Friday, Dec. 12, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Nearly 20 years ago, Steve Wynn made quite a stir in Las Vegas when he opened the Mirage and its signature attraction — a volcano that would erupt every 15 minutes in front of the resort.
Over time, other properties have promised and delivered free attractions to get the public’s attention with the hope they would drop a little money inside, whether in the casino or at a restaurant, bar or retail outlet.
Wynn used the same tactic at Bellagio before reversing course and designing the don’t-miss-this attractions inside as he did at Wynn Las Vegas (and, presumably, at Encore, which opens later this month).
But it was the Mirage volcano that started it all, and our attention was called back to that attraction this week when a new and improved eruption debuted.
It features more flames and a cool soundtrack written and performed by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla performer Zakir Hussain.
With that in mind, here’s one man’s ranking of the top free attractions and attention-diverters on the Strip:
No. 8 — The rainstorm at Merchants Harbor at Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile shops. One of the most exhilarating experiences in the desert is a rainstorm that releases sage scents.
When the Miracle Mile shops were known as Desert Passage, the rainstorm with thunder and lightning over a desert harbor — on the hour in the middle of the week and every half-hour on weekends — made some sense. Now, it’s a little out of place.
How exciting is it to see it rain, thunder and lightning indoors? Not much, but it is a diversion from the many stores in the circular mall.
No. 7 — The lion habitat at the MGM Grand. The facility itself is well done with great vantage points of these magnificent creatures.
But they’re cats. And what do cats do most? Sleep!
Once in awhile you’ll get to see them play with balls and other toys in the enclosure or gnaw rawhide, but lions being lions, they’re mostly lyin’ around.
MGM Mirage had a similar exhibition at the Mirage where Siegfried & Roy’s famed white tigers were on display. The tigers slept a lot there, too, but they’d occasionally wander into the pools and play with each other.
But that display is gone and you have to pay to see the white tigers at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden.
YouTube: Caesars Palace statues
No. 6 — The performing statues at the Forum Shops at Caesars. Statues coming to life and laughing and talking had entertainment potential. But most of the Forum visitors at the two different performances in different corners of the mall usually walk away a little mystified.
The laser display that culminates a party featuring Bacchus, Plutus and Venus and the destruction of Atlantis in fire and water during Neptune’s mediation of a dispute between his children are great spectacles.
But the sound quality at both shows suffers, probably because of the buzz in the well-trafficked corridors of the mall and it’s difficult to understand the story behind the spectacle.
But the special effects themselves are cool to see, especially in the Atlantis show, which also features a 50,000-gallon saltwater aquarium with lots of interesting fish.
YouTube: Sirens of T.I.
No. 5 — The Sirens of T.I. I get it that Treasure Island wanted to transform its image into something sexier than it was. But changing the property’s pirate battle into a tale of seduction set to music was a disappointment.
I have nothing against the performers who are fine singers and awesome acrobats. But the whole story line is a comedown from what they once had.
Still, people flock to the property to see the spectacle of a ship sinking on the Strip every 90 minutes. It’s entertainment you’re not going to get in Dubuque, Iowa. And it’s free.
YouTube: Street performers at the Venetian
No. 4 — The performers at the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian. They’re all over the mall and they’re quite entertaining.
There are musicians, dancers, jugglers, stilt-walkers and mimes who interact with the shopping public. The vocalist gondoliers are fine performers in the canal that runs the length of the mall. While you have to pay to ride the gondolas, it doesn’t cost anything to hear them sing.
The Living Statues — mimes who look like marble statues — are entertaining as they maintain a pose for several minutes and then surprise an unsuspecting shopper who thought they were an animatronic statue.
YouTube: New Mirage Volcano
No. 3 — The Mirage volcano. At the time of this writing, I hadn’t seen the new and improved version of the eruption. But anything spewing flame and steam with a soundtrack developed by the drummer for the Grateful Dead has to be fun.
The old eruption was a classic. Longtime Las Vegans will remember how the eruptions every 15 minutes after dark would slow traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard. And being the first of its kind makes the volcano show something special.
