Desert Companion

Three of a Kind

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Casa Calavera in Virgin Hotels Las Vegas
courtesy Virgin Hotels Las Vegas

Casa Calavera in Virgin Hotels Las Vegas

In a world of Instagram moments, does resort design matter? Three new casinos embrace modern modularity


The past year should have been a disaster for Las Vegas casinos — heck, back in March 2020, some were predicting the town would disappear altogether. Yet within eight months of each other, three new casino resorts opened in Sin City: Circa, Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, and Resorts World, a burst of debuts causing a stir that evoked the Dunes, Riviera, and Moulin Rouge all flinging their doors open in the spring of 1955. Much as those three properties said something about the globetrotting aspirations of midcentury tourists, this 21st-century trio tells us how people’s expectations of a Vegas resort have changed — and how they’ve stayed the same.

Circa Resort & Casino is the first to be built Downtown in more than four decades, and its impact is visible — perhaps most visible — from a distance. While the rest of the hotel-casinos in the neighborhood look like office buildings with bits of sparkly adornment tacked on, Circa’s shimmering marquee rises above the skyline like the tailfin on a vintage Cadillac. Inside, it’s basically a Vegas-themed Vegas casino. “Building upon our location and history was at the forefront during the design process,” says Alice O’Keefe, Circa’s director of design and architecture. She explains how the local flavor flows throughout the property in design elements such as the framed shadow boxes in the elevator lobbies. “Each elevator has a different photo that captures one of the eras throughout our history,” she explains, adding that the artwork on each floor is a unique collage with layered vintage photos. The throwback style continues right through to guest rooms’ mid-mod Murphy beds and gilt wallpaper featuring casino chips and pinup girls.

The apex of all this memorabilia is Vegas Vickie, the 25-foot-tall neon cowgirl who spent decades perched outside the Glitter Gulch strip club on Fremont; now she’s the city’s biggest lounge act, kicking her white boots toward a gold-draped bar. The other dominant feature is the two-story wall of video screens that comprise Circa’s enormous sports book. There’s not a lot of architectural flair to the interior, but uniquely Vegas artwork and memorabilia give the spaces presence.

One of the three new properties already had a history — albeit one whose wrecking-ball remnants were dispatched to the Neon Museum. Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, once the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, with its vast pool complex and huge collection of memorabilia, is now a desert-themed resort, with a flair for sepia tones, wood finishes, and lots and lots of geodes. Richard “Boz” Bosworth, CEO of JC Hospitality,  considers it a variation on local flavor. “We wanted to reflect the journey through the desert, because you are traveling through the desert to this hospitality mecca,” he says. The pool complex has been redesigned to favor corporate events over twentysomething bacchanals; the “lazy river” has been filled in to expand the restaurants’ outdoor space.

The casino, a collaboration with Mohegan Sun, is now an unbroken field of slots and tables, as the Center Bar — the first stop on many a night’s debauchery tour — has been entirely removed. “We were able to pick up another 10,000 square feet of gaming,” Bosworth explains, although he notes that removing the plumbing was quite a hassle. The new bar setup is to the side, and beyond that is the Shag Lounge, a dimly lit spot adorned with Indian draperies and Oriental rugs — the sort of upscale hippie den where Jimmy Page would frolic with Miss Pamela, a distinctly different vibe from the Center Bar’s see-and-be-seen scene. The Virgin is a place where you have to discover the bar beyond a jeweled screen, find the restaurants behind frosted-glassed doors — even jumbo artworks like a neon dinosaur sign and Justin Favela piñata lowrider are stumbled upon. 

Resorts World Las Vegas is by far the largest of the new properties, holding three hotels and a cavalcade of amenities within its 87-acre footprint. The property was originally intended to have a more traditionally Asian design (panda habitat!), but when Kara Siffermann joined the team as vice president of interior design, she sought “more of a modern look and feel — something that could cross over and be an elegant, upscale property but still appeal to many different demographics.” The Crockfords Casino & Lounge feels a bit Dynasty with chrome, brass, and a white baby grand piano, while the Genting Palace is one of the spaces that embraces an Asian theme but with a Shanghai Lily flair of Art Deco jewel tones. (I wish the multi-cuisine Famous Foods dining court, at right, had embraced its Blade Runner possibilities, though.)

The gaming floor is vast, topped with a coffered ceiling and circled by silver-and-white pillars (which match nicely with the mirrored Rolls-Royce on loan from the Liberace Foundation), but the floor itself has been left fairly simple. “I think in the early ’90s it was all about canopies and softness,” Siffermann says, but she wanted something sleek and more flexible. “One of the unique things about our casino floor is it is a casino floor. You know where to go when you’re ready to gamble.” At one end of the gaming floor are the hotel lobbies; at the other is a glossy white shopping mall where winners can buy Judith Leiber handbags and losers can buy ice cream.

Once upon a time, every hotel-casino in Las Vegas had to have a show lounge and a steakhouse. Today, every property must have its Day of the Dead-themed Mexican restaurant, vaguely Gatsby cocktail lounge, hangover bridesmaids dayclub … but the changes run deeper than just new fashions in nightlife. Theme used to be one of the main drivers of casino design — Caesars Palace, New York- New York, Paris — each prides itself on a whole-property vibe. The arrival of the 21st century has seen the single, high-impact identity dropped in favor of shiny towers with LED screens and sleek, generic interiors.  When a sign needs to advertise a dozen restaurants and a half-dozen residencies, it’s more important to have flexibility than branding. With food trends shifting faster than you can flip a burger, it’s logical to have food and beverage spaces that can have their own identity — but can also be swapped out without ruining a whole style. The gaming floor used to deploy high design to distract from the rather utilitarian one-armed bandits lined up in rows. But today’s slot machines are already relentlessly themed, whether it’s a Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory machine topped with the glowing, larger-than-life visage of Gene Wilder or a cluster of 12-foot-high Buffalo Link games with a rampaging buffalo overhead and double-wide seats all round.

You’d think today’s tourists, many of whom seem to take trips as much for the social media posts as the actual experience, would embrace aesthetic excess, but it only takes a few square feet in front of a neon cowgirl, paisley tent, or sequin-glittered Elvis mural to make an Instagram post. Why build a whole Arabian Nights city or Roman Colosseum when it’s easier to throw up a minaret and pillar for guests to take a quick snap on the way to the Dean Martin’s Wild Party slots? After all, despite the plethora of celebrity chefs, designer boutiques, decadent nightclubs, and pop-star residencies, Las Vegas casinos are still casinos: All you really need is a place to flip over the cards and roll the dice.

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