replacing fire extinguishers and having weapons on hand in case violence ensues.

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All of this may sound drastic or even dramatic, but let’s face it…if people trample each other for a TV on Black Friday, what would they do when food and supplies run out? The answer isn’t an easy one.

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Despite the seriousness of the situation, many have been working hard to maintain hope…and a sense of humor. Facebook has been a great outlet for people to offer assistance, share their talents and keep each others’ spirits high. Cirque du Soleil performer Alberto Del Campo (read about him HERE) is hosting free online pole fitness classes.

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           Sing along with Mak and the Cheese – You Can’t Spell ‘Virus’ Without ‘Us’

Talented spouses MaKenzie Fly (Sex Tips) and Colin Cahill (Atomic Saloon Show) have created “Mak and The Cheese” a Facebook page featuring witty songs and skits inspired by the “virus hiatus.” And yours truly hosted a “Sexy Apocalypse Party” at Palms Place, where shirts were optional (this is Sin City, after all).

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As we locals ride out the long month ahead in our own unique ways, it’s clear that we’ll come out on the other side as very changed people. Thousands will undoubtedly remain unemployed. Homes will be lost and crime rates will rise. Many businesses will most certainly close for good.

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                    The Bronx Wanderers toast their final performance…for now…

Entertainment offerings may no longer be the flashy, expensive productions (like Cirque du Soleil’s R.U.N) that have recently racked up millions in losses. Virgin Hotel (the former Hard Rock) and Allegiant Stadium completion dates will be pushed back. And you can forget about Resorts World and Fontainebleu/The Drew opening any time soon….yet again.

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The Governor’s announcement was like licking the stamp on a death notice that was waiting to be mailed. Las Vegas has been struggling for quite some time, mostly due to poor decisions that have turned an inexpensive, beloved retreat into a tourist-gouging cesspool of greed. The bigger the city has grown, the less forward-thinking it has become. What we as citizens saw and heard tonight will forever be embedded in our minds. But can we say the same about the big-company execs who are directing the city’s future?

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After the news conference, my new roomie and I gathered our wits and headed to the Strip to absorb the shocking reality of it all. What we witnessed were empty sidewalks, abandoned massive resorts, and shuttered storefronts. The world-famous Bellagio Fountains were dark, as was the Mirage volcano and the boardwalk along Treasure Island. Gone were the endless lines of taxis waiting to pick up tourists.

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Overhead, pedestrian walkways were void of people, and the outdoor escalators at each major intersection went silently up and down with nary a soul to ride them. Amusingly, they all seemed to be working for a change, now that there was nobody to use them. If you were looking for the company of others, all you had to do was head for the nearest dispensary, where people encircled the buildings, hoping to get their stash before mandatory shutdowns went into effect.

                  Lines at marijuana dispensaries stretched around the block…

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         “Visit Las Vegas” is airing nationwide TV promising a bigger, better Vegas…

Now that we’ve witnessed that fall of Las Vegas, where do we go from here? As I said, it will most likely be a very different place…but will it be better? Maybe the “new normal” will yield smaller-scale ideas, where charming lounge-style acts push multi-million-dollar headliner residencies out of the way.

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Perhaps we’ll see a resurgence in gaming, bolstered by better odds than visitors can get at their local casinos. And if we’re lucky, quality service by smiling human beings will shove out main offender MGM Resort‘s move toward automation and self-service. If I’m paying $50 for a buffet, is it too much to ask for an actual person to refill my iced tea?

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                                                    Found on my Facebook feed…

What Las Vegas REALLY needs is to learn a hard, definitive lesson from this punch to the stomach. Hotels must send parking charges out into the desert, never to return. People are sick of looking at their restaurant/bar tab and finding a laundry list of bogus service charges and taxes added onto their already-expensive bill. And when a hotel advertisement says “Stay here for $___”, that better be the actual rate. We’re done with $45 resort fees. Stop it…right now!

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There are only so many times that a city built on tourism can bounce back from major disasters. Las Vegas has survived at least three of them in the past two decades. If the corporations that run this city don’t push the “restart” button and bring back what made this city successful for decades, then maybe it doesn’t deserve to recover at all. Right now, the only thing we all share is hope for a better tomorrow.


UPDATE 5/19/20 – It appears that SOMEBODY has been listening to all of us who have urged the major resort chains to make changes. MGM Resorts and Cosmopolitan have announced that they’re dropping parking fees. As VitalVegas.com reported, Caesars had no choice but to do the same. Unfortunately, nothing has been done about resort fees. In fact, Cosmopolitan will be raising theirs from $39 per day to $45.

 

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Venetian/Palazzo is slated to unlock their doors on June 1st. The giant resort has launched a program called “Share the LOVE” and they’re showing their appreciation with an offer geared towards essential workers. MGM and Westgate have publicized their sanitation protocols, which I’ve elaborated on here and here.

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Sadly, there have been major layoffs during the interim, and some casinos have decided to label themselves as “Permanently Closed”, allowing for the termination of thousands of employees without recourse or compensation. Among them are The Palms, Fiesta Henderson, Texas Station and Rampart casinos (read more here).

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So….it’s a mixed bag at this point. One victory. one stalemate…and plenty of casualties. But everything remains in flux, with major announcements arriving in my email nearly daily. As hotels ramp up their reopening plans, it is in your best interest as a customer to investigate the best deals, best prices and best overall plan before you decide to return to Sin City. Good luck and have fun…..we’re (kind of) back!

