Taking The Kids To A Den Of Iniquity

I've finally figured out how to win in Vegas. Skip the casinos and head to the lower level of the Excalibur Hotel/Casino, or the arcade level of the Luxor Hotel, or the Grand Slam Canyon at Circus Circus Hotel & Casino. At any of several arcades in the newest family-oriented hotels along the Strip you'll find the carnival-style games of skill that usually seem to require impossible luck or dexterity to win: tossing coins on plates, pitching baseballs at bottles, throwing darts, catapulting stuffed witches into pots. In Vegas' arcades, kids and the child-hearted can actually win at these things. At the end of a recent trip, my wife and I found ourselves lugging enough plush toys to the airport to keep nieces and nephews supplied with gifts for a year, including a three-foot-high purple dragon, a big furry raccoon, and a huge pink pig with wings. We had to check the pig.

Yes, Las Vegas, the city of sin and gambling, is trying hard to accommodate family vacationers. It all started a decade ago. Then, the number of tourists was growing at a reasonable 2% to 4% per year. But as more states began offering competition in the form of legal lotteries and riverboat gambling, some Vegas resorts concluded that gambling alone does not a resort town make. Several new resorts with elaborate showrooms and entertainment have sprung up in the past few years, including some that cater to families, such as the Excalibur, the Luxor, and the MGM Grand.

GAUDY AND NOISY. It's working. Vegas now has 88,500 hotel rooms, 21,100 more than it had in 1989. Last year, the number of visitors jumped an astounding 20%, to about 29 million. Vegas is attracting people such as Bruce Worrell, a North Carolina businessman who hits the blackjack tables while his wife and 9-year-old daughter go shopping or visit theme parks--making it the ideal family destination. "I don't consider gambling a sin," he says with a shrug.

Still, Vegas is not likely to show up on my list of vacation hot spots. To me, it's a gaudy, noisy, crowded, neon-polluted stopover for computer and electronics trade shows. I don't gamble, because I find losing money to be a very annoying form of entertainment. But in between interviewing executives and checking out the multimedia software at recent trade shows, I decided to explore the side of Vegas for nongamblers.

What we found was an incongruous mix of adult and childish fantasy. True, Vegas has always had a Disneyesque feel. Where else can you go to see airborne Elvises parachute from the sky? Or get married in medieval costume? Where else is Wayne Newton a sellout act? At the same time, Vegas has always featured gambling, topless nightclub acts, lots of booze, and high-priced sex for sale.

But throwing children into the equation makes VegasLand stranger still. Parents stroll among the slot machines with kids in tow, although you can't gamble if you're under 21 (at least, not if you're caught). But these aren't your typical family hotels, either: Alcohol still flows freely throughout the casinos. I saw two young men dive into a rather frightening fist-fight in the middle of one casino floor. And the casinos are still frequented by those enticingly dressed young women that my wife drolly refers to as "floozies."

Outside, it's often worse. On a taxi ride across town, we pass more than a few topless joints. On foot, even with my wife on my arm, it's impossible to avoid the men and women positioned at every street corner, handing out sleazy brochures picturing naked women "dancers" who will visit your hotel room any time of the day or night. Alan Feldman, a Mirage Resorts Inc. vice-president and publicist, admits there is still a problem with prostitution (which is legal in much of Nevada, but not in Vegas) but insists many resorts have "significantly more topless bars than we do."

And yet, much of Vegas is absolutely childish. At the hotels, employees stroll around in neo-Egyptian or Pirate Classic garb. You can shop for women's clothes at Damsels in Dis' Dress at Treasure Island at the Mirage, mr dine in Excaliber's Italian restaurant, called Lance A Lotta Pasta.

DIZZY FACADE. Vegas, in fact, is gaudier than ever. The newest resorts are enormous toy castles, pirate ships, and pyramids. The fantasies are no less impressive for being unabashedly phony. A volcano belches fire and steam in front of the Mirage four times an hour, and pirates sink a British warship in front of Treasure Island every 90 minutes. The Luxor Pyramid is capped with what's billed as the world's brightest spotlight, beaming a million dollars' worth of electricity to the heavens every year.

Behind the dizzy facade, you can find both outrageously priced kitsch and inexpensive elegance. During the madhouse November computer convention called Comdex, we found ourselves stuck in an ancient, musty basement room at the Tropicana Resort & Casino--for $225 a night. After considerable cajoling, we were moved the second night to a grander room, furnished with both a comfortable desk and mirrors on the ceiling. At the Excalibur, simple rooms are spruced up with brick wallpaper to make the kids think they're in a castle. We also ended up in a very cozy room at the art deco Egyptian Luxor for just $49 on a nonconvention weeknight. Moving up to a Jacuzzi suite with a spectacular view of the mountains would have cost $200. Some people, however, find the Luxor's "inclinators," the elevators that slide at an angle up the pyramid walls, to be nauseating.

All in all, the new formula seems to be working. While Vegas isn't exactly weaning itself from gambling, it is now getting significant income from other attractions. Casinos typically brought in 80% of a hotel's revenues a decade ago, while the Mirage reports that its casino brought in just 60% of its $650 million revenues in its first year. These days you can catch Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, or Cirque du Soleil, in addition to Mickey Rooney or the Folies Bergres.

We decided to try a couple of classic Vegas shows that have gone decidedly upscale. Families still flock to see Siegfried & Roy, even at $78 a ticket, although nobody ever seems to remember which is Siegfried (the blond) and which is Roy. It's a high-tech extravaganza, complete with flying saucers, smoke and lasers, heavy orchestration, dancers, a gigantic mechanical fire-breathing dragon with laser eyes, and (of course) white tigers. Siegfried and Roy are impressive magicians, better at levitating in a lotus position than the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. To me, all the high-tech glitz detracts from the magic: Technology can create any illusion these days. But the audience adores this stuff.

The shows for adults are more disappointing. We tried Jubilee! at Bally's Casino Resort. It's staged more impressively than any Broadway show, complete with a sinking Titanic. The Argentinian Gauchos put on an extra-

ordinary dance and greet the audience in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, appropriate for their mostly Asian audience. But the rest of the show is an inane Busby Berkeley-style revue with topless dancers and corny songs.

I had more fun joining in the kids' activities. There's a 360-degree, corkscrew roller coaster at the Grand Slam Canyon in Circus Circus, and go-cart racing at several parks. The $3 spaceship virtual-reality rides at the Sega VirtuaLand in the Luxor are a kick. Unfortunately, the MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park, Vegas' newest ride attraction, was closed during our last visit.

My recommendation: If you really want to vacation in the Nevada desert, stick to the natural attractions of Red Rocks Canyon or Valley of Fire State Park. In Vegas, it's hard to tell fantasy from reality. The "archeological expedition" at the Luxor turns out to be a space-age movie/motion simulator ride. And the Luxor "museum" is full of reproductions of King Tut's tomb, while the gift shop has genuine artifacts, some selling for thousands of dollars.

As Siegfried says: "Welcome to our world of dreams." Or was that Roy?

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