YouTube: Bellagio Fountains
No. 2 — The Fountain Show at the Bellagio. When the Bellagio opened on a cold and breezy October night in 1998, this didn’t seem like a great idea when the windblown fountains rained on formally attired guests.
But over time, the Fountain Show has been one of the most photographed and talked-about attractions in Las Vegas.
A series of fountains — the moving oarsmen, the stable shooters and the explosive supershooters that blast water 250 feet high — are choreographed to popular and classical music.
The fountains have been featured in several films all or partially set in Las Vegas — “Ocean’s Eleven” (the updated version with George Clooney and Brad Pitt), “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Lucky You” and “21.”
The fountain idea was so cool that Wynn used it again at his Wynn Macau property, souping up the presentation with colored lights and occasional fireballs like those used in the Mirage volcano.
No. 1 — The Conservatory at the Bellagio. Five times a year, designers and engineers develop a themed presentation in an indoor area just off the main lobby of the hotel.
YouTube: Bellagio Conservatory Fall 2008
The attraction usually blends floral arrangements, animatronics, water features and static displays with a seasonal theme.
MGM Mirage has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years developing memorable backdrops for millions of photographs and videos.
The artistry and imagination is always top-drawer and the company has an elaborate system of computers, wiring, lights and pumps under the floor to produce the animated attractions, which include jumping water streams and arches.
A designer once told me the company transported a massive tree from Florida on several flatbed trucks. Parts of the tree were recycled into numerous displays over several months.
Longtime Las Vegans have memories of their favorite displays, and there have been many. There have been animated bears and penguins, an enclosure filled with live butterflies and intertwined model railroad displays over the years.
The conservatory is almost always full of people — the place smells great and it’s a great place to kill some time. You don’t have to walk through the casino to get there and the conservatory is only a few steps away from the spectacular 27-foot Jean-Philippe Patisserie chocolate fountain.
And it’s free. What a deal.
Rapid Rewards Dining
Several months ago, Southwest Airlines promised that it was tweaking its Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program to provide more benefits.
The latest tweak is the company’s new Rapid Rewards Dining program that offers members the opportunity to earn credits for free trips by eating at certain restaurants, clubs and bars nationwide.
Since Southwest is the market leader at McCarran International Airport, it stands to reason that there are thousands of Rapid Rewards cardholders in Southern Nevada (Southwest won’t say how many there are).
Southwest’s rollout of Rapid Rewards Dining last week revealed that 88 eateries are participating in the program in Southern Nevada, from fast food (Quiznos) to something a little more elaborate (The Melting Pot, Sedona Lounge).
Cardholders have to sign up and register their credit or debit cards with the program. After spending $100 within a one-year period, participants get a quarter of a credit toward free travel. It takes 16 credits to get a free round-trip flight with the program.
New participants to the program get a quarter credit after the first $25 spent.
A list of the 88 restaurants can be downloaded at southwest.com and the site also lists participating restaurants in several other cities across the country.
Chicago out, Boston in for Virgin
Virgin America, which had planned to begin service to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in February, has scratched those plans and will fly to Boston’s Logan International instead.
The San Francisco-based carrier, which has Las Vegas flights to and from San Francisco and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, was negotiating for gate space at O’Hare with American, United and Delta, which have all cut capacity at the Chicago airport.
Virgin had planned five flights a day between Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles. Airline officials said as gates became more available there they would consider nonstop flights to and from Las Vegas. Under original plans, Virgin was going to offer connecting service to Chicago via San Francisco.
But negotiations for gates broke down with American, United and Delta leading to Virgin going to Plan B, which is inaugurating the Boston service Feb. 12.
Boston becomes Virgin’s eighth city and the airline will flight two daily round trips from San Francisco and three from Los Angeles. Although schedules haven’t been announced, it’s likely flights will have connections from Las Vegas.
Virgin America has topped numerous lists and surveys and has won several awards for its service, which includes a high-tech entertainment system, seat-to-seat computer chat features and touch-screen onboard food ordering. The airline is expected to be the first to offer fleetwide in-flight Internet service.