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by Linda and Don Overend

Through the years, Las Vegas has experienced a series of "mutations" that have changed its look and activities several times.

After World War II, the city was a series of casinos with attached hotels and featured showrooms with big-name entertainers as a diversion from gambling.

From this, there was a gradual transition to big, flashy hotels with casinos and more elaborate shows, but still catering to gamblers.

Now, Las Vegas has become a city of theme mega-resorts that offer non-stop action of every conceivable type to non-gamblers and gamblers alike.

Judging from a more than 5 percent increase in visitors in the first half of 1997, the visitor growth shows no sign of a slowdown as a result of this new direction.

As of July 1997, there were 104,000 hotel and motel rooms in Las Vegas - more than any other city in the United States, including Orlando and Los Angeles. And the new year will add several large and elaborate properties. New marketing efforts have also added a large influx of international visitors.

Of the 29 million visitors to Las Vegas in 1996, 18 percent arrived from international destinations. Conventions, weddings and honeymoons are big participants in this success, but the family resort trade has become the largest new contributor to this "open 24 hours" wonder of marketing and development.

New and coming attractions for 1998 include Mirage Resorts' Bellagio, with 3,000 rooms and a design recalling a small Italian village nestled along a nine-acre lake. This lake will feature a continuously choreographed ballet of water, lights and music.

Mirage also owns the Mirage, Treasure Island and Golden Nugget resorts.

Planet Hollywood has teamed with Aladdin Hotel & Casino in developing a new entertainment complex and will be adding a 1,000-room, music-themed hotel to the complex.

Caesar's Palace has added a 1,200-room tower, the Forum Shops and the "Garden of the Gods" outdoor area with swimming pools and landscaped areas flanked by Roman statuary.

Circus Circus offers a new, 1,000-room tower and Grand Slam Canyon theme park. The Las Vegas Hilton is featuring "Star Trek, The Experience," a new interactive theme park which has become tremendously popular in this city of myriad attractions.

Paris will come to Nevada with the completion of Hilton Hotels' Paris Casino resort, with 3,000 rooms and a 50-story scale replica of the Eiffel Tower.

Elaborate new shows are also being introduced. Luxor Las Vegas, with a pyramid-shaped hotel and an all-over Egyptian theme, debuts "Imagine, A Theatrical Odyssey," a musical and theatrical journey through time.

Golf is a big feature of the changing entertainment in Las Vegas. The Rio Suites Hotel and Casino offers the Rio Secco Golf Club with a 72-hole course just south of the city. Butch Harmon, coach of Tiger Woods, is expected to move his Houston-based golf school to this site.

The Showboat Hotel & Casino offers golf tournament packages and organizes 24 golf tournaments throughout the year for male and female golfers, complete with prizes, cocktail parties and a choice of eight courses for tournament play.

In addition to golf, Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the site of the March 1998 Las Vegas 400, which is NASCAR's newest addition to the Winston Cup Series. The new raceway seats 102,000 fans.

Las Vegas is no longer the home of the lone, intense, high-rolling gambler. It is now a destination for couples, families and organizations who, whether they gamble or not, will find a realm of entertainment, shopping, observer and participant sports, bright lights and fantasy resorts for every taste and budget.

Theme parks of every description, video game rooms and fast-food outlets are everywhere, placed to entice and fascinate the children of the families who visit, and to occupy them while the parents enjoy other pursuits.

Wedding chapels and honeymoon suites abound for romantic and newlywed visitors. As Las Vegas continues its steady growth and evolution, who can imagine what change the next 10 or 20 years will bring to the desert of Nevada, or what special group of visitors it will attract.

(Linda and Don Overend are co-owners of Ozark World Travel, a full-service travel agency in Springfield.)

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