Like a bad omen, January put Vegas in the national news for all the wrong reasons with a fire at the Monte Carlo. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt, but it was a portent for a scary year, a year marked by record-breaking plunges in tourist volume, the bankruptcy of the Tropicana and many other resort companies reeling from the fallout from a national recession.
This was actually surprising to many who believed Las Vegas, as conventional folk wisdom put it, was recession-proof. Still, even in a slow year Vegas offered plenty of new and exciting ventures.
The biggest event on the Strip this year is set to happen Monday when Steve Wynn opens the doors on his reported $2.3-billon Encore resort. His latest luxury hotel casino includes among its many high-end restaurants a nod to old Vegas with the restaurant Sinatra, a partnership with the singer's family.
Two major condominium hotel towers also opened this year. Both stand out by not including any table games or gambling machines under their roofs.
Palms Place (connected to the Palms casino) opened, followed by Trump (behind the now imploded New Frontier). Both have been scrambling to make good on sales contracts and close deals with prospective residents that were made before the credit crunch.
But at least these properties made it through construction. Donald Trump told me he has suspended his original plan to build a second tower next to the first Trump. Asked if he had any regrets about having no gambling at his Vegas property, the usually verbose Trump said: "No."
In terms of entertainment, the resort corridor overwhelmingly played it safe in 2008, a dispiriting development in a year that saw regular Vegas headliner George Carlin (fired by a few casinos in his day) pass away shortly after finishing a stand at the Orleans. Among the well known names with new shows: Cher and Bette Midler at Caesars and Donny and Marie at Flamingo.
The most anticipated show of the year was the collaboration between Cirque and new-wave magician Criss Angel. After a few delays, "Criss Angel Believe" opened on Halloween to terrible reviews. Cirque announced strong advance sales for its sixth Vegas show and there are plans in place to revise the show for 2009. The show is dark most of January because of cast rotations.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the relative success of "Jersey Boys" at Palazzo. After the quick closing of other Broadway-to-Vegas efforts, including "Spamalot" earlier this year, "Jersey Boys" (based on the lives and music of the Four Seasons) may have benefited from low expectations. Instead of quickly folding, the show is closing out the year going strong. The real test will come when it reaches its milestone first anniversary next May.
Of course, many shows could not survive the gloomy economy. After three years in Vegas, the critically acclaimed erotic show "Fashionistas" closed at Planet Hollywood. Also, the 40/40 club, a much publicized sports bar and nightclub owned by rap mogul Jay-Z that opened at Palazzo, was bought out and shut down by the resort. Also closed were the Star Trek Experience attraction and Quark's Bar and Restaurant at Las Vegas Hilton.
One Vegas attraction that has drawn a lot of attention in 2008 is the Erotic Heritage Museum. Located near the area of town zoned for adult entertainment and sharing a parking lot with a strip club, the attraction offers a surprisingly traditional museum approach to its chosen topic, including hosting movie screenings and live nude modeling.
In terms of changes on the Strip that visitors are most likely to notice, No. 1 is the recently reopened and revamped Mirage Volcano. Originally opened with the casino in 1989, the Vegas landmark spent most of 2008 being taken apart for the renovation. But earlier this month the volcano returned to life at a press conference attended by the mayor and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. Hart crafted a soundtrack, and the original design firm was brought back to add a lake of fire as well a bigger and more explosive volcano.
Interestingly, for a city that spends millions to put an attractive image in front of the public, there was truly only one story (check Google) that dominated all others in Sin City for 2008: the trial and conviction of O.J. Simpson for armed robbery and kidnapping at Palace Station casino. It turns out some publicity just can't be bought.
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