Mike is back with the final Strip Walk of 2008.
Yes, there's some more Encore stuff in here but most of the column is dedicated to the rest of The Strip - do not fear, Encore haters!
Enjoy. Main text and photo links after the jump.
I know somebody out there is dead tired of Encore stuff, so let' s cover everything else first. Be sure to poke around the photo gallery.
Here's the bar in the middle of the casino. It's possibly open by now. My visits to South Strip was done a few weeks ago, but freak snowstorms, a fall at home, and then casino openings kind of kept me from getting around back to see what's up.
The Titanic exhibit (IMAX) seems, on the outside, mostly ready. The entrance is a bit left of where it used to be. They've cleaned up the upside-down black pyramid-ish looking structure this exhibit lives in, though you can still sort of make out the shape of the themed entrance against the front wall. The smaller, motion-sim IMAX is totally shut down now, with all the signage and such removed.
Also, maintenance issue: The entrance area to Mandalay Place has a lot of bulbs not working. At first I thought they kept some lights out to keep the area from getting too bright, but there's no discriminable pattern.
Here's an awkward moment, and it's telling of Excalibur's indecisiveness regarding what it wants to be: seeing a big chair and Christmas tree in the castle's lobby set up for Santa photos, while women in skimpy clothes dance to Elvis and ZZ Top and stuff in the new party pit section just behind this. Santa was off duty at the time so there wasn't a swamp of kids around , but the whole holiday setup had this "hey kids!" look going for it, and just over the chair I can see a dancer shaking her buns at a blackjack table. All this in a casino shaped like a giant golf course castle. And that pretty much describes the Strip to a tee. Thank god a celebrity impersonator or a pair of newlyweds or a fake display of a million dollars didn't show up in there, or I might have blacked out from having too much Vegas in one space.
I noticed last month that the elevator area for Mandalay has been renovated, though only on the casino floor. The new look has that silver and dark woods look that I'd normally complain about as being overdone, but since THEhotel is right nearby and basically established this look on the Strip, you can't argue too much about it's use here. Anyway, since the basement/beach/pool level still has the old lobbies, I was able to make some comparison shots. Here's new and old hallways, and also doors (old, new). The wallpaper on the casino levels is dark. How dark? Well, I tried to take a picture of it and a lit-up sign, but the wallpaper barely turned out.
For those who are curious what this is, it replaces the light on the ceiling in this photo. I also hopped in an elevator to go back up to the casino and it was renovated, too. The old elevator had that kind of burnt orange wood paneling familiar at Mandalay and Mirage, along with an elaborate mold on the walls (there's a few photos of it on Flickr if you search for "Mandalay elevator"). The new elevators, well, this is a corner. Basic monotone panels, a simple aluminum bar, etc. I'm not sure what the room hallways upstairs look like (didn't bother to check), but again this is a break from the casino and it's Mirage On Steroids look. I suppose whether this kind of look is the right change or not depends on how you view THEhotel and it's connection to the tropical Mandalay resort. A redo isn't a bad idea if it makes the whole place look more cohesive.
I stayed here for Encore's opening night to be able to see the meet-up and opening. I complained about Mirage's rooms after I stayed there on my first trip to town eight years ago, and now they're great. Aside from the lack of HD channels on the HD flat-panel (acceptable way back when only Wynn offered HD locals, unacceptable now that P-Ho does and maybe others), it was great. The collection of ports at the desk was a great addition, though I wish the USB ports were a powered hub (in other words, you can't charge an iPhone off those USB ports, so you'll have to use the AC adapter and plug it into the regular power outlet instead.) If you have a group of one or two people, unless you simply must have a separate tub and shower, Mirage should be on your price comparison list.
Also, and I forgot to mention this in my review on Vegas Mate, the bed was one of the most comfortable hotel room beds I've ever experienced. Like Wynn, Mirage includes a catalogue of room elements you can take home, including the bed which is some kind of a Sealy Posturepedic. Though they don't have the air of exclusivity like Wynn's "Dream Bed" (which I've never been comfortable in) or Westin's Heavenly bed (which is really just an old model of Simmons Beautyrest with a price tag that's higher than the newer, better Beautyrests) I would take it over either.
I finally saw Mirage's new volcano, and it is quite a treat. I do sort of miss the subtle opening of the birds chirp as the waterfall fades to red lights and gives the water that river of lava look, but the show is pretty good as well. The water down the side is stopped so that fires can be lit around the crannies of the mountain side. Glowing lights (flames?) make for more impressive lava veins than red water. As before, orange and red water is sloshed around on top of the mountain along with the occasional blast of a big flamethrower (which still makes a fun "pssssheeeewwww" noise when it really blows.) What's new is the dancing flames in the pond around the mountain, which blow flames straight up in patterns with the new soundtrack.
