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All Articles for Category: Stripping (Reviews)

May 4, 2011

April 2011 Trip Notes (Cosmopolitan, et al)

Posted by Hunter

Some notes from my trip, now two weeks past:

- Hotel: Stayed at Cosmopolitan and tried their lowest end room product, the City Room (which I believe is the only room offered with two beds). I took my brother along on this trip, who is 29. This was his first experience at the Cosmopolitan and he absolutely loved it. Everything from the design, to the room to the pool - right up his alley. It was interesting to see the place through someone else's (significantly less jaded) eyes.

- Cosmo: Generally, things went well. The room was clean and we got in right way. I visited the spa and while I appreciated the design, the attendant allowed towels and used cups to stack up all over the place and they didn't have any combs or brushes for your hair. Weird. In the casino, I was informed that none of the bars have Stolichnaya Vodka (they have flavors but not the normal stuff). It's such a common brand, that seemed odd to me as well. Service was pretty good throughout the resort. Friendly workers and lots of curious folks wandering the property. I didn't see a lot of gaming action.

- Food: Hit some places I'd already been or had been recommended to me: China Poblano (twice - so good), Tacos al Gordo (near Encore ; very good taco stand style - highly recommended. It seems their new Strip outlet was a surprise to some based on the Twitter reactions), Steak and Shake (South Coast ; was fun and worthwhile but the line was loooooong). Drinks at Sinatra where we had a long talk with the bartender - he'd actually served The Chairman long ago.

- CityCenter: Took my bro through CityCenter for the first time. He's an artist and really appreciated the work they've installed around the campus. He didn't care for The Crystals very much though ("this place is a disaster. WTF?")

- Construction: Ruffin is removing more of the TI lagoon to add a Starbucks and some sort of margarita debacle. The area being torn up is the southern tip, between the porte-cochere and the front of the hotel. Further down The Strip, the Tropicana is looking more 'finished' - less jarring moments as you move from a renovated part of the hotel to one that hasn't been touched. At Cosmo, Blue Ribbon was having it's floors replaced (it's since re-opened) - in talking to employees, it sounds like it was pretty dramatic when that pipe broke (I can't believe we haven't seen any random customer video). The Sugar Factory at Paris is just as ugly as I expected it to be.

- Sahara: Went by for what might be the last time. It was medium busy in the casino but the employees looked pretty sad and tired. Being in there was a bit of a bummer but I'm glad I got the opportunity to take some pictures.

- Crowds: This was a Tuesday and Wednesday night but it was crowded. There were people everywhere. Nice to see.

- Vegas Video Network's Pub Crawl: On Wednesday, I went to a taping of Pub Crawl at the Vegas Video Network studio. This was a lot of fun and if you're a fan of the show, you should consider it on your next trip. Everyone was super friendly and they're a laugh riot. Bring booze.

I took a load of photos. They're available here in case you want to see them.

I love big cities. I'd much rather ride a subway than sit on a beach. I love museums and cultural events, great restaurants and urban activity.

New York is one of my favorites. If I had to live outside the US, I'd probably settle in London. I've been lucky enough to see Cairo, Jerusalem, Rome, Paris, Chicago, Istanbul and much of the rest of the world. Great cities are complicated, charming, messy, crowded, contradictory... and wonderful.

MGM Mirage is trying to replicate the best bits of those experiences in a new project opening soon on the Las Vegas Strip - CityCenter.

This past week, your humble host was given the opportunity to tour part of this new hospitality complex - 67 acres at the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, located between Bellagio and Monte Carlo.

My experiences on that tour are after the jump - enjoy. CityCenter will be a hot topic of discussion for months if not years. I can't wait until you all can share your own thoughts.

Update: We're not allowed to publish the actual map but Chuckmonster traced a copy and posted it on VT. This is the casino level and includes much of the stuff I saw on this tour. His version looks identical to the 'real' one. Enjoy.

February 4, 2009

Encore Las Vegas - January 2009

Posted by Hunter

After spending a few more nights at Encore in the middle of January, I'm sharing some more of my thoughts after the jump.

Along with this, I am still working on editing some additional audio that was taken during various media tours - a substantial job given the varying quality of the source material.

Continue on for a little bit more about Encore.

