Byline: Kim-Van Dang

LAS VEGAS — A 30-story glass pyramid. A medieval castle where knights joust nightly. A fiery volcano that erupts hourly. A Caribbean cove complete with cannon-blasting pirates. Bugsy Siegel would not recognize this one-time one-horse town he pioneered.
Although the rest of the country suffered tough economic times when the high-flying Eighties drew to a close, Las Vegas continued to flourish. The fastest growing city in the U.S. has even managed, in a few short years, to shed its “Sin City” stigma.
A construction boom that shows no sign of waning has transformed this desert oasis into a world-class resort and convention town.Las Vegas now boasts nine of the 10 largest hotels in the world and more hotel and motel rooms than any other U.S. city: 88,560 of them at press time, a number that changes almost daily. More significantly, the city’s hotel occupation rate registers at a resounding 91 percent.
The metropolis that counted less than 10,000 residents 50 years ago is now home to 1 million people. Between 5,000 and 6,000 people move here each month, according to figures compiled by the department of motor vehicles and the local post office.
The city’s construction onslaught began with two major casino-hotels unveiled at the turn of the decade: Steve Wynn’s $630 million Mirage and Circus Circus Enterprises’ $290 million Excalibur. The former features 3,049 rooms, lush tropical gardens, a dolphin pool, rare white tigers and an active volcano. The latter is a 4,032-room castle peopled by Merlin the Magician, King Arthur and his knights and, of course, a fire-breathing dragon. For the first time, the gambling mecca began marketing itself as a family vacation destination.
In the last quarter of 1993, another $2 billion in new properties opened including Wynn’s $430 million pirate-infested Treasure Island with 2,900 rooms, Circus Circus’s $375 million pyramid-shaped Luxor with 2,526 rooms and Kirk Kerkorian’s $1 billion MGM Grand — the largest hotel in the world with 5,005 rooms and a 33-acre theme park.Larry Woolf, chairman, president and chief executive officer of MGM Grand Hotel Inc. noted that it would take 13 years and eight nights to sleep in every room there. Other Grand facts: 30,000 meals are served daily in eight restaurants. Since its opening on Dec. 18, 1993, the resort has cracked 18 million eggs, brewed 300,000 pounds of coffee and baked over 4 million donuts.
Even as these numbers escalate, another wave of construction is underway.While ITT Sheraton’s plan to build the 3,500-room, $750 million Desert Kingdom resort was shelved when it acquired Caesar’s World in December, other projects are proceeding on course. Caesar’s Palace is in the throes of a $250 million expansion that will include a new wing for the Forum Shops retail complex and additional gaming facilities. Billionaire Kerkorian has purchased 19 acres across the Strip from the MGM Grand and is building a 1,500-room, $300 million resort there called New York New York in a joint venture with Primadonna Resorts. To be completed in 1996, its facade will replicate the Big Apple skyline.”The inside will feel like New York, too,” quipped MGM’s Woolf, “except everyone will speak English.” Wynn’s Mirage Resorts, Inc. purchased the old Dunes Hotel and Country Club, demolished the 23-story tower in a spectacular implosion and plans to erect a French Riviera-style resort in its place called Beau Rivage. The 3,000-room casino-hotel to be built on a man-made lake at a cost of $700 to $900 million should open in the second half of 1997.
Las Vegas Entertainment Network, which bought the El Rancho Hotel on the Strip south of Sahara Avenue in early 1994, has announced that it will renovate the property. A bowling center, dance club and two 20-story towers resembling a pair of cowboy boots that will contain nearly 3,000 rooms are being added.
Off the Strip: MarCor Resorts is enlarging its Rio Suite Hotel to make more space for dining and gaming. Eventually, the property across Interstate 15 will have 2,400 rooms. Boyd Gaming Corp. is sinking $90 million into expansion of its Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall in the southeastern part of the city.
Even the Hard Rock Cafe at the intersection of Paradise and Harmon Avenues is getting in on the act. On March 11, the Hard Rock Hotel — with 339 rooms — is slated to open there.
McCarran International Airport, one mile from the Strip, is in the midst of a $300 million construction project, too. When the dust settles, there will be additional parking and terminal facilities as well as a freeway connecting it directly with Interstate 15.
