Willie Nelson plays Vegas from time to time, but now, Vegas can play Willie.
A Willie Nelson slot machine, developed by Austin-based Everi Holdings, belted out Willie songs amid the ding-ding-dings of an entire showroom filled with slots at fall’s Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. It was probably inevitable that Texas, and specifically Austin, would be part of this city’s latest level-up.
As cranes erect Raiders Stadium to welcome the city’s NFL franchise, rumors boil about Vegas also getting an expansion Major League Baseball team. Hotels are rebranding and adding more outposts of world-favorite restaurants. And, of course, the sounds and lights of Vegas get relentlessly brighter, higher-def and more imaginative, and that’s where Austin comes in.
My annual visit to check out Vegas trends coincided with the Global Gaming Expo, the gambling industry’s annual showcase, and I dropped in to see what casinos will look like in the coming months. What I found was more interaction — for example, one hip-hop-themed game lets you scratch a turntable like a DJ, and newer bonus wheels let you spin them with your hands — along with bigger and fancier LED displays.
New developments will let you feed cash into the machine from your phone (yikes), and Everi has a new app that will let you send winnings to your favorite charity.
Conventioneers also enjoyed seminars on such topics as how to best arrange slot machines and how to avoid laundering money. Kevin O’Leary from “Shark Tank” was there checking out inventions.
Everi Executive Producer Mike Wabschall said his company is boosting engagement with games such as the Willie Nelson “On the Road Again” machine, which features audio and video from concerts. “Willie talks to you while you play,” Wabschall said.
Tim Bucher, chief product officer of Vegas-based Scientific Games, showed off huge LED flames shooting from the 14-foot tower of the latest Dragon Spin iteration, and a James Bond machine's screen physically lifts to reveal a bonus screen.
Of course, there’s a new version of the popular 10-year-old Buffalo game (my own favorite, for the record), with 2,400 ways to win and a curvy new cabinet. That one’s developed by Aristocrat Technologies, based in Australia with one of its corporate headquarters in Austin.
A “Sex in the City” game from London-based International Game Technology scans your eye, and you can select bonus items (such as popping bubbles) by just glancing at them. A new IGT Bluetooth app lets your phone communicate with a slot machine, registering your memberships (instead of inserting a club card) and letting you feed the machine more cash so you won’t have to get up and go to the ATM. As someone who deliberately leaves her ATM card at home, I’m going to try to forget that development.
JCM Global has a phone app that will let you do everything from play the sports book to pick lottery numbers to print out your IRS form if you hit big, all from your comfy seat at your favorite slot. JCM also showcased sports book LED displays of every size and shape imaginable.
But Vegas isn’t all about the casino floor. It’s also keeping up on hotel, restaurant and show trends. You can’t find a hotter property than Lady Gaga right now, and the new Park MGM, the contemporary hotel resulting from a complete gut of the old Monte Carlo, has her booked for shows through November. That’s a big win.
I based my recent Vegas visit at this hotel because not only is it new, it's also affordable, with midweek rates starting at just $99. But do be aware of that fat resort fee: $37 daily plus $4.95 tax. Still, for the strip, that’s a good rate. Park MGM is tech-oriented. I checked in and out on my phone and got my key card from a kiosk.
Most of the hotel’s restaurants weren’t open yet, but its informal Primrose cafe provided a badly needed Caesar salad while I awaited my room, as well line-free access to morning coffee. The in-house Starbucks was overrun, and like most Vegas hotels, Park MGM doesn’t provide room coffee. Italian restaurant Eataly and LaLa Noodles opened very recently.
The room was large (I had a daughter and friend in tow), with good beds and plenty of plugs for all our gadgets. It wasn’t fancy, but two features stood out: A shallow but comfortable couch spanned the window area, and the full-length mirror was lighted, which made it good for makeup. We spent a pleasant afternoon lounging at the adults-only pool, one of several.
The weekend I arrived was also opening weekend for NoMad, Park MGM’s hotel-within-a-hotel that’s an offshoot of the NoMads in Los Angeles and New York. A cocoon of quiet amid the jangle of Las Vegas, it has rooms featuring colorful Asian accents, hardwood floors, Italian marble bathrooms, original artwork, antique rugs and impeccable service. The main dining room has been lined with 25,000 books, many from the Rockefeller collection.
The girls and I had a top-flight brunch (lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberries, avocado toast and constantly refilled coffee) in NoMad Bar. A red velvet curtain rises around noon to reveal the bar, which in New York has won numerous awards for cocktails. So, we had to have cocktails. Our favorite: the pink, grapefruit-and-berry Blinker.
We also loved our creative cocktails at Park MGM’s Juniper, including a delicious Ramos Gin Fizz and a whimsical Carnival in which cotton candy topped Tanqueray, St. Germaine and lime. A server set fire (only recently, I’m told, has the fire department blessed this move) to a minty Chartreuse and pineapple concoction called No Judging. This bar offers 76 gins, so if you’re a gin person, this is your spot.
New restaurants abound, as always. MGM Grand continues to score in the Asian field with China Tang, until now available only in Honk Kong and London. Chef Larry Ng’s Peking Duck was sublime. I can almost still taste that crispy skin. The soup dumplings were, hands down, the best I’ve ever had, tender and flavorful.
We also lingered over lunch at Bellagio’s new Wolfgang Puck restaurant, Spago, overlooking the dancing fountains. My favorite of chef Mark Andelbradt’s creations: a rich, eggy corn agnolotti covered in shaved truffles.
Steak night was at Bavette’s at Park MGM, an outpost of the Chicago classic spot featuring dark paneling and perfectly seared steaks, mine a 6-ounce filet with béarnaise.
Our last night’s meal was at Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay, incredibly loud (anything with Social in its name has to be) but with food that justifies the din. We’re still talking about chef Shawn McClain’s appetizer: a caviar-topped “fried egg” that actually contained sous vide egg yolk and fluffy white layered inside an egg shell. Stirred with a tiny spoon, it produced a salty but mellow flavor.
Before leaving, I checked out the new Resort Club Lounge at the popular Aria Resort next door to Park MGM. It’s Aria’s version of a concierge-floor offering, with a constantly changing buffet of snacks and desserts, easy to make a meal out of. Everything from smoked salmon to cheese to fruit was beautifully presented, and from 5 to 7 p.m. daily you can also get complimentary wine and beer. Access to the club is available with certain corner rooms on high floors at Aria. A typical night runs $275 plus the $39-plus-tax resort fee, a good option if you’re traveling solo and don’t have time or inclination to fine-dine at every meal.
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