July 12, 2011

∴ Another Age for Vegas

Vegas is changing, again. We’re just back from a five-night stay at Mandalay Bay on the south Strip. Our accommodations were somewhat disappointing, but we found a few interesting places to explore, elsewhere in town, the next time we’re there.

We’ve been to Las Vegas several times. Between MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay, we’ve enjoyed plenty of pools, cold drinks and summer heat. Our first visit to Mandalay Bay was seven years ago, when it was a moderately upscale destination. The pool area was largely populated by adults, enjoying the sun. This time, though, we found that Mandalay Bay has become a haven for families with small kids, looking for a pool to splash in.

I don’t understand the logic of a young family vacation to Las Vegas. The parents can’t spend much time in the casinos, or at the bars, or splurge on a pricey meal. The kids have no entertainment other than the pool. I guess it’s cheaper than Disney World, though, since no-one can do anything that costs money.

Competition from newer, sleeker, adult-centric resorts has forced a change in direction for last decade’s centerpiece attractions. The new hotels all eschew the themed approach, instead offering refined dining, cocktail bars and quieter casinos in a refined atmosphere.

Aria, at CityCenter, is a good example. The casino slot machines are networked, and change their game based on what’s popular around the casino. There are no glaring floor coverings or loudly chiming slot machines. The casino is nicely carpeted and paneled, and the atmosphere is mildly sophisticated. It’s the antithesis of the bawdy, Downtown Las Vegas casinos of old. The restaurants are finely, yet accessibly appointed, and the buffet, long a staple of Las Vegas dining, is modestly upscale for an all-you-can-eat. The hotel possesses over 4000 rooms and a range of pool options. It sounds fancy, but not so upscale that the average adult would feel out of place.

We enjoyed a well-made cocktail at Vesper Bar, next door to CityCenter at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. It’s a small bar, tucked into a space across from an elevator bay, but its true niche is a wide assortment of old-school cocktails expertly mixed by a pair of barmen. What a terrific pit stop during the day, or an evening stop-off on the way to dinner. The rest of the public hotel areas, and the casino, were tastefully decorated.

Themed resorts, once the centerpiece attractions on the Las Vegas Strip, have nearly completed a rebranding. MGM Grand shed its family theme park over a decade ago, and the Wizard of Oz decor before that. The latest overhaul added several nice restaurants, and It’s now branded as the “City of Entertainment.” The green outer shell remains, however.

Luxor has shed its Egyptian theme and the costuming that went with it, opting for a more generic look. In some corners it even has a mildly Asian feel, but you have to look for it. The black pyramid architecture isn’t all that bad, when they don’t hang advertising on it.

Excalibur, well, they’ve shed the King Arthur thing, but they’re fairly well stuck with a castle architecture. Their casino was among the smokiest every time we visited, and we wouldn’t return if a walk from Luxor to the rest of the strip didn’t require a walk through their property.

As mentioned, Mandalay Bay is now a family friendly destination, so expect that if you’re interested in visiting their wave pool. They have a “private, adult, upscale and sophisticated day-club experience” at the walled-off Moorea pool area, meaning women may sunbathe topless and you’ll pay for both admission and rental of “day bed, opium bed and pavilion” seating. I guess that pays for the opium.

Even the venerable Tropicana, long adorned in head to toe pink, has been white-washed and awaits a redecoration. The Vegas Strip is slowly moving on from a mid-nineties family destination, back to an adult playground. Perhaps the hoteliers are taking a cue from Macau, which recently surpassed Las Vegas in gaming revenue.

Our next visit will likely be a start- or end-point to a driving vacation. We’ll be looking for a resort that prices out the splashers, because if I’m going to Las Vegas, I’m not looking for Disney World. Aria looks interesting. So does The Cosmopolitan, as do the twin resorts of Wynn and Encore.