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[Hear Wynn defend the hotel on "Vegas S&M" by clicking here]

 

July 17, 2005

Wynn's $2.7 billion challenge

Where's the bang for all those bucks?

[see letters from readers on this by clicking here]

BY STEVE FRIESS
Special to the Tribune

LAS VEGAS: They promised us the Eighth Wonder of the World. Literally.

Steve Wynn himself, the hotel visionary who reinvented the Las Vegas Strip in the 1980s and 1990s, claimed his newest gambling parlor would be more impressive than the Egyptian pyramids -- and not the ersatz one down the street, either. His Web site, without a trace of irony or evident humor, said the rooms took longer to complete than Michelangelo spent painting the Sistine Chapel.

And even if he hadn't so bloviated, he spent $2.7 billion on it without even a business cash advance. That's a price tag so staggering -- $1 billion more than the budget for whatever goes on the former World Trade Center site-that it comes attached to a risky promise: Wynn Las Vegas, the most expensive casino ever and the world's second-most expensive hotel, will deliver a mind-blowing, eye-popping, holy-crap wow.

With all that out there, then, it's no surprise the first guests expected to be utterly transformed simply by walking in the door. It's also no shock that, when the $100 million production show "Le Reve" and the swanky $25-cover-charge nightclub La Bete both floundered and required ongoing overhauling, critics would pounce.

My expectations were more modest. Two months after that grand opening, my partner and I shoved our way through the awkward maze of ornate flora, dragging our suitcase on the colorfully tiled mosaic floors to the lobby to check in, looking only for a comfortable, elegant and well-run hotel. Oh, and something different and better than all that existed in Vegas before it. That may not seem fair, but there's no way to judge a new Vegas resort on its own merits; it always must be placed in context of its competition.

Thus, here's the bottom line: Wynn, who left the casino business in 2000 when his Mirage Resorts Inc. was bought out, has created in his big comeback a nice but overpriced and highly pretentious property that discourages ordinary people from visiting. Worse, though, it fails to shift the epicenter of this tourist mecca in a way it would seem $2.7 billion would.

The grand concept here is to take the model of a Vegas megaresort, which Wynn launched with the Mirage in 1989, and turn it outside in. Instead of beckoning visitors by giving away free streetside spectacles like Treasure Island's pirate show or the Bellagio's glorious dancing waters, Wynn erected a 140-foot mountain along his corner of the Strip to both shelter his guests from the crass brightness of Vegas and whet curiosity for passersby about what lurks within. On the hotel side of that mountain are waterfalls and koi-filled ponds as well as the "Lake of Dreams," a wall in front of a lake upon which a video, music and light show occurs every half hour after dark.

But even once you're in, those goodies are largely reserved for hotel and restaurant guests, not the average pedestrian-a departure that's hard to cheer. Vegas has always been a notoriously democratic city where all are welcome at even the most luxurious landmarks regardless of whether they're staying at the Mandalay Bay or the Motel 6. It's tough to imagine why tourists not staying or eating at Wynn would bother coming through more than once, a marked difference from the way inveterate Vegas-goers repeatedly pop in at the Bellagio or the Venetian.

Everything about the place is undeniably pretty but not as unique or special as its owners insist. That "Lake of Dreams" spectacle, for instance, is surprisingly similar to the Fremont Street Experience light show in downtown Vegas, except Wynn's is smaller and less interesting. The casino is certainly tastefully done in muted reds and oranges, but it merely evokes Wynn's Bellagio-right down, curiously, to identical fonts on the signage. The standard rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows are pleasant but of an average size at 630 square feet, their only innovation being the flat-screen TV that can pivot in different directions to be seen from either the couch or bed.

Furthermore, Wynn Las Vegas gives new meaning to the word "eponymous," slapping that familiar signature not only on the building itself but the watch shop, the steakhouse and the Ferrari-Maserati dealership. It's also on the bed linens which, the "Decor To Go" brochure in the room informs, are for sale along with the room's couch, bathroom scales and Warhol reproductions.

