call it foolish to build a large and growing city in the desert. Moralists
call it sinful. Cultural critics condemn its superficiality, but the public
responds to its energy and excitement, as it does to no other American city. Las
Vegas has found a place in the psyche of the American people, and for that
matter it draws an international clientele.
Many people with disabilities enjoy going to Las Vegas. They
go for the same reasons as does everyone else. They go to gamble, to see the
shows, to eat the food, and to marvel at the palaces. Disability Life
staff went to Las Vegas to report on the city’s hospitality and accessibility
to persons with disabilities, and to learn about Steve Wynn, a blind man who is
the biggest dreamer of all the dreamers who populate this mythic city. We left
with a greater understanding of the American nation on the cusp of the new
Persons with disabilities are noticeable on the streets, in
the hotels and casinos, and in the restaurants. Provisions have been made to
accommodate deaf, blind, and physically disabled persons throughout the city.
Assistive listening units and alternative alarms are available on request for
use by deaf persons. Braille menus are readily available. Gaming tables, which
accommodate wheelchair users, are continuously in use.
We attended a show at the Luxor Hotel. Hotel staff greeted us
and ushered us to seats designated for ADA compliance. Other persons with
disabilities were seated in this section. The seats were very near the stage. A
row of seats had been removed to provide space for wheelchair passage. It is
obvious that throughout Las Vegas careful attention has been paid to the
creation of an accessible environment.
Once Las Vegas meant organized crime, the Teamsters, Liberace,
and Elvis gone to seed, the Kennedy brothers rendezvousing with Marilyn Monroe,
and the antics of the Rat Pack. In the decades after World War II, Las Vegas
developed a reputation for being wild, uninhibited, corrupt, violent and raw. It
was thought to reflect the old West of the 19th century. It had its undeniable
fascination for Americans, but it wasn’t a place that a family would go for a
However, in the 1980s, Las Vegas began to redefine itself. In
1989, Mirage Resorts Inc. opened the Mirage Hotel. The Mirage was a new concept
in Las Vegas resorts. It featured a South Seas motif. The well-known animal act
of Seigfreid and Roy made its white tigers a permanent fixture at the hotel.
Families were cultivated. Conferences and conventions were recruited. The Mirage
sparked a five billion-dollar building boom. The number of visitors increased
from 18 million in 1989 to 30 million in 1998. Las Vegas became a multidimensional
In addition to the South Seas, ancient Egypt and Rome,
mythological characters, pirates, volcanoes, and Camelot provide organizing
themes for Las Vegas resorts. The Las Vegas hospitality industry has tapped into
the national interest in fine dining by creating a number of new upscale
restaurants. Cab drivers speak knowledgeably about the city’s leading bistros.
Museums and shopping opportunities now abound. There is always something for
every member of the family to do.
Las Vegas was built on gambling, and gambling, in spite of
efforts to redo the city’s image, dominates the sociocultural landscape. The
first sound one hears, when one arrives at the airport, and the last sound one
hears as he or she enters the jet way upon departure, is that of the ubiquitous
hum and clank of the slot machines. Even the most morally pure seldom resist
playing a roll of nickels.
Over the last several decades, the Las Vegas monopoly on
gambling has been broken. State and local governments have wanted to cash in on
the tax revenues and in some cases directly on operating gambling activities.
Hardly a state is without its lotto games. Riverboat gambling, low stakes casino
gambling, off-track betting, and many other gaming arrangements exist in every
corner of the nation. Las Vegas may be the gaming capitol of America, but it is
not a distinction upon which the city wishes to build its image or wager its
Once more Las Vegas is upping the ante. The city is in
another round of new hotel construction. Once again an effort is being made to
polish the Las Vegas image. No longer is the theme "a family
destination." It is now "an experience of beauty and elegance."
Las Vegas movers and shakers argue that to continue the city’s growth, they
must compete with international tourists’ destinations such as London, Rome
and Paris. They now wish to appeal to a higher human sensibility. A new building
boom is underway which aims to meet the human need for elegance and beauty.
Three hotels, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and the Venetian, have been completed in
the last year, and a fourth, Paris, which sports a replica of the Eiffel Tower,
is scheduled to open in the next several months.
The image that Las Vegas seeks to create must be built from
conflicting elements. Gaming, the Wild West and self-indulgent hedonism are
slowly being transformed by "family values" and sophisticated
spirituality. The development of the new image draws on the fine arts, the
evocation of Old World elegance, and New World entrepreneurialism. The city and
its business leaders have made a multibillion dollar bet that this
transformation is both possible and necessary.
A new hotel opened in October 1998. Bellagio attempts to take
the Las Vegas resort hotel to a new level. Steve Wynn, CEO of Mirage Resorts
Inc., and driving force behind the 1.6 billion-dollar project, says, "We
want to create beauty and elegance with the Bellagio. We want to serve the
higher human sensibilities. It’s good for people, and it’s good for
business." The Bellagio is mammoth. It is located on a 110-acre parcel on
the Las Vegas strip. The hotel houses 3,005 sleeping rooms, 300 suites and seven
villas. Conference facilities occupy 125,000 square feet. The casino contains
another 100,000 square feet. Seven of Bellagios’ thirteen restaurants feature
world-renowned chefs and gourmet fare. An eight-acre lake with dancing fountains
lies between the hotel and the street. Outdoor pools and Jacuzzis stretch along
one side of the hotel. But it isn’t the size of the Bellagio that gives it its
is Italian for "beautiful lake."
