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The New Casino Culture

There is not a whole lot to keep me hanging around the Caesars compound, which I find dark, depressing, and mystifyingly laid out. I repeatedly get lost in the casino-floor maze, and it always seems to be night, no matter what time of day it is. This is the main reason I endure the Dutch-pretzel-oven climate of the pool area: to reset my circadian rhythms and get my bearings. While working in Atlantic City, I learned that sunlight—or any reminder or representation of the outside world—is anathema to casino designers. Clocks are verboten. Birds in the wallpaper pattern?Sacrilege. Windows?Fuhgettaboudit! The conventional wisdom is that if gamblers actually knew what time it was, or were reminded that they had, say, children, they would come to their senses and go to bed. By far the most exciting part of the whole Vegas experience is walking down the street to the Mirage, Steve Wynn's new place, to watch the "volcano" "erupt" every night at sundown.

The Real Deal
Las Vegas, July 2001

I'm in Vegas again, for the first time in 12 years, to interview Britney Spears. She is not yet 18 and is at the height of her "Oops!...I did it again" powers, her glory days, and her sexuality still seems very winky-winky. Very faux. Very...Vegas. Britney, as Rivers was in the late eighties, is the "new Vegas" personified. Post-millennial Vegas. The L.V. Chamber of Commerce might just as well have created ads that read, LIVE NUDE GIRLS! BRING THE KIDS! This Vegas also reminds me of a famous Courtney Love lyric: "I fake it so real, I am beyond fake." Everything of interest in this kooky town is a facsimile, a replica, a knockoff, but fabulously so, because in its shamelessness, it is original. If it were a person, it would be...Britney Spears.

We are both staying at the Bellagio, Steve Wynn's $1.6 billion temple of "tasteful" homage to the art and architecture of northern Italy and southern France. Of course, to the people who design casinos, tasteful means an 11-acre "lake" with 1,000 fountains that shoot water 240 feet into the air as they "dance" to opera and Italian pop. My nicely appointed but run-of-the-mill suite is in some far-flung tower that requires a football field–length walk through the casino to get to. Despite the fact that the Bellagio has expanded the concept of what a casino-hotel can be—$300 million worth of van Goghs, Monets, Renoirs, and Picassos hang in the gallery; a $30 million, 90,000-square-foot conservatory is staffed with more than a hundred horticulturists—I still have a sense of being both trapped in eternal nighttime and tricked into gambling. On the other hand, I am loving the outdoor zone, which features several pools—as well as little jet nozzles that spray humidity into the air and make it possible to sit outside for more than 10 minutes at a time without suffocating.

Britney's boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, and his band, 'N Sync, are also in town. After their concert, I'm whisked off with the entourage into a giant disco, inside yet another casino, where people are taking hits of oxygen from neon-lit tubes, and nearly naked go-go boys and girls dance on risers. No need to limo off the Strip for disco action; it's 2001, and dance clubs are de rigueur for any casino that hopes to attract the young.

During my downtime, I explore the wonders of this new Las Vegas. Wolfgang Puck has opened a Spago at Caesars, launching the city into a new era of celebrity chefs and fancy shopping. At the Bellagio there is a Le Cirque, an Aqua, and an outpost of Todd English's Olives, not to mention Armani, Chanel, Gucci, Tiffany, Moschino, and Prada boutiques. Stuff to do! Who needs a tour of the Hoover Dam when there's serious shopping right here in Bellagio-town?At Caesars I explore the Forum Shops, a decadent mall designed as a grand trompe l'oeil experiment—the winding "streets" and "outdoor cafés" actually make you feel as if you were outside when, in fact, you are "outside." There's a blue sky with puffy clouds above, Romanesque fountains, and...outside sounds, piped in.

A Playground for the Rich and Famous (and the Not So Rich and Not So Famous)
Atlantic City, November 2004

On a Friday night, the weekend before Thanksgiving, I drive the 130 miles from Manhattan to Atlantic City to spend a few days at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Because it is the first new casino to be built here in 13 years, the place has gotten an extraordinary amount of press, and I'm anxious to see what all the fuss is about. It appears that Atlantic City has finally figured out how to draw the younger, more fabulous crowd that Vegas has been pulling in for the past decade. For a time, the Borgata seemed to be Ben Affleck's second home. In fact, the Borgata is where J.Lo's mother, Guadalupe, won $2.4 million playing a Wheel of Fortune slot machine.

