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Come here often? Meet a new Rio

Special to The Times

The RIO, to me, is one of the undiscovered gems of Vegas.

This former home of Prince and the current home of the World Series of Poker is not one of those resorts known for celebrity sightings and hot nightclubs. Just west of the Strip on Flamingo before you reach the Palms, it sports a purple-and-red 51-story central tower.

I have never spoken to anyone visiting Vegas who has named the Rio as their resort of choice for a vacation here. Yet I have never known anyone staying at the Rio who wasn’t totally satisfied with their room and the service they received.

The Rio is owned by Harrah’s and offers far nicer accommodations than some of that company’s older Strip holdings, such as Imperial Palace or Harrah’s or the Flamingo. And the Rio long has been home to the Penn & Teller show, one of the most entertaining and original productions in Vegas. The shopping and restaurants at Rio are not at the level of top resorts, but there are plenty of options.

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The Rio has always been a favorite among locals, but for some reason the property has never caught the public imagination outside Vegas.

But during Prince’s brief residency that ran into early 2007, the Rio enjoyed its moment of attention in the national spotlight and had a new vision for itself. “I would admit that Prince had an impact on the property that inspired us to see the Rio in a way maybe we hadn’t before,” says Michael Weaver, vice president of marketing for Rio. “Changes take time, and you are just seeing the result of them now.” And so the Rio has been attempting a series of moves to be more appealing to tourists that range from the obvious to in one case, the Sapphire Pool, even the envelope-pushing

The Sapphire opened in May, the first topless pool at an off-Strip resort. But the controversy comes from the pool being a partnership between Rio and the topless bar Sapphire. “There are other topless, European-style pools, but we are the first to partner with a gentleman’s club. We knew that was going to get attention,” says Weaver.

It did. Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith noted that this sort of deal pushes the resorts closer to the lap-dance business than gaming authorities in past years would have ever tolerated. Visiting the Sapphire Pool on a recent Saturday, there were a few topless dancers in a private cabana, and that was no different than experiencing the topless pools at any competitor resort on the Strip.

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Far less controversial but telling is that the Rio this year revamped its “Show in the Sky” to make it far more, in Weaver’s words, “sexy.” In this, the Rio follows Treasure Island, which years ago changed its family-friendly pirate battle to “Sirens of TI.” Weaver says: “We looked at ‘Show in the Sky’ and thought it looks too much like Disney. We made it like MTV. It attracts double the people it did before.”

Now, instead of simply swaying and waving and tossing Mardi gras beads from above, the choreographed hard bodies over the casino floor dance and grind before tossing the beads.

But the most intriguing change at the Rio comes from a partnership between Harrah’s and Microsoft at the oddly named iBar. What the iBar offers that is new to Vegas is that the 30-inch tables have been converted into interactive screens with applications that allow people to search and watch YouTube, play games and order drinks from the bar. But what will really be noticed is what is being called the “Flirt” technology. Cameras placed around the bar allow you, on your table, to view people at other tables. And Microsoft Surface also allows you to send messages to those strangers at other tables and thus flirt with Flirt.

IBar is not a hipster lounge or a nightclub that’s impossible to get into. Rather, the iBar is a standard open circle bar near the main entrance of Rio, the sort of place anyone can enter, sit down and actually order (without having to wait in a long line only to be charged to sit down for bottle service). One suspects that such a fancy toy would get a more exclusive debut at a Strip property. Weaver admits that when it came to placing the new Surface tables: “We are off Strip, and we need to give people a reason to walk through the door.”

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So what does this all add up to for the Rio? Innovation (iBar), yes, enhancements (“Show in the Sky”), of course, and even some risk (Sapphire Pool). But all of these changes really seem to go in one direction, the least original upgrade in Vegas: making the property more blatantly sexy.

In fact, long before Prince, when the Rio opened in 1990, the place was known for having among the sexiest cocktail-server outfits in town. Last year those outfits too were revamped, Weaver says, again, hoping for an even sexier look.

And the changes are not finished. Rio Rita, the Rio’s signature ambassador (played by many actresses), who wanders the resort greeting and helping customers, is about to get a revamp, according to Weaver. “We are changing Rio Rita’s costume to make her hotter and sexier,” he says.

What did I tell you?

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For more of what’s happening on and off the Strip, see latimes.com/movablebuffet.


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