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Welcome to CityCenter: New Strip casino opens its doors

MGM Mirage debuts Aria, final component and crown jewel of newest casino-resort

CityCenter grand opening

Leila Navidi

Guests enter the Aria hotel-casino for the first time Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009.

Updated Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 | 3:20 a.m.

CityCenter grand opening

Guests enter the Aria hotel-casino for the first time Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Aria opens its doors to the public

CityCenter's Aria has opened its doors to the public. Fireworks exploded over the centerpiece of the $8.5 billion CityCenter project, and people eagerly awaited to be the first inside Aria, which is a partnership between MGM Mirage and Dubai World.

CityCenter's Aria Makes Debut

CityCenter's Aria makes it long awaited debut to the public.

Aria Opening

CityCenter President and CEO, Bobby Baldwin, bottom center, speaks during the opening of Aria at CityCenter in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Aria Preview

Employees ready the bar at the Skybox Bar at Aria, the centerpiece of the $8.5 billion CityCenter project, Monday, December 14, 2009. Launch slideshow »

CityCenter WET Tour

A water feature named Launch slideshow »

CityCenter Dining Experience

CityCenter offers excellent dining experiences.

Special Section

After a two-minute fireworks display, the Aria Resort & Casino opened its doors to the public late Wednesday night, giving tourists and Las Vegas residents a glimpse inside the centerpiece of CityCenter. It is an $8.5 billion project many have watched evolve since its inception five years ago.

That evolution has not been without adversity. Construction defects and a sharp downturn in the economy persuaded MGM Mirage to top off the Harmon hotel to half its proposed size.

Six construction workers died during the building of CityCenter.

And, it opens during the worst recession since the Depression, appealing to a shrunken class of high-end consumers.

But Wednesday was about celebration.

Crowds began to form outside the resort several hours before the first guest walked in at 11:41 p.m. They lined up along CityCenter Place, the main road leading to CityCenter.

When the doors finally opened, visitors were welcomed with applause by some of the complex’s 12,000 new workers. And a crowd of local and national media were on hand to capture Aria’s public debut.

Dealers were eager to pitch the first cards of the night, cocktail waitresses were ready to take the first drink orders and rows and rows of bright slot machines were asking to be played.

By midnight, visitors jammed the casino floor, flooding in from every entrance and making it difficult to move.

“It’s very exciting. It’s really beautiful,” said Maryann Sherman of Las Vegas, who was among the first to see the new casino.

Sherman and her husband, Lester, moved to Las Vegas from Kansas about five months ago but said they have been following the progress of the project for years.

“I came home from work at 7 o’clock, and she had been waiting to go all day,” said Lester Sherman, who waited outside for about 30 minutes before the doors opened.

They promptly sat down at a penny slot machine to try their luck. “We decided we need to be whales to get private invitations to parties,” Maryann Sherman said jokingly.

Before the public opening, Aria hosted a private party for VIPs and other invited guests, who sampled the resort’s culinary offerings and took in its amenities.

Among the guests at the opening-night party was George Maloof, owner of the Palms, who was getting his first look at the property.

“It’s a beautiful place,” Maloof said, admiring some of the detail of the modern design as he entered near Aria’s front desk. Like other guests in attendance, Maloof said he planned to walk through all the public areas and discover some of Aria’s surprises.

Earlier in the afternoon, at an opening ceremony, CityCenter executives CEO Jim Murren and President Bobby Baldwin applauded the efforts of the employees who will be working at the development and thanked representatives of the various development teams that had representatives in attendance.

Aria — the crown jewel of CityCenter, as many MGM Mirage execs refer to it — is the fourth building to open after weeks of phased unveilings on the 67-acre plot of land between the Monte Carlo and Bellagio.

The casino-resort’s opening comes on the heels of condo-hotel towers Vdara and Mandarin Oriental and the high-end retail mall Crystals.

Few Las Vegas visitors can say they’ve seen the project progress like Carol and Wallace Mouzon have.

On a trip to Las Vegas in 2006, the couple witnessed the implosion of the Boardwalk Hotel and Casino from their hotel room at the Jockey Club, making space for what would be the multi-billion dollar urban metropolis. More than three years later, they were coincidentally back to see what came out of the rubble.

“We were staying in a room facing the Strip and by the time I called my wife over to the TV to see what was going on, I heard a big boom. I was able to see it simultaneously on TV and out our window,” Wallace Mouzon said.

The Mouzons, who live in Atlanta and have a timeshare in Las Vegas, decided they had to check out the grand opening celebration. The couple stopped to sit down for a drink at Bar Moderno, one of the few that wasn’t filled on Wednesday night, to escape the crowds on the casino floor.

“It’s really great, so opulent,” Wallace Mouzon said. “We’d like to stay upstairs sometime. I hear the rooms are really reasonable, too.”

The 61-story tower features a 150,000-square-foot casino and 4,004 hotel rooms, including 568 suites. The contemporary rooms, with clean lines, chrome accents and wood paneling, have nightly rates ranging from $149 to $799. Suites run $425 to $7,500.

The resort will welcome its first public guests Thursday evening, and Baldwin said about 1,500 people were expected.

Justin Chase and Victoria Rachels of Dallas came to check out the resort after purchasing tickets to Cirque du Soleil’s resident show at Aria, “Viva Elvis.”

They wandered through the casino floor, checking out the restaurants and stopping in the casino’s race and sports book.

“It’s huge, and it’s just a big maze to us right now,” Rachels said, repeating a statement of many at the grand opening.

But for the little time Rachels and Chase were inside the resort, Aria made a big impression.

“We’re thinking about seeing if we can switch our room from MGM Grand over to here,” Rachels said.

This calls up an uncomfortable fact for MGM Mirage: Some analysts, including at UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research, fear CityCenter will merely cannibalize business from its other properties. Others, including the local consulting firm Applied Analysis, point to the openings of new resorts in the past and believe CityCenter will bring new business to Las Vegas.

From the poker room to the restaurants, bars and lounges, every part of the resort was brimming with people.

Mila Gomes and her friend Brooke Wisemer found what seemed to be one of the few open spots in the resort, the VIP gaming area, to grab a drink.

Gomes, a nine-year Las Vegas resident, said she thinks CityCenter is bringing something fresh to the Strip.

“I think a place like this is going to bring a lot more business to town — the restaurants, the shops, the bars and especially the nightclubs,” Gomes said.

Gomes noted the warm yet contemporary feel of the resort, wondering aloud who helped create some of Aria’s signature spaces.

“I’d like to bring friends from out of town or out of the country down here,” Gomes said. “It’s definitely a place I could see myself hanging out at.”

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