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Where the Weird Turn Pro

Vegas: Just the idea boggles the mind.

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PHOTO Courtesy of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
The Fremont Street Experience, a domed street with 2 million lights and a 540,000-watt stereo system.
It's like they made the Memphis summer hotter. Like they made the Delta flatter. Like they made rock-and-roll sound better. Only they did something even less likely:

They made Vegas weirder.

And bigger. And more ridiculous. They have widened exponentially the margin by which the city is the most absurd place ever constructed by humanity. As such, you really should go see it.

Before a recent visit, I hadn't been there in five years, and if it's been that long since you spent time in Vegas, you might as well say you've never been there. In that time they have basically torn down the old Vegas and built another one. And the one they've got now won't last long.

Just consider this fact for a moment: From 1990 to 2000 the population of the Las Vegas metro area went from 770,000 to 1.4 million. In 2000 there were an average 6,849 people moving into the county every month. Las Vegas -- that gleaming temple of sex, greed, gluttony, and debauchery -- is now the fastest-growing city in America.

If that seems nuts, consider this information provided by folks at the city's Convention and Visitors Authority. They've got a summary of construction projects, in the hotel/casino industry alone, that boggles the mind. For 2000 they list 14 completed projects; for the six of those with costs listed, the total was more than $1.7 billion. Another 17 opened in 2001; seven of those add up to $995 million. There's one hotel/casino, La Reve, set to open in 2004 at an estimated cost of $1.6 billion. For one place.

But these are just numbers. Numbers don't account for weirdness. For example, many people might consider Wayne Newton and Siegfried and Roy a little weird. A few years back Siegfried and Roy celebrated their 15,000th Las Vegas performance. Newton celebrated his 25,000th. Vegas is where the weird turn pro.

When I was last in Vegas, back in the dark ages of the mid-'90s, the big news was a booming scene in virtual-reality games, the 100-plus-story Stratosphere Hotel with a roller coaster 909 feet up, and a casino being built in the shape of the New York skyline.

Yeah, well, all that is considered lame now. Virtual reality, for example, is so 1990s, and everybody's building roller coasters. And since New York, New York was built (and lucky for them there's no World Trade Center in their skyline), the Strip has added Paris (with an Eiffel Tower) and Venice (with canals and everything), expanded ancient Rome at Caesar's Palace, and seen a Middle East renovation at the Aladdin. That last one cost $1.3 billion, by the way. And there are plans for a San Francisco casino that will run about $750 million. And a second Venetian at about $900 million.

There is also now, on the Strip, a 100-foot-tall glass Coke bottle outside the World of Coca Cola. Driving down the strip, you hardly notice it, so multilayered is the eye candy. And a few years back, the city spent $13 million for some 76,000 plants along the Strip.

But we're getting stuck in the numbers again. Since I was last in Vegas, the Debbie Reynolds Hotel-Casino was sold at public auction for more than $9 million -- to the World Wrestling Federation. Heaven only knows what those people will do with it.

It just goes on. Since everybody anywhere can gamble within a few hours of home now, Vegas has had to turn itself into a theme park. There are 3-D thrill rides, a chocolate factory and cactus garden (somehow at the same place), a Liberace Museum, warships battling on the Strip, a thousand fountains doing their thing in time with music, an erupting volcano, statues that move and talk, a domed street with 2 million lights and a 540,000-watt stereo system, a simulated Formula One auto race, an M&M museum, a Star Trek simulator, a comedic hypnotist called Dr. Naughty, another show called "Comedy, Tricks, and Naked Chicks," and a drive-thru wedding chapel.

It's too much, really, and yet it has this pull on us. On me. I confess that I could use a trip to Vegas more than once every five years. I like to gamble a little, and I have friends who actually live there, but I go because it's a twisted American mecca. I think everybody should go spend a night there once in their lives. Consider it a research project. Just walk around and see for yourself how weird things can get.

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