Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

Last time we visited Bellagio, Bally's, Paris and the Aladdin. Check the archives to read our complete series.

This time around we visit Caesars Palace, The Flamingo, Imperial Palace and Harrah's. We've got maybe the most famous property in Las Vegas history as well as one of the absolutely most important properties ever built on the Strip, plus some good value choices wedged in between. Let's start.

Caesars Palace

Caesars is the single most important property on the Strip. What do I mean by that? I'll try to explain. When Jay Sarno built Caesars Palace (and later Circus Circus), he pioneered the concept of the highly themed and integrated resort complex that shaped billions of dollars of investment up and down the Strip. Only recently, with the opening of Wynn Las Vegas, have we seen developers actively moving away from the idea of a identifiable theme.

Opening in 1966, the resort originally had less than 700 rooms (it now has 2,400 and will soon have 900+ more). It featured the 800-seat Circus Maximum theater, which before it was torn down 3 years ago to make way for new development, feature headlines like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The hotel now features the 4,000 seat Colosseum with regular performances by Celine Dion, Elton John and others.

The changes at Caesars over the past several decades could fill an entire article. As one of the most successful brands in gaming, it is one of the only 'original' properties that still exists in a viable form today - and it is expanding. The 900+ room Augustus Tower will open later in 2005 and is the latest in a round of improvements designed to re-establish the reputation of Caesars as one of the Strip's must-see resorts.

The next round of challenges will be undertaken by Harrah's, which is in the process of buying Caesars Entertainment and all of its resorts. The sale is expected to close later in 2005.

What's Good

Palace Tower Rooms - The most recent rooms on property (at least until the Augustus Tower opens), these are really the only rooms built to modern luxury standards. Spacious living space, large bathrooms and marble everything are the hallmarks of the offering - the most expensive standard room that Caesars offers. The mini-suites are especially great with even more space and some great views of the lake at Bellagio (or the parking lot if you aren't so lucky).

Original Casino Nostalgia - Not many of the original spaces remain. Funnily enough, the first thing most guests see is the original 1960s casino, even though walking 10 feet in any direction will take you to revamped areas. These original spaces are lot of fun to visit - you really feel like you are going back in time. The only other spot on property that dates back close to that far is Cleopatra's Barge - let's hope they don't bulldoze that anytime soon.

Restaurants - While most of the restaurants at Caesars are just good and not great, there are a few standouts that rise above. These include the Mesa Grill from TV chef Bobby Flay. Even only a few days after opening, this place was firing on all cylinders and I can recommend it to all looking for steaks with a twist (filet crusted in espresso beans?). Beyond that, Bradley Ogden gets very high marks for some excellent food in a cool looking room. Of course Caesars has its own versions of all the casino standards (steakhouse, coffee shop, Chinese, Japanese and Italian). Nero's, with steaks and seafood, is a very safe choice for consistently good food and service. One of the better 24 hour coffee shops in town is Cafe Lago, which as the name implies is located by the pool.

Shopping - The original Las Vegas Strip mega-mall is still the most important. The Forum Shops offers the best range of choices despite new competition from the Venetian's Grand Canal Shops and Mandalay Place. All of the standard options are here, as well as quite a few high end boutiques and some great food choices. A recent expansion brought dozens of new shops along with Joe's Stone Crab, Steaks and Seafood which is a fantastic place to grab lunch.

What's Bad

Older Rooms - While the Palace and Augustus Tower rooms are up to level of the Mirage's, Bellagio's and THEHotel's of the Strip, most of the rooms in the complex range from the late 60s to mid-70s. What this means is that the rooms are small with some 'funky' decor, despite some attempts to upgrade. The resort usually offers these rooms at much lower prices than Palace Tower rooms so if you're looking for a deal, this can be a good place to start.

Casino Service Problems - The first time I thought it was just an isolated incident... By the fourth time, there was no denying that this is a pattern and it is getting worse. The dealers seem disenchanted. Perhaps they're worried about upcoming changes when Harrah's buys the joint. Maybe they didn't like the A&E TV crews running through the place while filming their reality show 'Caesars 24x7'. It could be they are just as sick as everyone about the endless construction on property. Whatever the problem, it needs to be fixed. No one likes to lose money in a place where the dealers are rude and sometimes downright mean. When I bet a 2-way for you guys, I don't like being told that you are 'too busy' to make change for my quarter, especially when I am one of three people on the table. The phrase 'I don't get paid to do that' should never be uttered by any service employee in any industry.

