Five years later, MGM is grander than ever

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Travel Weekly senior editor Amy Baratta recently stayed at the MGM Grand Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. Her report follows:

LAS VEGAS -- In a city where hotels are torn down and put back up faster than you can say blackjack, much can change in five and a half years. That is how long it had been since I had stayed at the MGM Grand Hotel Casino.

The 5,005-room MGM Grand Hotel Casino.Back then, in December 1993, this giant of a property with its four emerald-green towers was busy making its debut on the Strip and creating headlines as the largest hotel in the world. At 5,005 rooms, the resort still tops the list for most guest rooms, but other than that, I found very little during my recent visit that resembled what I remembered of the property.

For starters, gone are the references to "The Wizard of Oz" that had supported the resort's overall entertainment theme; they had included an Oz Buffet -- now known as the Grand Buffet -- and animated Wizard of Oz figures that had greeted visitors at the front entrance.

Even the original front entrance -- shaped like the famous MGM lion -- is gone. In its place is a huge bronze statue of a lion stationed outside at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue that fits in better with the more sophisticated look that the property has acquired over its relatively short lifespan.

Inside the front doors -- where the Oz figures and a simulated thunder-and-lightning storm used to be -- is an elegant Art Deco-style rotunda-like room containing a handful of the resort's 3,700 slot machines.

When I visited in March, one part of the room had been earmarked as the future location of the property's new lion habitat. Slated to open this month, the three-story habitat will house as many as five adult lions and cubs -- including Goldie, Metro and Baby Lion, a direct descendant of Metro, MGM Pictures' signature marquee lion -- in an enclosed jungle-like environment that will feature four waterfalls, overhangs, a pond, trees and foliage. Visitors also will be able to view the animals as they walk through a glass tunnel that will run through the habitat.

There also will be an area designated for photos that can be reproduced on T-shirts, mugs and other items sold in the MGM Grand Lion Habitat retail shop, which will be located adjacent to the habitat.

On the room's second level is Studio 54, also a relatively new addition to the MGM Grand. Opened in February 1998, the 22,000-square-foot nightclub features three separate dance floors, four bars, a VIP area and several semi-private lounges.

To celebrate its original New York predecessor, the club has a gallery of black-and-white celebrity photographs taken during the original Studio 54's heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Also off the main entrance is the Rainforest Cafe, a tropically themed casual eatery that introduced me to all of the new restaurants that have made the property their home since I last visited.

Like most of the megaresorts that have sprung up on the Strip in the last few years, the MGM Grand has attracted several well-known restaurateurs, including Emeril Lagasse, Mark Miller and Franco Nuschese. Their restaurants -- Emeril's New Orleans Fish House, the Coyote Cafe and Grill Room and Tre Visi and La Scala, respectively -- form a sort of restaurant row along the property's Studio Walk area.

Other dining options at the resort include Gatsby's, Dragon Court, Wolfgang Puck Cafe, Ricardo's Mexican Restaurant and the Brown Derby. I dined at Emeril's New Orleans Fish House for lunch and can wholeheartedly recommend it as a place to get a light meal. For dinner, I tried the Brown Derby and was not disappointed; the service, as well as the food, was exceptional there.

The Studio Walk area in itself was another attraction for me, since it was not there in 1993. Interspersed with the restaurants are several upscale shops, including Peruzzi, Bernini, Marshall Rousso and the Art of Entertainment.

This last store actually is an art gallery that displays and sells a range of works created by artists as well as celebrities who are artists. Even if clients aren't in the market for, say, an original Tony Curtis, they really should take a peek in here.

The property's entertainment motif also extends to its 4,254 deluxe guest rooms and 751 suites. The rooms, which are roughly 450 square feet, are decorated according to four different themes -- Wizard of Oz, Hollywood, Southern and Casablanca.

The suites, which range in size from the 675-square-foot one-bedroom to the 6,040-square-foot, two-story Grand Class, also are decorated according to themes, including Traditional, Marrakech, Oriental, Bahamian and Las Vegas.

By early next year, all of the rooms in the resort's Grand Tower as well as several suites will sport a fresh look, thanks to a comprehensive refurbishment program -- part of an overall $575 million property enhancement.

The Grand Tower rooms will be redesigned and themed around a classic Hollywood look, according to a spokeswoman for resort. Average room rates start at $110 per night.

MGM Grand Hotel Casino

Phone: (800) 929-1111 or (702) 891-1111

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