Friday, April 26, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
PROMOTER'S dream, critics' nightmare, the Stratosphere Tower is about to debut.
If early notices are any indication, it should be a long-running show.
Visitors who've had sneak previews of the sprawling $550 million complex, which opens its doors to the public Tuesday, have been almost unanimous in praising what many once panned. Financial analysts are especially optimistic.
"We believe the Stratosphere Tower will become a major Las Vegas attraction," said William Schmitt of Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co. "It combines and leverages the most appealing aspects of the mega-casinos that have propelled Las Vegas' growth.
"The complex will feature a lavish and unique casino, retail space with popular restaurants and thrill rides utilizing the tower's awe-inspiring height. It is a winning concept, with gaming just one component of a total entertainment and retail-shopping experience."
"The Stratosphere property offers some of the most exciting, varied and competitively priced nongaming entertainment alternatives for the growing nongaming consumer dollar," said Amy de Rham of Montgomery Securities.
"The Stratosphere project is a perfect example of the concept of casinos as entertainment superstores in which the more competitive resorts generate revenues through a variety of cash registers" such as thrill rides and retail shops, according to Thomas Ryan of Bankers Trust.
That's music to the ears of Lyle Berman, the Stratosphere executive who sings a similar tune.
"We think the Stratosphere will become the must-see attraction in Las Vegas, much as the Eiffel Tower is in Paris," Berman said.
Highlighted by a 1,149-foot tower offering spectacular views of the Las Vegas Valley, the Stratosphere resort may be the best idea former Vegas World owner Bob Stupak ever had.
His second-best undoubtedly was joining forces with Berman-led Grand Casinos Inc., which melded Stupak's vision with its financial strength and high-quality, hands-on management style to create what seems destined to become a Las Vegas landmark.
Recognized by even his harshest critics as an innovative promoter, Stupak drew widespread opposition when he first announced plans to build a "space needle" modeled after other World's Fair landmarks at the site of his old Vegas World resort on Las Vegas Boulevard north of Sahara Avenue.
Concerns over air-traffic safety trimmed the tower's proposed height. Stupak's controversial financing and promotional tactics led skeptics to conclude he'd never complete the project.
But Stupak persisted. When fund-raising stalled, he accepted Grand Casinos Chairman Berman's offer to help complete the half-finished tower.
Grand Casinos acquired a controlling interest in the project, raised the requisite money and began expanding on Stupak's ambitious plans.
The result is certain to surprise longtime Las Vegans, for the Stratosphere complex bears no resemblance to previous Vegas World renovations. The project features the tasteful decor and attention to detail that have been trademarks of other gaming and entertainment ventures overseen by Grand Casinos.
The massive retail-shopping area will be operated by the Gordon and Simon Property groups, developers of the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. It will feature streetscapes depicting Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and New York.
In keeping with its World's Fair motif, Stratosphere Corp. has invited visitors from around the globe to celebrate the opening of the sprawling 354,000-square-foot resort complex Monday.
More than 5,000 people, including journalists from as far away as Germany, England, France, Hungary and Japan, are expected at private opening-night ceremonies that will include a $50,000 fireworks show just after dark.
The resort's first-phase 97,000-square-foot casino area officially opens at 10 a.m. Tuesday, though the hotel's first 1,500 rooms and suites won't accept overnight guests until May 7.
Until then, the primary attractions will be the brightly decorated casino and 1,149-foot tower that offers heart-stopping rides, a revolving restaurant, cocktail lounge, indoor and outdoor observation decks and wedding chapels perched high above the desert floor.
The spire, tallest free-standing observation tower in the United States and tallest building west of the Mississippi, is capped by a 12-story pod. It can be reached by four double-deck elevators that travel at 1,800 feet per minute.
But the high-speed elevators will pale in comparison to the Big Shot and High Roller -- thrill rides likely to lure only the bravest of tourists.
The High Roller consists of nine four-passenger cars that will make three circuits around the tower, banking up to 32 degrees. At 909 feet above the ground, it's the world's highest roller coaster.
Riders of the Big Shot will experience up to four Gs as they accelerate straight up a 228-foot mast extending from the top of the tower at the 921-foot level. They'll feel negative Gs on the way down, as the 16-seat passenger compartment free-falls back to the starting point.
Later this year, Stratosphere will unveil its most talked-about ride -- a $6 million, 70-foot-tall animatronic ape that climbs more than halfway up one leg of the tower, carrying 48 passengers in a viewing compartment in its belly.
"We wanted to offer unique rides that are as spectacular and awe-inspiring as the tower itself," said Stratosphere President Dave Wirshing.
The tower and its rides ascend from the base complex that, once all three phases of construction are completed, will include three World's Fair-themed casinos totaling 118,000 square feet, 2,500 rooms and suites, a 160,000-square-foot shopping mall and entertainment center, a Kids Quest child-care center, a showroom featuring impressionist Danny Gans and an 80,000-square-foot aquarium incorporating glass tunnels through which visitors can walk.
The resort will have seven restaurants, including a Rainforest Cafe in a tropical rainforest setting, a Ferraro's Italian gourmet restaurant, Sister's Cafe & Grille, a 1950s-oriented Roxy's Diner, a 500-seat Around the World Buffet, and a Western-style Big Sky barbecue.
The seventh will be the Top of the World Restaurant, which will offer fine dining in the pod near the 900-foot level. It will rotate 360 degrees each hour, offering views of the entire valley.
Kids Quest is a professionally staffed child-care center open every day for children. It features a mini-video arcade and a Sega Genesis and Nintendo game area.
The brightly decorated casino will be divided into a Pavilion of Imagination, a Pavilion of Fun and a Pavilion of the World, offering more than 2,400 slot machines, 70 table games, a race and sports book and a keno lounge. Other lounges will offer evening shows ranging from large revue productions to show bands.
There will be parking for more than 4,000 cars.
"Stratosphere is Grand Casinos' entry into the Las Vegas market, which is the most exciting and profitable market in the nation," said Berman, who in addition to his role as Grand Casinos chairman is the chief executive officer of Stratosphere Corp.
"I can't think of a better way to enter this market than with a landmark property. And that's just what Stratosphere will be."
Berman engineered Grand Casinos' growth to one of the top five gaming companies in the country in just five years by making Grand's resorts full-service entertainment complexes -- a strategy that should serve Stratosphere well.
"They will provide several levels of entertainment within a highly visible destination to a wide range of customers," Schmitt said.
"We believe it will be a major draw for all segments of the estimated 32 million visitors to Las Vegas in 1996, as well as to the local market. This would enable them to build a large and loyal customer base relatively quickly.
"We believe the vision of Lyle Berman, backed by the resources of Grand Casinos and the current management team, including (former Fitzgeralds Gaming Corp. President) Dave Wirshing, should make this project a success," he said.
Wirshing said Tuesday's official opening will be just the first stage of an exciting evolutionary process.
"Stratosphere will be a growing and evolving entertainment complex, but beginning Tuesday we will be providing a first-class experience for all our guests. We are dedicated to guest services."