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Strip Mining
Gambling not only way to strike it rich in Vegas
Copyright © The Star Ledger 2006

BY LERON KORNREICH

LAS VEGAS--Even in a city where everything screams, "Look at me!" William Sweasy and Knut Grevle commanded attention as they gallivanted giddily across Mandalay Bay's casino floor.

Wearing getups consisting of mega-sized cowboy hats and fluorescent clown glasses, the grown boys took on the persona of Las Vegas flash. And, after winning eight grand at a roulette table, they summed up their exhilaration with sparkling bumper stickers slapped across their backs declaring, "I Heart Las Vegas."

The casino cowboys were keen on sharing their story with me while cashing out their earnings. Unfortunately, they weren't game to share their loot.

I was jazzed about my own winnings, though they paled in comparison. No, I'm not talking about the seven dollars in quarters that came clanking out of the slot machine I played earlier that evening. I am referring to the fifth row center seats I scored for the ABBA love-fest, "Mamma Mia!"

Audiences have heeded the musical's call to "Take a Chance on Me" for three years, making it the longest-running Broadway show to play in Vegas. It was finally my turn to find out what all the fuss was about.

Whatever one considers a jackpot, Sin City is happy to oblige.

When I booked a holiday weekend getaway, I had two goals in mind.

First, helping finance Steve Wynn's fortune by gaming at his classy new high-end casino. I felt this was only fair as, on trips to Atlantic City, I had "donated" many a five-dollar bill to Donald Trump via those inverse ATMs that casinos euphemistically call slot machines.

Second, after ridding myself of aforementioned "Money, Money, Money," come face to face with the "Dancing Queen."

On previous visits, I slept in the shadow of Paris' Eiffel Tower or crashed at Sir Lancelot's quarters at Excalibur. This time, my husband and I opted for the Las Vegas Hilton because paying with Hilton Honors points would leave us more cash to spend on entertainment.

I must admit our room on Paradise Road lacked the cool factor of, say, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, where eye candy abounds poolside and swim-up blackjack means gamblers don't have to leave the water to win (or lose) a hand. The Hilton houses "Star Trek: The Experience" and Barry Manilow's "Music and Passion," so it's safe to assume it's catering to a different crowd.

After numerous visits, I've realized Vegas' chameleon qualities make it possible to plan vacations ranging from tame to insane. Where you choose to gamble depends on what kind of action you're seeking.

My husband maintains that the best sports book, hands down, can be found at Caesars Palace, where throngs of fans cheer at six enormous screens and 12 small television sets. When hoop madness sets in during the NCAA finals, the most coveted seats are at Paris, which converts its theater into a colossal screening room.

Looking to gamble to light music? Head to Wynn. Prefer rock `n' roll? Hard Rock turns the volume way up, while Treasure Island lets gamers bop to pop.

We dropped off our luggage and headed out to the Wynn Las Vegas. I was itching to witness the results of Steve Wynn's bid to outdo his former creations, the Mirage, Bellagio and Treasure Island. Each of those hotels has signature waterworks — a volcanic erupting fountain, dancing cascades, and clashing pirate ships — so I was naturally curious to see the new casino's "Lake of Dreams."

As my husband and I pulled up the driveway, the sun cast an orange reflection across the casino's curved glass front. Inside, we were greeted by candy-cane-colored restaurants and souvenir shops, posh boutiques, and a Ferrari/Maserati dealership that doubles as a museum for those of us who don't have $65-thousand plus to spare.

The pool was empty except for one intrepid swimmer undeterred by the chilly weather. Without the usual hordes of sunbathers taking up every inch of tanning space, we were afforded a view of the pool's lavish design.

We heard whispers about a topless section behind the pool bar. I guess when they say the pool is "European style" they aren't simply referring to the architecture.

We crossed the relatively subdued casino floor in search of the "Lake of Dreams." There, statues of nudes stood semi-submerged in water, in motionless anticipation of their role in the daily light shows that alter the colors of the 150-foot-tall waterfall.

Once I got the water world out of my system, we returned to the gaming floor to find out if luck would indeed be a lady. We couldn't help being roped into watching a No-Limit Hold'em tournament unfolding quietly. A woman who appeared around 80 years old was giving her male card-playing counterparts some hell. We were captivated by her gambling antics and her cowgirl-influenced attire.