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Click HERE to read this article’s companion piece: “Is Sin City Determined to Drive You Away?”

Photos: Sam Novak, Bobby Watson, Kevin Janison, Marianne LeMoine Phoenix, Greg C., Bill Chenowith, Vin A., Andrew Hill. Special thanks to Richard Lindblom.

Banner photo: ABC News

COVID-19 Aftermath – Shows Most Likely (and Least Likely) To Return


Taking a hard and painful look at the Vegas entertainment landscape as Sin City’s quarantine drags on…

As a devoted enthusiast of Sin City entertainment, it pains me to think of the hundreds of gifted performers currently out of work during the pandemic shutdown. Devoted to a volatile industry in which success is never guaranteed, many artists work multiple jobs and/or share living expenses just to get by. Combine this with a lack of adequate health care and spotty unemployment compensation, and it wouldn’t be surprising if many struggling entertainers decide to leave the city…or the industry altogether.

Sadly, there’s a likelihood that numerous residencies and production shows will decide to fold (or have their lifeline unceremoniously yanked) once the ramp-up begins. How this plays out is anyone’s guess, but I’ve been doing my own pondering on what changes lie ahead. Keep in mind that my conclusions aren’t in any way a reflection of quality…or lack thereof. Instead, I’ve considered factors such as pre-virus buzz, operation overhead (costs), post-virus marketability, name recognition, longevity, and brand loyalty.

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I might be completely wrong on these predictions or right on the money. Your guess is as good as mine. We won’t know until it actually happens, but here’s my list of shows that might weather the storm. And those that I believe will most certainly blow away.

Very Likely To Return –

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David Saxe Productions – the long and colorful list produced by David Saxe amounts to a well-oiled machine. His self-named theater inside Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile Shops and nearby V Theater churn out hits like Vegas! The Show, Zombie Burlesque, V – The Ultimate Variety Show and many more. Saxe is a master of efficiency and knows how to run and market his business. His children will survive just fine.

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ABSINTHESpiegelworld‘s naughty alternative to Cirque du Soleil is an instant hit that would have celebrated its ninth anniversary on April 1st. The bawdy burlesque ABSINTHE has spun off two successful companion productions and shows no sign of slowing down. Relatively low overhead (an outdoor tent, pre-recorded music, and simple props) should help it to last through a sluggish restart (if that’s how things play out, that is).

Other Spiegelworld titles OPIUM and ATOMIC SALOON SHOW might not have it so easy. Their out-of-the-way locations inside expensive Cosmopolitan and Venetian/Palazzo might prove to be a bigger challenge in the long run. Cosmo‘s costly parking fees make OPIUM an easy pass for locals, too. (Update 5/19/20 – Cosmopolitan has announced its intentions to discontinue parking fees)

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“O” at Bellagio – Despite a mountain of debt that Cirque du Soleil is carrying, it’s unlikely that they’ll allow their highest-profile Vegas production to fold. Since “O” is synonymous with the Bellagio image (just like its outdoor fountains and seasonal conservatory displays) it’s easy to envision the resort taking ownership of the show if it came down to that (Steve Wynn did that with Le Reve). “O” is still a very popular draw despite two decades and thousands of performances. Not my cup of tea, but for many tourists, it’s a must-see.

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CELESTIA – my insiders at CELESTIA assure me that the fledgling big-top production is on solid ground. STRAT Hotel Casino has a strong financial stake. which seems to be a common thread in the current make-or-break environment. Four-wallers (independent contractors) will suffer while casino-owned shows are likely to last. It all comes down to money.

Sex Tips For Straight Women from a Gay Man – This is an easy one to envision continuing. An extremely Vegas-y premise, an attractive local cast and very low overhead within an intimate theater setting. What’s not to love?

Solo and Lounge Acts – Our deeply-fractured economy is going to have a ripple effect on both consumers and the products they offer. Returning guests with limited discretionary income will most likely avoid the high-ticket attractions. That’s where one-man/woman shows come to the rescue.

With low overhead and a simple format, solo acts can offer solid entertainment and a retro vibe while passing the savings onto their audiences. Look for returning favorites like Mike Hammer, Murray Sawchuck, Carrot Top, Xavier Mortimer, Jen Kramer and maybe even the once-popular Gordie Brown to shine brighter in the spotlight. I anticipate that bloated, self-serving star vehicles like Criss Angel – Mindfreak Live and Mariah Carey‘s endless residencies will go down in flames, though. Darn.

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Expensive mega-residencies could also feel the same heat. Last year people were forking over a grand or more to StubHub for Lady Gaga tickets. Who has that kind of money now? Even though Paula Abdul‘s lip-syncing stomp-fest at the Flamingo couldn’t warrant a $49 price tag last fall, her short-lived residency now seems like a million years ago. Look for a glut of similar shows (like Derek Hough: No Limit), along with the resurgence of intimate lounge acts, to tide us over until the economy…and Vegas…rebounds.

Say Farewell –

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Blue Man Group (Update 6/30/20 The cast of Blue Man Group has been laid off by parent company Cirque du Soleil)

They’re old, tired, and as cliched as the fanny pack strapped around your cargo shorts. The trio of silent weirdos known as Blue Man Group is as annoying as those outdoor escalators that are constantly “under service”. Luxor‘s long-running production returned to the pyramid a few years ago, after more than a decade at Venetian and Monte Carlo. Now they’re in a much smaller venue and it’s easy to forget that they’re still around. Maybe COVID-19 will be the nudge that gets them to squeeze their final Twinkie.

