The Strip—that four-mile stretch of road lined with casinos and lights—is what characterizes the city in the minds of most visitors. It is the ultimate example of both the desert oasis and the human capacity to exploit the environment. Once a dusty road leading to Los Angeles, the Strip has evolved into an entertainment extravaganza filled with crowds every day of the week. Guy McAfee, a gambler and former police captain from Los Angeles who purchased the Pair-O-Dice Club in Las Vegas in 1939, is credited with naming the Strip in the 1940s because it reminded him of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
Lying outside the Las Vegas city limits and therefore subject to Clark County's lenient zoning laws, the Strip developed with few restrictions on height or density. This permissive zoning was no accident. In 1950 casino owners organized their own unincorporated township, called Paradise City, which fought Las Vegas's attempts to annex the Strip. To this day, the stretch of road and adjacent property remain in county hands.
The lack of regulations allowed casino owners to build resorts in almost any form they wished. The first era of casinos along the Strip, built in the 1930s and 1940s, followed the layout of motels—low buildings no more than four stories tall stretching back from the road and surrounded by parking lots. It is easy to see why large signs set along the road and placed on the buildings would become popular as a way for casinos to differentiate their low-slung complexes from one another. In 1955, with the construction of the nine-story Riviera, casinos began departing from the motel model, erecting high-rise structures to provide more hotel rooms and to increase their visibility along the Strip. In the 1960s Caesars Palace ushered in the era of the theme resort, a trend that continues to this day. Another trend, begun in the late 1960s with the erection of the International Hotel, now the Hilton, was the three-wing hotel tower. This form has continued to be popular because the three wings can accommodate more rooms with views without sprawling across the casino property. Also, the three-wing tower is more visible from a variety of viewpoints than less expansive forms. Examples of this type include the Mirage, Treasure Island, and Bellagio.
After decades of changing casino styles, the opening of the Mirage Hotel and Casino in 1989 ushered in the era of the mega-resort. With tens of thousands of square feet devoted to gambling and thousands of hotel rooms, these resorts seem to embody the current craze for gambling enveloped in entertainment. Sophisticated indoor environments have been created in these huge structures to enhance the experience of leaving the real world behind. Other mega-resorts such as Excalibur and Luxor use specific themes–King Arthur's court or ancient Egypt—to lure people inside and keep them there. These casinos have introduced to Las Vegas the concept of total entertainment, aimed at luring families away from Disneyland and other theme parks. Consequently a number of casinos have added roller coasters and attractions such as a version of Times Square or a replica of King Tut's tomb. Despite these changes, the Strip and its casinos remain an adult's world where gambling is still the focus.
Today the Strip is more densely built and congested than it was ten, or even five, years ago. Most small hotels, businesses, and gas stations have been crowded out by enormous entertainment complexes. Casinos once had open lots between them, but now they stand side by side, creating odd juxtapositions as one moves from classical Rome to King Arthur's court to New York City.
This density has altered the Strip from a space built around cars to one that must also accommodate pedestrians. Aside from public buses, no mass transit exists except for private monorails connecting some of the casinos. The value of land has pushed parking lots to the rear of casinos or into multi-story garages, freeing the street frontage. New casinos, such as the Mirage and New York New York, have attracttions on or near the sidewalk, letting visitors watch a volcano erupt or a roller coaster zoom past the Manhattan skyline. But the goal remains the same as ever—to entice visitors inside. Though signs are still very much a part of the landscape, casino buildings have become their own signs—a pyramid, a castle, or a lion—to advertise their uniqueness in an environment jammed with attractions and distractions. But given the Strip's propensity to reinvent itself, a new streetscape of casinos will probably replace the present one in another five or ten years.
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