Before we knew it, dinnertime snuck up on us. I'd heard the new "it" place for dining and dancing was Tao at the Venetian. Paris Hilton rang in the New Year at the Asian fusion restaurant; I was not sure if that made it more or less appealing.

It's a good thing I had reserved a dinner table weeks in advance, because a crowd had already formed when we arrived at the candlelit tunnel entrance. Despite a 7:45 reservation, we were not seated until approximately 8:30. Fortunately, we had no show tickets that night or we would have had to choose between ABBA and the Alaskan salmon and avocado with Yuzu sesame dressing.

Once seated, we were thrilled to discover our table on the second floor overlooked the restaurant's centerpiece: a massive Buddha drifting peacefully above an infinity pool. A DJ spun funky techno tunes as we ate our Chinese/Japanese/Thai inspired meal.

When making our reservation, I had strategized that an early evening slot would have us wrapping up our meal around 10, when the nightclub opened. That foresight paid off because diners bypass the snaking line, which saved us time and made us feel pretty darn special. It did not, however, save us money. We still had to pay the cover charge — $20 for women, $30 for men.

When the elevator doors leading to the nightclub opened, we couldn't help but gasp at the sight of nearly 300 wooden monks lining the wall, holding bowls of water and votive candles. It was an awesome display; although, I wondered whether a Buddhist visiting Tao would be offended by the exploitation of religious icons amid symbols of lust and vice, such as the nearly naked models luxuriating in rose petal baths. Then again, this was Vegas, where Puritans can find reason to blush at every turn.

Lately, Sin City has been trying to cater to a less "sinful" crowd. More casino operators than ever are betting the good clean fun of Broadway shows help draw crowds to their floors. Luxor hopes the Tony Award-winning musical "Hairspray" revives the pyramid's panache. The Vegas version opened in February abridged and intermission-free, like many other musicals to hit the Strip.

In June, The Venetian will raise the curtain on a 90-minute version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's pop-operatic sensation. In a city whose skyline is made up of a mock pyramid, ersatz Eiffel Tower, and pseudo Big Apple skyscrapers, it is only fitting that the masked Phantom will belt out "The Music of the Night" in a faux Paris Opera House within an imitation Italian municipality. In step with Vegas glitz, the show promises to ramp up the kitsch with a chandelier twice the size of the Broadway version and a canal more than twice as long.

The Knights of Spamalot prepare to prance onto center stage for their Vegas debut in 2007.

"Mamma Mia" did not disappoint. We sang along with the rest of the crowd and found ourselves dancing in our seats. On prior trips, I had opted for shows exclusive to Vegas, such as the semi-submerged human circus "O" or Siegfried & Roy's dazzling tiger spectacular (which I caught before it closed after an animal mauled one of the magicians).

It hadn't made sense to me to catch a Broadway show when the Great White Way is so accessible from New Jersey, where I once lived and frequently visit. But "Mamma Mia" taught me Vegas gives Broadway shows its own twist, making the experience slightly different.

There are plenty of old-school Vegas shows to choose from for purists. Headliners such as Danny Gans keep audiences in stiches nightly, while Barry Manilow and Celine Dion hit the high notes. There is no shortage of Cirque du Soleil shows — everything from the pyrotechnics and puppetry in "KÀ" to the X-rated contortionism of "Zumanity."

As I am a sucker for anything Cirque-like, I debated buying same-day tickets to Franco Dragone's newest creation, "Le Rêve: A Small Collection of Imperfect Dreams." I was willing to shell out $100 per ticket, especially since I'd read that the Wynn theater's circular design ensures a good view from nearly every seat.

After a brief consultation, my husband and I decided to leave something for our next visit to Sin City. Once "LOVE" opens in June, we'll have yet another excuse to return to the city of neon and naughtiness. The Mirage's Web site describes it as a Beatles tribute consisting of "aerial performances, extreme sports and urban freestyle dance." Intriguing.

Like the other 39 million tourists projected to flock to the gaming mecca this year, I cannot deny the city's appeal. I know I'll be back. Perhaps, next time, wearing neon clown glasses and an oversized cowboy hat.

NOTES: Leron Kornreich is a former News 12 New Jersey reporter living in Los Angeles, Calif.