LAS VEGAS, NV -- The Vegas experience captivates people in a variety of ways.
Some come here to see the bright lights, glittering celebrities and architectural excesses. Some come here determined to view it as merely a monument to schlock and glitz and then go home to tell their friends and neighbors how tacky it all is. Some come here to get rich quick (a brief list of the successful ones' names available upon request).
The key element to all that, however, is that they do, indeed, come here by the millions.
And many stay. Las Vegas is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States. Never mind that half the year temperatures flirt with or exceed 100 degrees. (The simplest job here is being a TV weather forecaster: "The three-day outlook is 100-100-100 daytime, 70-70-70 nighttime, and clear around the clock.'')
And never mind that you are, after all, sitting in the middle of the desert and the thought keeps running through your mind that the bazillion gallons of water needed each day to keep this place alive might disappear suddenly.
Take someone like Kemis Dengler.
After selling off a successful Buffalo-area auto dealership and then running the Northern Chautauqua, NY, Chamber of Commerce for six years, Dengler decided that escaping the Lake Erie winters was more desirable then sticking them out. So, two summers ago he and his wife "retired'' and moved here.
"It was our dream place,'' Dengler said. "The atmosphere, the lack of snow, the excitement of Vegas.''
It was that excitement that finally got to him as more than a part-time attraction. He got antsy sitting around the house, so when it was announced that a version of Paris (yes, the city in France) was going to be built on Las Vegas Boulevard better known as The Strip. "I made an appointment with their human resources people to see what was available.''
His business background eventually landed him the job of manager of the Eiffel Tower portion of Paris. It was in that capacity that he was busy running around the new resort complex during the hectic Labor Day weekend grand opening.
The Strip's latest undertaking cost an estimated $785 million to create a 3,000-room hotel, a glittering casino, upscale shopping area, restaurants and scale models of several Parisian landmarks.
Mind-boggling as it is, it still is a bit understated by modern Vegas standards. Right across The Strip from Paris is the Bellagio, the richly appointed Italian-style complex that opened last year with a $1.4 billion price tag and a museum full of rare fine art by Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse.
And since Labor Day of last year, the Mandalay Bay resort has opened along with expansions and renovations of several older hotels and new work begun on the likes of the new Aladdin complex.
In all, since midsummer 1998, about 10,000 hotel rooms have been added to the Vegas panoply, and still the visitors keep coming. Over the recent Labor Day Weekend, the local Chamber of Commerce announced a phenomenal 92 percent room occupancy overall.
"Some people say the bubble has to burst any day now,'' Dengler said, "but I don't see any signs of it. People keep buying or building houses, businesses keep moving in, casino resort complexes keep opening up or expanding, jobs are plentiful, attendance is climbing ...''
Dengler kept being interrupted as his earpiece crackled with messages and questions from his staff of several dozen who tirelessly roamed around the Tower area of Paris, directing visitors, running elevators to viewing levels, preparing for the evening's dinner rush.
Large crowds had been expected for the first weekend of the town's latest wonder, and even the added human pressure of a holiday crowd was expected. But at least three times during the long weekend the city fire marshal's office had to turn back the throngs flocking to see Paris.
To even the most jaded, it is something special to see.
Ground was broken in April 1997 for the project, owned by the Hilton Hotels chain. The original announcement of the project was a year earlier, when Bally unveiled its plans. But shortly after that, Hilton purchased Bally, and development plans had to be re-evaluated.
Themed resort hotel/casino complexes have become the norm here, and they boast elements of world-class proportion. Since Vegas broke out of its original concentration around Fremont Street, several miles north of the current expansion area, and began stretching its borders with family-oriented attractions as well as the ubiquitous casinos, we have seen completion of some astounding projects:
New York, New York (2,020 rooms) replicates in scaled-down size a chunk of the Big Apple skyline complete with Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island roller coaster and the Statue of Liberty.
The pyramid-shaped Luxor (4,407 rooms) is the world's third-largest hotel. It is 36 stories high, has a 29 million cubic foot atrium (the world's largest), and emits what is believed to be the world's brightest beam of light, comprising 45 Xenon lights.
The Excalibur (4,008 rooms), with its silk and swords Arthurian-era theme, has just added, incongruously, a 16,000-square-foot Nitro Grill eatery with a pro-wrestling theme.
