April 24, 2002 -- Las Vegas spent the 1990s trying to attract families by transforming itself into a kid-friendly entertainment paradise.
But children don't gamble, and they can distract their parents from gambling. So now the city is returning to its roots, with a new mantra: Leave the kids at home.
The family-oriented hotels that redefined Las Vegas over the last decade are switching to more adult fare, including topless revues. Newer hotels like the Palms are designed as adult-oriented party hotels, built around nightclubs and sexy shows rather than amusement parks and family restaurants.
City officials are abandoning the family-friendly line. "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."
At the beginning of the 1990s, Las Vegas was facing new competition from a boom in legal gambling on riverboats and Indian reservations. The city's gambling revenues plunged, declining by almost half a billion dollars in 1992 alone.
Las Vegas seemed tired, and needed to find a way to set itself apart from the rival gambling establishments that were popping up across the country. The city's leaders decided to make Vegas a spectacular "experience" that would attract whole families rather than single gamblers.
In less than 10 years, virtually every hotel on the Strip was demolished or rebuilt, at an estimated total cost of $12 billion. The new hotels were huge — 20 of the world's 23 largest hotels are in Las Vegas — and provided spectacular entertainment like the artificial volcano at the Mirage, which spewed out flames every 15 minutes after dark.
One of the biggest of the new hotels, the 5,000-room MGM Grand, spent $100 million to build an amusement park so children would have somewhere to go while their parents gambled. "We really made a very concerted effort to try and focus on all of the nongambling aspects of Las Vegas," said Alan Feldman, vice president for public affairs for MGM Grand.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority launched an intensive advertising campaign aimed at families. Anthony Curtis, a professional blackjack player who publishes the Las Vegas Advisor, a consumer newsletter, says the aim was to remove the stigma of gambling: "This whole advertising campaign for Vegas was to remove that barrier, so the husband would go, 'It's OK. They've got pools. They've got shopping. They've got food. They've got something to do with Junior.'"
Kids and Gambling Don't Mix
The campaign succeeded in generating a slew of media stories about Las Vegas as a family destination. "That worked very, very well — until the people started actually coming with their kids," said Curtis.
Families came, and total visitor numbers to the city more than doubled in a decade. But casino owners found that the parents were spending too much time with their kids when they were supposed to be at the gambling tables. And those parents who did gamble often left their children unattended until late at night, in an environment where they were still exposed to adult temptations like X-rated pamphlets and billboards. Some parents worried that gambling might look like a little too much fun in this sanitized, family friendly world. "It's sort of tantalizing to watch them all play. I mean, I want to play too," a young boy told ABCNEWS while visiting the MGM Grand in 1993.
"I don't think Vegas really wanted the kids," said Curtis. "I think they wanted the non-gambling spouse."
The MGM Grand shut down its children's amusement park after just nine months. "It was not a huge success," Feldman said.
Back to Its Roots
Now Sin City is returning to what it does best: adult entertainment. The number of sex clubs has tripled in the last five years. On a busy Saturday night, more than 1,000 strippers perform in clubs along the Strip, where they can earn as much as $200,000 a year.
"Everybody's pushing and wanting a sexier Las Vegas," said Tracy Ault, who has been singing and dancing on the Strip for 10 years. "It's about the sexy, edgy entertainment, and looking at beautiful women and having a great cocktail with your buddies and having a hot night of fun."
During a post-Sept. 11 lull in business, Mayor Goodman gave the strip clubs a boost in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, urging "all able-bodied constituents" to "go out and have a lap dance."
The big hotels are getting in on the act too, opening revues that feature near-naked dancers. The hotel show with the most nudity is at the MGM Grand. Called "La Femme," it features topless and nude dancers from the famous Crazy Horse revue in Paris.
Mainstream entertainers are spicing their acts up too. Comedy magician Fielding West, a veteran on the Strip, added topless assistants to his act and renamed it Comedy, Tricks and Naked Chicks.
Whether or not sex and nightlife work as Las Vegas's latest attraction, Curtis is sure the city's leaders will keep looking for new ways to draw people into its casinos, the lifeblood of its tourist revenue. "I love the way Las Vegas morphs from one to the next. I love the way that they're always inventing new ways to bait the traps."