We've been alluding to our upcoming coverage for the opening of Wynn's Encore for some time and now we're spilling the details.

I'm proud to announce that we're teaming up with my esteemed colleague, Mr. Chuck S. Monster of to bring you coverage that will be the next best thing to being there.

We will both be 'twittering' (or is it 'tweeting'?) via Twitter, posting copious amounts of photos on Flickr and recording our observations for what I'm certain will be multiple blog postings. You can post your questions to our Twitter streams and we will do our best to answer them right from the casino floor.

To make it easier on your inner-Vegas-addict to keep up with everything, we're compiling it all in one place:

That's your one stop shop for all things Encore. The page updates itself so when the gates open, you can sit back and let the sweet nectar flow. See Chuck's note on browser compatibility here. His recommendations are seconded from this corner as well.

There's been some talk about doing a special 'Vegas Gang' episode and while the logistics of how possible that will be are not yet clear, rest assured that we will be getting everyone's opinion on Encore out to you as soon as humanly possible.

January 23, 2008

Palazzo Las Vegas - Opening Weekend Thoughts

Posted by Hunter

Palazzo is the finest hotel ever built in Las Vegas - Las Vegas Sands In-Room Magazine

"Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." - Red Faced Guy

I was in Las Vegas at the end of December on a trip that was supposed to coincide with the soft opening of The Palazzo, the first major property to open on the Strip since Wynn Las Vegas in 2005. Of course, we know how that turned out - Las Vegas Sands postponed the soft-open for a few days and by the time guests were walking through, I was back at home.

When another excuse for a trip popped up, this time coinciding with the 'real' opening of The Palazzo, the credit card was primed and ready. I reserved a standard 'suite' for two nights at a rate of about $300/night. I've been a critic of The Venetian in the past but I really wanted to go into this past weekend without pre-judging the property... at least that was my goal.

Keep reading after the jump for my thoughts on The Palazzo, some comparisons to other properties, and some specific notes on the photos.

Photo gallery:

Howdy folks! As a quick aside, I meant to do a podcast tonight but it didn't happen - sorry!! I'm shooting for the weekend and from then on, probably every 7-10 days. Thank you for being patient. There's clearly a lot to about.

I am planning on being in Las Vegas at the end the month, just for a weekend, to tour and document the progress at CityCenter's preview center - thanks to MGM MIRAGE for any access. From what I'm told, the preview center is amazing - I look forward to sharing with everyone... Expect photos to follow.

Regarding Wynn Macau, their 'Diamond Suites' project, located on the property edge near the future MGM Grand (with its neat/original curtain wall design), is a new hotel tower with the aim to up their room inventory as the company also looks into possibilities on Cotai Originally, Wynn Macau had something akin to a phase '1b', which was supposed to expand the casino floor, add a showroom and a new 'front feature', all to open in early 2007. This front feature is some kind of special effects room that Wynn says will 'blow us all away'.

Given that the public spaces are now going to be more aligned with the 'Diamond Suites' areas, they have been delayed until later this year. The 'Diamond Suites' tower is still 18 to 25 months out, though no specific dates have been announced. Some of the new tables and slots will open for the celebration of Chinese New Year, which is also coming to Las Vegas in a few weeks.

Ok, and last, MGM MIRAGE has new renderings of both CityCenter and MGM Grand Macau in their latest financial presentation. Very interesting shots that really show how the new buildings will interact with each and specifically "NOT" interact with neighbors.

MGM Mirage Financial Presentation 1/2007

I realize this was long winded - sorry. I hope everyone is doing well. Photos will follow in this space.

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It's been awhile but our faithful readers will remember that the last time we met we covered Caesars Palace, Harrah's, The Flamingo and the Imperial Palace.

Sorry for the delay loyal readers. Since we last me the blog has been redesigned and another blog author, detroit1051, has been added to help fill your need for Vegas dirt. In this installment we take a look at The Mirage, Treasure Island, The Venetian and Wynn Las Vegas - three of which were built by Steve Wynn.

Disclaimer: I own some stock in both Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands (but not MGM MIRAGE)... I think that you'll find my reviews 'fair and balanced' but in the spirit of full disclosure...

STRIPPING continues after the jump...

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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.

Photos, More Information and Hotel Booking (support this site!):

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.