There are a few issues. The most minor issue is that the first show I saw was canned for a breakdown. The soundtrack started up, but the mountain wasn't cooperating with no mist and no lights, and eventually with a SNAP! sound the whole thing stopped and the assembled crowd was treated to a rotating red light on the top of the mountain. More importantly is that all that fire really puts a strong scent of gas in the air. They try and cover it up with the artificial scent of a pina colada, but I believe this is mostly done at the big torches up top that were part of the original installation. The new torches down in the lake don't seem to have this, and once they take over the show from just after the opening to just before the finale, the tropical scents are overwhelmed with what really smells like a gas leak in any other setting. I'm not sure how flammable the area is, but if I was a smoker I'd probably hesitate to light up for a few minutes.
Finally, the soundtrack is really a bit loud. Anyone who has watched enough fountain shows at Bellagio knows that the speakers facing the street are much louder than the ones around the driveway sidewalk. The reason is to get the music to be heard above traffic noise, though often I can hear it just fine all the way across at Bally's. Mirage is doing this, too, though there's a lot less distance between the hotel rooms and the street in Mirage's slice of the Strip than there is at Bellagio's. Despite being almost 20 years old, the Mirage tower does an excellent job dampening out road noise (unless you have the window ajar, obviously) and keeps most of the volcano ruckus out. However, there were a couple moments when the midnight show, which I watched from inside the room, caused me to wonder if a companion was going to be woke up by all the roars. We weren't disturbed by the sound of anyone next to us, either. Anyway, the volume on the feature could probably go to the next number down and it would be perfectly enjoyable.
Check-in was walk up on Monday afternoon because they had a LOT of people working the registration desk. I asked for a room looking at another hotel. I said I know they charge more for volcano rooms, so I'm not asking for that, but if I could have a partial view of TI and the Trump, or a partial view of Caesars, or a view of SOMETHING other than the west side of town (I live there, after all.) I was told I had a "strip view room" which for some reason I interpreted as something facing north or south strip. Instead, I wound up with a volcano view. That was nice, though undoubtedly staying for a single night on a Monday made it easier for them to give me a bonus.
I had a lunch at BLT Burger. It's okay enough to do once. I suspect I shall drop by again, but I'll use the To Go window for a milkshake treat. The burgers weren't anything to write home about. Service was visible and flexible, having no problem with me adjusting my order a few minutes after I gave it. Possibly the nicest thing I can say is that I got help from a server who wasn't my regular server. As you may know, in a lot of Strip restaurants if your table's regular server has gone invisible from the dining area, getting any help is just about impossible as other servers will seem to deliberately avoid eye contact. Not here.
Just before the meet-up, I had a quickie dinner at Grand Lux Cafe. Before I go into it, a note of how I got here: we were sent coupons by the hotel for a 2-for-1 main course at the Sportsbook diner. Sounds good, but wait until you get there! In a oft-ignored corner of the property, underneath the registration desk, the sports book is not an energetic place. Lots of people lounging on couches eating plates off coffee tables, in the middle of the room a miniature theatre of raked seats watching projections of Monday Night Football. Everyone looked like their gaze was fixed to the screen, like some kind of parody of the 1984 commercial. A couple cocktail servers in cheerleader wear ran drinks around while other servers in referee uniforms leaned over the theatre pit watching the game. This is not really an enjoyable dining room. And it probably wasn't expected to be.
But the coupons worked, I suppose, as we decided to simply move on and pay full rate at the Grand Lux. We've eaten at the Venetian Grand Lux once before, and tried to on two other occasions but always left before getting our order taken. We were usually given a very small table in a very busy room, and would wait a while and not get served and leave. The place is just a bit too busy and the service is just a bit too inattentive.
This was not a problem at Palazzo's Grand Lux. I'm not sure if it's because the customers are halved with Venetian, or if Venetian is still busy and Palazzo just isn't as popular for some reason, but this much prettier space seems to have better workers. The dining room is nice though basically standard fare for a Cheesecake Factory. What's different is the windows looking out at Wynn's Tower Suites entrances. But, the chicken sandwich I had could have been much better than it was.
For some reason, on one day I visited every single door going inside except for one was closed off to clean the floor. This was shot on a Tuesday morning, so I guess if you're going to do this kind of thing at any time you'd do it then. Never seen it done while obstructing so much, though.
