In our last installment we checked out MGM Grand, the Tropicana, New York New York and Monte Carlo. Check the archives to read the complete series.
In this installment we visit the Aladdin, Paris Las Vegas, Bally's and Bellagio. A little something for everyone with a highly themed property, a struggling casino trying to regain traction, a giant from the old days and the Strip's best performing property. Lots of ground to cover, both good and bad in this installment... This one took many hours to write and edit - I apologize for the length. Here we go!
Oh boy... We could write a whole segment on the Aladdin and its many changes. Originally opened April 1st, 1966, it had the largest casino floor in Nevada. Since then the place has been leveled and rebuilt, gone bankrupt and sold. Sometime in 2006 it will be reborn as the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino. We're going to focus on the state of the property as it is today, and touch on some of the proposed changes coming when the conversion is complete.
Guestrooms - One thing they got very right here is the rooms. Fairly nice, spacious and never too far from an elevator. The bathrooms are large and the tubs are huge. Plus, they don't cost a fortune (see below for more on pricing). It seems like the hotel tower hi-rise got all of the design attention though, as you'll see from our discussion of the casino below.
Dealers/Casino Employees - The crew here are great. Friendly, helpful and talkative, these are the kinds of dealers you want to play from. What maybe makes this a little bit surprising is that the Aladdin isn't pulling in the Benjamin's and thus these guys can't be getting the amount of tips they deserve.
Price - Due to its mmmmm... limited success, shall we say, the Aladdin is usually a great deal when it comes to Center Strip properties, and a new one at that. Of course, this may change post remodel but as of now, it is usually a lot cheaper than its neighbors and the hotel is now managed by Starwood, so if you have points in their frequent rewards program, you can use them at the Aladdin.
Theater for the Performing Arts - It's the only concert venue of its size on the Strip. At 7,000 seats, it is not the cavern that is the MGM Grand Garden Arena but can still host large size acts. Expect this venue to be used quite a bit more as Planet Hollywood ramps up.
Buffet - The Aladdin buffet is pretty good. Better than most. Some say the best on the Strip but I still think the Bellagio's is much better. What this buffet does provide is a reasonable cost buffet that has some interesting choices. Not many of these all you can eat stuff-a-thons feature much Middle Eastern cuisine choices, so that's another distinction. It is in a claustrophobic basement, which isn't great... but once you get down there you don't even notice.
Exterior Design - Probably the worst thing about the joint (though the interior is pretty darn bad too), this is one of the main reasons this place has never done well. When walking the Strip past the Aladdin you have to climb steps and walk into the casino. This violates Las Vegas Casino Design Rule #1: People are lazy. Even if you ignore the poor pedestrian flow, the building is still just ugly. When you consider how much this place cost to build, it's bewildering how they got it so wrong. THERE ARE LARGE PLASTIC JEWELS AT THE TOP OF THE HOTEL TOWER. HUH? For a $1B+ property, their signage is pretty pathetic as well. I've always been amazed at how dim the letters are that spell out 'Aladdin' and that there isn't any signage at the top of the hotel. In my opinion the design flaws were totally avoidable. It wasn't a money issue, the problem was that its design was supervised by folks that hadn't done this sort of thing before and it really shows.
Interior Decor - It's basically just really tasteless. Again, the plastic jewels adorn the main support columns. What's with the plastic jewels? They are wretched, clearly conceived during some kind of drunken and depraved design orgy. Beyond that, there is a huge lamp in the middle of the casino... Okay, while it is pretty ugly, this is Las Vegas, not Paris, so we can't get too upset about the lamp - and hey, steam does come out of the top! I remember when this place was opening, reading about the 'beautiful electronic flowers that change color every few minutes'... Man, these things are terrible. It's like some kind of million dollar kaleidoscope that should be junked immediately. There are other offenders - the giant horses, the interior signage, etc... but it's really all the same problem. While I hope Planet Hollywood will clean this up, they will probably just replace it with the same disaster interior design that is standard in their restaurants.
High Ceiling in Casino - This is something I keep coming back to. I think this is a major design flaw in every casino that I have seen it implemented. It makes the place feel like an airplane hangar, not an energetic, happening gambling joint.
We're Not Sure
Most of the Other Restaurants - I had a very expensive meal at Tremezzo that was only average but I have friends that swear by Elements and since I haven't eaten there, I can't harp too bad. The Zanzibar Cafe is just average as 24 hour spots go - you can do a lot better elsewhere.
