October 5, 2017 at 4:54 PM
"Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst . . ."
— Rudyard Kipling, "Mandalay"
LAS VEGAS — The original name was Project Paradise. It was to be a 42-story, billion-dollar resort featuring "an exotic South Seas theme," a swim-up shark exhibit and a trefoil footprint with a facade of gold leaf. By the time it was built on the burial ground of the 11-story Hacienda — an antique family-centric hotel and casino that was imploded on live TV on New Year's Eve 1996 — Project Paradise had been renamed after a British poet's nostalgic (and imperial) ode to the exoticism of south Asia.
Mandalay Bay is "a world of escape where entertainment has the edge over reality," said the president of its parent company when it opened on March 2, 1999, in the new era of the Vegas mega-resort — a place where you can eat, shop, sleep, dance, go to the beach, get a tattoo, get a facial, get married, win a fortune, lose your shirt, drink your heartache away, see a prizefight, see a Broadway show.
"It's the embodiment of today's Las Vegas" says Thomas LaBue.
"You don't have to leave if you don't want to," says Joni Seto.
The 26th floor. Seto, 29, and her fiance, LaBue, 32, are both entrepreneurs from Los Angeles. They love Mandalay Bay. Their room's floor-to-ceiling windows overlook everything. Straight ahead, the Luxor's Sphinx and the deep-focus length of the glittering strip. To the left, one of the windows blown out by the mass shooter, a jagged black blemish in the gold. To the right, the concert venue, empty except for the hoodies and beer cans and camping chairs left behind by the fleeing and the dying. When hysterical concertgoers stormed in, Seto and LaBue raced to a basement kitchen.
"I thought maybe we'd hide in the fridge," says LeBue.
"And I thought, 'There's no way I'm dying in a fridge,' " says Seto.
Here, they are not tourists. They are resortists, which is what Mandalay calls its guests. It was their first time back in two years, but a bellhop remembered their names and a cocktail waitress remembered their drinks. Mandalay remembers all their bets, too; it tracks them via electronic rewards cards. They prefer high-stakes baccarat. Their stay is fully comped. They have a host to manage their needs.
Yes, Mandalay Bay is open for business. It never closed. There are no memorials inside Mandalay — but then, no innocent deaths happened inside Mandalay. Instead there are discreet black placards offering counseling. Seto and LaBue took advantage of it Tuesday. There was a vast empty ballroom and counselors at far-flung tables and handouts titled "COPING AFTER A CRISIS."
They love Mandalay Bay.
"If there's any issue," LaBue says, "they will correct it."
"It's like two separate worlds," Seto says, after flinching at the sound of a police siren 26 stories below. "Inside, and out."
Vegas is full of mini-civilizations. Circus Circus is for middle-class families. Aria is definitely on the bougie side. The Linq is for college revelers. The Wynn, the Venetian, the Bellagio — the clientele's a bit old, kind of posh. Caesar's is garish, the Tropicana's homely. The three MGM-owned resorts on this end of the strip ascend in order of ritziness as you move south: Excalibur, then Luxor, then Mandalay Bay — the grandest of the trio, and the first resort Californians hit on their way into town.
Nevada had a monopoly on gambling until New Jersey legalized it for Atlantic City in the 1970s, forcing Las Vegas to strategize. What else could they offer, besides poker and blackjack and roulette?
The answer: Everything.
"And that's what you see with Mandalay Bay and other properties of the 1990s — whether it's entertainment, or high-end shopping, or the nightclubs or the pools," says Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "Mandalay Bay is part of a movement in that direction: the notion that you can go somewhere and you can bathe in an Egyptian pyramid, or whatever else you might want."
Mandalay Bay has 3,039 hotel rooms. The casino is 130,000 square feet; the adjoining convention space is 2 million. Five of Mandalay Bay's upper floors are actually a Four Seasons, a caste within a caste. Just below those floors was the temporary and final home of Stephen Craig Paddock, a lover of casinos and mass murder, now linked forever to the strip's southernmost resort, the safe haven from which death rained down.
"Las Vegas is one of the best, the safest, in terms of surveillance and security," says Norm Clarke, a veteran Associated Press reporter and former Las Vegas Review-Journal gossip columnist. "But they always thought the threat would come through the door, not from above. And that's changed the dynamic."
There are security officers at each of the lobby's three elevator bays. There is crime-scene tape across a couple exits.
