Las Vegas, long the casino gambling capital of America, began to go through a transformation in the late 1980s that revealed what much of postmodern America is becoming. As other parts of the nation started to compete with it by legalizing gambling, the city started to reinvent itself in the image of Disney, creating hotels that were also vast simulations and themed environments. So far, the strategy has paid off, making Las Vegas the nation's second biggest destination for tourists with some 28 million visitors in 1994, compared to 34 million for Central Florida.
Las Vegas hasn't turned itself into a clone of Disney, of course. Instead, it has created a new variation, which reveals the changes that are taking place in postmodern culture, at least within the realm of simulation and themed attractions. In place of a controlled and monitored park with well-organized forms of transportation, it offers visitors the bumper-to-bumper chaos of the Las Vegas strip, lined with fantasy buildings that bear no relation to each other, other than the fact that they look like images lifted out of the movies.
Also unlike Disney, the postmodern Las Vegas offers a freewheeling and often incongruous mix of adult entertainment and family-oriented simulation -- of Wayne Newton and animatronic dinosaurs -- that more completely reflects the irreverent and pleasure-oriented culture of contemporary America. One might say that Las Vegas has turned itself into sin city and sim city at the same time, so it can appeal to as wide an audience as possible and provide something to amuse the kids while their parents gamble.
One of the city's monuments to simulation is Luxor, a $375 million hotel and casino that is a fantasy version of ancient Egypt, presenting visitors with material images of mystery, mysticism and splendor in one of the greatest monstrosities ever built: a 36-story, pyramid-shaped hotel with a ten-story replica of the Sphinx as an entrance for valet parking. The hollow core of the pyramid is a 27-story atrium that started out with a fake river Nile at the bottom, which took visitors on a barge ride passed tableaus of ancient Egypt, (it was removed to create more space.) Meanwhile, "inclinators" -- elevators that travel diagonally, following the pitch of the pyramid -- take guests to their rooms in the upper floors.
Also inside the atrium is the attractions level, with its own interior buildings that contain what Luxor refers to, using the Disney designation, as "participatory adventures." As visitors walk into one of these interior buildings -- A Mayan-like Temple in the form of a stepped pyramid -- they find themselves in something that looks like an Indiana Jones movie. A motion simulator disguised as an elevator uses film images and special effects to create the illusion they are plunging into an archeological dig of a pre-Egyptian civilization, 1,000 feet below the the earth. Another simulator then makes it appear they are flying back to the surface, dodging particle beams and other dangers along the way
In the second of these interior buildings, visitors watch a simulation of a live talk show, in which the movie images appear to leave the screen and come toward the audience. The third originally housed the "Theater of Time," a seven-story-high screen that was used to reveal a utopian and dystopian future, allowing visitors to peer into a high-technology city, crisscrossed by flying cars, that looked like a mix between Blade Runner and The Jetsons. It has since been replaced with an IMAX 2D and 3D theater.
In Luxor, we can see many of the qualities that define Disney World but with a different twist. Like Disney, Luxor creates visual spectacles that are intended to evoke large emotions -- surprise, amazement, wonder -- rather than deep or nuanced feelings. It is the architectural equivalent of a hyperbole, inviting visitors into a world full of exclamation points.
And like Disney, it tries to overwhelm visitors with real and virtual forms of space, perspective and motion. Visitors experience the space of the atrium, which is so large it contains its own buildings. Going into the attractions, visitors find themselves in virtual spaces simulated with images as they appear to plummet into the earth and fly through the earth's interior.
Luxor employs all these effects in an attempt to evoke the sense of mystery that has always been attached to ancient Egypt, of transcending the mundane world and knowing what cannot be told. It plays to the same desire to escape the limits of life and make contact with a numinous realm that motivates people to meditate on crystals and chart the travels of nonexistent UFO's. But Luxor, like much of the rest of postmodern culture, merely simulates magic and mysticism; in the end, the only mysteries it has to offer are special effects provided by technology.
Also like Disney, Luxor is themed, offering a story line that is intended to give the visitor's experience a meaning and coherence. But Luxor, like many similar attractions, appears to suffer from an identity crisis: it can't seem to keep its theme together. In place of presenting one idea or trying to show one kind of place, it has jumbled together all kinds of times and places, which are removed from any sense of context or relation to each other. An essential characteristic of themed environments, namely that the simulations should function like the descriptions in a novel, moving the story forward, or at least creating a believable setting, has been abandoned, here, because it interferes with efforts to increase the intensity of the spectacle.
Thus, the Sphinx is the entrance to a pyramid, which contains an ancient-looking, pyramid-shaped, temple, which takes visitors to an ersatz dig of a fictional civilization before Egypt, while a simulation of a talk show goes on next door and celebrity impersonators play Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Blues Brothers or other Vegas-style shows go on nearby in Nefertiti's Lounge.
The odd mixture of themes can also be seen in the restaurants. A Polynesian and Chinese restaurant, with a thatched hut for a bar, has been named Papyrus in a transparent effort to link it to the Egyptian theme. (A "kosher-style" deli, named the Nile Deli, that Luxor advertised as being "on the banks of the Nile," has, since gone the way of the fake Nile.) Completing the mix is Millennium, a futuristic restaurant serving "Photonic Pizzas" and "Chrono Burgers."
What Luxor offers is cyberhistory, which far outdoes the more timid falsifications created by places like the Lied Jungle. It is history that has been turned into bad science fiction. It may include references to an ancient civilization but the view of the past it offers certainly isn't kosher.