Rethinking a City's Family-Friendly Facade

THE LAS VEGAS DIVIDE

The video arcade at the Plaza Casino in downtown Las Vegas is a cramped room with a pervasive odor of cigarette smoke. Kids enter through the lobby bar, where slot machines clatter and waitresses in black tights rove the tables. On Saturday night, seven children sit on vinyl stools here, plunking quarters into video games with blurry screens.

At the New York, New York Casino on the storied "Strip," the scene is markedly different. Here, in a cavernous arcade segregated from the casino floor, dozens of kids test motorcycle simulators and carnival games as their parents observe. There's a continuous line for the in-house roller coaster.

These two scenes contrast, in vivid terms, how little or how much casinos do to accommodate gamblers with children. On one side is a group of long-time casino operators who believe families should not be encouraged to bring children here. Opposite them are proprietors of a new generation of massive "themed" casinos that profit as much from deluxe rooms, laser shows, and restaurants as from the gaming tables.

Tourists here have nearly doubled in the past eight years - and more are bringing children, statistics show. Critics say the city's new "family friendly" image is a burden that distracts casinos from their gambling operations and presents a host of new liability concerns. To many people, the rape and murder last week of an unsupervised young girl at a casino in Primm, Nev., underscores this point.

For a city built on glitz and seduction, it's a defining moment.

"There are two conflicting perspectives," says William Frey, a sociologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV). "One is that casinos should provide child care. Another is that they shouldn't do anything else to encourage people to bring their kids. There's some merit to both viewpoints."

In a city where image is everything, he adds, there's no easy solution. "You're sort of cursed if you do and cursed if you don't."

The conflict is palpable. The MGM Grand Casino created a stir recently by opening a licensed day-care center and offering parents beepers. Several years ago, casinos banded together to prevent topless clubs from distributing leaflets on street corners.

At the same time, the new advertising logo developed by the Nevada Convention and Visitors Bureau features a picture of a gambling chip with the slogan "Las Vegas. Open 24 Hours." It is, in the words of bureau spokesman Rob Powers, "a very gambling-intensive message."

Indeed, statistics show that despite the rapid rise in tourism - about 30 million people visited here last year - the percentage of tourists under the age of 21 was only 11 percent, a relatively small number for such a popular destination.

To many casino operators, the city's new family image is less a function of marketing than a reflection of a broader societal shift. "Today's parents rarely go anywhere without their kids," says Alan Feldman, spokesman for the Mirage Casino. "As leaders in the hospitality industry, we have to be hospitable - and that means providing things for everyone to do."

But last week's murder in Primm, some casino officials say privately, has caused a new round of soul-searching among executives. Many express concern that the incident shows how vulnerable the casino industry is to the actions of depraved people.

"We're always held to a higher standard," Mr. Feldman says. "I'd hate to see this incident [in Primm] become a casino issue. This could easily have happened at a shopping mall."

According to Mr. Frey, the incident could prompt more casinos to employ a greater level of vigilance. Some casinos might relocate their arcades for children and shorten their hours, he says, or change traffic patterns to make sure fewer minors come into contact with gambling areas. Other casinos might follow the example of the MGM Grand, which broadcasts a message over its public-address system reminding patrons that minors are not allowed in the casino and must be supervised at all times.

Shannon Bybee, a former casino executive who teaches hotel management at UNLV, says casinos in recent years have devoted attention to halting underage gambling. If state regulators catch minors at gaming tables, he notes, a casino faces a $10,000 fine.

Yet Mr. Bybee and others say the presence of children has also been a boon to the city's gambling industry, which accounts for 40 percent of Nevada's gross state product. There are only so many ardent gamblers with money to burn, he says, and families bring the prospect of growth to an otherwise stagnant industry.

"Las Vegas has become a true resort location," Mr. Powers says. "People can come here to gamble, but they can also play golf and tennis, attend special events, go to fine restaurants, and shop. Many of these attractions did not exist before."

Yet parents here, almost unanimously, say bringing kids to Las Vegas can be a hassle.

"You can't leave your children alone, so it's hard to do any gambling," says Reatha Hicks of Los Angeles, standing outside the Circus Circus Casino with her two sons. "I've seen parents tell their kids to sit on the steps while they play blackjack. It just makes the kids bored and the parents nervous."

It's a problem all too familiar to casino managers. After all, they say, the more you segregate kids from the gaming rooms, the less likely parents are to empty their wallets. "It's a paradox," Frey says. "The family appeal has brought more people to Las Vegas, but the bottom line is still a gambling bottom line."

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