Photos, More Information and Hotel Booking (support this site!):

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.

Photos, More Information and Hotel Booking (support this site!):


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.

Photos, More Information and Hotel Booking (support this site!):

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

May 9, 2005

Great Stuff Coming

Posted by Hunter

I'm expecting a whole series of great new posts coming in the coming weeks and months, including:

  • What's Wrong With Wynn Las Vegas - Our letter to Steve.
  • MGM MIRAGE + Mandalay = What's next?
  • An Introduction to Sports Betting - this is the first article by a guest author, soon to be named.
  • Project CityCenter - Will it Really Change Las Vegas?
  • High Rise Condo Buying Guide
  • Stripping: Caesars Palace, The Flamingo, O'Shea's, Imperial Palace and Harrah's
  • The Best Las Vegas Hotel Web Sites
  • What Casino Offers The Highest Return on Investment in Las Vegas?

Plus a lot more. I'm having a great time writing this stuff and this is just the beginning.

Love writing? Love Las Vegas? We're looking for contributors. Feel free to contact us at:

April 11, 2005

STRIPPING: Aladdin, Paris, Bally's and Bellagio

Posted by Hunter

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!

Aladdin/Planet Hollywood

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.

What's Good

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.

What's Bad

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
Aladdin at

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.

What's Good

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.

What's Bad

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
Paris at


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.

What's Good

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.

What's Bad

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
Bally's at


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.

What's Good

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.

What's Bad

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
Bellagio at

Next up: Caesars Palace, The Flamingo, O'Shea's, and the Imperial Palace.

Last time we visited Mandalay Bay, Luxor and Excalibur in our walk down the Las Vegas Strip. That first column generated a lot of responses so we're back with the next installment.

This time around we're going to check out four casinos which range in age from the 50s to mid-90s... Let's get started!

The Tropicana

The Tropicana opened in 1957 and is one of the last remaining 'original' hotels on the Strip. It's had quite a long and important place in Las Vegas history but this ain't school so we'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Since it's opening, the hotel has been remodeled and expanded several times. It currently features over 1,800 guest rooms and is owned by Aztar Corporation. If you haven't visited the Trop before and it's on your list, you had better hurry... The place is unofficially scheduled to be imploded and re-developed in the next year or so.

For a resort almost 50 years old, the place has aged fairly well. The casino is a typical Vegas job of about 30 years ago. Low ceilings in most sections, large chandeliers, and friendly dealers. This place was built as a super-luxury joint and much of that craftsmanship is still evident. The don't make 'em like they used to and the casino at the Trop is a great example of that. One complaint - Corona bottles don't fit in the drink rack at the craps tables! Who the hell designed that?

The hotel is made up of two hotel towers, of which the Paradise Tower is preferred - it's held up better over the years. No matter what you do, avoid the garden rooms. They are part of the original motel structure and are ragged. For a property at this price level, the pool is great. It's pretty large and there are multiple waterfalls that make it a pretty great place to hang out and have a cocktail, plus they sometimes have swim-up blackjack in the summertime.

In general we recommend checking out the Trop as a piece of history that will no doubt be gone soon. It's hard to harsh it for some of the less than great aspects as the place is twice as old as I am.

Photos of the Trop:

MGM Grand

The green giant at the corner of Tropicana and Las Vegas Blvd, MGM Grand is the largest hotel in the city (and by some counts, the world). It's got over 5,000 rooms which basically means it is way too big to have great service or any feeling of intimacy.

What's Good About MGM Grand?

Skylofts - The recently opened Skylofts are located on the top floor of the Grand Tower of the hotel. They're a new form of super-luxury accommodations including a very high level of personalized service. These rooms used to be their penthouse suites and they were completely gutted to convert them to the new setup. The rooms include high-end media centers, TVs in all bathrooms, spa tubs, steam rooms, and butler service. Basically, the concept is a plush apartment in New York or London, only these are inside the world's largest casino. Despite the fact much of their room product is just average, the Skylofts are well designed and executed.

