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Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities

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An  Oasis in the Desert

Elegance and Beauty in Las Vegas

by Homer Page

Bellagio's Beautiful Lake

Environmentalists 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 millennium.

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.

The Image

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 vacation.

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 destination point.

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 future.

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 uniqueness.


Bellagio 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 Como."

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.

Steve Wynn

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 daughters.

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.

The ramp to the beautiful pool area at Bellagio

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