LAS VEGAS -- The world's largest hotel -- a gargantuan castle designed to entice a growing legion of Middle America gamblers -- opened here this week, and a full house is expected to enjoy mock medieval pageantry at the 4,032-room property.
"Isn't this the most sensational thing you've ever seen?" actor Ernest Borgnine wondered aloud as he watched a knight on a white horse prance across a lobby area of the Excalibur Hotel and Casino in a pre-opening VIP party Monday night.
Hundreds of the Las Vegas business, political and social elite milled about the $290 million property. Minstrels, jugglers and harpists entertained guests, a 10-foot dragon cavorted and a man in a suit of armor walked stiffly amid the guests.
The entertainers will be standard fare in what promises to be one of the country's more unusual properties.
Tuesday's formal opening marked a milestone for Circus Circus Enterprises Inc., the gaming-hotel operation that has carved a niche in Nevada for Middle America.
Glenn Schaeffer, chief financial officer for the company, said the Excalibur was getting 4,000 reservation calls a day. "People think we have a hit," he said.
The $1.6 billion Circus Circus company, which started with a struggling Strip hotel-casino 16 years ago, has become the envy of the gaming industry with a unique strategy focusing on small-time players rather than coveted high-rollers.
Chairman William Bennett announced to stockholders recently that the company planned to reduce its $500 million debt by about $200 million in the coming year, largely on added revenue from the Excalibur.
Schaeffer said Circus Circus could probably pay off all its debt in three or four years from Excalibur revenue, but may opt to look at new projects. He said the company, which once eyed Atlantic City, now has no interest in expanding to the New Jersey market where Donald Trump and other casino operators are struggling.
The giant castle at the south end of the glitzy Las Vegas Strip is the brainchild of Bennett, who amassed a personal fortune of $500 million catering to families in a gaming environment.
The Excalibur is anchored by four 28-story towers, covers 70 acres and has a staff of 4,300. It replaces two other Las Vegas properties that have held the title of the world's largest hotel.
The opening gave Circus Circus a total of 11,320 rooms in Nevada, including two hotels in Las Vegas, one in Reno and two in Laughlin. By comparison, Atlantic City's 12 major hotels total 8,100 rooms. With the opening of the Excalibur, Las Vegas now has 75,000 hotel rooms.
The success of Circus Circus has nudged Las Vegas toward other family-oriented features, transforming the gaming capital into a total resort destination.
Circus Circus rooms average $33 a night, while the Excalibur will average $45.
The 500,000 square feet of public entertainment space includes a Renaissance-era village, 12 food outlets and a casino the size of four football fields, with 2,630 slot machines.
Shows will feature a medieval flair, with live jousting. An arcade will feature a dozen themed game booths such as archery and electronic crossbows.