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

 

 

 

 

 

 

“WOW” is Wet Outlandish Whimsy on a Grand Scale


Rio’s water-themed production salutes the heyday of Vegas variety….

If you’ve read my show reviews and columns through the years, you’re probably aware that I’m not a fan of the direction the Vegas entertainment has headed. You know the kind I mean…manufactured talents clogging up enormous venues with their auto-tune warbling. Has-been “divas” sleep-walking and lip-syncing through high-ticket residencies for an enormous paycheck. So-called “celebrity DJs” with their creepy mugshot-style billboards peppering the main roads of the city. It’s all garbage!

Sorry, folks, but Vegas was built on the backs of real talent. If you don’t know or don’t remember what that is, you can check out the amazing musical BAZ at Palazzo, where singers can dance and dancers can sing. And they combine their complex roles with superb acting, offering wide-spectrum talent from every member of the cast.

In recent years, an assortment of variety shows have sprung up that remind us of the glorious era of Vegas. Dancers, singers, circus acts and comics zipping on and off the stage in a constant barrage of whimsy to thrill and dazzle. WOW – World of Wonder is the latest of these, and it’s definitely on my list of must-see-again thrills.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

WOW is a rare commodity on the Sin City entertainment scene. It dares to be simultaneously silly, chaotic, retro and modern while offering high-tech amazement. WOW wears its randomness on its sleeve, starting here and jumping over there. You never know who will be coming onto the stage, creeping up behind you, descending from the ceiling or rising from the depths.

If some of that sounds a bit like Le Reve, you’re right. There are plenty of moments in WOW that resemble Wynn’s signature production, along with Absinthe, Mystere, Vegas! The Show and the sadly-defunct Vegas Nocturne at Cosmopolitan’s Rose.Rabbit.Lie. I offer those comparisons as compliments, as all have been personal favorites.

What differs with WOW is in the presentation, starting with the venue. Rio‘s refurbished Crown Theater will definitely elicit a “wow” from your lips. Not necessarily from the seating arrangements (which are a bit dated and not-quite-lush) but from the main stage and panoramic video panels, which are absolutely gorgeous and impeccably utilized.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

Dazzling moving images of waterfalls and intensely-colored landscapes resemble Wonder Woman’s “Paradise Island” and Ariel’s undersea kingdom. Atmospheric sound design adds to the effect, creating significant anticipation for the show to begin.

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The thin plot line involves a nerdy fisherman, badgered by a harpy’s voice into catching something for dinner. Hunkering down in his yellow slicker, he casts his line into the water.  Of course, his baited hook is just there to grab the audience and take them on a journey to the fantastic.

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What follows is a hodgepodge of circus acts, peculiar talents, humorous bits and large-scale production numbers. Some are familiar, like the skating act from Absinthe and V – The Ultimate Variety Show. Others offer talents you’ve surely never seen before.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

That in itself would work just fine…if the individual acts didn’t play to drastically different age groups. For instance, a sexy sequence with three lovelies swimming inside a clear glass bowl (similar to Zumanity but without the toplessness) is geared toward adults. But it’s preceded by a lengthy Pirates of the Caribbean spoof that’s best appreciated by children.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

WOW World of Wonder Rio

WOW follows the classic set-up of having smaller acts draw your attention while the big set pieces are setting up behind a curtain on the main stage. One moment an Italian chef is spinning plates on the streets of old Venice.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

WOW World of Wonder Rio

The next, a hot-bodied group of dancers is strutting their sexy stuff to popular and classic music. Just wait until you see the salute to Singing In The Rain, wherein the raindrops actually form the shape of umbrellas. Clever!

WOW World of Wonder Rio

WOW World of Wonder Rio

All of it is superbly done and most is highly enjoyable…and really, really random. But that’s what’s great about variety shows, especially in our era of short attention spans. As they say about San Francisco weather, if you don’t like what’s happening, just wait a moment.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

Perhaps that’s why Riviera’s SPLASH and Bally’s JUBILEE!, a pair of Vegas classics, lasted for decades.  The format also allows for frequent refreshing, so each visit is sure to yield a unique experience.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

WOW World of Wonder Rio

The epic production numbers were my favorite aspect of WOW, especially a jaw-dropping ballroom scene aboard the Titanic. Your entire field of vision is filled with the ship’s interior, rising waves seen through the windows and a cast of dancers that is suddenly engulfed in the deluge. This obvious nod to the legendary sequence in JUBILEE! takes the experience much, much farther. Hold onto your life preserver!

WOW World of Wonder Rio

WOW World of Wonder Rio

WOW World of Wonder Rio

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My least favorite act involves Guinness World Record holder Dickson Oppong of West Africa. This large fellow has the unique ability to guzzle huge amounts of water, then spray it as continuous stream from his mouth. Although fascinating, it’s also a bit disturbing. Germ-aphobes may wish to avoid sitting in the splash zone.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

WOW World of Wonder Rio

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More entertaining is a bit involving statues who become fountains too…in a funny, clever way. The gag builds layers of whimsy until it segues into another a trio of swimmers. I’d have like to have seen the statues go on a bit longer first.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

Sadly, the comic-relief character that opens the show has solo moments that go on way too long. He also gets worked into too many of the other acts. Mostly wordless, his child-like bits involving a clap-along and a series of boo-boos make for excellent bathroom breaks. But he’s still more entertaining than the creepy, annoying clowns of O.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

Some acts would be more at home in a traveling circus but don’t necessarily translate well to an evening Vegas production. Perhaps the fact that WOW comes from overseas (Israel, in fact) helps to explain why it feels so offbeat. The weirdness isn’t the same as Cirque du Soleil‘s French humor…nor is it as annoying. But a little fine-tuning for Vegas audiences might do WOW a whole lot of good.

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I also had issues with some clumsy sound cues and abrupt changes in volume that distracted from the performances of a uniformly excellent cast. As the show is relatively new (it opened just last month), things like this should eventually be worked out.

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But that’s a small complaint when compared to the scale of talent and visuals represented here. The 30-member international cast is beautiful and overflowing with skill. And they have one goal in mind – to leave you saying “WOW”.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

The success of any variety production depends largely on whether you’re drawn into the premise. WOW succeeds in capturing your imagination. It grabs you from the opening moments, twirls you around, lifts you up and doesn’t let go until the final bows.

WOW World of Wonder Rio

It’s classic Vegas variety entertainment on a grand scale.

WOW – World of Wonder performs Tuesday through Sunday at 7pm with an additional 9pm show Friday-Sunday. Tickets start at $49 (plus taxes/fees) and can be ordered here. Travelzoo currently has discount tickets from $39 with no additional taxes/fees. Click here to access this offer, good through 1/7/18.

Photos: Diane Lynn, Sammasseur