Walgreens at the Palazzo
As you may know, among the many things that used to live in the tract of land now consumed by Palazzo was that lobster restaurant where the guy holds a huge lobster. When it moved out, the marquee said "Walgreens to come soon in this space," but then that space became a massive crater for Palazzo's garage. Well, the Walgreens turned up after all, and it turned up in the St. Regis tower. Since this tower has been put on a sort of construction hold, this means that the entire building essentially exists to serve Walgreens.
Now this is luxury. What other AAA Five-Diamond resort offers candied delicacies for 99 cents, imported from Mexico no less? Can you fill a prescription at Encore? No, you can't. Can you buy a frozen pizza at Bellagio? No, you can't. The interior decorators have only just begun their work, and there's still no appliances in there, but if you look just to the right of the pharmacy (one must wonder: will there be a celebrity pharmacist's name attached?) you'll see a darkened hallway and I believe that is the entrance to the high limit room where item minimums are over $9.99.
But seriously, there is squat as far as chain store deals to be had up here on this part of the Strip (compare to Tropicana Ave where both sides of the road have a Walgreens and a CVS) so anyone else who joins me in going "it costs HOW much?" when wandering through the casinos can now buy a bottle of water for under $3. This is a Good Thing.
And, now, for something just slightly different. I ranted and raved in the last column about modern signage and dark interiors, and I think I've noticed some commonly used elements:
mike_ch's four elements of a Trendy Bar/Club/Lounge
1. Is the name of the establishment a single word? (numbers don't count as words, so minus5 or Pour24 is a single word)
2. Look at the sign at the entrance of the establishment. Is the typeface sans-serif?
3. Is the name written entirely in lower-case letters?
4. Does the sign at the entrance use glowing letters? (examples 1 and 2 and 3)
The more yes answers you have, the more likely it's Trendy. If you're developing or marketing a property, please don't use any more than one or two of these elements at a time! If you use more than two then you're trying too hard to be popular. To cite some specific examples, the Aurora bar at Luxor pictures in example #3 uses all four, as does minus5 in example #1. Planet Hollywood, by all standards a solid mid-range resort, uses all four of these for almost everything around the casino and their resort logo uses 3 out of 4 (the sign on the roof is illuminated normally.) P-Ho really kicks it up a notch, their slot card is even called "the a-list", which is the first time I've ever seen that phrase used with a lowercase letter a. Are a-listers not as important as A-listers?
Not surprisingly, both Luxor and the Ho are trying to become players in the post-theme Trendy Vegas. If you look around, you'll see bits of it at Mirage, too. And for some reason, almost anywhere you find glowy lettering, a dark interior is usually hanging around.
At last, Encore
Ah, this is the big story of the past few weeks, right?
I've written a lot of opinions about Encore already (go see it in the daylight because it's much better than at night, the red is nearly overwhelming) and much has already been said as far as the business, architecture, services, room quality, and innovations angles. So here's what I can add.
The meetings area is beautiful (no, the picture frame is straight, it's just my bad hands and camera positioning). In fact, it's REALLY beautiful. This area reminds me of Wynn's Tower Suites and old Bellagio together for all the right reasons. There's actually a light that isn't working in this photo and I did take a picture of it but decided to not publish it because to point it out on a place that had been open 12 hours seems just unfair. Yeah, I made fun of Palazzo's blue tape, but I wanted to start picking out flaws until after they had let the public into the shopping level (which took a couple weeks.)
Society Cafe is REALLY good. I'm sort of disappointed to hear in the last episode of The Strip that they're already looking at cutting another bar into some of it's space because right now it needs all the capacity it can get. Every time I've been by (a total of three visits now) there's always a line. I waited about 15 minutes to get a seat on Tuesday afternoon and had a great fish & chips meal for lunch. Some might say the amount of food included is kind of small but because they also served chips and pretzel bread, with dip. I'm not a big tartar sauce fan (I normally put vinegar on and leave it at that) but everything was so good that I got adventurous and tried the tartar sauce and that was great too. With a soft drink and tip the total cost was about as much as what I paid in total at BLT for a plain cheeseburger and a milkshake. Society's cheeseburger will cost three or four dollars more than you expect, but who comes to a hotel like this and orders a cheeseburger? Scratch that, the business guys at the table next to me did, and I have to say the onion ring was HUGE. As in, it could be mistaken for a donut.