The Borgata has succeeded beyond everyone's wildest expectations partly because she's the sexy new girl in town and partly because those in charge have been doing some thinking about what makes people happy. They have also clearly taken a few pages from the Steve Wynn handbook. The first thing I notice when I walk in through the soaring, modern lobby are three giant orange-glass Dale Chihuly sculptures—a direct rip-off from the Bellagio. I don't know about you, but one thing that makes me very, very happy is knowing that I have scored a much nicer room than most of the other schlubs milling around the lobby. Luckily, I'm friends with a rich guy from Philadelphia named Billy Frankel, one of the Borgata's big players, and he leaned on his—no doubt—long-suffering casino host to upgrade me to a very big suite on a high floor with sweeping, sparkling views of the entire city and the Atlantic Ocean.

I have friends in Atlantic City from when I lived here 20 years ago, so we go out on Friday night to the Borgata's Italian restaurant, Specchio, which is easily as good as some of the best restaurants I have been to in Manhattan. And thanks to the advice of the lovely, funny lady-sommelier, I enjoy the most delicious bottle of wine I've ever tasted, a $60 Italian red, the name of which I foolishly don't write down. Afterward, we give the dance club, Mixx, a spin, but I am puzzled by how unspecial it is. We might as well be in any anodyne techno club in Dallas. For a moment we consider going to see Bon Jovi's performance, in the theater, but then decide we need to disembark from the SS Borgata for a while and step back into the real world. One of the nice things about Atlantic City is that it is, in fact, a city, one in which you can walk around and hail cabs and get into all sorts of trouble. Where there was once a terrifying, drug-infested neighborhood right in the center of everything, there is now the Walk, a lovely outdoor mall that has been woven into the fabric of the streetscape. There are at least a dozen new restaurants and nightclubs as well. Feeling nostalgic, we head straight for Studio VI, a disco I used to spend a lot of time in. I still know people, including Mortimer, the drag queen at the door, who lets us all in free. Here, in a real nightclub, as opposed to the Borgata's "nightclub," we have a howling good time and stay until 4 a.m. That, perhaps, is the problem with nightclubs in casinos: they lack the energy that comes from large groups of people who know one another all being naughty together.

The next day we sleep in and take our hangovers to the spa, a feature to which all casino-hotels now devote an inordinate amount of space, money, and energy. This one, Spa Toccare, is indeed impressive, if a tad Caligula. For the life of me I cannot figure out why there isn't an outdoor pool for the summer months. There is a huge, beautiful indoor pool in a room with doors leading to the only outdoor space in the entire complex—and the space is meager. I have seen bigger, nicer backyards behind brownstones on the Upper East Side. This is especially baffling because the Borgata is surrounded by water and its customers are given no access to it.

Billy Frankel comes in from Philadelphia to eat steak and gamble away his riches. (The Borgata has an outpost of the legendary New York steak house Old Homestead, which has been operating in Manhattan's Meatpacking District since 1867.) A craps man, Billy once won $1 million in a single night in this town, at Steve Wynn's Golden Nugget. Today, he gambles only at the Borgata. "Best casino in Atlantic City," he says. "Easily. It's got everything. Great restaurants and hip, young people." Billy is in his sixties and wears a suit jacket when he gambles. Naturally, he prefers to be where the action is. We are escorted by a host through the throngs and deposited at a busy table where he doesn't like the vibe. Gamblers are funny people. They feel things that we non-gamblers are oblivious to. At the next table, his girlfriend and I drink triple Sambucas and watch Billy lose $6,000 in about four minutes. He is prepared to lose $10,000, but gets grumpy and decides to go upstairs to his suite, to watch an Eagles game on his JumboTron-sized TV and stew in his juices.

By Sunday morning, I'm dying to not be in a casino. Other than my room and the spa, there is nowhere to go to relax, no way to escape the constant thrumming and cacophony and flashing lights, and I'm exhausted. We eat lunch at the Metropolitan, a knockoff of Balthazar, the bistro in downtown Manhattan that is itself a knockoff of every other restaurant in Paris. Knockoffs twice removed are really what casino design is all about. However, one of the things I like about the Borgata is that it is not themed. There are no pirates. Or men in gladiator costumes. Or Wild Wild West "saloons" with swinging doors and tumbleweeds. It's just a slick, adult playground for people like Billy—and Ben Affleck.


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