The Incidental Tourist

[The Incidental Tourist]

The Stratosphere is aging well, but it’s hard to see from way up there

Long shadow: The tower defines the Strat, but there’s a lot more to it.

The Stratosphere just turned 20. I know what you’re thinking: How can that be? It’s gotta be older than that.

I’m not dissing the Strat, and neither are you. It’s just that it feels like this place was around long before April 30, 1996, mostly because it’s utterly unavoidable. The 1,149-foot, thrill-ride topped tower—still the tallest freestanding observation tower in the country—is the most identifiable building in Las Vegas. And on the Strip, that’s saying something.

It arrived in the midst of the themed-casino boom, after Excalibur, Luxor and Treasure Island; before Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Venetian and Paris. Bob Stupak originally envisioned a replica of the Eiffel Tower as an upgrade to his Vegas World casino, which originally opened in 1979, but the size and shape of the land just north of Sahara Avenue wouldn’t accommodate the broad base necessary for such a structure. So, we got Stratosphere, a tower with a shape reminiscent of Seattle’s Space Needle and containing the rotating Top of the World restaurant, plus more hotel rooms and a bigger casino. (It now has more than 2,400 rooms and 80,000 square feet of gaming space.) The thing is, that tower is such a big deal and draws so much attention, a lot of people haven’t spent much time exploring the rest of this unusual Vegas property.

“I had actually never been here before. I only knew it from a distance as the landmark it is,” says Paul Hobson. He’s been the general manager of the Stratosphere for a little over five years, but he’s worked in Las Vegas for more than 20. So, there you go. “When I first came to talk about working for the company, that was my first visit, and even at that point, I was surprised. It really made a good impression on me, and it wasn’t exactly what I thought it was.”

During Hobson’s tenure, a lot of change and improvements have taken place. The entire casino space was remodeled, adding to the throwback feeling of a never-ending floor with different options around every corner. More than 1,000 hotel rooms were renovated into Stratosphere Select units, striving for the top of the value segment of the Strip market. And the iconic Top of the World was reworked entirely, including the menu. “If you’ve been there recently you know the quality of the food up there matches the view,” Hobson says. I have, and he’s right.

The Stratosphere has added other dining options, like McCall’s Heartland Grill steakhouse; constantly modified entertainment offerings, now led by Pin Up and MJ Live; and recently renovated its newly christened Elation Pool on the eighth floor for hotel guests (complemented by the adults-only Radius Pool on the 25th floor). And it has grabbed a bit of attention for its playful “Take Vegas Back!” marketing campaign, capitalizing on its pretension-free, value-oriented character.

But all of that stuff is literally hiding in the shadow of the tower. “The Stratosphere is about the tower first, and we’re certainly happy Bob Stupak developed that feature and everything else around it. It’s still something so many people want to experience,” Hobson says. “Our obligation is to make sure when they do come to do that, they see a lot of other things along the way to do and see. It keeps us in the game.”

Due to its unique location—most people don’t consider it to be on the Strip, and it’s the only major resort on Las Vegas Boulevard within City of Las Vegas limits—the Stratosphere could be in the middle of some very interesting development. With SLS and the under-construction Lucky Dragon nearby and two more casinos planned for the North Strip, more tourist traffic could move in the Strat’s direction. Even closer, the city is working on a road project involving Main and Commerce streets that should improve the flow of traffic to the north, revealing the beginnings of a pedestrian-friendly commercial district. The Stratosphere could become the gateway between the Strip and Downtown Vegas.

Hobson says more improvements and projects are in the works, but he doesn’t want to show his hand too early. Judging by the current state of the Strat, we should all probably pay a little more attention.

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Brock Radke

Brock Radke has been writing about Las Vegas for almost two decades. He currently serves as editor-at-large covering entertainment and ...

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