Talk about real estate makeovers. On TV, they do it in a jiffy with three-bedroom ranchers, but try tackling a 2,600-room hotel-casino that was so flawed and badly received it sank into Chapter 11 bankruptcy barely a year after opening.
For that trick, you need a little bit more than a few thousand bucks in fresh paint and window treatments. Actually, about $1 billion in new just-about-everything is more like it.
That's what the various operators of the new Planet Hollywood and adjoining condo project are pouring into the former Aladdin hotel-casino, which had its troubled opening on the Las Vegas Strip in August 2000.
While the rechristened Planet Hollywood celebrated its official grand opening last month, it wasn't exactly like pulling back the curtain on a secret. The hotel has been in a slow transition for several years, eradicating all traces of the Arabian Nights theme (including a giant genie's lamp) that was its former incarnation.
Instead, the renovated resort is dressed in something less definable, yet stylistically pervasive. It's a sense of 21st-century hip that attempts to be up-to-the-minute and still remain timeless.
The decor defines different areas through variations in shapes, textures and colors. Circles dominate the redone exterior of the building, the lobby and the hallways in the hotel. The casino sports designs in rectangles and squares with sharp and soft angles.
In a nod to a generation infatuated with technology, hundreds of plasma-screen TVs dot the casino, including one huge wall of them. Some are tuned to sports. Others create mood with swirls of colors. Lighting that courses overhead throughout the casino changes hues from turquoise to green to yellow to orange to red to violet. A VJ pumps up the sounds.
The feeling is sleek, high-def and youthful.
When conceived, the Aladdin was built to be a major player on the Strip. It was initially built for $1.4 billion - almost as much as the nearby Bellagio, which opened two years earlier. But the two casinos couldn't have had more divergent fates. While the Bellagio immediately became an admired and successful Vegas Strip icon, the Aladdin was so badly planned that visitors had a tough time finding the front door. And there is still no vehicle entrance directly off Las Vegas Boulevard.
At least the front-door problem has been solved. Pedestrian traffic from the Strip can easily make its way into the place as well as into the attached shopping mall, which is also in transition - to the Miracle Mile Shops, from its previous retail persona the Desert Passage, which mimicked a Middle East village and bazaar.
Among the new amenities at the Planet Hollywood are two gourmet dining rooms, Koi and Strip House.
Koi, with namesakes in Hollywood and New York, is a soothing upscale Asian fusion restaurant that advertises a signature dish of crispy rice with spicy tuna, seared albacore and crispy red onions. Koi's courtyard promises to be especially delightful in pleasant weather.
Strip House is red meat - double-cut strip steaks and thick filet mignons - in a room that has
written all over it. Architect and scenic designer David Rockwell's interior features flocked red walls covered with black-and-white pictures of burlesque queens, fan dancers and vamps. The female figure is also celebrated in the napkins and carpeting.
One holdover from the old Aladdin days is the casino's much-praised buffet, which still has its old name, the Spice Market. This buffet generally gets high marks, comparing favorably with the one at the Bellagio, and a bit less expensive.
It's hard to create much differentiation on a casino floor. After all, a slot machine is just a slot machine. But PH, as Planet Hollywood likes to refer to itself, has a blackjack area called the Pleasure Pit, where female dealers are in the briefest of outfits and go-go dancers make concentrating on the cards a challenge.
The big entertainment show at PH is
, a version of the dance and percussion production that has played New York for years, plus a magic show featuring illusionist Hans Klok and former
star Pamela Anderson.
I thought one of the more engaging features of the hotel were the redesigned rooms. They're comfortable and luxurious without being pretentious. Headboards and chairs are in deep purples; each room has a flat-screen TV, and bathrooms are roomy.
All standard rooms feature movie memorabilia - I saw the
room with a glass-encased John Travolta tuxedo jacket and Uma Thurman photo. Upgraded rooms have knockout views of the Bellagio fountains.
Not so impressive is the resort's pool area, built on the casino roof. While some improvements are being made, it's still just twin cement ponds and some so-so landscaping. Sunbathers will have a nice view of the massive CityCenter condo-hotel-casino project across the street when that's finished in a few years.
The connected Miracle Mile Shops are part SoCal modern with shiny black tile floors, but you'll still find long stretches of the old Middle East marketplace and its faux cobblestone walkways and stucco storefronts. There are even leftovers of a movie-set ship with the name "Desert Passage."
But while the Miracle Mile doesn't boast all the ultra-chic (and extremely pricey) designer boutiques of, say, Caesars Palace's Forum Shops, it's a sprawling place with some stores you won't find in the typical suburban mall - and you might actually be able to afford something in them. The place has tons of restaurants and watering holes (I couldn't pass up Sin City Brewery or the Nestle Toll House Cafe). Plus, a variety revue and a magic show are playing in the mall's V Theater.
On the horizon at PH is an adjoining condo complex that will give it a residential component. The Planet Hollywood Towers by Westgate are high-risers with a total of 1,200 units. The first ones are expected to be ready in 2009.