The Mansion - This is THE high-roller hangout on the Strip, opening in 1999 at a cost of $112 million. The Mansion is a set of 29 villas located on the side of the property with the largest clocking in at 12,000 square feet. Beyond incredible accommodations, the Mansion has both a private gaming salon and the semi-public 'Mansion Casino'. While most people will never see The Mansion, let alone stay there, we have to acknowledge the impressive setup MGM Grand has added to the hotel.

Some Restaurants - Over the course of the last couple of years, MGM Grand has added or remodeled most of its restaurants. While some are still dogs (Rainforest Cafe, the buffet), there are some winners. If you're looking for a good meal, try Emeril's (owned by BAM chef Emeril Lagasse), Nobhill or Seablue. Beyond just the food, most of the outlets have pretty interesting architecture, which stands out from the expanse of mediocrity that is the rest of the hotel's decor.

New Sportsbook and Poker Room - Just opened in the area at the front of the hotel, the new sportsbook features all the latest tech plus exclusive skyboxes for high end players. The new poker room is just next door and again, they created an entirely new space filled with brand new tables. It isn't operating quite yet, but it is very close.

What's Bad About MGM Grand?

Size - This place is too big. That means long walks everywhere, long waits for everything, and the general feeling that you are gambling at Costco. When you enter the casino you see what looks like a football field or airplane runway of slots. A huge open rectangular expanse. It's uninspired and boring. If it wasn't for the fact that they have 5,000 rooms to fill the casino, this place wouldn't be a draw for gamblers.

Low Build Quality - The hotel was originally targeted as a family destination, with a theme park and large pool complex onsite. It's $1 billion price tag was staggering at the time but that wasn't based on high end building materials, it was due to the sheer size of the resort. Many parts of the resort have low-end ceilings, furnishings and fixtures... Now, this is becoming less true as MGM Grand is basically rebuilding itself (they have spent over $600 million since the place opened) as the years go by but it is still evident. The Grand Tower was redone a few years back and while it is now more tasteful, the main room product isn't a luxury product. For years the Emerald Tower rooms were the red headed stepchildren on property. They were originally rooms in the Marina, a small resort that was on the site before MGM Grand was built. MGM has recently re-done the Emerald Tower rooms as the 'West Wing' and upgraded the furniture and decor. We haven't seen these rooms yet in person but the rooms haven't been expanded or enlarged, so they are still pretty small compared to the Grand Tower and suite options.

We're Not So Sure...

KA - The new show from Cirque de Soleil is probably a winner. I haven't seen it yet so I can't say for sure but from what I've heard, it's pretty amazing. So, I'm fairly confident saying this is a win except for one thing... Another freaking Cirque show? With this, the show coming at The Mirage and Steve Wynn's Cirque-esque Le Reve, it's getting a little out of control.

West Wing - See 'Low Build Quality' above... I'd like to see them for myself.

Overall MGM Grand is not the kind of place that I think of when I am looking for a place to stay in Vegas. While it will provide many visitors with a Vegas experience, it lacks any real style, interesting architecture or tasteful decor.

Photos of the MGM Grand:

New York New York

The 2,000 room hotel on the corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Tropicana has been a major visitor draw since it opened in 1997.

What's Great About NYNY?

Exterior Facade - NYNY has a great exterior. Designed to look like New York City in the 1940s (there never has been a World Trade Center in the design), the hotel tower is fashioned after famous city landmarks and even features a small Statue of Liberty.

Some Restaurants - Some of the food outlets are quite good. America and Gallagher's both come to mind as above average food choices. None of the restaurants are out of this world fantastic but they can hold their own against most other Strip resorts.

What's Bad about NYNY?

Casino Design - While the exterior is brilliant, the interior is a mess. The ceilings in the main casino are at 35', which clearly sucks out all the energy in the casino. The entrances from MGM Grand and Excalibur, which bring in thousands of people a day, require you to take an escalator down to the casino floor, another design flaw. This place should be hopping and its usually only moderately busy. These are huge flaws but it doesn't look like MGM MIRAGE is making any big changes anytime soon.

Guest Rooms - Put in basic terms, they are nothing special. There are something like four different guest elevators, good luck finding the right one. Once you get to your room, you will see that it is pretty small and not all that special. For the kind of rates they are usually trying to get, the rooms just don't cut it. You're better off spending less and ending up at the Aladdin or about the same and hitting TI. This place wasn't built to satisfy the really high end customer or even the discerning hotel guest. It's certainly more focused on the mid-market.