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Human Nature (Update – permanent closure announced 6/10/20) –

It really upsets me to have this one on the list, but the Aussie quartet known as Human Nature appears to have been struggling for a while. I’ve been to the show a number of times in the past twelve months, and attendance has been anemic during each and every visit. Their live band has been downsized as a cost-cutting measure and the dancers were given a pink slip before that. They’ve also jettisoned the “Jukebox” format and returned to the Motown sound that put them in the U.S. limelight.

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Magic Mike Live (Update – Sahara opening postponed until 2021) –

                               We can wait even longer for this execrable slop to return….

The movie-inspired male revue received a scathing write-up from me upon its debut (deservedly so). Yet, the man-bashing mess, hosted by a shrill, leather-clad harpy who never shuts her f*cking mouth, somehow managed to become a hit. Still, the closure of Hard Rock Hotel sent the strippers dancers off into the sunset last year.

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Audiences were promised a spring relaunch at the newly-rebranded Sahara Hotel, yet an official debut date was never set and tickets have yet to go on sale. The 360-degree format requires a custom-built arena that Sahara didn’t have, so costly construction was required. Alas, an insider told me that the venue’s build-out was halted many weeks before the shutdown, suggesting that the bump-and-grind may actually be over. Today’s visit to the official website reveals that the word “spring” was removed, most likely due to the shutdown. Or are revised negotiations holding things back?

During the interim, MML has gone global with residencies in London, Berlin, Sydney, and Melbourne, so a pricey Vegas space is no longer a top priority for the franchise. Sahara Hotel has yet to prove itself as a hip destination, as demonstrated by the premature shuttering of similar-themed Blanc de Blanc. Combine that with the perpetual postponements of nearby Fontainebleau/The Drew and Resorts World, and things are looking pretty dead for Magic Mike Live.

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Cirque du Soleil 

Update 6/30/20 – Cirque du Soleil announced today that they have filed for bankruptcy protection and have eliminated 3,500 jobs…

I know what you’re thinking – “But you just said that “O” was safe?!?!?!?!”. True enough. But in our new reality, Vegas cannot sustain six (already down from eight) of what is basically the same show…especially at $150 and up for decent seats.

According to FinancialPost.com, Cirque owes more that $1.25 billion to creditors. MGM Resorts operates five of their six Vegas shows and is known to brutally slice away expenses wherever and whenever possible. So who gets their trapezes pulled? I’m looking at KA, The Beatles LOVE, and maybe Michael Jackson ONE.

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Hanging In The Balance/Probably Safe –

MYSTERE – the longest-running Vegas Cirque show follows its own set of rules since Treasure Island operates separately from MGM Resorts. MYSTERE is smaller in scale and has the lowest ticket prices. The others have massive sets, live musicians, huge casts and expensive automation that requires an entire team of technicians to operate and maintain. SO…..overhead…

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ZUMANITY – never a critical darling or fan favorite, but this one might not be in real jeopardy. It has many of the advantages that MYSTERE enjoys (smaller cast, intimate venue, lower ticket prices), and has already trimmed back its musicians and singers. But despite the adult-skewing format, ZUMANITY now pales in comparison to raunchy offerings from Spiegelworld. So once again, your guess is as good as mine.

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Le ReveWynn‘s signature production was never an out-and-out hit (some still believe it’s part of Cirque du Soleil fifteen years in), but it’s a critical darling and those who know it, love it. Le Reve is also owned by Wynn/Encore, which has deep pockets and an image to protect. When Steve Wynn’s own SHOWSTOPPERS was shuttered, massive shockwaves rippled through the entertainment community. That’s unlikely to happen again.

‘WOW: The Las Vegas Spectacular’ Celebrates Two Years on the Strip

WOW: The Vegas Spectacular – another budget-friendly production that hung in there despite the competition, WOW could in fact raise its profile and attendance numbers in the months ahead. Room rates at host hotel RIO start at a ridiculously-cheap $10 (plus resort fees/taxes) for the first half of May, so if the city actually opens, expect a pilgrimage to the aging off-Strip resort.

Sister production EXTRAVAGANZA missed its debut date at Bally’s last month and could possibly be in jeopardy. The cast of performers came from Israel and has yet to log a single hour in front of a paying audience. Housing the entire cast during quarantine is no doubt chipping away at the show’s reserves. Whether that could bring WOW down as well involves legalities that aren’t known to me. But from the outside looking in, it’s a pretty grim picture for EXTRAVAGANZA.

What are your thoughts, predictions and opinions? Feel free to add your comments or email me at Sam@VegasUnfiltered.blog.

The SAHARA Is Back – But Is It Too Late?


The iconic hotel gets yet another chance after the SLS debacle…

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The Sahara Hotel was one of the first casino resorts I stayed at when the Vegas love affair began. This was back in 2005, just when the landmark property was about to plummet to its lowest depths. Once a legendary destination, Sahara had become a place of despair. That being said, it still had its purpose as a value destination for those on a budget.