Lack of Cohesive Design - While it may sound like a secondary concern, this is a huge problem. When the resort was originally built, foot traffic on Las Vegas Blvd. was virtually non-existent. People drove between casinos, they didn't walk. To respond to that, the resorts dedicated a huge amount of space to parking and in the case of Caesars, that space was in front of the resort. Over time, that space has been reclaimed for new additions and other uses. This means that Caesars is set extremely far back from the Strip, forcing long walks in. Beyond that, hotel elevators are located all over the various parts of the property, which can be confusing for some guests and means long distances between restaurants, the pool and the lobby. Caesars never had a master plan and it shows. With each new owner came architectural and design changes with limited regard for previous efforts. It's sort of the Picasso of casino layout and design - which isn't a good thing in this case. Short of razing the place and starting over - which ain't happening anytime soon - not much can be done.

We're Not Sure

Augustus Tower - The new 949 room tower features a mix of standard guest rooms and various types of suites. While rooms will be larger than most in Las Vegas, I'm not expecting to be blown away by the designs or luxury amenities. The bottom line is that Caesars is always sold out. Thus they are building more rooms so they can offer some rooms at sane prices and keep more gamblers on property. That's the motivation, not a grand scheme to improve the feel of the property in any grand way.

New Management - Harrah's is great a marketing to low and mid level gamblers and using technology to do it as efficiently as possible. They don't have a good track record in courting or maintaining high level play. When they bought the Rio in 1999, high end play (and all revenues) plummeted. We'll see if things are different with Caesars but my gut is that they just don't 'get' high end play... And with hot rumors of Caesars head Mark Juliano thinking of heading to Wynn Las Vegas, it sounds like the problem may be even more acute.

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The Flamingo

The Flamingo might be the most historically misrepresented Las Vegas casino. It's also probably the most famous. The legend claims the resort was the brainchild of Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel, who dreamt of building a palace in the desert. The real details of the hotel have been explained over and over, so I won't go into it but rest assured that Siegel only took the project over after Hollywood Reporter owner Billy Wilkerson ran out of money and was forced out. Since then the hotel has gone through a half dozen owners and almost as many expansions and remodels. At one point it was even a Hilton property... These days none of the original structures remain so if you're looking for Siegel's ghost you'll have to head to Beverly Hills.

What's Good

Signage - One of the best neon signs out there, it's always fun to check out and to photograph.

Pools - Fortunately for the Flamingo, its pool was a bit ahead of the times - which is good since no significant capital has been infused since it was built. Based on a tropical theme, some still consider this the best in Vegas. I think that's a serious stretch but it is still a force to be reckoned with. If tropical lagoons are your gig, Mandalay Bay and The Mirage are still at the top of the heap.

Location - One of the best positioned properties on the Strip. Not only are you next door to Bellagio, Bally's, Caesars and more, the hotel has a monorail stop. It's a to-die-for location right in the middle of the action.

Prices - The hotel usually offers some very competitive prices, especially given the location and the pool. Due to that fact, it fills up quick so if you want to stay here, book early.

What's Bad

Rooms - Motel Six circa 1985. Medium to small sized rooms, many with frayed, stained carpet. Recent renovations helped but it was just a quick brush over - no walls were moved. Fortunately, they do have in-room safes, which is a step ahead of many mid-range Strip properties.

Most of the Food - The choices at the Flamingo are all about the same - middle of the road. You won't find any interesting dining here and you will find some things I recommend you stay away from. The buffet is a bit sketchy - better choices are nearby at Bellagio, Paris and The Mirage. You can get decent food here. You can get good to great food at neighboring properties.

Maintenance/Upkeep - This place is really rundown and its getting worse. The casino is desperately in need of new carpet and signage as part of a general 'sprucing up'. Based on the location, this place should be hopping with a wide range of customers. Instead it is only 60%-70% full and the customer base is mostly 50+, well above the range I would expect. It's clear that Caesars and Paris have gotten all of the money for improvements in the past few years and the Flamingo has been allowed to wither a bit. It's not irreversible, they can fix this. Maybe new owner Harrah's will fix her up... I still expect the Flamingo brand to continue at this location due to the strong historical implications. If Harrah's re-brands a property to a Horseshoe, I expect the Las Vegas property to be Bally's, not the Flamingo.