NYNY doesn't really have any other exciting amenities to discuss. Yes, there is a roller coaster that can be fun to ride, but when you're in the casino its just plain loud. No great pool. No great nightlife. No great nuthin'.

Photos of New York New York:

Monte Carlo

If you like the Monte Carlo I should apologize in advance. I'm probably gonna piss you off.

What's Great about the Monte Carlo?

Lance Burton - This show is a lot of fun. Not only is the magic hard to figure out, the guy has some pretty good jokes! I recommend this show, especially if you have your kids with you in Las Vegas. It's the kind of show that everyone can enjoy.

Brew Pub - They make some great beer right here on site. The food is only average but the beer is worth the trip.

Return on Investment - This place was built cheap in a great location. It has made a ton of money since it opened based on its proximity to must see attractions and fairly successful marketing. Actually, I'll probably write an entire article on this topic sometime in the future, it's pretty interesting stuff.

What's Bad about the Monte Carlo?

Everything Else - This has got to be the least inspired casino built in Las Vegas in the last 20 years. The theme is executed so half-heartedly. The casino is a football field sized warehouse with absolutely no interesting features. The pool is a sort of mini-Mandalay Bay (designed by the same folks) and the hotel tower is built with the same cheapo construction that plagues Luxor and Mandalay Bay. Thin walls, spotty service and cheap finishing touches. There is onsite tennis, which some folks will certainly enjoy... Still, this place is just seeping in mediocrity.

Photos of Monte Carlo:

That's it for this episode of Stripping... Next time we'll look at Aladdin, Paris, Ballys and Bellagio, which should be a pretty interesting episode considering all the problems the Aladdin has had, Ballys long history in Las Vegas and Bellagio as the current king of the Las Vegas casinos.

February 26, 2005

STRIPPING: Mandalay Bay to Excalibur

Posted by Hunter

NOTE: After re-reading this it comes off as a bit harsh. That's not my intention. While I do feel strongly about what I wrote and stand by it, my goal isn't to bash the folks who work at these hotels.

[Welcome to one of our new columns, Stripping, where we feature Las Vegas Strip casinos and give you our raw opinion about what they have to offer. Expect this to be a regular feature as we work our way down the Strip. Of course there are a lot of great casinos not on the Strip. We'll get to 'em, but Stripping focuses on Las Vegas tourism's main thoroughfare.]

In this issue we take a virtual walk from Mandalay Bay to Excalibur, via Luxor.

Mandalay Bay

Mandalay positions themselves as the Hard Rock+ (by the way, if Mandalay execs have actually used this term, I want royalties). Despite its problems, management have made some great decisions in the past and we go over their accomplishments below...

What's Great About Mandalay Bay:


Steve Wynn once described the MGM Grand Mansion as 'a jewel on the corner of a vast, middle-range hotel' and that's basically how I would describe THEHotel's relation to Mandalay Bay. If the original is an exercise in dolled up Motel Six sensibility, the designers realized they could fool the neauvo riche even more with something a little more high end. In general Mandalay is a vast sea of mediocrity and this is its saving grace. THEHotel's designers certainly went to the W's school of design: dark, dark and more dark. One thing that is super annoying is referring to everything as THE. THEPad, THETV, THEBathroom, etc... It gets THEOld really fast. Still, this is the highlight of the complex.

Foundation Room:

Before MIX opened in THEHotel, the best view in the city was restricted to the members only crew... or those that came on a comp... or those that trickled in on Mondays... Anyway, it was kinda exclusive. The view is still better and more exclusive than MIX and the bar is better decorated. Carved wood is everywhere. It's a really cool complex that FEELS exclusive, so much to the level that it make you seriously consider the $5k it costs per year.

House of Blues:

When it comes to large artists in small rooms, there are basically two places in town. One is The Joint at the Hard Rock and the other is the HOB at Mandalay. Right in the middle of the casino, it is impossible to miss. I've seen several shows in this venue, plus a comedy from Dave Chapelle. For all events, this place is a great place to see a show, especially if you can score VIP access. Even if you can't, the place is well thought out and if someone you want to see is playing, buy a ticket.


