Las Vegas, neon jungle and gambling mecca, opens the doors of its latest hotel-casino; New York New York. Based on the east-coast city it comes with its own Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge. It also has 2,400 slot machines and a nail-biting rollercoaster
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The Independent Culture
It's 83 DEGREES Fahrenheit in early March, so the two fire-fighter tugs do their best to hose down the Statue of Liberty - in case it melts? But who moved Liberty so close to the line of skyscrapers, and why have they been redone in pastel colours? Come to that, why is that huge lion behind us gazing with such steady, fierce disbelief at King Arthur's castle? Is it only 83 degrees? When you look further away, all you can see is desert, but the image of it is shimmering, as if the projector might be missing a beat.

Okay, wake up! You are at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard (otherwise known as The Strip) and Tropicana Boulevard, where four fantasy kingdoms prepare to play the new game called "hotel-casino". At this junction, alone, there are over 20,000 rooms waiting for happy occupancy - that's more than the entire city of San Diego offers. Of these four competing operations and atmospheres only one, the Tropicana, looks like a hotel- casino. The MGM Grand resembles an aqua-coloured geodesic dome, guarded by a three-storey lion. Excalibur is Disney-like turrets and towers, rather more King Art than Arthur. Then there's New York New York, which opened on New Year's Eve 1996, and calls itself "the greatest city in Las Vegas".

Once upon a time, Las Vegas was built the way Bugsy Siegel intended: you put a casino at floor level, with restaurants and floor shows, and you piled a hotel on top of it. Then you decorated the outside with neon and you called it the Flamingo, the Sands, the Desert Inn, or whatever. Those were the good old days when casinos were adults only and customers had a right to think they were rubbing shoulders with gangsters, hookers and Frank Sinatra. No more. The world changed in 1966 when Caesar's Palace opened, modelled in its vague, dotty way after a great Roman villa, or empire. The suckers loved it, and now Las Vegas is exploding the old casinos as fast as it can to put up new theme places that cater to kids and rely on the childish imagination in older people.

New York New York is the latest in that line. From the outside, you have the Statue of Liberty, a scaled-down version of the Brooklyn Bridge, the fire tugs, the Manhattan skyline (over 20 storeys high) and stretches of false front that ape New York brownstone houses.

The largest part of the fantasy here is the external view, and the MGM lion has as good a vantage as anyone. But it isn't only the buildings. Weaving all around the hotel-casino is a vivid-red rollercoaster - it's called the Manhattan Express, though it's derived from the real fairground at Coney Island. For $5 the ride gives you ups and downs of 200ft, working up to a speed of over 65mph on the straights. The view of New York New York and the spread of Las Vegas is great - if your eyes and your stomach stay in the same time zone.

Inside, New York New York is much like any other hotel-casino. Sure, there's a cobbled area that tries to be Greenwich Village, with a good deli and a line of cheap food eateries. But the texture of the real New York is missing; there's no trash on the street; no beggars or crazies; no ankle- or axle-breaking potholes in the streets; no flashy attitude in the natives; and nothing to match the scathing blast of winter or the stinking stew called summer. No, this New York New York is air- conditioned. The noise is the steady tintinnabulation of the slot machines - there are 2,400 in the casino - and the people trooping around are pale, overweight, middle-Americans, rather subdued next to the lurid hues and messages of their souvenir shirts, but having a grand American time. Every now and then (like every 27 seconds) you can hear New York, New York, as rendered by Frank Sinatra.

Bright lights, very small city: Las Vegas's abridged version of the New York story attracts corpulent middle-Americans who want to wake up in a city that doesn't have any rubbish, tramps or crazies on its synthetic streets

One-arm bandit territory: once you are inside the kitsch casino, there are 2,400 slot machines waiting to gobble your money, and a continuous soundtrack of Frank Sinatra singing his signature tune, 'New York, New York'