Pool - Sorta like Paris, nothing but a concrete hole filled with water. It's up above the casino so you don't have to walk through the slots in your bathing suit, which is kinda nice.
Aladdin Photos on Flickr.com: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lasvegas/tags/aladdin
Aladdin at RateVegas.com: http://www.ratevegas.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/VMGEngine.woa/wa/Vegas/Aladdin
Paris Las Vegas
Bonjour! Opened in 1999 at a cost of $785 million, the 2,916 room hotel includes a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. The designers of Paris Las Vegas made a lot of good choices and a few mistakes. Let's check it out.
Guestrooms - Nice sized rooms that are comfortable and tastefully decorated. Nothing too out of the ordinary but certainly not the kind of room that would make you open the door and shudder at the ghettoness.
Buffet - This buffet consistently gets very high reviews. While I think it is good, I don't rate it quite as highly as others do. Still, a wide selection of well prepared, fresh food served up in what is meant to feel like a Paris cafe.
Exterior Design - A very well executed theme. From the Eiffel Tower being built from the original plans to the incorporation of several Paris landmarks into the facade, this works really well, especially considering the plot of land it sits on is actually fairly narrow compared to neighboring resorts.
Interior Design - Another win. The casino is well segmented, which makes it much more interesting to explore. The ceilings aren't ten-thousand feet in the air and the support columns are disguised as trees. An interesting fact: the original plans called for a replica of the Seine River to flow through the casino. This was actually built but carpeted over and never filled. The bridge that leads to the Eiffel Tower observation deck would have spanned part of the river.
French Accents - When you leave your car at the valet, step out of your taxi or even your limo, the doorman greets you in French. Nice touch, you say to yourself. You reach the front desk and the gentleman with the thick Brooklyn accent mangles his own introduction in the language of love... Well, it doesn't stop there. The employees are required to greet you in French when they see you, answer the phone or drop off your bagel in the morning. It's a linguistic train-wreck of epic proportions and if management was smart, they would tone it down a bit.
Snotty Dealers - I wouldn't say this is an epidemic but on at least a half-dozen sessions in the casino I've been 'greeted' by some pretty surly dealers. I see the same thing next door at Ballys (see below), so perhaps its part of the training program? "Make sure you are as mean to the customers as possible! The miserable swine love it!" Any Caesars Entertainment employee want to send me a copy of the employee manual?
We're Not Sure
Pool - The pool is quite simply unremarkable. Nothing special about it at all...
Paris Photos on Flickr.com: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lasvegas/tags/paris
Paris at RateVegas.com: http://www.ratevegas.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/VMGEngine.woa/wa/Vegas/Paris
Bally's opened in 1973 as the original MGM Grand. Built by Kirk Kirkorian, it was the largest hotel in Las Vegas when completed. Sadly, a 1980 fire killed 85 people and the hotel was shut down. The hotel was repaired and re-opened in 1981. The hotel was sold to the Bally Entertainment Corporation in 1985 and the name changed first to Bally Grand and finally Bally's. Now a part of Caesars Entertainment, the hotel will soon be owned by Harrah's. Since it was built, Bally's has catered to higher end guests. Even with larger, more expensive hotels being built nearby, the hotel has held it's own against the competition.
History - A Las Vegas casino that is more than thirty years old and doesn't have a wrecking ball in the front yard! Amazing! This place was built as a pleasure palace for the rich and famous and has been fairly well maintained through the years. It's fun to walk through and get a taste.
Prices - Bally's typically offers a good value, not just for the rooms but for dining and entertainment as well. Also, getting an upgrade into one of their suites is not as impossible as it can be at some other properties.
Restaurants - Some good choices here, with the most opulent brunch buffet in Las Vegas. The Sterling Buffet, Sunday mornings in the steakhouse, offers caviar, crab, lobster and more. Granted, it is not inexpensive, but it ain't cheap either. Their 24-hour joint, the Sidewalk Cafe, is also a good bet.
Architecture - The original structures were designed by Martin Stern Jr., one of Las Vegas' most prolific architects. The massive porte cochere was a defining design element and that legacy continues to today's resorts. Also, the maze like interior design of interconnecting casino areas, restaurants and lounges was a pre-cursor to design techniques used today.
Dealer Attitude - Similar to Paris, the folks at Bally's don't always look so happy to be there. Despite the fact it was once the crown jewel of the Strip, let's face it... Today this is a mid-level property... In my mind that means the dealers and casino staff should be going the extra mile to get my dollar... Instead they seem hostile, which I just don't understand.
