Jean Barone and her daughter gazed reverently at the cathedral-like gilded ceiling, the fountain topped by a gold armillary sphere, the surfaces covered with replicas of Renaissance frescoes. Overwhelmed, they stood just paces from the Rialto Bridge and the Campanile Tower as gondolas glided through a lagoon. Strains of Vivaldi floated through the air.
Barone, who proudly claims an Italian heritage, wondered how the real Venice could possibly compare. It might be a letdown.
"I don't have to go to Italy now," said Barone. After all, she'd been to Las Vegas.
In a town where over-the-top facades usually conceal a casino, developers are betting heavily on the upscale tourist -- and rushing to build elaborate complexes like the Venetian hotel to pull them in.
In the past year, geographically themed resorts have sprouted along the famed Las Vegas Strip, starting in October with the Tuscan-inspired Bellagio. Its $1.6 billion price tag makes it the most expensive hotel built, with an 8-acre, man-made lake, a $10 million blown-glass Chihuly ceiling sculpture, a stunning conservatory of mosaic-tiled walkways bursting with flowers and a $300 million art collection in a gallery with a $12 entrance fee.
After the Bellagio came Mandalay Bay, the Venetian and last week, Paris, with an Arc de Triomphe and "Antoine," who delivers baguettes to the restaurants each day via bicycle. The new Aladdin Resort & Casino, which bills its Desert Passage mall as an adventure through market cities of Tangier, Bombay and Marrakech, will open next spring. Even chi-chi Four Seasons has arrived in Vegas, connected to the tropically themed Mandalay Bay.
"We're in the greatest period of change right now in our history," said Rob Powers, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "And that's saying a lot considering that Las Vegas implodes hotels on a regular basis."
Those behind the latest incarnation insist that more substance than ever comes with the new style: luxurious rooms, lavish pool decks, health spas with rock-climbing walls, upscale themed malls, all in the hopes of attracting first-time visitors.
Cultural offerings have been expanded beyond the Liberace Museum to include the works of Monet, Renoir and Degas. All-you-can-eat buffets compete with $100-a-head dinners.
"It was a recognition that there was an untapped market, a market that would pay more for meals, pay more for a room, shop at more upscale places -- and come to Las Vegas to do that," Powers said.
Unlike the Vegas visitor of old, content with $4.99 buffets, the upscale tourist won't forgo memorable dining, shopping and accommodations for the convenience of 24-hour blackjack, hotel developers say. That's especially true, they say, for those who can gamble in their own back yards.
They can also shop in their own back yards, but not necessarily at Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Armani, brands found at Via Bellagio, Bellagio's climate-controlled answer to Rodeo Drive. Shoppers at the Venetian's Grand Canal Shoppes can ride gondolas through a canal lined with 65 shops and cafes, strike up conversations with characters such as Marco Polo, and end up in St. Mark's Square, with a 70-foot high, skylike ceiling.
It's all about giving visitors an experience they can't get at the mall at home, said William P. Weidner, president and chief operating officer of Las Vegas Sands Inc., the Venetian's developer.
"We're creating a fantasy," he said. "There is a new market being addressed."
Before resorts such as the Venetian and Bellagio, he said, "People had a sense that if you weren't a high-roller or buffet-eating slot player, there wasn't much in between."
The most recent openings end a decade in which low interest rates and Nevada's pro-development environment helped usher in the construction or expansion of more than a dozen major resorts, with price tags from almost $300 million to $1.6 billion. But when the latest spate of properties began coming online a year ago, "Las Vegas was seen as a place that was in trouble," with flat or declining visitor volume, and plans to add 15,000 more hotel rooms to the inventory, Powers said. "There was a feeling in the investment community that this was a recipe for disaster," he said.
What has happened since, he says, is that a city built on odds, with a reputation as a tacky, hard-drinking gambling town, has continued to defy those odds. For the first half of this year, visitor volume rose 10 percent, with occupancy rates averaging 93 percent for 80 percent of the hotels. The town should pull in 33 million visitors this year, he said.
Las Vegas' chameleon-like ability to successfully reinvent itself is nothing new, developers said.
"Las Vegas has never stayed any one thing for more than a decade," said Alan M. Feldman of Mirage Resorts, which opened The Mirage hotel in 1989 for the then-unprecedented sum of $600 million. Developers say it sparked the trend toward emphasizing areas outside the casino.
When Mirage planned Bellagio on the former site of the 1950s-era Dunes hotel, "We were envisioning a place that was going to be spectacular and a showcase, not in Las Vegas terms," Feldman said. "It needed to be over-the-top in a highbrow, cultural way. For all those people who look down their noses at coming to Las Vegas, we wanted a buzz in the food world, the art world, the horticulture world."
'Like a fairyland'
Outside Bellagio's lobby, Ramona Chagolla and friend Mary Boyland were hotel hopping. Not to play video poker and blackjack, but to gawk at lobbies and exterior landmarks. They took in the lake, where more than a thousand fountains erupted in a color-coordinated, choreographed dance to tunes such as "Singin' in the Rain."
"It's so beautiful," said Chagolla of Sun Valley, Calif., in town for her junior high school reunion. "That's the only reason I came on my reunion, so I could see these hotels. I'm not gambling. We come to sightsee. It's like a fairyland.
Farther down the strip at the Venetian, Weidner showed off a hotel suite, with standard sunken living room, his-and-her sinks in the marble bathroom, two televisions, three phones, a modem hookup, fax machine and a safe big enough for a laptop. Rates range from $109 to $399.
"Las Vegas has been a town of interesting facades, but when you got to the room you were left wanting for creature comforts," Weidner said. "In the old days, rooms didn't have televisions," as a way to propel guests into the casinos.
It's no wonder. The typical Las Vegas hotel derived 80 percent of its revenue from gaming as recently as a decade ago, Powers said. Today, gaming accounts for about half the income, with room stays, dining, shows and retail increasingly generating the rest.
"The casino is a fun place to be," Weidner said, ending his tour in the casino, where he gazed past 110 gaming tables and 2,500 video and slot machines under a frescoed ceiling. "If we get people to see the building and take a gondola ride and stay in a suite, they will end up here at some point or another."