Roulette Wheels Just Don't Change Into Ferris Wheels

EVEN though it is trying to refashion itself as a Disney World in the desert, Glitter Gulch may be on a collision course with family values.

Despite acres of rides, slides, and other attractions aimed at luring the whole family, many visitors say there still isn't enough for children to do - and they worry about the influence of gambling.

``No way is this a city for families,'' says Alicia Keller, toting two toddlers through the lobby of MGM Grand Hotel. ``Everywhere you want to go you have to cut through acres of casinos with people drinking, pulling slot machines.''

The city's drive to be known as something other than a one-dimensional gambling hub is rooted in hard economics. Once permitted only in Nevada and Atlantic City, N.J., full-range casinos are now legal in 21 states. Virtually all large metropolitan areas lie within 200 miles of slot-machines and some small-table gambling.

To keep competitive - as well as the customers who parted with $6 billion here last year - many Las Vegas casinos now offer theme parks, video arcades, and family entertainment.

``This town realized five years ago it had no choice but to position itself as more than a place to gamble,'' says Dennis Stein, president of the Nevada Development Authority. Quoting studies that showed 85 percent of Americans avoided Las Vegas because they felt it was inappropriate for families, he says gaming officials saw a huge market to be tapped. Enter three hotel/casinos in 1993 with great fanfare: MGM Grand Hotel with 33-acre theme park; pyramid-shaped Luxor with simulator rides through time and a space-age computer arcade; and Treasure Island's Buccaneer Bay with staged naval battles between Pirates and British baddies. Add marketing budgets that are luring those who still may not be ready for what they find.

``There's nowhere to sit, nowhere to change a baby, and everyone keeps shooing you out of the gambling areas,'' says Ms. Keller.

There are shows geared to family audiences - Cirque du Soleil at Treasure Island, jousting knights at the Excalibur, Siegfried & Roy with tigers at the Mirage. But at $55 a seat for Soleil and $78 for Siegfried & Roy, the prices add up. ``I can't afford to shell out nearly $400 for one show,'' says Rafer Milroy, a father of three from Memphis, Tenn.

More entertainment fare is on the way, including a $50-million ``Star Trek'' attraction at the Hilton. But some analysts say the moves to nongambling entertainment are less a means of reaching out to families than a protection of business investment.

``Gambling marketers know they are in an era in which they have to soften their harsh images,'' says James Frey, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. ``They want to socialize a whole new generation to think that gambling is just part of the same package of entertainment that includes ferris wheels and arcade games.''

Some casinos - Luxor and Circus Circus among them - have gone out of their way to separate gambling and entertainment, placing youth-oriented attractions on separate floors or rooms. Others, such as MGM Grand, have located attractions in a corner where patrons must pass through fields of casino to get there.

``Clearly they are banking on children associating casinos with family fun time,'' says Nan Porter, a psychologist at Witchita State University in Kansas. ``It's a blatant attempt to build gambling instincts into family associations.''

To be sure, not all casinos are claiming themselves as family-oriented.

``We are trying to reach out to a new audience of adults and be aware that if they wish to bring their kids, we will accommodate them,'' says Alan Feldman, spokesman for the Mirage. ``The town is less inhospitable to families than it was 20 years ago, but that is a far cry from calling it a family destination.''

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