Saturday, May 26, 2007

Las Vegas pools seize the day

Wild parties under the sun draw crowds despite the $375 rum. And ladies, do you really need those tops?

Rehab pool party
By Kimi Yoshino
Times Staff Writer

May 26, 2007

LAS VEGAS — On a Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas, at the hottest pool party in town, the Hard Rock Hotel's Jack LaFleur is the man to know. The promotions director stands at the velvet rope, deciding who will shake their booties in the sun — and who won't.

"Only girls, send 'em up!" LaFleur barks as a stream of 20-something, bikini-clad women hop the line, leaving a couple of hundred frustrated men in their wake. "No more guys. It's out of control."

This is Rehab, Las Vegas' best-known, biggest and craziest pool party. In the 21 Sundays it will operate this year, hotel executives estimate that Rehab will rake in about $6 million — nearly $35,000 every hour it's open. As many as 3,000 tanned, toned and oil-slicked bodies find their way into Rehab each week, where they play swim-up blackjack, gulp down $17 cocktails served in 30-ounce plastic jugs and make out under waterfalls, on lounge chairs and, well, just about anywhere.

Since it began in 2004, Rehab has transformed Vegas' once-sleepy daytime scene into a "Girls Gone Wild" tableau of debauchery. Today, almost every major casino resort has nightclub operators managing its 21-and-over pools. They hire DJs to spin music and demand hefty cover charges. Rates vary by the weekend; on the cheapest days women pay $20, men $30.

Several resorts have separate "Euro-style," or top-optional, pools, with half-naked women cavorting in the water. This summer, both the Mirage and Venetian — heavyweights in the nightclub arena — have unveiled re-imagined pools.

"It's done a remarkable thing to the nightlife landscape," LaFleur said. "Day life? It's hard to even categorize it…. It's finding those ways to generate revenue. For a town that's been known exclusively for nightlife, this was extremely daring and off the charts."

The gamble is paying off.

By 8:30 a.m., a ghastly hour by Vegas standards, people are already lining up outside Rehab, even though the pool doesn't open until 11. "It's almost like a 'Star Wars' premiere," LaFleur said. "They sit down. They hold that spot in front."

Others, like Lisa Tully, a nursing manager from North Carolina, show up a bit later — and flash a little flesh to guarantee access.

"As soon as we pulled the cover-ups off, they said, 'Bam. Come up here,' " said the 38-year-old, who sported a pierced belly button and a black bikini dotted with rhinestones.

The truly flush fork over $1,200 for a season pass — even if they plan to visit only a couple of times.

Although LaFleur declined to say how he managed the gender ratio at Rehab, women were clearly in the majority. Ripped men with six-pack abs and check-out-my-pecs tattoos trolled the meat market in board shorts. Busty women, some obviously surgically enhanced, strutted around in high heels.

Tully and her friend Deana Yeomans, 36, recounted the sad tale of one of their male friends, who called three times to try to rent a cabana at Rehab. "How many girls?" the operator asked. None, he answered.

"They said, 'Ha!' " Yeomans said. "They wouldn't even take the reservation."

Fifty extra greenbacks, plus cover charge, did the trick for Shawn Conti, 27, a Tampa, Fla., real estate developer in town for a conference.

"I would have spent more," Conti said. "It's well worth the money. I'd rather do this than go out" at night.

He figured he'd drink all day, enjoy a nice dinner, go to his hotel and pass out. Then, after a good night's sleep, he'd wake up refreshed for his meetings the next day.

"What's not to like?" said Garrett Williams, 25, a real estate broker. "At a nightclub, it's dark and you can't talk to anybody. Here, it's light out and everyone is half naked. The number of girls wearing thongs out there is ridiculous."

When it first opened, organizers envisioned Rehab as a place to relax on Sundays after a hard weekend of partying.

"That lasted about a week," said the Hard Rock Hotel's marketing guru, Phil Shalala. "People were actually beginning to stay in on Saturday night just so they could go to Rehab during the day."

Once inside, people are racking up huge tabs. In addition to the $17 cocktails, Rehab serves alcohol by the bottle. Bacardi rum that retails for about $15 costs $375; for a bottle of Jagermeister — typically about $20 — it's $400. The big spenders can drop $1,195 for a bottle of Cristal champagne, which normally runs about $300. Roving photographers snap pictures like paparazzi and post them online.

"These people have money in their pocket," Shalala said. "The overall lifestyle that they live is work hard, play harder."

The scene has become so successful so fast that Hard Rock is planning on doubling the size of the pool area — already 4.7 acres — in the next couple of years. It will also add an upscale, more relaxed setting by 2009.

At the Venetian, the new Tao Beach Club — an extension of the successful Asian-themed nightclub — opened in May with a party hosted by hip-hop artist Jay-Z. The pool is open daily but offers "Sunset Sundays" starting about the time Rehab winds down. The Palms' pool promotes "Ditch Fridays."

Others, like the Venus Pool Club at Caesars Palace or Bare at the Mirage, are trying to be different. Venus is decidedly upscale, offering frozen grapes and frozen towels and charging $650 for a daily cabana rental.

"This is just filling a void Vegas lacked in the daytime department," said Alex Acuna of Light Group, which operates the new "Euro-style" Bare.

Bare is the smallest pool-party venue in town, marking perhaps the first time that being small in Vegas is something to brag about.

"It's not a spring-breaky, 2,000-people pool party," Acuna said. "It's 250 people, intimate. Great music, great food, great drinks, great service."

Unlike Rehab, which serves nachos and chicken fingers, Bare peddles mojitos by the pitcher, lobster tacos with grilled mangoes and shrimp lettuce cups.

And although nobody's doing cannonballs into the pool, a battle cry to "release the twins" results in a round of free shots for ladies who go topless.

A trio of women who said they worked as cocktail waitresses at the Penthouse Club in New Orleans complied with the request. "We hate tan lines," said Rachel Oefelein, 22, baring her chest, pierced nipples and all.

Her friend Erica Wise, 24, said they had been surprised by the pool experience: "I thought it would be a bunch of old creepy men staring, but it's a bunch of people our age having fun."

The friends lounged on a daybed compliments of friend Steve O'Brien, 47, a computer consultant from Pennsylvania, who footed the bill for the $350 bed and spent "well over" the $300 drink minimum. A crew of attendants flitted about, pouring a $350 bottle of Grey Goose vodka from the group's private fridge and changing towels. The staff was so attentive that they bought extra sunscreen from the hotel gift shop and delivered fatter straws for MaLou Maxey, 31, when she told them that she "deeply hates little straws."

"This has far exceeded any expectations I had of the place," O'Brien said, adding that he wasn't "all that concerned" about the rising bill as he sipped his mojito ($50 a pitcher).

At Rehab, LaFleur is bracing for back-to-back parties over the holiday weekend. On Memorial Day, Rehab is renamed Relax at the Pool.

"It's going to be frightening," LaFleur said. "Last year, there were 1,500 people that didn't even get close to me to get in."