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In 2007, Sam Nazarian and Stockbridge Real Estate Group purchased the Sahara…and quickly ran it into the ground. My final stay in the summer of 2009 was so awful that I vowed it would be my last. Exposed electrical wiring, broken lamps, cigarette burns in the carpeting and furniture, golf ball-sized hole in the shower stall, broken bed frame, filthy casino restrooms….well, you get the idea.

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Nazarian locked the Sahara’s doors on May 16th, 2011, taping up a handwritten sign as his final farewell. To those of us who knew what he’d done to the place, this served more as a threat than a beacon of hope:

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When the property’s liquidation sale was announced, I flew in from Oregon to attend. We bargain-hunters and nostalgia-seekers were escorted onto the property in controlled groups, required to listen to a presentation before being unleashed to go exploring. Our guide told us that the hotel would eventually be re-opening under the name “SLS”. The fellow next to me said “S.O.S.? What kind of name is that for a hotel?”. If he only knew how prescient his question was…

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SLS Las Vegas opened three years and three months later. I was one of the first guests to check in on opening day….and just about everything went awry. No elevators in the parking garage, malfunctioning elevators in the hotel towers, being assigned a room that was already occupied, problems with the TV and more. Of course, all of these things were growing pains and could be easily forgiven for a newly-opened establishment.

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What couldn’t be overlooked was that the concept of turning a rundown north-Strip relic into an expensive knockoff of a Los Angeles hit was a fool’s errand. Nazarian and team had entertained the idea that LA residents would come to Vegas to experience what they already had at home. They packed the SLS with not one but SEVEN Hollywood-based Fred Segal shops, taking up every retail outlet within the resort. Within a year, they were all gone.

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Some things vanished even quicker that the Segal stores. An excellent new second-floor buffet was shuttered after only three months. LA-based Griddle Cafe lasted an entire five months before pulling out. Foxtail Nightclub was quickly shut down and LIFE Nightclub was gutted/converted into The Foundation Room (allowing for Foxtail’s pool club to reopen at night).

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The musical chairs within the building were shuffled as frequently as the execs in the boardroom. SLS Las Vegas was, without a doubt, a resounding flop from every perspective. All because it tried to be something it wasn’t and deliver something the city never needed.

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What Sahara really needed was another chance to be the Sahara again. Refreshed, revitalized, reborn as “The New Sahara”, perhaps….but NOT re-branded into an expensive luxury destination built on a rickety old foundation. The little nods to Sahara’s past had been peppered into the SLS decor, but this was essentially lip service to people like me…those who continue to embrace Sin City’s past.

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But the Sahara’s soul had been ripped out along with the theme, camels and that unforgettable neon porte cochere. It was replaced by bare concrete and a nearly-colorless, white/grey/black palette with bare ceilings, exposed duct work and a bar that looked like a boardroom full of monkeys. An artistic representation of reality, perhaps?

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Last week’s announcement that current owners Meruelo Group would be restoring the Sahara name was met with great fanfare (Scott Roeben’s VitalVegas.com readers knew quite awhile ago that this was in the works). It’s the hottest topic on Vegas message boards, Facebook pages and blogs like mine right now, so there’s interest in the old property after all.

Mostly everyone seems to like what’s been happening at the old/new Sahara. Meruelo has re-acquired a tower that had been taken over by W Hotels. They’ve restored full in-house operations and are putting a reported $100 million or more into additional renovations, much of them to address the despised flaws in the SLS room redesigns. Even the Casbar Lounge is back in a modern incarnation!

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             Sahara owner Alex Meruelo and wife Liset and name-reveal gala…

The company’s founder Alex Meruelo had this to say last week about the property’s future:

The SAHARA played an important role in the evolution of the destination. And, we are now responsible for shaping a new narrative. We are writing the next chapter in the city’s evolution, for the love of Vegas.
We are committed to delivering an intimate, unexpected and memorable visit for our guests. We want people who stay with us to say, ‘My God what an experience!’ because experience leads to memories. And, that’s what we want to create, memories and experiences you won’t forget.
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                                               Casbar Lounge then…
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                           …and now…(photo by Scott Roeben, Vital Vegas)
You can watch a video of the announcement by clicking here. The press release went on to say:
Alex Meruelo’s debut comes at a time when there are few sole proprietors left along the Las Vegas Strip. As a life-long entrepreneur with a track record of business success, Meruelo expressed his commitment to continual improvement and investment in SAHARA Las Vegas ensuring the resort remains both timeless yet modern so that guests will want to return time and time again.

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So yes, there’s plenty to be excited about The Sahara’s return. All signs point towards things being done correctly this time. But is it too late to matter? That depends on the final product and where it fits into the 2019 market.

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    World Tower room at SLS. Super-boring, oddly arranged, claustrophobic…

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                               New color scheme on current Story Tower room…

I have no problem in admitting that, just because of the name, I’m much more inclined to book or recommend a hotel called “Sahara” than “SLS”. After all, there is a major road and several current businesses in the area that are named after it. Sahara IS Vegas…it evokes the desert, a rich history and promises of an experience that “SLS” (that nonsensical clump of letters) never could.

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Many of us have complained about the removal of themes from Strip resorts. Then we lost our cool when office-bland City Center bleached out any hope of their restoration in the future. So if Sahara dares to restore its past Moroccan motif, even just a little, we owe it to Meruelo Group to support their audacity and daring.

