Vegas is back, baby: From shows to slots, what it’s like to visit Las Vegas right now
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As the graceful divers of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” completed their first show in almost 16 months, the crowd jumped to its feet in one of the most powerful and magical standing ovations I’ve ever seen.
The tourists, locals and theater lovers surrounding me were all ecstatic to see the return of the iconic Las Vegas show at the Bellagio, but the cheers seemed to signal so much more than just a well-done performance.
As the show’s opening act framed it: “Intermission is over.”
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After spending three nights in the “entertainment capital of the world,” I’m going to put it more bluntly: Vegas is back, baby.
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On a recent Tuesday night, tables were full at the brand-new Resorts World, the reopened $75 Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace has no available dining reservations for a month and if you want to see the “O” divers flip from 60 feet above the stage into the 1.5 million-gallon pool you have to plan ahead. Tickets are fully sold out for the next week.
In fact, according to statistics released by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, visitor totals for May had rebounded to 2,878,200 million, up 11% from the month before and down just 22% from May 2019, the closest Vegas has come to normal numbers since the pandemic began.
But now, visitors aren’t just here, they are stepping up to the table. In fact, Clark County casinos took in more than $1 billion dollars in wins in May, which was a single-month record.
While Las Vegas casinos began their reopening journey in June 2020, visitor numbers at that time were still 70% off normal. Masks were required, capacity was limited, plexiglass was everywhere, many casinos closed during the weekdays and most amenities and shows were dark or heavily modified.
If you’ve been waiting for the full experience to return before you again touched down in Sin City, that moment is here.
Intermission is over
The July 1 reopening of “O” at the Bellagio marked a major moment for the return of top-caliber entertainment in Las Vegas.
Show attendees were back — many in high heels, sparkling dresses or sports coats, a rarity since March 2020.
While not all Vegas shows have yet taken back to the stage, there’s now officially a Grade A selection of options that goes beyond the early returners such as Carrot Top, who was one of the first to return to the stage in early 2021 while capacity restrictions were still in place.
In the Strip’s Cirque du Soleil line-up, “Mystere” and “O” are now back at full speed and capacity, with “Love” and “Michael Jackson One” announced to follow in August.
If you prefer to enjoy headlining music acts between rounds of blackjack and slots, Bruno Mars will be the first in that category to retake the Vegas stage this weekend at a sold-out Park Theater at Park MGM. In fact, the initially announced shows sold out so fast, several more have been added.
And it’s not just the theater-based shows and acts that have resumed. A-lister Miley Cyrus will be on hand to help Resorts World’s new Ayu Dayclub ring in its grand opening on July 4.
From Blue Man Group to David Copperfield and well beyond, the curtain is back up in Las Vegas.
The crowds are hot, the deals are fading
There was already a growing wait before 8 a.m. to get breakfast at the Bellagio’s Sadelle’s restaurant, resort pool chairs again fill fast each morning, getting an evening seat at a lower-minimum blackjack table can take a bit and reservations at top restaurants are hard to snag if you don’t book ahead.
From recent time spent in casinos ranging from the classic, downtown Golden Gate to the new Resorts World, there was action and buzz again found in many corners of Vegas at almost all hours of the day.
This makes the visit feel more electric and alive and it also comes at the expense of deals that were luring in a smaller number of visitors as recently as a couple of months ago.
According to the LVCVA, the average daily rate for a hotel on the Strip in May was $132.69.
To give this some context, that number was $113.77 one month earlier in April and dropped as low as $55.18 in May 2020 when Vegas was all but completely shuttered. The May 2021 number has still not fully rebounded to the May 2019 average daily rate on the Strip of $151.55, but it’s close and gaining month over month.
And it’s not just that room rates are back up — the fees are back in town, too.
While Las Vegas parking fees had largely been suspended during the pandemic, they are table stakes up and down the Strip once again — unless you’ve been strategic and can avoid them thanks to your elite status.
Related: How to avoid resort fees
New hotel rooms to pick from
Vegas didn’t just gather dust during the pandemic.
On my three-night visit, I stayed in new rooms across three resorts. And the list of new or renovated options goes beyond my personal lineup.
The Conrad and Hilton located in Resorts World just opened in late June, with the high-end Crockfords property in the complex to follow in July. The Virgin Hotels Las Vegas just opened its doors in March.
Back on the Strip, the Bellagio has undertaken a (much-needed) renovation of all 2,568 rooms in its main tower. On the more budget-friendly end of things, Harrah’s has also recently debuted a new, updated look in rooms and public areas.
You can use points at many of these hotels, but if you are paying cash, be sure and check out options such as the Amex Fine Hotels + Resorts program, open to those with The Platinum Card® from American Express, as it scored me a $100 dining credit, 4 p.m. late checkout and $60 of free breakfast at the Bellagio at no additional cost on top of my $262 one-night rate in a renovated room. (My matched M life status took care of the self-parking fee.)
Dining options are coming back
While much of Vegas looks and feels just about like 2019-normal at this point, dining is one area where things are still rebounding in certain corners.
Buffets, in particular, have been slower to return until capacity restrictions were recently lifted.
However, as mentioned, the massive Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace has reopened to high demand and sold-out dinners.
The Buffet at the Wynn reopened for a period of time last summer, only to close again in September. However, it is again newly reopened from Thursdays-Sundays with stations offering individually plated items.
On July 16, The Buffet at Bellagio will reopen seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Not all buffets are back quite yet, but the popular ones are reappearing for visitors eager to eat their fair share of crab legs, shrimp and decadent desserts.
A few high-end restaurants, such as Le Cirque, also remain dark for now, but the vast majority of popular Vegas restaurants have reopened.
We enjoyed nice dinners at Yellowtail at the Bellagio, Barry’s Downtown Prime at Circa and Genting Palace at Resorts World, as well as drinks and more casual meals at another list of joints.
During our visits, none of the spots we visited had the noticeable staffing shortages and massive service blips that have plagued other parts of the service industry. But while service and capacity may be mostly back, my tip is to make dining reservations well in advance for any must-visit restaurants you have on your list. Luckily, most Vegas restaurants take online reservations.
The hottest ticket may be an Uber
While Vegas is back, not all of the pre-pandemic Uber drivers are again behind the wheel.
On recent visits to Las Vegas, TPG’s Zach Griff experienced waits for cabs and Ubers that ranged from 10-30 minutes, and we’ve heard of waits worse than that during peak times.
To counter that crush, you may want to prearrange rides, or at least order your Uber well in advance of when you really need to depart.
I went with a car rental for my visit, which was a bit more expensive than normal to reserve, but at least allowed transportation independence as I hopped from one casino to the next. Because with temperatures flirting with 110 degrees each afternoon, walking anywhere wasn’t much of a realistic option.
Las Vegas has been through a lot in its over 100-year history.
There have been bans on gambling, Prohibition, fires, demolitions, bygone eras and rebirths. Then came the 2020 78-day full closure on the casinos, followed by a year of an uneven climb back up to normal.
To be fair, there’s a growing concern about the impact the delta variant may have on the area, to the point that Nevada has requested federal assistance amid a once-again-increasing COVID-19 positivity rate.
Masks, while optional, are still a relatively commonplace fixture on the Strip. But, at least for now, gone are the days of social distancing, plastic dividers, capacity restraints and a very limited array of dining and entertainment options.
Vegas has come back time and time again — so it should be little surprise that as the heat of the summer reaches its peak, Las Vegas is unquestionably back.
Featured photo by Denise Truscello/Getty Images/MGM Resorts International.
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