The design of the resort is inspired by a village along Lake Como in Northern
Italy. The lake that lies in front of the hotel laps against walls that give the
appearance of rocky lakeshore. The resort floors are made from Italian marble
and mosaic tiles put in place by Italian craftsmen brought to Las Vegas
especially for this job. A 1,200-square-foot blown glass sculpture hangs from
the ceiling in the lobby. This signature piece is entitled, "The Flowers of
A conservatory is prominently located near the lobby. The
conservatory is a lush botanical garden. The fragrant aroma of blossoms wafts
throughout the hotel. The soothing sound of running water drowns out the
mechanical hum of the slot machines. The high-energy excitement of the casino is
contrasted with the mellow indoor conservatory.
The crowning feature of the new Las Vegas sensibility is
Bellagio’s art gallery. Steve Wynn has made the collection of fine art a
personal passion. When we were there, 23 famous paintings were displayed in
Bellagio’s gallery, two Picassos, a Rubens, a Rembrandt, two Van Goghs and a
good sampling of the best French Impressionists. There is even a painting
by the American, Jackson Pollack. An audio narrative recorded by
Steve Wynn is available for use while viewing the paintings. Mr. Wynn prepared
the narrative demonstrating his knowledge and appreciation of fine art. Other
major artwork is on display throughout the hotel.
The Bellagio evokes Old World elegance and the artistic
values of the European aristocracy. It takes little imagination to picture a
countess emerging from one of the villas to shop in one of the exclusive
boutiques and dine in one of the fine restaurants on site. The highest value
promoted by the culture at Bellagio’s is pleasure but it is a higher pleasure.
Steve Wynn wishes to take the Las Vegas image a step beyond.
Stephen A. Wynn grew up in Connecticut. He attended the
University of Pennsylvania and moved to Las Vegas in the mid-1960s. He started a
wine and liquor import business. The 57-year-old Wynn is married and has two
During the last 35 years, Wynn has taken a progressively more
influential role in the Las Vegas community. His work has been rewarded by the
bestowal of two honorary doctoral degrees by Nevada colleges. He serves on a
high-profile national economic counsel and chairs the board of an eye institute
associated with the University of Utah Medical School.
Steve Wynn is an unusually successful businessman. He has
contributed a great deal to the remaking of Las Vegas, but what makes him
especially interesting is his vision for American culture on the cusp of the new
millennium, and his continuing struggle with the degenerative eye condition,
retinitous pigmentosa, or RP.
Steve Wynn represents a growing class of business persons who
espouse a philosophy that can be characterized as "enlightened
entrepreneurialism." This philosophy has three major components. It holds
that the dynamic, creative activity of society is located in private sector
initiative. The economic playing field is global, and private sector
entrepreneurs have a responsibility to use their wealth and power to enhance
educational, cultural and economic well-being for the whole community.
The new entrepreneurialism is upscaled: Steve Wynn’s vision
of elegance and beauty fits well into the new global business philosophy.
Wynn was a fine arts and English literature major in college.
This too fits in with the new philosophy’s emphasis on a more cultured and
responsible business leadership. The re-creation of the Las Vegas image is Steve
Wynn’s contribution to the new philosophy. He desires global respectability
for his city.
When we called to set up an interview with Mr. Wynn, we were
told that he does not talk about his disability. He was out of town when we were
in Las Vegas. His staff told us that he uses no special aids, with the exception
of low vision magnifying lenses. It seems fair to conclude that Mr. Wynn does
not think of himself as a blind person or identify with the disability
community. We can only hope that this will change in the years ahead.
The American Dream
Las Vegas in general and the Bellagio in particular represent
the American dream. It is expansive, intolerant of restraint, willing to cut
corners and convinced of its rectitude. America, from the very beginning, has
looked to Europe for cultural sophistication, and at the same time, resented
Europe. Las Vegas is searching for elegance and beauty in European culture,
while using this very culture to draw tourists’ dollars from the real thing.
The Bellagio has an 8-acre artificial lake in its front,
although it had to get preferential legislation to create it. Water starved
Las Vegas does not permit the creation of artificial lakes. In addition, Steve
Wynn has sought legislation to exempt the Bellagio’s art collection from sales
and property taxes.
The American dream and the American culture are in clear view
in Las Vegas. As we cross into a new century, we can be assured that those who
are in control of great wealth wish to be free to do what they believe is best
for all of us. They believe they are enlightened and they wish to elevate the
sensibility of the American nation. In very many ways, they are in control of
American politics and culture.
A century ago, the scenario was almost exactly the same. Not
until the Great Depression did the success of the business elite receive wide-
spread criticism. We can only wonder what environmental or natural resource
crisis will occur in the 20th century to call into question the policies and
practices of today’s "best and brightest."
In the meantime, the prospects for the disability community
in this era of global enlightened entrepreneurialism are decidedly mixed. For
those who have the luck and talent to compete, the sky is the limit, as the case
of Steve Wynn illustrates. And for those who want access to the new elegance and
beauty, provided that they can afford it, most barriers in the consumer society
are falling. But for those who need more, the future is threatening. The gap
between the haves and the have-nots is widening. Health care, food and housing
are beyond the reach of many.
Persons with disabilities are over-represented among the
least prosperous in our society. "The retched of the earth" are
overwhelmingly persons with disabilities. The great
wealth in our society is focused on higher culture and
expensive self-indulgence. Amid unprecedented wealth, fifteen percent of our
population eat from food banks. The most successful persons with disabilities
are skimmed off, leaving too many of the rest homeless, hungry, in prison, ill,
and at risk.
We can hope that persons with disabilities such as Steve Wynn
can broaden their vision for a healthy, just, beautiful, and elegant culture to
include an ethic of concern for the whole community. But let it not be forgotten
that the disability community cannot depend on others for its progress. No
matter the frustrations, only a strong well-organized disability community can
address our political, economic, and cultural needs.