There have been no cancellations at Mandalay's wedding chapel as of Wednesday. But on Monday, several companies recalled their people from a data convention being held among huge multipurpose rooms with names like Lagoon, Islander and Shellseeker. Mandalay Bay is a conventioneer's resort, despite its quarter-mile walks between activities.
"The layout is jacked," complains one conventioneer from the East Coast, on his way from the craps table Wednesday evening to get a Sazerac. "I mean, I don't mind, but the women wear heels. The layout in the Aria is better because the conference space is vertical."
He was asleep a couple floors below the shooter and didn't wake up until SWAT barreled into his room at 3:30 a.m. Monday.
"Vegas is surreal no matter where you are," he says, ashing a Marlboro right on the stone bar. "Mandalay at least has some class."
Mandalay may have some class, but that's only because it has everything. It has "Walking Dead" slots and Elvira slots and a high-stakes slot room that no one ever seems to occupy. It has sushi, Wolfgang Puck, a headless statue of Lenin near a Russia-themed restaurant, a 10-foot statue of Michael Jackson on a 10-foot pedestal in the lobby, a shop named Essentials that sells $60 "Earth-friendly" headphones, and a beach-like pool whose artificial wave system was said to have been operated at one point by a man named Moses. Walking around the casino floor must be what the early stages of Alzheimer's feels like; everything looks vaguely familiar and strangely alien, and you're in a constant state of being vaguely lost and strangely soothed.
It is stimulant and tranquilizer.
There is no Mandalay Bay aesthetic, because it has every aesthetic — art deco, midcentury modern, 1980s brassworks, 1990s proportions — until you meander into the Four Seasons wing, and the busy blues and golds and reds, and the Jurassic-scale foliage, quickly give way to grays and creams and orchids and succulents. This is how they tell you that you don't belong: They make you feel it.
Back to Mandalay.
"The smell here," says Lori Bubenicek, who works for Hilton in Illinois and is in town for a convention of the wedding-industrial complex. "You smell it?"
No . . .
Exactly, she says. "You walk into other hotels and smell smoke."
In Mandalay, you smell nothing. Or is it everything? Here you smell the sweetness of industrial cleaner, the savoriness of the buffet, the perfume of a passing waitress in her teal miniskirt uniform — but not in offensive quantities, and never for too long. Here, strands of crystal in the chandeliers get wiped in the middle of the night. The footrests at the slot machines get scrubbed with a small brush.
It's always just a little too cold.
"All eyes are on guest operations right now," emails Yvette Monet, corporate communications manager for MGM Resorts International, Mandalay's parent company, while declining to comment further. "I am sorry about that. One thing I can tell you is that Mandalay Bay pays close attention to its Wikipedia page to ensure accuracy."
The Wikipedia page says Mandalay Bay was the setting of a "Modern Family" episode in 2014, and used for various shots in "Ocean's Eleven," "Ocean's Thirteen" and "The Hangover." It has "the largest unobstructed ballroom" in the country, at 100,000 square feet — nearly twice the floor space of the entire White House. The page has a section titled "2017 shooting," though there's no mention of the only other comparable Vegas tragedy, in terms of casualties: the 1980 fire at the former MGM Grand, where the blaze traveled the 100-yard casino floor in less than 20 seconds, eventually killing 85 people and injuring 650.
"It led to a revolution in Nevada in fire safety," says Green, the UNLV professor.
"The question was, 'Is this fire going to kill Las Vegas? Will this scare people away?' " says Clarke, who was reporting for the AP that day. "So I went to a pit boss in the casino — and it was deserted just like on 9/11 — and I asked . . . and he just kind of gave me a little laugh and said, 'The only thing stronger than garlic is gambling. Vegas will survive.' "
And so it does. Mandalay Bay is getting back to normal, after a Monday that one resortist called "morose" and a Tuesday that another called "surreal."
About 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, Billy Idol took the stage in the House of Blues, a venue that's kind of plopped in the middle of Mandalay Bay, about 200 feet from where the Sinatra impressionist is appearing, near the escalators to the Luxor (if you want to bathe in a pyramid). This is the first night of Idol's residency in Mandalay. Idol thought briefly about canceling the show but then realized that the shooting victims had gathered to hear music, and so he should play his own, in tribute.
"They came to Vegas to have that experience," he says from the stage, about the victims. "They love this place." And then, about reality intruding on entertainment: "They can't break me! And they can't break Las Vegas!"