The Power of Music

A roadtrip to Las Vegas illustrates the power of music to drive and define great themed entertainment.

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Published: June 3, 2004 at 9:35 PM

Theme parks represent just one form of themed entertainment. While I love our family's annual visit to Orlando and our monthly trips to various theme parks in Southern California, I find myself most eager for long weekends in Las Vegas.

Two tickets to Sunday's Prince concert at the Mandalay Bay provided my most recent excuse for a drive up I-15. My sister graciously agreed to fly out from Orlando and watch the kids for two nights while Laurie and I got away. So I booked two nights at the Hard Rock Hotel and we started counting the days until our departure.

Because of the kids, Laurie and I chose driving instead of flying. Why would it matter, since they weren't joining us? Because driving meant we'd be guaranteed four hours alone, each way, with no one around to interrupt us. Maybe we'd get lucky and hit traffic, too.

No such luck. Only a quick stop for gyros at the Mad Greek delayed our Sunday afternoon arrival. We pulled up to the Hard Rock to find the hard body crowd packing the lobby for the hotel's “Rehab” pool party. As the check-in clerk presented us with the coveted red wristbands that would get us past the two-hour line, I cracked to Laurie that we ought to pick up a few bucks scalping the things. Because, despite our recent progress in yoga, neither of us is ready to go on display at the Hard Rock pool yet.

Room keys in hand, bouncers cleared our way past the pool party line as we tried not to stare too directly at the abundant work of L.A.'s finest plastic surgeons. So began our first ongoing game of the trip: 'Are They Real or Fake?' (Followed after midnight by the second game: 'Is She Amateur or Professional?')

Hey, themed entertainment doesn't have to be kid-friendly. Next example: the Hard Rock's Mexican restaurant, the suggestively named Pink Taco. Music is not the only theme at the Hard Rock, as the restaurant's various slogans made clear. (“If you don't eat the Pink Taco, your best friend will.”) While we waited for our table, Laurie left me alone in the bar to visit the restroom, only to come storming back a moment later. She jerked her head toward a gaggle of post-sorority women as our waitress led us to a table.

“They were definitely giving you the vibe.”

“What vibe?” I replied.

“The vibe that women give a guy they are about to hit on.”

“No way. I didn't get that.”

“That's because you've been married for 12 years, and therefore now a clueless idiot when it comes to that sort of thing.”

Okay, I made that last line up. Laurie's far more diplomatic when she explains why I'm an idiot.

After dinner, we drove to the Mandalay Bay for the concert. Free CDs of Prince's latest, “Musicology,” for all ticket holders eased the pain of the admission price. A little. But Prince took the rest away. The man's no mere pop star. As he exclaimed, “I only hang out with *real* musicians. There ain't no lip-synchin' allowed on *this* stage.”

Take that, Madonna (who was playing her own show at the MGM the same night). Prince and his nine-piece combo delivered fat horns, soaring guitars and piercing keyboards for nearly two hours, running through hits from the old school (“Controversy” and “DMSR”) through most of the “Purple Rain” soundtrack and onto more recent tracks from “Musicology.” For the middle act of the show, Prince gave the band a break and soloed with acoustic guitar.

Laurie runs a site for violinists, and I cover theme parks. But both sites are united by our readers' common passion for entertainment. Prince demonstrated the power of live music to a wildly appreciative audience, a lesson I wish more theme parks would learn.

Music elevates theme parks from the carnival midway. It establishes and amplifies mood, advancing narratives and enhancing their emotional pull. Imagine Disney's Haunted Mansion without its “Grim, Grinning Ghosts.” Think back to how much more exciting Space Mountain became when Disneyland added a Dick Dale guitar riff to its coaster in the dark.

Music also drives the themes of Las Vegas. Classic and alternative rock, punk and reggae infuse the Hard Rock Hotel's casino floor. Monday night, Laurie and I caught “Mamma Mia!” at the Mandalay Bay Theater, a Broadway-style musical built around the songs of ABBA. Up and down the Strip, music defines the character of Vegas' nightclubs, casinos and stage shows, from the industrial beats of Blue Man Group to the New Age inspirations of Cirque du Soleil's Mystere.

But the mere presence of music does not guarantee a great show. Score and story must work together to advance a common theme. I still can't get used to walking into the old casino at Caesar's and hearing Coldplay. Where's Dino and Frank? And who needs to hear Six Flags' commercial music every 30 minutes when visiting one of their parks?

Such misfires aside, our weekend in Vegas allowed us a welcomed chance to submerge ourselves in the joys of music-driven themed entertainment. It reminded me of how theme parks too often stumble when they ignore or rush the score that ought to be a part of every great themed attraction.


  • There's a nightclub war going on among the casinos in Vegas, and the thesaurus is their weapon of choice. Nightclubs are not “nightclubs” anymore. They are “nightculture,” “ultra lounges” or, my personal favorite, a “meta club.” Meta club? What the heck is that? The name makes me think that perhaps they don't have any actual drinking or dancing, just information *about* drinking and dancing.

  • I'm losing my taste for buffets. After hitting the gym, curbing my appetite, plus hitting some of L.A.'s best restaurants this past year, yards of steam trays aren't doing it for me anymore. That said, kudos to the Paris buffet for its fondue and crepe stations, and to the Aladdin for its outstanding kabobs and sushi. I've heard of improvements on the Rio buffet, too, but we didn't get west of the Strip on this trip.

  • The Hard Rock was the only Vegas hotel I've visited in over a decade where I did not see a single child. Some hotels, such as the Bellagio, have tried to bar kids, with the exception of those staying at their hotel, but none appeared even to be staying at the Hard Rock. Something to remember for anyone looking for a more “adult” vacation.

