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Independent Voice

Viva Las Vegas Revival!

Jun 16, 2021 12:00AM ● By David Dickstein

Wink World is chock full of psychedelic eye candy inside AREA15. Photo by David Dickstein

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Vegas is back, baby.

And we mean really back. Late last summer, the desert mecca for adults seeking fun and excitement was just coming out of pandemic hibernation. Hotels and their casinos and restaurants were only partially reopened, if at all, and live shows were limited to the lounge act variety, and even they were few and far between like the socially distanced audiences.

How different things were during three fantastically frenzied days and nights on a recent revisit. Crowded and crazy, free of masks and most COVID-19 restrictions, Sin City was as obvious as an amateur card counter that it’s ready, willing and able to welcome the masses back be they vaccinated or not.

Just because Vegas’ revival is in full gear, that doesn’t imply that all is back to normal. Great deals – besides getting a natural blackjack or royal flush – seem to be wooing the caliber of guest one might see off-Strip or Downtown, the hot, new Circa Resort & Casino excluded. Even at the luxurious Venetian, the high-stakes slot machines and gaming tables were unusually quiet for a Saturday, and slovenly dressed guests were carting more cartons of cheap liquor to their rooms than luggage. Then again, who can blame them when a Jack and Coke or margarita can easily set you back $25 at the average bar or nightclub on the Strip.

One positive resulting from lower room rates throughout the city is a flood of first-time visitors. A random survey over my three days there clearly indicated that the combination of cheap deals and the need to let loose after over a year of waiting out a pandemic is luring the newbies. No surprise, 9 in 10 approached were from California.

Whether you’re a seasoned Vegas veteran, a curious first-timer or somewhere in between, it would be a sin to only follow the Sin City crowd. So much is new and improved since the town shut down in March 2020, getting away from the mainstream is as easy as standing on 17 when the dealer shows a six.

Play smoke-free – We’re not talking just a table or a section of slots, but the entire casino at Park MGM ( is sans cigarettes, cigars and other incendiary smokes. Inspired by urban parks and gardens, the 2,700-unit hotel-casino, not including the 293 under the NoMad brand on the top four floors, is alone on the Strip in its respect for the pink-lunged.

The property is packed with features, and a favorite is Eataly, a destination unto itself. Like the one in LA’s Century City, it’s an immersive Italian marketplace where customers are invited to “eat, shop and learn” at the various cafes, sit-down restaurants and many vendors of sustainable, high-quality products.

Downtown looking up – Never having been a fan of Downtown Las Vegas, I was hoping a night’s stay at the Downtown Grand last fall would change my opinion. While the property is indeed grand – a stylish boutique hotel with 1,124 moderately priced rooms – it’s still a victim of location. Not once did I step outside without being harassed by a pesky drunk, and even with the heavy police presence, I didn’t feel all that safe.

Which brings us to the recent visit, and all I know is Mayor Carolyn Goodman should be shining the shoes of Derek Stevens, proud CEO and co-owner of Circa, Vegas’ premier property north of the Strip. He and brother Greg own multiple hotel-casinos on Fremont Street, but nothing compares to the adults-only Circa (, which when opened in earnest in December instantly became Downtown’s must-see, and in my book, only-see destination. During a chat in his board room, CEO Derek said the numbers are ahead of projections, especially in the target 25-50 age range. The only fact-check needed for that statement is to eye the tremendous crowds at two of Circa’s signature venues.

Starting with the 4,000-capacity Stadium Swim with its six rooftop pools, this impressive watering hole was wall-to-wall bodies, each paying at least $40 to get in on the hottest day of year. Unless you spend roughly $5,000 for a cabana or gambling at one of a handful of covered table games, by day you’re probably baking in the direct sun as Stevens doesn’t want umbrellas blocking views of the 143-foot-wide, 40-foot-tall, 14-million-pixel screen showing sports many have put wagers on at another signature spot, the three-story, 1,000-viewing-capacity sportsbook with as many as 24 events playing on a 78-million-pixel screen.

Need more reason to head downtown? Try Circa’s MEGA BAR with 53 video poker machines, 46 TVs and more than 100 beer taps. Measuring 165 feet, it’s claimed as the longest bar in Nevada. Downtown Las Vegas' first resort-casino built from the ground up in four decades even has a high-end steakhouse and nightclub as one would expect, but props for having a Jewish deli; Saginaw’s Deli on the second level is the younger cousin to the popular Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich. Specialties are the corned beef and Reuben sandwiches and the chicken matzo ball soup. Have lunch there or at Victory Burger & Wings for a signature half-pound meat monster and chances are you won’t even need to eat dinner at the other. Oh, and the guest rooms are quiet and full of modern conveniences.

New name, new attitude – The quarter-century-old Stratosphere is best known for its namesake tower, which hovers 1,149 feet above an otherwise run-down portion of Las Vegas Boulevard between the Strip and Downtown. Location aside, the hotel-casino has greatly benefited from a $140 million renovation and rebranding that now makes it a solid value-priced option. The STRAT (, as it’s now officially called, looks great, and the revamped rooms are fresh and functional. What hasn’t changed is the view from 108 Drinks – still the highest spot in the city to have a libation, which you can afford because of The STRAT’s new attitude of offering an elevated experience at an approachable price point.