MGM Grand’s Woolf said there are also plans, pending city funding and approval, to build a Disneyland-style monorail line that would transport those flying into town directly to Strip hotels. MGM Grand is already constructing a $25 million monorail linking it to Bally’s Las Vegas casino-hotel a mile down the Strip. That project, as well as a related 15-store minimall on site, should be completed by June, Woolf said, adding that he foresees a monorail system servicing the entire Strip eventually.MGM Grand was also instrumental in erecting pedestrian bridges across its Strip intersection last June.
The need for all this construction arises out of the city’s growing tourist pool. More than 23 million people visit Las Vegas each year. Gaming revenue in Clark County surpasses $5 billion annually.
Aside from casinos, the city offers a wide array of dining choices. Breakfast buffets at many hotels cost as little as $1. On the other end of the spectrum are popular establishments like Spago and The Palm at The Forum Shops and MGM Grand’s new gem, Charlie Trotter (of Chicago fame). The 72-seat, one-month-old restaurant serves up gourmet fare for health-conscious high rollers. Everything there is top of the line: Pratesi table linens (the napkins cost $65 each), Christofle silverware from Paris (an exclusive pattern) and one-of-a-kind plates signed by the artists who designed them.
Top-notch entertainment is also a Las Vegas hallmark. Acts including Wayne Newton, Siegfried and Roy, Cirque du Soleil and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Starlight Express can be caught here on most nights.At the end of January, “EFX” — a musical starring Michael Crawford and featuring 200 special effects — debuts at the MGM Grand. The hotel has already invested $40 million into production costs and another $60 million into equipment leasing.
Though the price might seem exorbitant, top-flight entertainment can determine a resort’s fate in this city. Longtime Las Vegans believe, for example, that Kerkorian’s International Hotel (later sold and renamed Las Vegas Hilton) succeeded despite its location one mile off the Strip because the tycoon secured Elvis for four lengthy exclusive engagements from 1969 to 1971. The King, performing live for the first time in eight years, set attendance and earnings records there. In the first month alone, he played to 101,509 customers and grossed $1.5 million.
The Grand Canyon — one of the seven wonders of the world; Hoover Dam — an engineering wonder; Grand Slam Canyon — a new $90 million, pink-domed, five-acre amusement park with roller coasters, dinosaurs and waterfalls, and the Liberace Museum — a kitschy curiosity crammed with sequined costumes, grand pianos and gaudy cars, are some other attractions that draw visitors to the Las Vegas area.
Business conventions ranging from ones for the Bakery Equipment Manufacturers Association to those for the Vacuum Dealers Trade Association are key to the city’s prosperity. The largest convention here is Comdex, the country’s definitive computer show that draws some 200,000 attendees to Las Vegas once a year. The annual Consumer Electronics Show is next with about 100,000 attendees.
MAGIC, the men’s apparel show that will feature women’s wear for the first time in late February, brings at least 60,000 buyers here twice a year.
All three shows are held at the 1.3 million-square-foot Las Vegas Convention Center, the largest single-level convention center in the country. The center’s main hall is large enough to host 11 simultaneous football games.
Other meeting facilities here range from the Sands Expo and Convention Center and Cashman Field Center to smaller spaces at most hotels.In 1994, about 2,500 conventions lured 2.4 million attendees to the city. This was up from 711 conventions and 1.5 million attendees just five years prior. The economic impact on the city is palpable: Convention-goers spent $2.2 billion here last year, not taking gaming revenues into account. This is twice the figure from five years ago.
Also, an expanding housing base is changing the face of the city. Residential developments ranging from 140 to 22,000 acres are cropping up on the northwest and southeast ends of town, attracting more families to the area. The largest of these is Summa Corp.’s Summerlin project, named after Howard Hughes’s grandmother. Spread over 35 square miles northwest of the city, the master-planned community features 70 different models. These range from $50,000 condominiums to six and eight-bedroom homes and $1.5 million estates. In its fifth year of development, it now contains 7,000 homes. At total build-out in about 30 years, Summerlin will comprise 80,000 homes.