LAS VEGAS — Aside from the Regis Philbin slots, underdressed cocktail waitresses and overpriced room service, there's one thing that every hotel on or near the Las Vegas Strip has in common: a pool. Or, in the parlance of the resort business, a "water feature."
But not all water features are created equal in Las Vegas. Some are inventive expanses with sandy beaches, waterfalls and bubbly hot tubs. Others are mundane, obligatory water-filled holes in the ground that reflect little of the kitschfor which Las Vegas is famous.
Despite the reams of type produced about a city that greets more than 30 million tourists annually, I've never read a comprehensive examination of the most important part of the daytime experience when visiting this city of 110-degree afternoons.
We decided it was time somebody compared them, and we were just the people for the job.
What you find here are the opinions of a 29-year-old pool aficionado and six-year resident of Vegas and my 12-year-old "little brother" Jamie Koch, whom I mentor through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program. It wasn't hard to hook Jamie on the project: He's so addicted to water features that his eyes sparkle when he sees a fountain at the mall.
Our one-month study, completed in August, spanned 20 pools on and near the Strip. We applied a set of criteria that included the tangible and intangible. Did this water feature display any innovations? Did it fit the hotel's theme? Was it any deeper than the typical 3 to 4 feet of most Strip pools? Did it meet the expectations of a new resort? Was it clean? Was the layout logical or clever? What were the lifeguards' attitudes? Did they look bored? Was the pool "swimmable"--meaning, did it invite us to jump in, and was the water temperate?
Almost all the pools topped out at 4 feet and not one had a diving board, presumably an insurance liability issue. (One lifeguard at Luxor confided that his most frequent reason for diving in was to rescue drunken guests.)
The resorts' pools are not typically open to locals or non-guests. In many cases, as at the ultra-exclusive Venetian, Bellagio, Four Seasons and Mandalay Bay resorts, we went with friends who were guests and who invited us. Other times we just walked in. In theory, at the pool's towel desk, guests are expected to show the staff a room key as proof that they belong, but in some cases we passed by with a smile and a nod.
Only two hotels--the Mirage and the Hard Rock--were so strict that there was no way to visit them, so we omitted them from our survey. Although we couldn't even glimpse the Mirage's pool from the entrance, we did get an eyeful of the sensational sandy beach-like spread at the Hard Rock (which issues wristbands to guests for entrance) and guessed it would have ranked high in our study.
We omitted other hotels on the Strip on mere whim, including Bally's because it always struck us as a dull hotel, and Circus Circus because the pool is tiny, crowded and not worth the ink.
Of course, there were thrills with the unexpected: The Flamingo, which bests all its new, billion-dollar neighbors with slides, waterfalls and live animals. The otherwise dull Tropicana, which overachieves with a swim-up blackjack bar. And Caesars Palace's topless Venus pool, which obviously offers its own specialist appeal.
The scene: Who knew one of the oldest and least elaborate casino-resorts on the Strip would have a backyard so big, so lush and so much fun? The network of water slides would have been enough, but there is also a second pool with a pounding 14-foot waterfall and a third, more conventional and sedate pool for those seeking a calmer atmosphere. Even that last one is clever, with 10-foot-tall concrete pink flamingos elegantly and quietly spitting water out of their beaks. Live flamingos and African penguins are on display in the garden, a one-minute walk from the water area. Easy access for locals too, because there's no one checking IDs.
Jamie says: "We'll be back. Awesome."
Swimmability: 10. Is a flamingo pink? Dive in.
Price of a Coke: $2.50
Price of a rum and Coke: $4.50
Mandalay Bay: A+
The scene: As we treaded water in the 7-foot-deep pool waiting for the waves to start and sweep us to the sandy beach, we wondered: Why didn't anybody think of this before the Mandalay opened in 1999? There are also a lazy river, two more conventional pools and one that had only adults in it. Lifeguards seem happy, vigilant and alert, a rarity anywhere on the Strip. Wet 'n' wild it's not, but for a resort trying to live up to its South Pacific theme, this place makes a heck of a splash.
Jamie says: "Just three more waves, OK? Please?"
Swimmability: 10. You can't enjoy a good tsunami without getting very wet.
Price of a Coke: $2.50
Price of a rum and Coke: $5.25