You know that hollow feeling brought on by, say, the death of a favorite celebrity? As the tributes stack up on social media, you can only stare at the screen in disbelief.
That is how I felt on Jan. 15, the day MGM Resorts International announced the end of Las Vegas. By which I mean the end of free parking at the Bellagio, Mirage, Mandalay Bay, Aria, MGM Grand, Luxor, Excalibur, New York-New York, Monte Carlo, Delano and Vdara resorts. That's more than half the Strip, if you're counting. Parking fees will set you back up to $10 per night, with valet service costing even more.
Paying to park may be nothing to New Yorkers or Angelenos, but in Las Vegas, it's sacrilege. MGM's chief operating officer acknowledged as much in the company's news release, calling the move “a significant departure from a long-established paradigm.”
Jay Sarno, who created Caesars Palace and Circus Circus, knew the value of setting the tone at the entrance. According to his biography “Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas,” the majestic driveway at Caesars Palace was built to “transport the guest out of time, out of space, away from his workaday life and into a fantasy world … with gratification only a throw of the dice or the flash of a smile away.”
People, that is the magic of getting parking right. Parking isn't just car storage. It's a symbol. Free valet in particular makes Joe Gambler feel like a high roller, like Lady Luck is on his arm as he breezes into the air-conditioned lobby. That Cinderella experience — call it hope — is what Vegas offers the world. Mix in a few free cocktails, and you've got the formula that turned a dusty desert outpost into a global destination.
The change hurts Californians far more than tourists arriving by plane; 94% of Southern Californians drive here. Well, gas is cheap.
But even if you rich Angelenos don't mind getting ripped off, Las Vegas locals are outraged on your behalf. “The End of Days is upon us!” proclaimed Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius, in the first of many primal cries in print. A reader survey in the same paper garnered more than 10,000 votes, with 73% responding “No free parking!? Never going there again.” There's a petition, a Facebook group calling for a boycott and angry memes. In a nod to burning draft cards, local gamblers are cutting up their MGM loyalty cards and posting pictures of the shards on social media.
Meanwhile, I'm like one of those Medicare-loving, antigovernment protesters, yelling, “Get your corporate casino hands off my free Strip parking!” But this is no time for dignity.
Historically, only one property on the Strip has ever imposed a similar fee-on-arrival at a casino. Circus Circus, when it opened in 1968, charged $2 admission (about $14 in today's money) to cover the “free” circus acts. Tourists paid. Locals protested. And the fee disappeared after a few months.
Memes are great, but I fear Vegas residents, being only 2 million strong, lack boycott-level numbers. If the 41 million-plus annual tourists don't join the revolt, it's only a matter of time before we have to pay to park everywhere, even off the Strip.
MGM's official rationale is the cost of building a $54-million, 3,000-space parking structure, plus $36 million to upgrade existing parking. But parking fees are just part and parcel of the very un-Vegas trend of nickel-and-diming guests: tighter slots, lower payouts, fewer comped rooms, mandatory $25-a-day “resort fees,” etc.
In truth, all these are a matter of packaged versus a la carte costs. We've always paid to be at casinos. But the seduction of Las Vegas is the feeling that you're getting something for nothing, even while you're losing at the blackjack table. Why call attention to a cost that brings no joy? At least an overpriced mojito gives you a buzz.
The Las Vegas Strip is a uniquely American landmark, an amalgamation of public square and private space, famous around the world for projecting bounty to all comers. MGM has for decades benefited from being part of that, but now it has violated the public trust. It might propose strip-mining the Grand Canyon next.
If profits don't bend to the greater good, Las Vegas risks becoming a failed state. Like Atlantic City.
C. Moon Reed is a writer in Las Vegas.
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