Health Issues? In 2004 the hotel suffered a major virus outbreak that resulted in over 1,200 guests and employees getting sick. When this type of thing happens on a cruise ship, my immediate reaction is that the place just isn't being cleaned like it should. While we'll probably never know exactly what happened at the Flamingo, and it hasn't happened since, this kind of stuff leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I guess it can happen anywhere... but it DID happen here.

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Imperial Palace

Ralph Engelstad purchased the land that is now the Imperial Palace in 1971. Originally the Flamingo Capris, it wasn't until 1979 that the name was changed and the oriental theme introduced. One of the most notorious news items associated with the hotel involved Engelstad's obsession with automobiles. Apparently he owned several cars that belonged to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and had created a 'war room' in dictator's honor. The Nevada Gaming Control Board fined Engelstad $1.5 million for his bad taste in regards to his display of the Nazi propaganda, stating that it displayed the state in a bad light. Engelstad, one of the last independent owners on the Strip, died in 2002. The long term fate of the hotel is unknown. While focusing on the medium level customer, it is profitable and well financed. Still, it may prove too tempting an acquisition target for nearby Harrah's.

What's Good

Prices - The IP not only offers great mid-Strip prices but they are liberal with their comps. If you put in any reasonable amount of time at the tables or the slots, they will offer you something. Never be afraid to ask.

Legends in Concert - One of the best values for entertainment on the Strip. This is a show of celebrity impersonators and they do a great job of nailing it. If you're looking for something that is fun and inexpensive, give Legends a look. It's also a great time with a bit group of folks.

Embers - The steakhouse at the IP is a surprise hit. Some very good steaks served up at famously low Las Vegas prices. Between this and the Circus Circus Steakhouse, we have the two best value steak options on the Strip... And fortunately, you don't have to sacrifice quality. This is a good choice.

What's Bad

Buffet - Fairly lethal. It's gotten a bit better but if you value your GI tract, stay away. If a total body purge is your idea of a vacation, line up and swipe your credit card.

River - This place is built on top of the Flamingo Wash and when it rains, the parking garage literally turns into a river. If you're here during a rainstorm, be aware of this problem.

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Harrah's corporate history is a bit convoluted. Started by Bill Harrah in Reno, then merged into Holiday Inn, it was eventually spun off and is now poised to become the largest gaming corporation in the world with its acquisition of Caesars Entertainment closing this year. Based on that, it is no surprised that Harrah's Las Vegas on the Strip used to be a Holiday Inn itself. The neighborhood has changed quite a bit since then and Harrah's is no exception. A 1,000 room expansion was unveiled in 1997, maximizing on the limited amount of acreage the resort has available. These days the featured entertainment is acclaimed Strip headliner Clint Holmes, filling the showroom each night with screaming fans.

What's Good

Location - Across the street are The Mirage, Caesars and Treasure Island while the Venetian sits next door and Wynn Las Vegas just down the street. Hard to argue that this isn't a great spot, especially as the epicenter of the Strip begins to move North.

Prices - Like the IP, Harrah's usually offers good prices and reasonable comps. While the comp picture seems to have been getting less rosy, you'll still find more action than across the street.

Dealers - Some of the friendliest and most fun dealers in town. This is consistently true, trip after trip. If you want a fun time at the tables, play at Harrah's. They'll entertain you (in a good way) while you lose your nest egg.

Entertainment - Clint Holmes is good. What's funny is that almost no one knows who he is. Kinda like Danny Gans, one of those guys that packs them in night after night but outside of Vegas, can't be recognized.

What's Bad

Upkeep/Maintenance - In general, Harrah's knows its market very well. It is not a luxury property and it doesn't try to market itself that way. Still, everyone likes some new carpet, drapes and fixtures. Those kinds of renovations, just like that certain rug, really bring the room together. Go for it dudes.