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It’s reassuring to know that the new owners have already done a great job of returning Reno’s Grand Sierra Resort to relevancy. They’ve wisely appealed to a variety of guests from the frugal to the elite, managing to modernize that hotel/casino while acknowledging its rich 41-year history. That’s exactly what The Sahara needed to do all along.

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There are plenty of reasons to give the new Sahara a try. Resorts World and The Strat are drawing much-needed attention to those few blocks of the Strip. Sahara has its own monorail station, tying with Westgate for the most accessible of any stop on the line. Vital Vegas broke the news that foodie-favorite Bazaar Meats will remain and get expanded. He also reported they’re gaining an established resident production (the nauseating-yet-inexplicably-popular Magic Mike Live) that is sure to draw traffic back into the resort.

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So let’s hope that Meruelo Group continues their current audacious path for The Sahara. They’ve been running reduced booking rates, “No Resort Fee” and “Half-off Resort Fee” specials since taking over, have maintained free parking, attracted a variety of hip comedians and made the casino layout more appealing.

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With the right mixture of value, service and dining/entertainment/gaming offerings, The Sahara could become a standout destination that the current Las Vegas is sorely lacking…a fun affordable Sin City resort worth returning to over and over.

Photo By Denise Truscello

Sahara fans are invited to witness its rebirth and transformation via a newly-launched website. Follow the excitement and sign up for updates by clicking here

Photos: Sam Novak, Greg C., SLS/Sahara, Vital Vegas, KVVU-TV, Pinterest, The Publicity Lab, Denise Truscello

 

 

2018 Events, Trends & Moments…Cosmic and Controversial


A lot has happened in the past 12 months. Today I look back on large-scale events…

GREATEST SIGHT IN THE SKY – Angels of the 2017 Massacre

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                      I witnessed it on Sahara Avenue near Palace Station…

This one is emotional and unforgettable. If you were there to witness it, you couldn’t have helped being shaken to the core. As friends and loved ones gathered to commemorate the victims of 2017’s mass shooting one year later, the sunset brought a phenomenon that was seen throughout the entire valley.

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                       Courtesy of Michal Furmanczyk, Absinthe acrobat…

While some were quick to explain it scientifically, many of us felt it was a sign from a greater power…or perhaps a message from another plane of existence. Whatever your take on the matter, there’s no denying that the sunset on 10/1/18 was one we’ll never forget.

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                                  Courtesy of performer Kim Lange…

ROLLING BACK THE PARKING FEES

So many people want to sling buckets of rotting fruit at the money-grubbers of MGM Resorts for instituting parking fees on the Strip. As usual, copycat CAESARS Entertainment followed, the same way they did with resort fees. But unlike those dreaded mandatory surcharges, many of their competitors have held off…or even rolled back…charging their guests to park.

To my recollection, Wynn/Encore was the first to rethink this strategy by offering validation to shoppers, show attendees and hotel guests. Cosmopolitan began including parking as part of their mandatory daily fees just this month. Of course, they had to spoil a bit of the satisfaction by RAISING the resort fee another four dollars per day.

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       Caesars couldn’t resist sticking it to their guests one final time in 2018…

Tropicana, Treasure Island, SLS, Stratosphere, Venetian, Palazzo and a few others still offer parking to everyone without cost. Then there’s the Caesars properties, who dropped a stinkbomb during New Year’s Eve weekend by introducing a flat-rate “surge price” of $20 per day. Keep on gouging, guys. You’ve learned nothing.

LADY GAGA IS THE NEW QUEEN OF THE STRIP

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It seemed really odd when MGM Resorts decided to spend $170 million to rip out their new-ish and gorgeous Aria Theater in favor of “more lucrative” convention space…and then spend millions more to expand/rebrand the adjacent Monte Carlo theater for…get this…more live entertainment. Mmmm kay….

The gamble seems to have paid off, though, as Park Theater just celebrated two years of hosting such high-profile acts as Cher, Ricky Martin, Queen/Adam Lambert and Stevie Wonder. Reports have surfaced that the unwelcome return of faux entertainer Britney Spears has suffered underwhelming ticket sales. But Lady Gaga’s ENIGMA residency came to the rescue by swooping in during the last few days of the year.

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Initial reviews have been stellar. Entertainment Weekly wrote “Enigma the show is a damn good time, and it’s admirable in its attempts to elevate a greatest-hits gathering into something striving for more, something that perhaps even galvanized an artist in the peak of her career to take a Vegas residency in the first place.”

A local media publisher, who shall remain unnamed, confided a different take with me: “Gaga was great. Everything else about the show was a disaster.”

There’s no question that Lady Gaga’s profile has risen substantially since she signed her Park Theater contract. She’s sure to get an Oscar nomination for A Star Is Born…and might actually win. Her credibility as a performer, humanitarian and cultural icon are unquestioned. So having her as a fixture on the Strip (for a planned two years) is a major coup for Park MGM. Britney who?

UPDATE: Mere minutes after I published this piece, it was announced that Britney had cancelled her Las Vegas residency, citing “family health concerns”. That’s PR-speak for “My sales suck and they want me out”. What a wonderful bit of news for lovers of genuine talent. Buh-bye, Brit Brit. Don’t let the door hit-hit.

https://www.ktnv.com/news/britney-spears-cancels-las-vegas-residency

TOUGH YEAR FOR VEGAS RESORT EXECS

The past twelve months have seen a surprising upheaval in upper management at major hotel casinos. It all started with an ominous event as embattled former Caesars Entertanment CEO Gary Loveman was shown the door in January…from his replacement job with Aetna. Loveman had never previously worked for healthcare companies.