    Coming next week: A trip to SeaWorld San Diego and a review of Journey to Atlantis.

  • Readers' Opinions

    From Kevin Baxter on June 4, 2004 at 1:02 AM
    I went recently, and it sure wasn't Trip Report worthy, but I did notice there were very few kids ANYWHERE. And we stayed at Excalibur! Apart from the pool and play areas, they just weren't out and about. We saw the okay 3-D show in M&M World and there was only one kid in there.

    Too bad you stayed at the Hard Rock. We only went in once to gamble and one of the dealers had an attitude to match most of the hotel's clientele. Even the Palms doesn't have this many self-involved snobs.

    As for the buffets, I get your pain. Unfortunately inexpensive restaurants aren't easy to find on the Strip. But doing the Paris buffet isn't like doing a buffet, so I could ALWAYS do that one. The ESPN Club has good food, but not much ambience for peeps who aren't sports nuts. The ambience isn't that fantastic at the Harley Davidson Cafe, but gawd was their food delicious. The Rainforest Cafe and Cheesecake Factory are both good choices when you don't want to pay over $20 just for the entree.

    So how was Mamma Mia? We almost paid for it, but wanted to save our money.

    From Robert Niles on June 4, 2004 at 10:07 AM
    There's a world of difference between the way the Hard Rock treats its hotel guests and the "party crowd." If you are not staying at the hotel, as I said in my comment on the hotel, expect to be herded like cattle and treated like their s---. The casino's so small, and the party crowd so big, that the HRH personnel has little choice but to treat the place like the Pirates queue on the Fourth of July. That said, I found that if you keep your room key in your hand where the employees can see it, they brighten immediately and go out of their way to help you. Dropping a load at the tables would also help, but not until you've been betting at least $25 a hand for a couple hours.

    For good inexpensive food, I can't recommend enough the Boulangerie and the Cafe at the Paris. Best ham and cheese sandwiches ever. (And I don't really like ham.) Mr. Lucky's at the HRH also poured two of the best milkshakes I've ever tasted. I've also heard great things about Lotus of Siam, which the food critic at the L.A. Times told me is her favorite restaurant in Vegas.

    I did see plenty of kids at the Paris, Aladdin and on the Strip after the Prince show. What the heck is anyone doing hauling toddlers up and down the Strip after midnight? The three times I brought a kid to Vegas, we were stopping overnight on a roadtrip, stayed away from the casino floors, stuck to a shopping mall and/or a buffet and had the kids up in the room by 7 p.m. And even then I thought we were pushing it.

    Mamma Mia! is whisper-light slice of delightful cheese. It's a "chick" show, almost exclusively focused on female characters, with a little "himbo" eye candy throw in. Young Sophie Sheridan wants to invite her long-lost dad to her wedding, but doesn't know who he is. She swipes her mom's diary, and finds that *three* men could have donated half her DNA. (Doesn't this just cry for some "Rocky Horror"-type response from the audience?) So Sophie writes them all as her mother, inviting them to visit. Gags, hilarity and all of ABBA's hits ensue.

    Too bad we saw this with a crowd that would have rather cracked open an Ensure and took in a live performance of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Standing the in lobby before the show, I contrasted this crowd with the one at the HRH: "Look Laurie, this is where the old people are!" This show would be hilarious with a crowd that treats it with the Rocky Horror-like irreverence it was written with and which its performance deserves. But the earnest Baby Boomer fogies we saw it with could not rouse themselves from their (highly comfortable) seats to have any fun.

    From Kevin Baxter on June 5, 2004 at 12:35 AM
    That's hilarious because the in-room commercials show young audience members dancing in the aisles and singing like mad to the songs.

    I forgot to mention the Boulangerie at Paris. Gawd I love that place. And those aren't ham and cheese sandwiches, but Croque Monsieurs! The BEST Croque Monsieurs I have ever had. Just had the ones in Epcot's Chefs de France and while they used to be good, the last one was a bit dryish. The Paris ones NEVER are! Mmmmmmm!

    You want to see a lively crowd, see a show in San Francisco with the blue-haired subscribers! Give them something with wit, like Hairspray, and there are minor ripples of laughter. Ruin an otherwise excellent performance of Damn Yankees with the "acting" skills of Jerry Lewis and you get a riotous standing ovation. In fact, when we stopped clapping when it was his turn to bow, we got several dirty looks. Money can't buy you taste.

    From Jason Lester on June 5, 2004 at 8:25 AM
    You want a good place to eat in Vegas: Rum Jungle! It's located at Mandaly Bay and has great food, dancing, and music.
    From Kevin Baxter on June 5, 2004 at 12:57 PM
    I'll vouch for the drinks, but the food is too spicy for my tastes and the dancing is just goofy. Too much pretentiousness. I'll take the party spirit of Studio 54 over the poseurs here anyday.
    From Robert Niles on June 5, 2004 at 2:16 PM
    I'd heard good things about Rumjungle, but after the Prince concert, the line was insane. And after Mamma Mia! we couldn't get out of Mandalay Bay and away from the Baby Boomers fast enough.

    And, Kevin, I'd typed "Croque Monsieurs" on my first draft, then decided I just didn't feel like answering the question "What the heck is a Croque Monsieur?," so I dumbed it down on first reference to ham and cheese. I figured everyone would get that.

    (Hey, I just got back from Vegas. I'm tired.)

    From Kevin Baxter on June 7, 2004 at 12:05 AM
    Hey, if people are going to learn of the joys of Monte Cristos (another ham and cheese sandwich!) then they are going to learn of the greater joys of Croque Monsieurs!

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