Bally's Photos on Flickr.com: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lasvegas/tags/ballys
Bally's at RateVegas.com: http://www.ratevegas.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/VMGEngine.woa/wa/Vegas/Ballys
I could probably write a whole series on Bellagio, one of the hotels I have studied the most closely since its opening in 1998. At the time, its designer Steve Wynn referred to it as the most amazing hotel ever built. If I had to sum up my feeling on Bellagio in a sentence I would say that there are a lot of wonderful things about the hotel but it still lacks a certain feel that Wynn wasn't able to capture. I'll try to elaborate a bit on that below... The key to appreciating Bellagio is looking at the little things, the details that show set it apart from other high end resorts in the city.
Fountains of Bellagio - A truly amazing feat of engineering and technology that can stir the emotions. If you visit Las Vegas and you haven't seen this, you're missing something fantastic. A crowning centerpiece of a marvelous accomplishment.
Exterior Design - Designed to look like a small Mediterranean village surrounding a lake, Bellagio is well thought out, tastefully executed and well landscaped. The parts of the operation required to make a resort of this size hum are hidden and even the back of house areas feature the same design choices. Wynn believes that treating employees well is the most important first step at guaranteeing quality service to guests.
Interior Design - This is an area where the hotel really shines. Not only do you have innovative ideas such as the Conservatory but you have a large scale art installation in the lobby (Dale Chihuly's Fiore de Como). The casino is well segmented and fun to explore. Beyond that, the place just feels good. Most of the visitors won't think twice about the pedestrian traffic, slot placement or access to key amenities but they will notice that the resort 'feels' accommodating and that is key. If you really want to experience Bellagio and appreciate the design, take a walk around the entire property. Not just the main casino floor... Do the entire back convention loop around the pool and into the new Spa Tower. You'll notice a lot of little things you didn't before, trust me.
Attention to Detail - The reason that Wynn succeeds again and again has nothing directly to do with volcanos, fountain shows or Cirque de Soleil. The secret to his success is that he pays very close attention to all the little details. Things can't be 'good enough', they have to be great... Everything has to exceed the customer's expectations and that is why people leave his properties and tell their friends about the great experience they had at Bellagio or The Mirage, etc...
Restaurants - Bellagio has some great restaurants. While all are good, there are a few standouts. Be aware that all are pricey, but if you're looking to treat yourself, this is a great place to do it. For Chinese, Jasmine is a real standout. The steaks at Prime aren't as good as Delmonico but they are still fantastic. FIX is one of the newest restaurants on property but they have some great food in a casual environment. Olives is great for lunch and the buffet is true decadence.
Conservatory - Granted, most folks take pictures of themselves in front of the flowers, the dancing water, or some of the large props but what none of those pictures capture is the SMELL.
Bars - Normally I wouldn't include a bar in the list but there is a notable item here. Two of Bellagio's bars, the Fontana and Baccarat Bars, both serve freshly squeezed fruit juice with their cocktails.
Missing 'The Magic' - I'll probably have a hard time explaining this but I'll give it a go... I think that The Mirage has a certain magic to it. It's very hard to quantify but it is a feeling of mystery, excitement and... well... magic. While Bellagio is a great place, it just doesn't have that feeling. It may be the fact that the property feels quite a bit larger... Maybe because there is so much more light at Bellagio or the wider walkways and brighter colors... Whatever it is, not all of the 'learning' that Wynn did when designing Bellagio was a good thing. It's a collection of grand public spaces but it doesn't feel as intimate as it could... or should.
Cost - This problem just keeps getting worse. Even with new room inventory, prices are going higher. When Bellagio opened, you could get rooms for less than $200. Now that price is a special weekend on the hottest day of the year when the roads from LA are blocked. It's crazy how high the prices are getting.
We're Not Sure
Pool - The pool is nice and fairly large but it isn't all that remarkable in my opinion. Like ever other Las Vegas pool, it is mobbed by 10am, so come early. For the top hotel in town, I still think the pool could be better than it is. It's not a draw for the resort. More like a checkbox on a list of included amenities.
Bellagio Photos on Flickr.com: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lasvegas/tags/bellagio
Bellagio at RateVegas.com: http://www.ratevegas.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/VMGEngine.woa/wa/Vegas/Bellagio
Next up: Caesars Palace, The Flamingo, O'Shea's, and the Imperial Palace.