Even his baritone is everywhere, oozing from slot machines bearing his likeness. He voices the audio guide for his art gallery, a personal collection that includes several lovely and priceless pieces but which fails to offer any context. What, for instance, are Monet and Warhol doing in the same exhibit? An art history student could probably conjure up a thesis, but Wynn is content simply with the fact that he, as the owner of their works, is the only link required.

Nor is the shopping unique. Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior and Cartier are all elsewhere on The Strip, and some of the one-of-a-kind stores at Wynn are actually off-putting. Anyone who dares to enter Graff, the highest of high-end jewelers, can expect a greeting so glacial they'll feel the need to prove they can afford even the paper upon which the receipts are printed before they can gawk. "Sex and the City" fans might find it interesting to wander into the only Manolo Blahnik shop in the U.S. outside Manhattan -- until they realize the fictional Carrie Bradshaw would have had to cut her birth control pills in half to afford what, at these prices, must have been a tragic shopping compulsion.

From a high-tech standpoint, too, Wynn Las Vegas is a bit too proud of itself. On the one hand, it was a brilliant move to make the electronic room key double as a player's card, automatically enrolling guests in the hotel's version of a frequent-flier program and using the same piece of plastic in an intuitive way that begs the question of why nobody had thought of that before. And it's pretty cool how they put computer chips inside the gambling chips to detect counterfeits.

Yet, despite all that, it's almost impossible to get decent or consistent cell-phone reception anywhere on the property except, perhaps, with your face pressed against your room's window. And, just as perplexing, there's no wireless Internet in the rooms for use with a guest's laptop. How is it possible that the Holiday Inn we stayed at in Grayslake, Ill., has been retrofitted for Wi-Fi but the world's newest, most expensive, most modern casino doesn't have it?

Other surprising logistical problems abound. In that quest for "intimacy," Wynn Las Vegas has such narrow walkways that when the "Lake of Dreams" show comes on, the crowd that gathers for the skimpy partial view from inside the hotel causes an impassable pedestrian traffic jam. And rumors that the property isn't fully staffed must be true, considering that housekeeping was just getting to turndown service on our floor at 10 p.m. What's more, a friend who had to leave after our delightful dinner at Daniel Boulud Brasserie found herself facing a 45-minute wait for her car at valet because there were more than 60 cars ahead of her. (A $20 "tip" seemed to move her up the line considerably.)

Where this property does earn the right to its arrogance is in its fleet of restaurants, which are, on the whole, the best collection at any Vegas resort. In a town now sadly overrun by absentee celebrity chefs, Wynn wisely required all but one-Boulud-to work full-time on his property in the kitchens built especially for them. Thus, guests who try out Alessandro Stratta's French gourmet room, Alex, or Paul Bartolotta's Italian seafood eatery, Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare, may not know these James Beard winners from the Food Network, but they'll feel like they've discovered something all their own.

In exchange for that exclusivity, these chefs received amazing settings to serve their cuisine, from the uber-elegant sunken dining room with its "Hello, Dolly"-esque staircase at Alex to the shelter of the hotel's mountain at Bartolotta. Even the Buffet at Wynn is a triumph, more festive and colorfully detailed than any other all-you-can-eat inVegas and offering such amenities as personally tossed salads, fresh seafood and exotic fruits.

That said, when you strip all that away, what you have is another beautiful-but not unique or spectacular-Vegas resort. Wynn aimed for elegance and he got elegance, no doubt about it. And this isn't to say that Wynn will fail; anyone around Vegas long enough knows he never fails. But he also built a property that, in its inward focus, leaves behind some of the pizzazz that makes Vegas so great.

Las Vegas journalist Steve Friess is a former Chicagoan who is a frequent -- and opinionated -- contributor on Vegas.

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