Las Vegas review

Las Vegas today – the good, the bad and the ugly

I recently got back from a trip to Las Vegas with my spouse. It was a trip we planned since 2020 but cancelled due to covid travel restrictions; after 4 years we finally made it to Sin City. It was my fifth Vegas visit and my wife’s first. My first venture was in the mid 1980s when I was in my 20s. I went with university friends and stayed at the Flamingo Hotel when it was still a gem of the strip and was at a time when the Dunes and Aladdin casino were still standing and Westgate was still called the Las Vegas Hilton. I travelled twice more over the years and my last journey to Vegas was a few years prior to the pandemic for a G2E conference when things were really starting to change.

Las Vegas reviewChatting to friends and family who had not been there since the 1970s or 80s, and colleagues who hadn’t been there since the pandemic, the question from all was the same, what if anything, has changed in Vegas? I’m sure many readers at gamblersWORLD have the same questions, so I decided to look at the good, the bad and the ugly in Vegas today, as both my wife and I saw it, to answer that question and let readers decide what to expect if returning to Vegas any time soon.

The Good

1- Covid restrictions are gone. Many people noted that in 2021 after casinos reopened, the restrictions were severe. Colleagues living in Vegas showed me video evidence of casinos from March 2020 to late 2021, and it was indeed not like Vegas. Every other slot machine was turned off, tables had only 4 spots with plexiglass between the players, and sportsbooks were more or less abandoned. Masks were absolutely required by all patrons and cards were changed out frequently so the play was slow. Because so few tables were open, the minimum table limits ranged from $50 to $100 even in the lower end hotels. As one colleague said “what brings you to Vegas just didn’t exist for 2 years.”  Today all restrictions are gone and while you still see casino staff and the occasional patron wearing a mask, the pandemic is clearly an afterthought, and there is no feeling of being unsafe on the strip.  

2 – There’s a lot to do besides gambling. Vegas always had cheesy acts, boxing matches and some star headliners, but quality shows were few and far between in the 1980s. That has changed over the years and by the mid 2000s better shows and performances were the standard. This year Garth Brooks, Maroon 5, Shania Twain, and Mariah Carey all have upcoming Residency shows. Apart from star headliners, entertainers like Wayne Newton, The Blue Man Group and Rich Little (yes, they are still there), offer old school nostalgia. There are many new, innovative performances that are spectacular and well worth the ticket. Las Vegas reviewWe saw the Cirque du Soleil Michael Jackson show “One” at Mandalay Bay and it was amazing. The Cirque du Soleil Beatles Love show at the Mirage has excellent reviews as well. After 18 years the final show will be July 7 of this year. We also saw Jersey Boys and a Vegas Knights game, both great and well worth the admission price. The highlight, however, was the Sphere, a spectacle that opened last September. Postcard from Earth is apparently a breathtaking experience in this venue.  Watching the LED graphics on the outside of the Sphere is an indicator of the splendor inside. While there is great variety and family friendly activities, each show is expensive, a family of four can expect to pay up to $1,000. For those who aren’t prepared to spend that much money to see a show, the Bellagio offers alternatives at no cost; the dancing Fountains and the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens in the hotel are stunning. My wife loved both.

3 – Vegas is now a sports town. Before 2017 there were no sports in Vegas to watch live except an NCAA game featuring the UNLV team. Professional sports leagues avoided Las Vegas because of gambling, but with leagues now reaping the benefits of gambling on its sports, that has now changed. Vegas now has an NHL hockey team and an NFL team. The Tropicana hotel is being demolished and replaced with a baseball park to open in 2028 for the Oakland A’s move to the city. Vegas is also a front-runner for an NBA expansion team. The city hosts two NASCAR races and in November, F1 cars raced down the strip in what was nothing short of a spectacle. We attended the Vegas Knights game at T-Mobile Arena and it was indeed a party atmosphere. There were showgirls! Fans get a live performance of a Knights duel before the game! Unlike many other arenas where the seats are mostly corporate owned and it is like being in a church, the Vegas Knights game was always lively. The one negative was the food prices. A small slice of pizza was $14 and a beer $15, plus the food was not that good. This is one area where T-Mobile Arena could do better. I was also able to place a bet on the Knights (something that would have been forbidden prior to 2017), so betting on local Vegas teams is not an issue.

