For somewhere with an eight to 10-lane highway running down the middle of it, the Strip in Las Vegas (NV, USA) is surprisingly well served by public transport. There’s a monorail, two dedicated bus routes, and a clutch of cable car routes. It’s to one of those cable cars that this week’s entry is dedicated, because of the sheer outrageousness of its styling.
Last week we looked at the faux mediaevalism of the bridges at Conwy (Wales, UK), and this time it’s faux, well, fantasy castles, Egyptian monumentalism and oriental exoticism.
The 0.83km-long Mandalay Bay Tram opened in 1999. It’s a cable car, manufactured by cable car specialists Doppelmayr Cable Car. So far so good. It’s at the tram’s four stations where it all starts getting a bit peculiar. The tram links together three casino hotels at the southern end of the Strip: the Mandalay Bay (hence the name), the Luxor and the Excalibur, at which there are two stations.
Basically, the Mandalay Bay Tram’s stations complement the architecture of the hotels they serve. The hotels date from the early 1990s, during a period when Las Vegas was, perhaps ill-advisedly, trying to pursue a family clientele (what on earth were they thinking?) through the development of ‘theme’ resorts. As a result, the architecture of the tram stations is as wacky and absurd as that of the hotels they serve. This is not just a tram system pretending to be older than it really is, not just a tram system utilising architecture from the days before mass transit, but a tram system which at one hotels sports architecture more-or-less completely divorced from the real world.
I guarantee you that, outside of a theme park, you will never have seen a cable car station (or any station) like this:
Like the Excalibur Hotel and Casino it serves, Excalibur North station is a peculiar amalgam of vaguely Arthurian-myth Camelot, a little bit of Bavaria, a degree of Walt Disney, and a whole lot of free-wheeling imagination. No castle ever looked like this. Marvel at the brightly coloured tower tops. Ask yourself whether even a fantastical imaginary castle would be likely to sport large digital displays advertising striptease shows…
One stop southwards down the line, and it’s Excalibur Hotel. This is a smaller station:
Essentially it’s a platform screen door gone mad, and with no roof the station is open to the elements (which isn’t much of a problem in Las Vegas to be honest, as temperatures usually vary between very hot and absolutely boiling). But why are the doors made of glass instead of being designed to look like portcullises? It’s a missed opportunity really.
The fact that the cable cars themselves are of strikingly modern design (see one here) only throws into sharper contrast the inconsistencies in the Mandalay Bay Tram system’s styling. Not that it would have been easy to conjure up a tram that matches the architecture of the stations, because the architecture varies so wildly throughout.
Next up, Luxor Hotel station:
Having already travelled into an imaginary mediaeval era, hapless travellers now find themselves in a sort of Ancient Egypt, although to the best of my knowledge Egyptians of the Pharaonic period didn’t cover their pyramids in mirror glass, nor mount the world’s brightest light beam on top, nor stuff them full of gambling tables and visitor attractions. At the paws of a reproduction Sphinx is the vaguely Ancient Egyptian-looking tram stop. Though it resembles a monumental altar of some sort, like Excalibur Hotel station it’s actually just a wall.
Finally, at the southern end of the tram route is Mandalay Bay hotel and casino itself, the destination after which the tram is named. The Mandalay Bay is vaguely Oriental in design (Mandalay is Burma, though there is no bay there because the city is a long way inland), though I had to ask someone because it wasn’t immediately apparent, and the architecture doesn’t appear to have much, if anything, to do with real Burmese architecture. From the outside, the tram station is fairly unremarkable, despite sporting some highly decorated panels, but is hard to see behind all the palm trees:
Inside, however, it’s a different story. In keeping with the idea of Oriental opulence on which the Mandalay Bay trades, the tram station looks extraordinarily luxurious. The escalators to platform level rise up underneath a large octagonal light well, edged with multiple layers of decorative coving, like some kind of insane inside-out wedding cake:
Polished floor tiles shine underfoot, and brass metalwork gleams, interspersed with cast floral black metal elements. There are potted plants in decorative urns, and square stone (vaguely Cornithian) columns divide the spaces. Lighting comes from recessed spotlights, uplighters on the columns (hidden amongst the capitals) and further skylights.
It’s the kind of thing to make a flag waver for public transport swoon. Someone has actually made an effort to make a modern public transport station glamorous, luxurious, aspirational even. But, so disappointingly, it’s a fake. Hit one of those columns and instead of the reassuring quiet tap you get off solid stone, you get the hollow knock of a faux-stone facade. I’m pretty sure the plants are artificial too, though modern artificial plants are so good it can be hard to tell, so I can’t absolutely confirm this. The Mandalay Bay Tram’s stations are all surface, no substance. This, to be honest, is in keeping with the casino hotels the tram serves, all over-decorated show hiding something very conventional underneath. You get the same hollow response if you knock on the Luxor’s Sphinx. It’s theme park architecture let loose into the real world (at least as far as the Strip can be considered the real world, which is probably not too far; walking distance at best).
If only someone really would create a modern public transport system as luxurious as the Mandalay Bay tram pretends to be. I have high hopes for the new Riyadh Metro, and it’s been done in the past, notably on the Moscow Metro, and at some of the great American Union stations.
But, just when you think the Strip is all a bit disappointing transport design-wise, the bus network is ready to spring a last surprise. The bus stops on the Strip are really rather good.
They even have solar PV cells on their roofs to power their nighttime lighting. The irony of this environmental measure being considered in a town where air-conditioned shops and restaurants have their frontages wide open, or in some cases spray cooled water over those frontages (yes, in a desert, in a drought) seems to be lost amongst the general hurly burly. The two bus routes serving the Strip, the SDX and the Deuce, are really nice products, although horribly undermined by the dreadful traffic congestion they get caught up in, and with highly variable levels of customer service from the drivers.
I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with a public transport offering that straddles the two ends of the quality spectrum quite as notably, and certainly nowhere that manages it simultaneously. It sometimes looks beautiful but it’s fake. It has nice infrastructure, but it’s journey times can be a complete lottery (how apt, in a town full of gamblers). Maybe it’s the desert heat, but it’s a mad mad transport world on the Strip…
how to find the Mandalay Bay Tram
references and further reading
Doppelmayr Cable Car’s project sheet on the Mandalay Bay tram is here