Oh, my goodness.
Have you been to Vegas lately? If it has been a few years, your eyes are going to pop.
First of all, the building boom has gone far, far beyond the bounds of propriety.
Though Vegas homeowner foreclosure rates are third highest in the nation, you'd never know it on the Strip, which operates in an alternate reality fueled by neon and gambling cash.
Right now, just south of the Bellagio Resort, MGM-Mirage and partner Dubai World are building the $8-billion City Center project with three humongous hotels, condos and shops that should open in late 2009. Donald Trump's gold-covered hotel, modestly named after himself — Trump International — flung open its doors March 31.
Then, there's the new Palazzo Las Vegas. Looming next to its affiliated property, the Venetian, it has a cupola-ceilinged lobby with flowers growing nearly upside down at the top. It has 3,000 rooms. A waterfall. A Barneys department store. Enough marble to cover the Hoover Dam.
The Palazzo is less kitschy than the Venetian and more drop-dead gorgeous. And it's still so new the floors are slippery, the escalators smell like rubber and the Diane von Furstenberg store's white carpet has no shoe prints on it.
"How's business?" I asked the security guard outside Jay-Z's 40/40 nightclub at Palazzo, which reportedly has platinum floors and 1,500 lounging pillows for its VIPs.
"Slow," he said. "But it'll pick up when the business across the hall opens." He pointed to a sign for the Strip's first Lamborghini dealership.
The truth is, Las Vegas is nicer and more upscale than ever. The average room rate has almost doubled in the last five years from $80 to $139 per night, according to the Las Vegas Tourism and Convention Authority. The nicest, newest hotels charge $200 or even $300 or $500 a night.
Plus, the top Vegas shows now can empty your piggy bank faster than a Lucky Seven slot machine.
The biggest act in town, Celine Dion, has exited after five years at Caesars Palace Colosseum, to be replaced by an even bigger diva, Bette Midler, in The Showgirl Must Go On. Her seasonal replacements? Two other big divas, Cher and Elton John.
Ticket prices for Bette Midler run $95 to $250. The musical Spamalot at Wynn Las Vegas, for instance, is $69 to $179. Cirque du Soleil's Beatles show Love at the Mirage is $94 to $160.
Yes, you can still scout tickets for minor shows at the half-price ticket booths for $25 or $30, but big acts will take a big bite from your budget.
Part of it can be blamed on tourists that keep flooding Vegas and flocking to these high-priced shows (the city had 39.2-million visitors in 2007, a record). But the other part could be blamed on Cirque du Soleil creep. Cirque has five big shows shimmying and swimming and flipping and twirling on the Strip. And all of them are expensive because they are nothing you'd ever see back in Des Moines.
A sixth Cirque show plans to open at the City Center complex next year. Its theme? Elvis.
The biggest change apparent in Vegas is the increasing battle of the celebrity haunts.
Rapper Jay-Z opened the 40/40 Club at Palazzo. Singers Avril Lavigne and Lil Jon opened Prive at Planet Hollywood. Pure nightclub at Caesars Palace hosted a Paris Hilton birthday party in which the heiress danced provocatively in a giant teacup.
All of these clubs with the one-word names are enough to give the average Las Vegas visitor an inferiority complex. And that is bad. The beauty of Vegas has always been that even dorks and squares can feel cool here.
This time, I kept getting the feeling that no matter how much fun I was having, somebody else was having more fun, especially VIPs and beautiful people up in their secret clubs.
Sure, my 22-year-old daughter kept getting urged by taxi drivers and strange men to show up at these secret nightclubs, but, gee, that must have just been a coincidence.
Anyway, in this time of gloomy recession, it's tempting to scold Las Vegas for its brazen glitziness, wild spending and celebrity worship. Except that now I hear that the Cosmopolitan, another multibillion-dollar Strip hotel under construction, has just gone into — gasp — foreclosure.
Foreclosure! Say it ain't so, Las Vegas. Reality, stay back! Back! Somebody, quick, turn up the volume at the 40/40 Club.