We're Not Sure

Carnival Court - Some folks love this outdoor bar. It's a bit too college frat party for me most of the time but who am I to judge (it's not like I have a blog full of judgments). No matter what I think, this place has live music most nights and it is outside, which is a nice break from the claustrophobic catacombs of most nightclubs.

Merger With Caesars - I personally don't think this makes anywhere near as much sense as the MGM Mirage/Mandalay merger that was just completed. Those properties clearly have synergies and operational efficiencies to be gained by merging and aim at similar markets... The Harrah's/Caesars properties seem to come from opposite ends of the stratosphere (no relation to the large tower that darkens the Northern end of the Strip). Not that they can't make this work - they might be able to - but if the Rio experience is an indicator, this will be tough for them.

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Next Up: The Mirage, Treasure Island, The Venetian and Wynn Las Vegas


Read archived comments (7 so far)
May 17, 2005 3:48 AM Posted by Brian

Another great rundown, Hunter. However, you had mentioned that O'Shea's was going to be part of this column......I can't believe the glaring omission of this vital property from your review (LOL)!!

May 17, 2005 8:19 AM Posted by Hunter

You got me... I decided only to include properties that have integrated hotel components... So, I nixed it.

May 17, 2005 8:31 AM Posted by detroit1051

I sure agree with you that Caesars Palace doesn't have a cohesive design. I never feel "at home" there in the casino or any of the public areas. The new Roman Plaza at the corner of Flamingo and the Strip was a big disappointment when I was there in March. Instead of having gardens and grass, it's all concrete and not very appealing.
The parking structure is not as convenient as it used to be. Before it was expanded, I could head straight for the roof and park near the elevators to the casino. Now, you've got to take a circuitous route to get to the same rooftop elevators.
The high limit slot area was moved to a new area. It doesn't have the "feel" of similar areas in the MGM Mirage properties and looks bland and uninteresting.
The Colosseum is very practical but the exterior looks out of proportion and ugly.
The Forum Shops expansion is well done. If it hadn't been for the Forum Shops over the years with all the traffic it generates, Caesars may not have made it at all.
The revolving door ownership has added to the property's problems.
Thanks for the write up and photos. Very interesting.

May 17, 2005 2:16 PM Posted by socalduck

Nice rundown. I've had a similar experience at Caesar's. The craps pit used to be one of the best in town, but the over the last 2-3 years the atmosphere has really changed, and not for the better.

You were way too kind to the IP. It's not a bad place to play, and they are relatively loose with the freebies. However, the place has a lot of problems. My list of gripes includes the weird Chinese/Japanese/Polynesian theme, the dated rooms, the pathetic pool, and arguably the slowest elevators in Nevada. The IP's great location and proximity to the monorail will help it soldier on for a few more years, but I would be surprised to see this property make it beyond the end of the decade.

May 17, 2005 5:31 PM Posted by Brian

Hunter, they have pictures of the insides of the rooms in the Augustus Tower (opening in late August) on the Caesars website......look quite nice! Looks like they're running about $50 more per night than the Palace Tower rooms.

June 4, 2005 12:22 AM Posted by JMAN

I can personally vouch that the norovirus at the Flamingo was due to a convention in town as the illness was confined to the meeting rooms in question. I can also personally verify that the hotel was not the only property to have the norovirus - we were just the ones who were brave enough to admit it in public. The hotel underwent a cleaning and maintenance program that should be the model for every strip hotel. I strongly agree with you about lack of capital expenditures. The property is literally the most profitable of the Caesars Entertainment Las Vegas portfolio (mainly because the hotel has long been paid for) yet money goes over to Caesars when it should be spent "at home" fixing up the former Fabulous. Hopefully the new bosses will fix that problem. I also agree with your assessment of the Horseshoe brand being targeted towards Bally's. A rumor I heard was that Harrah's did a study and found that the Flamingo was the second most recognized name in gaming (after Caesars) so hopefully the Flamingo name - and its history of it - will remain.

July 16, 2005 7:08 AM Posted by detroit1051

Well, Mark Juliano didn't go to Wynn, but he is going to work for Trump. I agree with Hunter's comments that Harrah's doesn't understand high-end play. Caesars Palace will most likely drop another notch now. Certainly not in the same league with Bellagio and Wynn. Too bad. Here's the link to the Review Journal story on Juliano: