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Las Vegas' Odd Transformation

Updated on July 27, 2009

The Setting

Temperature - 102 degrees

Time - Dusk

A pulsating beat looms over the city as the neon lights of Las Vegas Boulevard begin to illuminate.

Hope is in the air, and the smell of money is everywhere.

Champagne is chilling, dinner reservations are confirmed, club hot spots are selected, and bank rolls are clipped, all in anticipation of a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” night. The desert heat and mounting excitement add a bounce to your step that you never seem to find back home. In fact, as soon as you stepped off the plane you realized, like Dorothy, that you were not in Kansas anymore. You are in Neverland. You’re Peter Pan, and you never have to grow up.

That’s Vegas, baby.

This modern day phenomenon called Las Vegas appears, on the surface, to be the same as it was ten, twenty, even thirty years ago, give or take a few changes. We've said goodbye to some classic hotels like the Sands, the Stardust, the Desert Inn, and the Frontier, but we've said hello to some new kids on the block. Grand casinos, all trying to one-up each other with the highest towers, best odds, and the prettiest showgirls, now stand erect with accessories like fountains, pirate ships, pyramids, and volcanoes. These massive structures proudly inhabit their parcel of prime real estate, as visitors from all over the world continue to marvel at their grandeur.

Reckless cab drivers still offer trivial tidbits about the people and landmarks of this town, while assuring you that they’re taking the fastest route to Freemont. Street vendors sell half priced show tickets and drink coupons on every corner, as overheated tourists seek a cold beer and the ever-elusive jackpot. And still not a clock in sight.

This is Neverland.

The Transformation

Under the surface however, lies a different Vegas. There’s a new game in town and it’s called the “corporate takeover”. It’s been a subtle conversion over the past few years, but super sized investors and corporations like the Wynns, the Trumps, and the MGMs, have gradually transformed the infrastructure of the gaming experience, and staked their claim on its riches; riches delivered to them on a silver platter by the millions of visitors who drop in to make a donation.

Nothing new there, I’ll concede. Only, what used to be an equal opportunity wishing well has now become more geared to the elite. The $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffet is a ghost of desert’s past, as are the cheap hotel rooms and generous comps. Free accommodations and complimentary perks are now reserved mostly for the big spenders. The rest are left paying resort-like prices for common necessities like food and water.

If you want a bit more than that at a decent hotel, it will cost you. During my most recent stay, the hotel relieved my pocket of $25.00 for a Continental Breakfast.

Have you ever choked on a croissant? It’s possible, believe me.

A small bottle of Absolut vodka would have set me back $120.00 from room service, until I discovered a liquor store across the street that mercifully sold me the same bottle for $28.00. Am I in the Bahamas?

Gone is the inclination to reward us gamblers for our patronage by providing a hot meal at a reasonable price. I’m sure that they’re still around, but you have to look much harder to find them. Why? Because Vegas has been inundated with world class chefs who want to cash in on this new enterprise. Cash being the operative word. Just about any restaurant you select for a nice dinner comes with a price tag of $50.00 to $150.00 per person. Some offer “discounts” of 10%-20% if you eat between the hours of 4 and 6 o'clock. This appeals to the “I’ve got tickets to ‘O’” crowd, but most of us are just getting back from the pool at that time.

But take heart, in a real pinch, there’s always In n Out Burger. Or, a couple of hotels down on Freemont Street still have cheap hot dogs and “old Vegas” style coffee shops, with the “old Vegas” price tag to match.

That’s the real Freemont experience.

Gone also, are the lounge acts. I confess. I miss them. Cheesy as they could be at times, it was kind of cool to play blackjack or slots while listening to an aging Elvis lookalike sing his best rendition of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. There were some pretty unique performers who graced the stages of these lounges. A dying breed. I nostalgically recall playing video poker at the bar while Rat Pack wannabes crooned my favorite oldies. Where have Frank, Dean, and Sammy gone? Like Elvis himself, even the good impersonators have left the building.

And who could write about old Las Vegas and not mention Wayne Newton. He spent years headlining in this town, along with Engelbert Humperdinck, Siegfried and Roy, Tom Jones, and Don Rickles.

These shows have now been replaced with mega-hit productions and big name entertainers.

Really big.

Performers like Celine Dion, Beyonce, Jay Leno, Cher, Barry Manilow, Donny and Marie, Bette Midler, Elton John, and Jerry Seinfeld can all be found headlining somewhere on the strip, while the Cirque du Soleil shows maintain the "hottest ticket in town" designation. I’m not saying this is bad. After all, progress is good. But with it comes a price and this too, will cost you - anywhere from $80.00 to $400.00 per ticket. The lounge acts were free.

So were a cup of coffee and a pack of smokes….

Clearly, the free lunch is over, and it seems you now have to grease more palms for what was once a Vegas standard.

I Wonder....

I wonder what Ben (I won’t call him Bugsy) Siegel would think about all this. His idea was, after all, to create a desert playground for men and women by indulging their every wish in the grandest of style. He made sure that the Flamingo provided just that, and much more. He rewarded his guests by lavishing them with great service and complimentary allowances so that they would want to come back. With the corporate regeneration of Vegas, however, you get the feeling that they don’t really care if you come back or not. The expanded international clientele feeds Vegas’ economy even when we Americans are full.

The real irony here is that nearly all of the casinos in Las Vegas have recently added a disproportionate amount of 1 cent and 5 cent slot machines. They are placed right by the front door of each casino and comprise about 20%-30% of all the slots. Do they figure we need these smaller denominations to offset the money we now spend on new "resort" fees and $10.00 cocktails? Who can afford to play a $1.00 machine anymore? Yet, many of the $1.00 slot machines have been modified to take up to 5 credits, instead of the standard 2 or 3.

Now I'm really confused.

So what would the old Vegas pioneers say about this new slot machine psychology, the diminishing comps, deteriorating service, and higher costs? I wouldn’t dare put words into their mouths, but I think they would disapprove. The desert oasis they dreamed of so many years ago has become highly commercialized and depersonalized.

I’m not sure they would bet on the house.

So the beat goes on in Las Vegas, and everywhere else, for that matter. Maybe these changes depict what’s happening all across America. Large conglomerates replacing small, service-oriented businesses, giving us less for more, more or less.

I guess what happens in Vegas doesn’t really stay in Vegas after all...

Dorothy and Peter even left, but not before they paid $9.00 for a chicken sandwich at the airport Burger King.


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