LAS VEGAS -- If it's been a while since you've been to Las Vegas, prepare for signs of the metropolis plodding through a down economy.
But Sin City's plight can be good and bad news for vacationers.
On the one hand, travelers can score substantial discounts off the sticker price of a hotel room. At the Excalibur ($850 sticker price) the cost was an average $60 per night with a AAA discount in early November, plus $12-$15 per night "resort fees" that have become common at Vegas resorts. The Excalibur resort fee covered Wi-Fi, local and long-distance phone calls, incoming faxes, pool access and a daily newspaper. (The only things I wanted on that list were the pool and newspaper, but the pool's hours were limited to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- hours I chose to be out and about -- making each copy of USA Today the most expensive newspaper I've ever purchased.)
"Room rates vary wildly from week-to-week depending on how many people they have coming in," said Christina Binkley, who covered Vegas for The Wall Street Journal for 10 years and wrote the book "Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas" ($15.99, Hyperion).
"Your $60 room could be $120 one weekend and three days later it's $30," she said. "It's almost as if there's no rhyme or reason to the pricing, but it all has to do with revenue planning. If people are traveling for fun and have the ability to adjust their dates, they can get extraordinary bargains."
Ms. Binkley suggests Vegas visitors begin their research by checking prices at the nicest properties, including the Wynn. Last month, a room at the Wynn for this coming Saturday was going for $359, but that's not always the case.
"I know somebody who went and stayed at the Wynn not long ago for less than $100 per night," she said.
Several casinos offer buffet deals, including $32 for an all-day pass to eat at the Excalibur or Luxor buffets. Of course, that's only a good deal if you plan to spend your day moored to these neighboring properties.
The Tropicana is even running a gambling deal: Lose up to $200 and the casino will reimburse you that amount in free slot play; up to $100 on your first visit and up to another $100 a month later.
Other discounts are less generous. A small sign at the Tix 4 Tonight ticket booth, which advertises half-price tickets for local entertainment, meals and attractions, disclaims "due to customer demand," they now offer smaller discounts. I paid about $84 for a nosebleed seat at Cirque du Soleil's "Mystere," one of the oldest Cirque shows on the Strip.
But because the show did not sell out its more expensive seats in the front rows -- where the cast often interacts with the audience -- many of us in the cheap seats got moved up to the third row at no additional charge. The show's producers clearly don't want a spotlight shining on empty seats.
The most obvious sign of the economic downturn has to be the storied and now shuttered Sahara Casino and Resort, which closed in May 2011 and is now surrounded by a chain-link fence.
The Sahara is at the north end of The Strip -- the portion of Las Vegas Boulevard that's taken the brunt of the economic decline. Developers demolished blocks of old Rat Pack-era casinos to make way for newer, cooler resorts that never came to fruition. Now several dusty, empty blocks separate Circus Circus -- a hotel and casino that has the largest, permanent big top in the world -- from any real development.
"I think that the short-term view is if you're a tourist, you don't really feel like you're getting the Las Vegas experience up there," Ms. Binkley said. "It's depressing."
The Westward Ho came down after closing in 2005 to make way for ... a McDonald's. Next door, the skeleton of Echelon Place, a planned hotel, casino, shopping and convention complex, rises from the dirt, but no work has been done on it in 31/2 years.
Across the street, the blue-tinted glass of the Fontainebleau casino resort belies another incomplete, unoccupied building.
Ms. Binkley said casino developers doubled down just when they should have stepped away from the table.
"The casino operators all got ahead of themselves, and they thought there was no end in sight for the profits that could be made, that there was no limit on the number of people who would come to Las Vegas," she said. "They all simultaneously started developing massive projects. ... When the economy crashed and people stopped going to conferences -- and conferences are what was supporting Las Vegas business -- they weren't able to fill their [existing] rooms."
Homeless people seek donations on the sidewalks of The Strip, joined by showmen dressed as cartoon and superhero characters, seeking tips in exchange for having their picture taken with passers-by.
These street performers -- who illegally trade on the popularity of copyrighted characters -- once existed primarily in Hollywood near Grauman's Chinese Theatre, but the Los Angeles Times reports they began migrating to Las Vegas in 2005 after L.A. police started rounding up the self-employed impersonators.
In Las Vegas in November, "Toy Story" characters Buzz Lightyear and Woody seemed most popular, along with some Transformers. A Bart Simpson with the belly of Homer Simpson stood on the sidelines clutching a skateboard, virtually ignored.
Even a fairly recent addition to Vegas' entertainment options, the Las Vegas Mob Experience interactive museum at Tropicana, was pretty empty in early November. Although it opened only last March, it was already awaiting a "technology upgrade," according to a cashier, and in the meantime ticket prices were slashed in half to $15. (The upgrade is expected to be complete in March.)
Ms. Binkley said there's no near-term solution for Vegas' ails except for a booming economy, which doesn't seem to be in the cards for 2012. Over the long term, she's more optimistic.
"The history of Vegas was always this place that rises like a Phoenix," she said. "The latest and newest casino is the one that draws all the business and at the oldest one, business falls off. For most of its existence, a half-dozen Las Vegas casinos are doing really well and a bunch are dying and selling rooms for $29 per night. It's like the disposable resort."
Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. First Published January 8, 2012 5:00 AM