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

 

 

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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                                                               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.

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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 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 In Review – Ranking The Resorts


There’s something for everyone when choosing a hotel. But not all of them deserve your business…

Best Luxury ResortPalazzo

Best Worst Vegas 2017

The Venetian‘s more contemporary sister property has what it takes to satisfy your luxury needs without overt attempts at “hipness” (Cosmopolitan) or coasting on a previously-established reputation (Bellagio).

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The Palazzo offers easy access from Las Vegas Boulevard, free parking, spacious rooms, flawless service, gorgeous common areas, lush pools and an airy, high-ceiling casino. Visitors can indulge in top-notch lounges (check out my write-up of the new Rosina Cocktail Lounge), restaurants, shops, the famous Canyon Ranch Spa and the Best Overall Show in Vegas (BAZ: A Musical Mash-up). You can learn more by visiting my full write-up here.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Palazzo is easily my choice for best five-star accommodations in Las Vegas.

Most Improved ResortWestgate Las Vegas

My relationship with Westgate (aka the former Las Vegas Hilton) began three years ago….and was rocky to say the least. An unflattering article I had penned for VegasChatter.com got a very professional response from a member of the team in charge of transforming the aging off-Strip giant into a newly-born destination.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

“Give us another chance. We’ve got great things happening here”. That was the message, in essence, of the Westgate Las Vegas representative. And he wasn’t just tossing some pretty words and glitter in my direction. Promises were kept…and I’ve been back many many times since.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

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The current state of Westgate is one of gloriously-restored elegance. Brass has been polished, gorgeous chandeliers have been restored, the marble flooring is immaculate and guest rooms are all modern and sleek.

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The property has recruited some of the finest chefs in the city to operate an admirable line-up of new restaurants (see my monthly series of profiles to learn more about the people behind the dishes). Then there’s the glorious new Serenity Spa, an extension of Westgate’s acclaimed facility in Park City, Utah (you can see my detailed experiences at Serenity Spa here).

Serenity Spa Westgate

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Every Westgate staffer from valet to reservations to the hostess at Sid’s Cafe will offer their name and ask you for yours. There’s a vibe throughout the casino that’s palpable and contagious. You’ll feel that your patronage and presence are appreciated…and you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

Chef Bruno Morabito Westgate

You can expect lots of new entertainment offerings to take up residence at Westgate this year (Barry Manilow is coming back!) and you can continue to enjoy free parking as a hotel/casino guest.

By the way…don’t be put off by the off-Strip location. A convenient monorail station at the FRONT of the hotel (not far in the rear like everywhere else) can get you from your room to center Strip in a matter of minutes.

Re-think your ideas of how a 2018 visit to Las Vegas should be. Give Westgate a try…and prepare to be wowed.

Steepest DeclineRio Las Vegas

Best Worst Vegas 2017

A short decade ago, the Rio was one of my favorite places to stay and play. There was a vibrance throughout the resort that made it worth the visit. These days, it’s just a sad red-and-blue stepchild of the Caesars family, mostly forgotten and seemingly just hanging on.

The restaurants are nothing to brag about, Masquerade Village is still a giant echo chamber, Kiss by Monster Mini Golf turned out to be a dud and the once-legendary Carnival World Buffet now operates on limited hours. At least there’s still the wonderful Chippendales and new WOW – World of Wonder to keep me stopping by for a few hours.

Miniature stages throughout the gaming floor used to light up regularly for songs and dances by “Bever-tainers”. Now those performance spaces sit empty and ignored (a current cocktail server told me that “most of them are broken and just don’t work anymore”). The stage and overhead tracks for once-popular Rio Show In The Sky also remain, dusty and forgotten.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

An unpleasant odor permeates certain areas of this hotel, uncomfortable reminders of the Legionnaire’s Disease incident that affected numerous visitors last year. Guest rooms and common areas are maintained with indifference. The conditions of the fitness facilities and spa areas have badly deteriorated as well.

There are better places to choose than Rio Las Vegas…and the ever-rising mandatory resort fee (currently $34.01 per day, up from $18.99 plus tax in 2016) does nothing to make me want to book there again. After a lackluster stay in mid-December resulted in my complaining via email and phone to the manager, I cancelled my next visit (which was scheduled for the very next week).

Staffers at Rio seem to be going through the motions of their chores across the board, much like the team at Sahara did in the years leading up to its closure. Which brings us to…

In The Throes of DeathSLS (the former Sahara)

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Driving towards the north Strip property once know as Sahara, you’d be hard-pressed to know exactly what the name is. The sign reads SLS at the bottom and a giant twinkling W at the top. Why, exactly? Because this is a property with an identity crisis…and no good reason for existing in its current state.

SLS Las Vegas answers a question that nobody in their right mind would ask: “What would happen if you whitewashed (literally and figuratively) a heavily themed historic property, filled it with Vegas-lite duplicates of Los Angeles dining/nightclub favorites, then tried to lure the L.A. millenials over the state line?”.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

The answer is “not much”. There’s no reason for the hip L.A. crowd to come to Vegas for inferior copies of what they already have. Nevertheless, the combined arrogance of Sam Nazarian and SBE led to betting heavily…and losing…on a proposition that was never going to work.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Best Worst Vegas 2017

All seven Fred Segal stores were shuttered, along with LIFE Nightclub and an excellent buffet that lasted all of three months. SLS promised to reopen the buffet in early 2015. I’m still waiting.

If only SBE has taken a cue from Westgate and honored the Sahara‘s legacy with a little updating instead of throwing it out the back door, they’d probably be sharing a different place on this list.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Someday, logical will prevail and SLS (which sold off a portion of the resort to the W hotel chain…that tower now operates as a separate entity) will be reborn once more as “The New Sahara”. Until that time, you can consider SLS to be as good as….

DeadLucky Dragon

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Here’s another resort with no good reason for existing. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing worthwhile to offer guests, the Lucky Dragon announced the closure of its casino and restaurants just yesterday.

This has got to be some kind of record. After only 13 months and one day of operations, a brand-new casino resort has shut down everything but the tiny little hotel. Employees have been sent packing only four days into the new year…a sad start for them and a bad omen for any hope of Resorts World actually making an impact on the north end of the Strip.

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It was clear after a highly-touted early opening that just a few months into the year, Lucky Dragon was anything but lucky. Restaurants Pearl Ocean and Dragon Alley were reworked along with the high-limit areas of the gaming floor. The excitement of a brand-new hotel casino had completely fizzled, and by the time I visited in late mid October, at least one restaurant was shuttered and the entire complex was virtually empty.

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As the financials are reworked and optimistic press releases tout a full reopening of Lucky Dragon, expect the northern face of the famous Las Vegas Strip to continue fighting some really persistent blemishes. And one big blue tumor.

Best Worst Vegas 2017

Abandoned Fontainebleau Resort                         

 

Photos: Greg C., Sammasseur