Service is sublime. Now, this might just be for the meantime because of the opening and the attention it attracts, but the people working there right now are some of the friendliest and chattiest staff in town. On opening night I found the security guy I had a chat with in the last column, where we talked about what the casino would look like. He remembered me and reminded me that he was right about how the casino would be different from any of the themes in the connecting halls. A clerk at Home Store not only greeted me, but pointed out things about the merchandise to me and discussed the atmosphere of opening night.
The server (I think his name was Rick?) at Society deserves special mention; he went way beyond any other coffee shop server I've seen in town. Seriously, by Bellagio standards he was more suited to at least Sensi or Olives. Not that I've been to either of those two, but I've done the Buffet and Cafe there enough to know what the standards of service are like (here's a hint: the best cafe/buffet workers at Bellagio are usually the ones who have just started and are still thrilled to be working at Bellagio).
And honestly, though I've found service at Terrace Pointe to be really hit or miss (I'll never forget the two ladies who insisted on smoking up a storm in the non-smoking section, and the waiter who weakly told them it was non-smoking then left ashtrays for them which encouraged them to smoke more) the service at the Wynn hotels could practically be considered the main selling point. I never got a stare down for entering a store that sells things I clearly couldn't afford (maybe they were forgiving that on opening night), but instead got smiles. It's not like the Bellagio, where I can keep saying "excuse me, sir/miss" until the cows come home, but the uniformed employees speaking to each other won't give me the time of day. Or where the workers almost seem to groan when I do open my wallet for something, as though it's unfortunate that I'm now expecting them to pretend to care about me. The Wynn people probably have no idea why riff-raff like me is wandering their upper-class paradise, but they'll be as nice to me as anyone else. That's a huge improvement over the whole "okay, little man, you clearly don't belong here but I'll go ahead and amuse you by pretending for a minute that you do" attitude I get at Mandalay or Bellagio only after I've already committed to buying something.
A nice thing: A small bench, ideally suited for one person, in the little hall just entering the bathroom. It gives people waiting a place to be without violating anyone's privacy, and on opening night it allowed me to sit down for a bit without sitting at a slot machine or a bar. Keep in mind that I'm going off the mens room here, I'm not going to inspect the ladies' one for any touches.
Here's another touch: they bought some sort of beverage chiller for the sundries store, and it's right next to the cold drinks. At first I thought it was silly to pull drinks out of a cooler and stick them into another cooler, even if it was free to use. Then I left the festivities and went back to Mirage where I bought a bottle of water before heading up for the night, and couldn't find a cold bottle. Go figure.
[ED: Yes, I saw this too. The guy demonstrated it for me because I thought it was cool (pun intended). He chilled a room temp bottle of Chardonnay in about 5 minutes. Neat device.]
Having spent my gambling budget and with lunch taken care of, I did what I normally do for this column and hopped up on the Encore parking garage. I had a pickup coming in a few minutes, so I couldn't spend much time. I'll see what the view of the golf course (I doubt you can see the villas too well) is from here at another time, but here's Echelon and here's the roofline of the Wynn property, where workers seem to be working around the showrooms. That appears to be the Le Rêve showroom, and I'm not sure if they're doing some sort of renovating work or if they're just prettying up the nearby buildings for people looking at them from the pools.
[ED: They are adding a little detailing to improve the view from XS. Some fake trees, more Encore lattice work, etc...]
Some weirdness about the Encore garage: there's no elevator on the top floor, so if you park up top you have to take the stairs down to 7 and get in there. And for whatever reason, all the frames around the doors on the seventh floor look like this. And what I'm referring to is what looks like wear on the corners of the frame. I thought it was a deliberate attempt to look old until I stopped at other floors on the way down and didn't see it on the frames down there. The frames on each floor have a different shade, and the blue ones on one of them were as blue as can be. I guess I'll check back eventually and see whether they do something about this. Yeah, it's an incredibly nerdy thing to pay attention to. But if you didn't care about overanalyzing casinos you probably wouldn't be reading this column.
Are you following me on Twitter?
I don't like to self promote, especially something that often has a few details of my personal life, but if you aren't paying attention to my Twitter account, you may be missing a good deal of this column. Twitter was indispensable in allowing me to jot down quick thoughts during the 24 hours I spent covering Encore and Mirage, and though my updates were a small coffee table water feature compared to Chuck and Hunter's roadside dancing fountains show, I still got a few things that slipped through the cracks like the Society dessert menu. When I'm out getting material for this column I often jot down short notes that are expanded upon here. The rest of the time I might be complaining that it's too hot or talking about hobbies, but thems the breaks. So, if you aren't using Twitter, join up already. A lot of frequent posters here already do.
And that's it for 2008. What a year!