The French Riviera-themed Monte Carlo (3,002 rooms) has the $27 million Lance Burton Theater built as a permanent home for the master magician.
Treasure Island (2,900 rooms) is best known for its huge Buccaneer Bay outdoor pirate battles that draw crowds 10-deep every 90 minutes.
The aforementioned Mandalay Bay (3,700) has a South Seas atmosphere and an 11-acre sand-and-surf beach.
Last year, the big noise was Bellagio (3,005 rooms) with its man-made 12-acre lake and computer-controlled dancing fountains. It's still heavily visited, but having Paris right across the street has eased the congestion a bit.
All this action has resulted in a gradual spruce-up of the old town, centered around Fremont Street. That's the Vegas of the old Sinatra Rat Pack and the Elvis movies. Many of the old casinos are gone, and those that stay are being reinvented.
The venerable Golden Nugget (which has been awarded a AAA "Four Diamond'' designation every year since 1974) still sits as the queen of Fremont Street. A two-block pedestrian area is now covered by a metal canopy across which flashes a laser light show every night, and which in the daytime provides shade for strollers. The area should be seen, if only for comparison to what's new.
But that isn't the only area trying to keep pace with the competition. Even such established Strip stalwarts as the MGM Grand Hotel and The Mirage are hard at work updating what doesn't look outdated.
The MGM, for example, just opened a new indoor lion habitat with a glass passageway visitors can use to walk through the habitat while the lions walk above, below and next to them. And The Mirage, home to Seigfried & Roy and their famous white tigers, is planning some upgrades in the next few months.,
Paris' offerings trump it all, however. They include a 50-story version of the Eiffel Tower, a two-thirds-size replica of the Arc de Triomphe (the original was built in 1805 to honor soldiers who fought in the Battle of Austerlitz), plus replicas of the 34-story Hotel de Ville (the real Paris' city hall), the Paris Opera House, the renowned Louvre museum (the original houses the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo), and several landmark fountains (one shown above).
The Eiffel Tower is, predictably, perhaps the most eye-catching part of the complex. It is located above the casino, with three legs poking inside and the fourth outside on Las Vegas Boulevard. There's a French restaurant on the 11th floor, and an observation deck on the top floor. Its construction coincided with the centennial anniversary of the original, built for the World's Fair to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.
France is known for many things from epic battles under Napolean to epic surrenders in 20th-century wars; for raising gracious living to an art form to living with the stereotype of endemic rudeness to Americans; from ... well, you get the idea. But, ahh, the food. A legitimate stereotype, and Paris has eight count 'em, eight restaurants in the new complex.
The Eiffel Tower Restaurant offers view from 100 feet up. Le Provencal is an Italian-French restaurant with singing waiters. LaChine is a Hong Kong-style restaurant. The luxury is sublime.
But what about the moneymaker, the place that subsidizes all else? The casino.
The Bonne Chance is a fascinating 83,000-square-foot space, designed to look as if you're strolling the streets of Paris at twilight assuming the city has suddenly had 2,000 slot machines plunked down outdoors.
A faux sky, cobblestone pathways, wrought-iron street lamps and period architecture set the mood. There are more than 100 gaming tables, plus the slots set among the Tower legs extending through the ceiling. There also is a special section for high-stakes games.
"As you can see,'' Dengler pointed out, "this is not a nickle slot place. It's for how can I put this? people with more disposable income than a lot of other places draw.''
You can enter from the street, or from the Vegas version of the Rue de la Paix and its meandering streets lined with shops, wine bars, boutiques and restaurants. Again, we have the faux sky providing a feeling of airiness and all storefronts look as if they're outdoors.
The Opera House area includes a 1,200-seat theater for nightly Vegas-style entertainment, but there also are laid-back areas, such as Le Cabaret Lounge, a bistro with live music, and Napolean's, a lush upscale club bar.
Oh, yes. The place isn't finished. A Vegas version of Notre Dame cathedral is expected to be added to the complex shortly after the new year begins.
Judging from the strong start, as long as the visitors want it they'll always have Paris.
ON THE WEB
• Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Tourist Authority
• Entertainment Guide
• Chamber of Commerce
• Las Vegas Leisure Guide
• History of the Las Vegas Trip
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