Las Vegas is an easy vacation destination for Los Angeles residents, a brisk 3.5 hour drive away. As a L.A. native, I’ve been to Vegas every 1-2 years ever since I was a kid. Even though I couldn’t gamble, there were always new shows to see and new resort-casinos to visit. The trend in recent years has been a shift from theme casinos (Mirage, New York New York, Venetian, etc.) to modern sophistication and luxury like Wynn. Nowhere is this more evident than the tragedy of Treasure Island, which lost its pirate theme and became rebranded as TI.
CityCenter recently opened in December 2009 as the most ambitious project in Las Vegas yet. The largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history, it represents a paradigm shift in Vegas resort design. Like Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills and other similar urban complexes, CityCenter is meant to be a city within a city where residents can live, dine, shop, work and play without leaving the complex. While CityCenter doesn’t have any office spaces, it features thousands of condominium residences and hotel rooms spread across multiple high-rises along with a large shopping-entertainment district that will house a future grocery store.
Visiting CityCenter was to be my highlight of this trip, and while the scope and design of the facility are impressive, I was unfortunately underwhelmed.
CityCenter has six components:
- Aria – the main feature and the only one with a casino
- Vdara – originally planned to be a condo residence tower, but was converted to a hotel due to the bad economy
- Mandarin Oriental – condo residences and hotel rooms
- The Crystals – shopping mall
- The Harmon Hotel and Spa (under construction)
- Veer Towers (under construction)
With only one casino in the whole complex, visitors accustomed to all the other casino-resorts in Las Vegas might be a bit bewildered by what to do in CityCenter. Honestly, unless you have a room in one of the hotel towers, there’s no real reason to visit Vdara or Mandarin Oriental unless you’re like me and want to scope out all the new places. I stayed at Vdara hotel and will share my experience in my next post. (UPDATE: Vdara impressions/review)
I wandered into Mandarin Oriental for the express purpose of checking out the Sky Lobby. I love hotels with lobbies like this (Park Hyatt Tokyo comes especially to mind).
The view is fantastic. Like any upscale luxury hotel, the ambience was very quiet and subdued. Mandarin Oriental is a hotel chain with locations throughout the world, and other than the view, there wasn’t anything Vegas-specific here. It would be comfortably at home in any metropolis like New York City or San Francisco.
Adjacent to the check-in desk is a bar. I’ve read that this has quickly become a favorite spot for some people to grab a drink and chill out for awhile. Can’t blame them, look at that view!
After looking at the lobby, I was done here. Vdara and Mandarin Oriental are clearly not targeting the random Vegas tourist walking on the Strip, so that leaves Aria and The Crystals. As mentioned previously, Aria is the only part of CityCenter with a casino and includes the typical features one would expect like a poker room, sportsbook, etc. I wandered around the place for about half an hour and had my fill. Yep, it’s a casino, alright, but I wasn’t hooked.
As the newest kid on the Strip, Aria will no doubt attract a large number of curious visitors coming in for the first time. The Cirque du Soleil show based on Elvis will also ensure a steady stream of traffic, but other than that, I wonder what proportion of people will return. Wynn Las Vegas is my favorite property on the Strip, whose inviting, warm luxury whisks you away to their reality. Aria seems sterile in comparison, like a metal lab bench — sleek and modern, but cold.
My favorite part of CityCenter is the five water features designed by WET, the design firm most known for creating the Fountain of Bellagio, also in Las Vegas. These five are nowhere near the scale and complexity of that massive fountain show but are amusing and enchanting in their own way.
WET feature #1: Focus, pictured above. This is a 270 foot long, circular wall with water running down the pebbled surface at various speeds and patterns. Very soothing to watch and listen. It surrounds the main entrance into Aria and faces the Strip.
WET feature #2: Lumia, my favorite out of the five. It is located in the center of the courtyard outside the Aria main entrance. The water fountain operates continuously with a range of programmed routines and patterns, accompanied by dazzling light projections. Very charming and a photographer’s dream. Both my computer monitors currently have Lumia as wallpapers. I took a ton of photos here, a few of my favorites are below.
WET feature #3: Latisse. This is in Aria on the opposite side of the main entrance. Water trickles down the back of the glass panels in patterns. Pretty boring and my least favorite.
The last 2 water features are located in The Crystals shopping mall. But before heading there, let’s make a brief stop at the Dale Chihuly art gallery in CityCenter. He is a glass sculptor and if you’ve been to Bellagio Las Vegas, you might have seen his ceiling display in the lobby. The pieces shown in the gallery are samples, and guests can order commissioned work. When I came in here, an interested buyer was inquiring about making an order. Just one of the flowers above costs thousands of dollars.
Chihuly’s flower ceiling display in Bellagio. I can’t imagine how much he charged for this, must be in the six figures.
Reflecting pond for contemplation as we make our way out of Aria into The Crystals shopping mall.
The Crystals is highly stylized with angled walls and ceiling design. Although open for business, the mall is clearly a work in progress as only a handful of stores are open. It’s aiming for the upscale market with luxury fashion brands so I wasn’t planning on buying anyway, but nevertheless disappointing to see. Despite its cavernous open area, I felt ironically constricted with all the walled-off future retail spaces.
A lot of people were milling around the mall, eager to see the new place and window-shop, but probably disappointed like I was about its limited state.
There was a lot of hoopla for the Louis Vuitton store at The Crystals, which is the largest one in North America. It’s nice, no doubt, but pales in comparison to the Paris flagship that I visited last summer.
Light display on the storefront facing the Strip.
WET design #4: Halo. Water inside plastic cylinders is spun by generators to produce vortices. The lighting changes constantly as well as the height and speed of the vortex. I wasn’t too impressed by this one, but the kids were fascinated.
WET design #5: Glacia. Pillars of real ice are illuminated by soft lights. My understanding of how this works is that the ice columns are frozen in the chamber below the surface and are kept cool by rods running through the column. The shapes of the columns are controlled by varying the temperature of the rods. Before the ice completely melts, the column is retracted below the surface to be re-frozen.
Hope you liked this photos! My next post will be about Vdara, the hotel in CityCenter that I stayed at. Then I’ll wrap up with a collection of miscellaneous Vegas photos and a couple restaurant reviews.