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His successor Mark Frissora, who assumed the position from Loveman in summer 2015, will be departing his role in the next month or so. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Frissora was accused in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing by his former company, Hertz Global Holdings, of “inappropriate accounting decisions and the failure to disclose information to an effective review” three weeks after he took over at Caesars. Ouch!

Gary Loveman wasn’t the only former resort exec to have a bad year. Longtime MGM Resorts‘ Felix Rappaport was found dead in his home this summer. Current MGM CEO Jim Murren issued the following statement: “We are saddened by the news of the passing of our former colleague and friend, Felix Rappaport. Felix was a member of the MGM Resorts family for more than two decades and is remembered fondly by many. Our condolences and prayers go out to his family at this difficult time.”

Also at MGM, it was announced in October that Bobby Baldwin, Chief Customer Development Officer of their resorts and President/CEO of CityCenter on the Strip, will depart both positions soon…without explanation. The press announcement was extremely brief and offered no details, which stirred up plenty of rumors. Hmmm…

During that same month, they welcomed George Kliavkoff as the new President of Entertainment and Sports. He took over for legendary bushy-maned Richard Sturm who had held that position since 1993. Sturm shocked many when he announced his departure from MGM five weeks earlier. He was leaving to form his own entertainment consulting firm that would work exclusively with…MGM Resorts (insert facepalm here).

VitalVegas.com reported on a number of departures and managerial changes this summer at Westgate Hotel Casino. The most noteworthy that I personally can report on was the promotion of Cami Christensen into the position of President and General Manager. I happened to be there on the evening of the announcement and was honored to offer congratulations.

Christensen has been with the property for over seventeen years and assumed the responsibilities of former GM Geno Iafrate, who reportedly departed to help launch a new franchising concept for Westgate’s Superbook. Oddly, Iafrate’s LinkedIn account currently shows him as having left the property and looking for work.

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             Gordon Prouty and Cami Christensen raise the bar at Westgate…

I was also excited to meet Gordon Prouty while covering the annual Mr. Olympia Weekend this summer. Gordon had just accepted a position as Westgate’s Director of Public and Community Relations. This dapper gentleman has an extensive background in media and community relations throughout the country.

Here in Vegas, Gordon’s been involved in several organizations and Greenspun Media Group. And as the best-dressed man in all of Las Vegas, he served as inspiration for my article on STITCHED Men’s Haberdashery. Only good things can happen at Westgate with Gordon Prouty behind the PR wheel.

There’s nothing like a sex scandal to ruin a man’s legacy. Just ask Kevin Spacey….or in this case, Steve Wynn. The super-successful businessman, whom many credit with the mega-resorts of today, had one really tough year. Allegations of sexual misconduct forced the magnate to sell off his shares in Wynn Resorts this past March. Just before that he’d stepped down as CEO of his own company while denying the claims being made against him: “The idea that I ever assaulted any woman is preposterous.”

The founder of one of Las Vegas’ most luxurious resorts was also forced to depart the on-property villa he called home, as well as to forfeit his healthcare and severance pay. To add insult to injury, Wynn’s final pet project, the Paradise Park Lagoon, was scuttled. It would appear that Wynn West, an expansion on the opposite side of Las Vegas Boulevard, has also been put on ice.

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                                                     Photo via KSNV-TV

This is the third project to fall apart on the former New Frontier Hotel space. Perhaps it’s just as well. Somebody is apparently building Wynn West just a little farther down the street anyway. Unfortunately they’ve named it Resorts World, which doesn’t quite have the same ring. But it certainly looks familiar…

Tomorrow I’ll conclude my year-end wrap-up with the things that made Las Vegas 2018 a deeply personal affair.

Banner photo by Jim Gisclair of Serenity Helicopters

 

Creepy Chills Lie Behind the Rose-colored Glass of “Lucky Dragon Hotel”


A surreal, eerie experience awaits those who check into the ill-fated casino resort…

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Two short years ago, the Lucky Dragon Casino Hotel was a beacon of hope for the troubled north end of Las Vegas Boulevard. With stalled projects like Fontainebleau and Echelon Place (the future Resorts World) as constant reminders and the SLS Las Vegas already stalling, this Asian-themed boutique hotel could very well have been a much-needed jump start.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Things looked even more promising when an early-December 2016 opening date got tossed out the window. To the surprise of just about everyone, Lucky Dragon‘s doors opened on November 19th, creating an avalanche of media hype, great PR…and once again, hope for this section of the Strip.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

The 203-room casino hotel offered three restaurants, a tea-garden lounge and quick-bite outlet as well as gambling that was designed to appeal to tourists from the Far East. Despite initial problems in getting the project financed and completed, Lucky Dragon was constructed around many Asian concepts of good fortune. Decor, lack of “unlucky” numeral four and feng shui were integral to Lucky Dragon’s design.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

By February of the following year, it was clear that luck had already begun to bleed away from the fledgling property. Media announcements hyped “improvements” to dining and gaming options. Dragon’s Alley food court was shut down to accommodate changes in the floor plan. High-end gaming was added to attract more cash flow.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

                      Dragon’s Alley was an early victim of “improvements”…

Sadly, a month later Lucky Dragon‘s staff underwent a massive cut, with everyone from top managers to waiters being let go. As legal and financial troubles began to mount, live entertainment was added that summer as a new draw. Nevertheless, interest in the short-lived sensation had fallen away to essentially nothing.

