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New thrill rides raise the stakes in Las Vegas

The newly opened VooDoo zip line at the Rio Las Vegas gives riders a trhill 490 feet off the ground.
Source: VooDoo Zip Line.
The newly opened VooDoo zip line at the Rio Las Vegas gives riders a trhill 490 feet off the ground.

Looking for the hottest action in Las Vegas? Instead of checking out the casinos, more visitors may now be looking to the sky, where new thrill rides and attractions are generating big buzz.

"If you look at the economy here since the Great Recession, there's been a bit of a move away from gaming," said Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "We're not seeing a lot of new rooms and resorts being added; it's more about attractions and entertainment spaces."

Consider the latest addition to the mix, the VooDoo zip line, which opened at the Rio Las Vegas last week. Sitting in a pair of side-by-side chairs, riders take off from the 50th floor of the resort's Masquerade Tower, 490 feet off the ground, and hit speeds of up to 33 mph before landing on the roof of the Ipanema Tower, one-third of a mile and a minute and 10 seconds away.

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The ride is actually the second zip line to open in Vegas in recent months and comes on the heels of SlotZilla, a quartet of zip lines that debuted downtown in late April. Embarking from a 12-story "slot machine," riders zip beneath the Fremont Street Experience's video canopy to a platform 850 feet away. An even higher line that will have riders flying twice as far in a horizontal "Superman" position is expected to open soon.

"They aren't going to be terrifying," said casino consultant Randy Fine of the Fine Point Group. "You won't have to have an iron heart to ride them."

Terrifying or not, the high-flying rides join other recent additions to Las Vegas, including the High Roller observation wheel and the El Loco roller coaster that opened at Circus Circus in February. While hardcore adrenaline junkies may yawn, such projects are increasingly seen as a way to appeal to a broader range of visitors.

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"Attractions can serve the function of creating buzz, drawing pedestrian traffic and leveraging existing underutilized assets," said Patrick Bosworth, co-founder and CEO of Duetto Research. Such non-gaming options, he says, have been part of the Vegas experience ever since Steve Wynn opened The Mirage in 1989 with white tigers, an aquarium full of tropical fish and a man-made volcano out front.

But the current additions to the Las Vegas scene also speak to another trend: For casino companies, and by extension the city itself, gaming is not the winning ticket it used to be. Even as the city attracts near-record numbers of visitors (39.7 million last year), fewer of them are coming to gamble and those who do are spending less time at the slots and tables.

Last year, 71 percent of visitors gambled while visiting Vegas, spending an average of 2.9 hours doing so, according to the annual visitor profile study conducted by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. In 2009, 83 percent gambled for an average of 3.2 hours.

That trend has taken a similar toll on casino profitability. Last year, casinos on the Strip earned 37 percent of their revenue from gaming, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, compared to 41.9 percent 10 years earlier.

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So what's a city that lives and dies by tourism to do? Basically, what it's always done.

"Las Vegas has always sliced and diced its demographics," said UNLV's Brown. "Lately, they've been going after people in their early to late 20s — that's who they're going for with these attractions."

It's a demographic that local promoters are counting on, not only to ride the zip lines and roller coasters, but also to fill the burgeoning array of celebrity-chef restaurants, over-the-top nightclubs and a $350 million, 20,000-seat arena set to open in 2016.

"None of what we are currently developing includes another slot machine or gaming table," said Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, which is building the new arena and a handful of outdoor dining and entertainment areas. "Today's visitor wants to be spontaneous, wants to explore and share experiences with others."

And if that means doing so while zipping along a high wire or roller coaster, rather than at the slots or roulette wheel, well, the only thing they stand to lose is their lunch.

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