The anti-big box retailer – Only in Vegas can a warehouse-looking building in an industrial center be one of the remarkable places you’ll ever visit. AREA15 (, a cover-free, 230,000-square-foot immersive playground located one mile west of the Strip, has enough to see and do to devote an entire day.

If AREA15 has an anchor, it’s Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart (, which can take hours to get through with the countless wacky products in the faux grocery to study (and buy). If that’s not enough to beguile, the immersive experience has an art, puzzle and live entertainment element, plus a cool bar best visited after you go down the stairs and slides that take you from room to room, each weirder and more wonderful than the next.

Zaniness is also alive and well at Wink World: Portals into the Infinite (, another immersive feast for the eyes and ears, only this one from the psychedelic psyche of Blue Man Group co-founder Chris Wink. It’s as if Pee Wee Herman and Andy Warhol where given shrooms and 1,500 square feet to play with.

More cool stuff within AREA15 includes Birdly, a VR simulator that has you scuba diving, walking among dinosaurs or soaring above New York; Rocket Fizz, a shop for unique sweets and sodas; and … better we leave the rest for you to explore without any preconceived notions – AREA15 is best experienced while bewildered.

Cirque du Soleil is so hier – That’s French for “yesterday,” and even though the Beatles song of the same name graces “Love,” the hippie trippy Cirque du Soleil show in permanent residence at the Mirage since 2006, the Canadian production company has been out-cooled in Vegas by a relative newcomer. Spiegelworld (, which first hit the Strip a decade ago and now is up to three Vegas shows, one still dark, is known for rousing, frenetic and provocative shows. In other words, what Cirque was before it oversaturated the town with overpriced permanent shows that are collectively indistinguishable save for the tributes to the Beatles and Michael Jackson.

“Absinthe,” celebrating its 10-year anniversary at Caesars Palace, is flat-out the best live show this Vegas veteran has ever seen. The NC-17-rated blow-up doll and Chinese yo-yo acts are genius, and the most seductive “brother and sister” performance on skates is spellbinding – definitely not for the puritanical. Same can be said about the “Atomic Saloon Show,” a raunchy Western-themed extravaganza that doesn’t hit the heights of hilarity and enthrallment of the other Spiegelworld show down the road, but more than holds its own at a cleverly architected theater at the Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes. “Opium” at the Cosmopolitan isn’t expected to reopen until August at the earliest.

 Drinks on the rocks – How can a bar be both hot and cool? Make the place out of ice, that’s how. ICEBAR (at the LINQ) and Minus5 (at the Shoppes at Mandalay Place and Grand Canal Shoppes) are Vegas-style igloos, pouring potent potables into drinking glasses made of glacier-hard ice. Socializing in sub-freezing temperatures is a novelty, for sure, but the vibe at each location is so comfortable, especially wearing a provided parka or upgraded faux fur pimp coat (my term, not theirs), I can see why many human polar bears make return visits. As Marc Siebmann, the company’s director of operations, told me while exiting Minus5 through its sister 1923 Prohibition Bar, “Where else can you go from 105 to minus-5 in the middle of the Mojave Desert and be surrounded by 90 tons of imported Canadian ice while freezing your ice off?” (

Be a big wheel in a big wheel – This giant High Roller is a Ferris wheel larger than the London Eye and Singapore Flyer, and a happy medium between seeing the Strip by helicopter and from a high floor of a hotel or Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Tucked deep in The LINQ (, the 520-foot High Roller doesn’t offer the best views of the Strip, but the 30 minutes to complete one full revolution is still a blast inside a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned cabin with recorded narration that can be muted if desired. Upgrades include a tended bar or chocolate tasting with wine pairing.

Restaurants with a view – No, not views of the Strip or the Bellagio water fountains, but a stocked fish market, like at the exquisite Milos ( in the Venetian’s restaurant row, and the beautiful people poolside at the Venetian and adjoining Palazzo, where you’ll find Capri and Spritz, respectively.

Restaurateur Estiatorio Milos delights the senses at his elegant, yet unpretentious gem that has wisely relocated from the too-hip-for-me Cosmopolitan. Fresh seafood flown in daily from the Mediterranean is displayed market style on ice, waiting for hungry patrons to point out their entrée of choice to a wait staff that knows its mildly sweet barbounia from the light loup de mer. The baklava is a must-order even if polishing off a whole fish has you stuffed to the gills.

Two restaurants exclusive to guests of The Venetian Resort are Spritz and Capri, both poolside and fantastic. The views, depending on who’s taking in the rays or a dip, can be as stunning as what’s served for breakfast and lunch by a comely crew. Can’t go wrong with the Acai bowl, avocado toast, chicken tenders or Dole pineapple whip.

Views for adults only – Las Vegas has no shortage of strip clubs, some respectable, most sleezy, at least by looks alone. A classier route is “Fantasy: The Strip’s Biggest Tease” (, a topless revue at the Luxor that’s been strutting its stuff for over 20 years. The show delivers as promised while adding in a marvelously entertaining female host and soloist, and a comedy-magic act. Dancer and associate producer Mariah Rivera is thrilled to be back on stage – “It was agonizing,” she said – and even happier that audiences can now occupy the front rows with no social distancing and that she and the other shapely performers can finally strip away their masks … among other things.