The Bad

1 – Smoke free areas are few and far between. I have been to casinos in the U.S. and Canada over the past two decades and every casino is either smoke free or has smoking and non-smoking sections. With less than 12% of American adults now smoking, it seems logical to stop pandering to the smoking population, but that is not the case in Vegas. Park MGM is the one exception we found and is completely smoke free and was therefore extremely crowded as people tried to avoid the smoke. Las Vegas reviewWe could not find a single casino elsewhere that had even a non-smoking section. Nevada law requires that all non-gaming areas are smoke free so show venues, restaurants, etc. must be smoke free, but the cigarette smoke from the casinos is so strong it generally enters those areas too. We stayed at NewYork-NewYork and in 20 minutes of playing the strong cigarette smoke made our eyes water. We didn’t stay long. Looking around very few people were smoking, but the few who were, overwhelmed the entire casino floor. If MGM, Caesars or Sands wants to attract new customers they should consider offering non-smoking areas in every casino they own. I spoke to 30 people in Vegas at NewYork-NewYork, Caesars, the Bellagio and Planet Hollywood with this article in mind and most said their biggest pet peeve was cigarette smoking everywhere. The casinos have capacity to designate non-smoking areas with machines and tables and this would undoubtedly increase traffic of non-smokers.  I was also quite surprised to see cigarette girls walking around selling cigars and cigarettes at the machines along with cocktail waitresses. Some things are better not to be brought back.

2 – The number of children and young families was unsettling. In the 1980s there were few kids there. It was clear Vegas was not a family destination. Circus-Circus offered games but overall, there was little for kids to do, so adults attended alone. In the 1990s seeing declining revenues, the city tried to become a family destination. A large amusement park was built at MGM Grand, children’s activities were introduced throughout the strip, and all restaurants were kid friendly. Vegas wanted families to attend believing it would increase attendance and gambling revenue. It backfired. The result was adults were spending time with the kids and not gambling so revenue actually declined. So, in 2002 Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman announced they were removing all the family activities including the $120 million amusement park at MGM and wanted Vegas to return to its roots.

“We want it to be an adult play land,” said Mayor Oscar Goodman. “We want people to feel free. We want them to think that this is the place that they can come to and not have any inhibitions.” Kids shows and activities disappeared in favor of topless reviews and the city changed its tagline from “Vegas, a family destination,” to “Vegas, what happens here, stays here.”

Unfortunately, the city changed but families still come in droves, yet there is nothing now for kids to do. The roller coaster and Virtual Reality rides at NewYork-NewYork are the only real activities for youth but are far too scary and dangerous for young kids. We noticed most kids looked bored and frustrated, and unlike almost every other city I’ve been to, there is no restrictions on kids being in the casino area. Of course, they cannot gamble, but we saw far too many families, including parents with strollers, sitting at a slot machine with their children, hovering over them watching them gamble, breathing in the cigarette smoke and begging to do something else. Goodman’s new message clearly did not reach families, but if Vegas is not going to prohibit kids in the casino area, they need to find something for them to do. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Maybe Vegas can still provide kid friendly amusement rides and games or consider daycare options.

3 – The price of food is prohibitive. I still recall the 1980s with 99 cent lunch buffets, $2 shrimp cocktails and steak dinners for $5. The days of food being a loss leader are long gone. There are only a handful of buffets left which are expensive and adequate at best. We had a brunch buffet at Excalibur that cost just under $40. The Bellagio buffet exceeds $180 for two people, including a glass of wine, and the buffet at Caesars Palace is more than $100 each for dinner. For regular restaurants, you’re lucky to get a meal for under $60 a person, if you want to go to a Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsay restaurant expect to shell out several hundred-dollar bills.

This change started just after the economic fallout in 2009 when Sheldon Adelson announced that he was not offering comps to anyone at the Venetian or Palazzo except the biggest bettors:

“We’ve essentially cut all of our comps except our most highly rated players,” Adelson said. “No more comped rooms. No food and beverage. No showroom credits. We’re selling rooms. We see it’s resulting in a substantial increase in cash income.”

Other casinos followed suit and comps are now based on player cards. I still recall sitting at a blackjack table in the 1980s and after winning a few hands at $50 each and upping my bets, a pit boss would ask if I needed a room or if I wanted a free show ticket. Those were the fun days, but nowadays you hand in a player card and if you bet enough, you might be lucky enough to get $10 off a meal or $10 in free slot play. As it turns out our room was mostly comped thanks to bets on BetMGM, but they are very limited and only available in the off-season. Comped nights in the summer months are very rare unless you are a very large bettor. So, anyone thinking they will get a great deal on food, hotel rooms or shows from May to September are in for a rude awakening. More frustrating, the casinos charge a massive markup in food prices. I had a Starbucks coffee every morning and the price of a coffee at the NewYork-NewYork Starbucks was $5.95. Going across the street to the Target the price was $3.45. I understand paying for the convenience of buying food or beverages at a hotel but that mark up is unjustified. The airport didn’t have such a premium.

4 – Resort Fees and taxes are high and get you little. While rooms are not outrageously priced, every hotel has a resort fee that will increase your room price and cost of your stay. Las Vegas reviewThe standard resort fee is $42 per night and apparently is added for the privilege to use swimming pools, fitness centers and other amenities. That’s fine except every hotel in the world has the same amenities for free and you pay the fee in Vegas whether you use any amenities or not. I have stayed in other casinos worldwide charging resort fees usually between $15 and $20 with more exclusive features than what was apparently special at NewYork-NewYork. The resort fees seemed excessive plus everything you buy has a Las Vegas tourism tax along with other state and municipal taxes, a show ticket with a face value of $100 will end up costing close to double that after everything is added on. I guess that’s just a sign of the times, but it’s still frustrating and a big turn off realizing the advertised price is always far lower than what you actually pay.