By the time I finally got around to visiting the property last October, it was eerie, silent and virtually empty. Interestingly, the date was October 1st, 2017, the evening of the Las Vegas Massacre at Mandalay Bay‘s events center. So you can imagine that the entire night is burned into my memory…and this was a creepy way to start it off.

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As you can see from these photos, the casino and restaurants were nearly devoid of guests. What had gone wrong? Was it the unusual location in a sketchy neighborhood? Could the theme just be too targeted towards a specific demographic? Perhaps the place just sucked.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Walking around the casino building was such a downer that I quickly departed without even taking the skybridge over to the hotel tower (they’re two separate buildings, which could also be a factor in its failure).

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

By January of this year, the entire casino and restaurant operations were shut down, leaving the hotel and lobby lounge as the only survivors. How it has continued to function in its current state is anyone’s guess. Despite this, I’ve been itching to stay at the Dragon ever since…just out of morbid curiosity. After all, it could be quite a thrill, especially after just watching a full season of American Horror Story – Hotel.

Although this writer tends to fluctuate randomly between adventure (skydiving over the Vegas desert) and playing safe (no SAW Escape Room Experience for me, thank you) the idea of spending the night in a nearly-abandoned hotel sounded intriguing. So when an offer came up on Agoda.com for $24 a night with no resort fees, I swooped in like a vampire after a nubile virgin.

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                   A view of the parking garage from the unattended valet area…

I arrived into town on the morning of June 14th, weary from lack of sleep and needing a nap before a function that evening. Phoning ahead to see what the soonest check-in time could be, the agent told me to come over now. There would be no additional fees for early arrival. Nice!

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

I headed straight over from the airport, found a parking spot in their convenient (and free) parking garage and made my way into the east structure. This is where things began to get ominous, as you can see from the photos.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

The former casino was dark, dreary and completely silent. Makeshift signs directed guests towards the opposite building via an enclosed skybridge. Access to restrooms and other areas was blocked off, not that anyone would want to explore, would they? (heh heh)…

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       Reverse angle of the skybridge and casino (in the distance) from the hotel corridor…

At this point I’d encountered no one….not a single living soul. The silence was off-putting and in sharp contrast to the bright colors and modern decor that awaited me when I entered the lobby. A short walk past the concierge’s desk (which was actually manned) and I was facing the agent with whom I’d spoken on the phone.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

It was clear from the lack of patrons why a room was available at this hour. Aside from the back of a head near the reception desk (pictured above), I hadn’t passed a single guest.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Without a casino or any restaurants, the resort was likely to be slow…but completely dead? I’d never seen a Vegas hotel this devoid of activity and foot traffic. Even the Imperial Palace at its skeevy worst had always been packed with bargain travelers. So where was everyone?

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Behind me was the deserted Cha Garden, a lounge and bar that specializes in specialty teas. The western wall is a series of glass doors that open up to a splashing pool, waterfall and garden. The decor is modern, soothing and of course, very feng shui. A small breakfast and coffee are served here each morning, included with the resort fee.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

And speaking of that resort fee, the agent attempted to charge it to my credit card, despite the “resort-fee inclusive” offer I booked under. She claimed that there was no such offer to her knowledge but my printout proved otherwise. And then came a lengthy wait as the clerk took my paperwork to an unseen manager in the back.

Upon her return, I was advised that the manager had been unable to reach Agoda and that they’d make a decision later as to whether I’d be assessed the resort fee ($28 plus tax). Or so they thought it was up to them. I’m not a cheapskate, but a deal’s a deal.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

I was finally assigned room 318 (despite being the only guest, the check-in process took nearly fifteen minutes) and headed back to the elevator. The hotel’s third floor was bright, clean and cheerful. So was the king-bed accommodations. Linens and furniture were in great shape, the carpeting looked fresh and the walls were decorated in soft, soothing colors.

In-room amenities were sparse but sufficient. TV, ironing board (iron by request), dual closets, clock radio and a digital safe are standard, as were a writing desk and easy chair. Two tiny bottles of water were stocked next to an ice bucket. There was no in-room coffeemaker, but your daily java is available for free in the lobby during morning hours.

 

The bathroom was simple but spotless and sleek. I especially liked the inclusion of a pair of insignia-branded robes. There were no toiletries provided except for a small tube of basic shampoo and two bars of soap. The walk-in shower was large and had a stationary head at a generous level, often a problem for people of my height or higher.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Aside from the unnerving quiet, I was somewhat uncomfortable with the constant pink glow that flooded my quarters via the rose-colored glass. It gave a nauseating sensation of being captive inside a strange glass cage…a suffocating, queasy feeling that was compounded by the less-than-attractive view. So the curtains were drawn closed and remained that way for the duration of my visit.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

After a nap and shower it was time to attend a function at a nearby resort. Once again, not a sound to be heard or a soul to say hello while strolling through the premises. At least this time the lighting had been turned up inside the vacant casino. That evening when I returned, the common areas were still silent…except for two somewhat rough-looking guys who seemed to have wandered in just to peek around.