The original Mandalay Bay site plan revolved around the swimming pool. It is the signature attraction and they have only enhanced its cachet since introducing the Moorea Beach Club. This is where the Hard Rock comparisons come into full play. Actually, this pool is Monte Carlo-plus-plus... or Hard Rock plus. I guess everything is derivative in this town but this is perhaps one of the most recent, concrete examples.

What Sucks About Mandalay Bay:

Yes, Mandalay has some serious problems. It is the crown of a second rate empire and if you look closely, I think you'll agree with me.

Low Build Quality:

If you take a close look at Mandalay Bay (Mandalay) it is hard not to see the corners that were cut to make the budget. When the builder claims their $900M building can compete with Bellagio ($1.6B), you need to take a look and see if that is really true. What they are betting on is that their customer won't notice all of the little things that are missing at MB. All of Mandalay Bay's light fixtures are all finished in plastic. Look towards the ceiling and you'll see many plastic panels designed to look hand finished. Compare this to Bellagio or The Mirage or even the Golden Nugget and you see real chandeliers and lighting fixtures, not four sided lighting elements with elaborate plastic side panels. The flooring at Bellagio was put down by hand during initial construction. This stands in stark contrast to Mandalay where flooring is either fake or generic marble. Not counting THEHotel, your experience at Mandalay Bay (outside of the Four Seasons floors), is not going to be a significant upgrade from your experience at Luxor. That is the mentality under which the facility was designed and constructed and that's why comparisons to Bellagio and The Venetian are somewhat laughable.

Sports Book:

For one of the premier Las Vegas Strip hotels, Mandalay's sports book is a joke when compared to books at Bellagio and The Mirage, Ballys or MGM Grand. It's not like Glenn Schaeffer (Mandalay President) wasn't aware that other joints had better books... They basically lifted the entire theme and concept for the hotel from The Mirage... It would have been nice if they had installed a comparable sports book. Even then, Bellagio set the standard for great books: the best chairs ever, great drink service and high end displays. NOTE TO MANDALAY FOLKS; Bellagio opened MONTHS before you did. I know you had access to capital. What happened? Your book sucks and when Wynn Las Vegas opens you are even more screwed.


Getting to Luxor from Mandalay usually involves walking through Mandalay Place, their new high end shopping 'environment'. I guess your other choice is walking on the street but I don't see a lot of people heading that way these days. The shopping mall is now the default route, and unless you want a burger from the Burger Bar, it's pretty boring.

What is Great

Not much. The fact here is that a semi-reasonable theme was bastardized to a large degree. Based on our experience, most Luxor dealers just don't care that much about providing a fun environment. What is perhaps the greatest themed casino in Las Vegas has gone without a suitable steward for too long. The pyramid with it's incredible light beam is known globally. They haven't capitalized on their inherent ability to bring people in. THEY HAVE A FREAKING HUGE PYRAMID. Despite the fact that the rooms, food and entertainment (yes, Blue Man Group) are not at the level of a Bellagio, MGM Grand or TI shouldn't matter. This is one of the most recognizable buildings in Las Vegas and it is a second rate attraction. That's a major mismatch.

What Sucks

See above. Luxor has the best theme idea of any place in Vegas and fails the most miserably. The standard rooms - they are so average it is unbelievable. If you can, score a Jacuzzi Suite. Located on the corners of the pyramid, they actually offer a unique experience at this otherwise average hotel.


I have pretty much nothing good to say regarding the Excalibur. I sometimes find myself in the casino and I honestly focus on trying to leave. I realize that some customers feel very much at ease at the Excal and there isn't anything wrong with that. Still, it's not my kinda place and I avoid it like the plague. Since it has no high end intrigue or attractions, it really can't contribute to this column.

STRIPPING: MORE TO COME; NEXT UP - New York New York, MGM Grand, Monte Carlo, and More...

February 26, 2005

New Column: Stripping

Posted by Hunter

We're preparing to introduce a new semi-regular column: STRIPPING. This column focuses on casinos based on the Las Vegas Strip. Our first entry, coming soon, will feature Mandalay Bay, Luxor and Excalibur. It is based on our extensive experience visiting Las Vegas casinos and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do. We plan to be brutally honest and since our Mandalay Resort Group rep won't even call us back, we don't feel that bad.