The Ugly

1 – The pushing of timeshares. It was impossible to walk 20 feet in Vegas without someone jumping out at you to ask how long you are staying, or whether you want free food or show tickets. The catch of course is that you have to sit through a 2-to-3-hour presentation of a timeshare, often by Hilton. The first time I just shrugged it off as no big deal, but I decided to count and by the end of my six day stay I was approached over 100 times by people trying to sell timeshares! They are in every hotel, at restaurants, in street kiosks and many times they will accost you just walking down the strip. To make matters worse, many of the time share workers are very aggressive. One time I was followed for 2 blocks while the rep would not take no for an answer. Vegas needs to do something to stop it this or at least limit it to specific areas.

2 – Vegas girls and men wanting to take a picture with you. They are everywhere, women wearing feathers with thongs exposing every part of their buttocks, Las Vegas reviewshirtless men with bodies that make other men feel inferior and just random women holding a whip asking if you want a picture with them either hugging you, whipping your backside or doing whatever other fantasy you have, with the expectation you will tip them accordingly. I realize it’s Vegas, but after a while it is annoying. I preferred the old days when people would hand you a flyer promoting trips to Nye county to visit a brothel. I never used them but at least those people just handed you a flyer and weren’t aggressive.

3 – Overpasses are everywhere. These have been up apparently for about a decade but they can be annoying. If you want to cross the street on Las Vegas Boulevard, you can’t just cross at a light or crosswalk. You have to take an escalator up to a walkway cross over and take the escalator down. That wouldn’t be a big deal but the walkways are so far apart that many times you have to cross over, then walk back several blocks to get to your destination. These apparently were installed because drunk patrons were getting run over crossing the streets but there must be a more convenient solution. I also can’t recall how many times an escalator was broken and they closed the up escalator but kept the down escalator operating. Why not reverse the broken escalator so those who have trouble climbing stairs aren’t inconvenienced? It made little sense to me. Despite the overpass inconveniences pedestrian traffic is not impeded by ongoing construction.

4 – Transportation options were unreliable and often inefficient. If you don’t want to rent a car, your choices are taxis, ride share or the monorail. Taxis are the most reliable source and are a good deal, plus there is a set rate to and from the airport to specific hotels.  I gave up trying to get a Lyft or Uber because they never showed up. Las Vegas reviewThere are specific areas at each hotel for ride shares but after my fourth time failing to get a Lyft ride, I stuck to cabs and walking. Speaking to others it was the same for them. From what I’m told by Vegas locals, Ride Share drivers are known to flaunt the rules. The app will always show rides for as little as $5 to upwards of $50 for the same 3-mile trip but of course, the $5 ride will be “unavailable” and increase with every refresh as you enter the information on the app. As for the monorail. It only stops at a few locations, meaning you still have to walk to most of the hotels, the monorail is always located at the back of the hotels so you walk forever in the hotel. As an example, we took the monorail from the LINQ to the MGM Grand. We walked more than 15 minutes through the hotel at the LINQ to get the monorail then walked another 20 minutes at MGM Grand after getting off the monorail to get to the main entrance.

That said, media sources are reporting that the monorail may be shutting down. There are free trams between Excalibur and Mandalay Bay as well as from Park MGM to Bellagio, so maybe the monorail will just become trams instead, if the reports prove true.

So, Vegas is still a fun experience but there are things the casinos and city need to do to make it better for those who don’t long for the days it was run by the mob. The main change they need to make is to decide if it is a family destination or not. You can’t say that kids and families are welcome and have nothing for the kids to do. Moreover, they need to add more non-smoking sections for bettors. There is no reason  every casino can’t have a non-smoking section and still offer a smoking section for those who choose to smoke. Every other casino in the world does it so why not Vegas? I understand that Vegas longs for the old rat pack days where smoking was a status symbol but these days only 1 in 9 people smoke and that includes gamblers. Offering non-smoking sections will actually increase gambling at a casino, I promise.

One last thing I also want to note is that my wife and I went to the Orleans Casino to see Jersey Boys which was a fabulous production. For those who long for the early days of Vegas where casinos were a bit dirty and dreary, where runners will take your $1 keno bets to the keno kiosk for you, and where you just knew you were in a gambling hall rather than an extravagant casino, go to Orleans which is just a bit off the strip on Tropicana Avenue. Perhaps my wife described it best when we were there when she said “all the casinos except Park MGM are smoky and a bit unsettling, but this casino is a completely different level of stink.” All that said, we look forward to our next visit to Vegas to do what we missed this time, but unless things change in the area of smoking, we will be staying at Park MGM.

Read articles on the North American gambling industry from Hartley Henderson here at GamblersWORLD.

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