With nobody to monitor things of this nature, the entire casino tower and hotel corridors are basically a free-for-all. It might have been reassuring to encounter at least some type of security presence. So I definitely don’t recommend staying at Lucky Dragon if you’re a solo female…or anyone who’s easily spooked.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

When shuffling downstairs the next morning for some caffeine, there were actually other guests doing the same. I’d literally been here for over nine hours without seeing another patron. There was only a handful of guests, but all seemed pleasant, mannered and reserved…a bit surprising given the ludicrously-cheap rates.

The same agent was manning the reservation desk again. She advised me that management had been unable to reach the third-party booking site but wasn’t going to charge me the disputed resort fee. I let her know that I’d be showering and departing very soon, so the young lady kindly processed my check-out.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

                                                               Taxi for one, please…

Without any crowds to speak of, it’s an easy in-out process at Lucky Dragon, which was a big plus to me. There are no long taxi lines, Uber/LYFT hordes or buses to maneuver around. The Sahara Avenue location just off the interstate makes it easy to get to and from the airport.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

There are plenty of reasons to stay at Lucky Dragon along with many downsides. I’ve already booked two future stays here but am almost certain it will be completely closed before year number two is up.

Attempts to make additional reservations on their website result in error messages, no matter what date combinations I entered. Also, a few third-party sites now offer this troubling type of message:

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

                                                            Lastminutetravel.com

The north end of Las Vegas Boulevard may or may not be undergoing a renaissance, depending on whom you ask, but it’s unlikely that Lucky Dragon Hotel Casino will be part of its rebirth. Despite all the excitement this little place once brought to the city, its future looks anything but rosy.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

If you’re curious, adventurous, unafraid and would like to try a stay at Lucky Dragon, give them a call at 702.889.8018. Or you might have more success than I did booking at their website. The address is 300 West Sahara Avenue, adjacent to the Golden Steer Steakhouse.

Lucky Dragon Hotel is currently the best lodging bargain in Las Vegas. It’s new, extremely comfortable and very, very strange. Give it a try! Just don’t wait too long…the flaming breath inside this weird, unlucky little dragon will most likely be extinguished very soon.

And one more failed north-Strip resort will sit amongst the others in the dark.

Lucky Dragon Hotel Vegas

Photos: Sammasseur, exterior shots by Greg C., American Horror Story: Hotel still from FX 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palace Station Rises Rapidly From The Rails


The frequently-overlooked locals hotel is climbing to the sky…and back into relevance…

Sure, sure….all the north Strip talk continues to center around Resorts World. And whether Fontainebleau will ever open. And if SLS will  have its name restored to Sahara….or totally close. Nobody talks about Lucky Dragon anymore, because….ZZZZzzzzz…..

But if you peek over the interstate, just a stone’s throw from the legendary Golden Steer Steakhouse, you might see a little action worth paying attention to. That’s because the scene of OJ’s crime (no, the other one) is getting a lot more than a fresh coat of paint. Palace Station on West Sahara Avenue is getting an infusion of some big bucks…and a brand spanking new hotel tower.

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         The train is pulling into the Station with a few more sleeping cars…

If you’re an infrequent visitor to Sin City, you might not even be familiar with Station Casinos. The railroad-themed chain has destinations sprinkled throughout the valley, carrying such catchy names as Sante Fe Station, Sunset Station, Boulder Station, Texas Station. And of course Palace Station, the original and very first stop on the line.

Locals casinos such as this are usually pretty low on the luxury stylings, offering great value and lots of casual entertainment and food selections. In more recent years, the chain has gone upscale and shaved away the choo-choo theming, erecting more modern palaces (sorry, couldn’t resist) like Green Valley Ranch and Red Rock Casino.

Not all of them succeeded (bye bye, Aliante Station) but the ones that did raised their profile, and apparently their bottom line, allowing for the acquisition of Palms Casino in 2016. Now they’re looking backwards and refreshing those themed resorts of the past.

How do they do that, exactly? Well, in the case of Palace Station, it’s so long railroad theme. And the removal of outdated motel-style “Courtyard Rooms”. In their place is a new 27-story, 600-room hotel tower, rising from the ground at a pretty epic pace (take that, Resorts World). Those will be in addition to the existing 576 rooms and suites.

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                           Above photos taken on September 2nd, 2017

With a new porte cochere already in operation for arriving guests, updating taking is place inside as well (new Bingo Room and restaurants, modernized look and an impending re-do of the lowest-priced buffet anywhere). There will be a new multi-screen theater coming with the expansion.

While all that construction activity may not currently be the best atmosphere for a stay, you might want to check things out once construction is completed (nobody enjoys the sound of jackhammers with one going on in our heads already – thanks, Mr. Bartender).

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PalaceStation

    Pics from October 22nd, 2017 demonstrate the speedy progress being made…

With conventions being the future hot ticket for Vegas, it isn’t surprising that Palace Station is erecting a new meeting space as well. Again, they’re way ahead of the announced expansion of Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority aka the Vegas Convention Center. Those plans flattened my beloved Riviera Hotel more than a year ago, with nary the slightest evidence of new construction activity. Not even a hammer.

It will be several years before Resorts World greets its first guest, so enjoy all those photos of construction cranes on other sites. In the meantime, I’ll be marking my calendar for a stay at the reborn Palace Station.

The project is slated for completion in late 2018. But don’t be surprised if they beat that deadline by a wide margin. All aboard!

Photos courtesy of Greg C.