12/17/2004 12:00AM

City no longer lacking holiday spirit

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Not long ago, Las Vegas was a ghost town during the holiday season. From Thanksgiving until Christmas Day the gaming pits were empty and the showrooms were closed. The extent of season decorating was a fake silver tree in the lobby and some twinkling lights around the entrance to the buffet.

Not anymore.

With the emergence of the mega-resorts and the multitude of shopping malls that adorn the Strip and beyond, Las Vegas is holiday central.

The National Finals Rodeo just wrapped up its 10-day go-round for the 20th season at the Thomas and Mack center. Along with the competition came the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show, which attracts more than 150,000 shoppers. The rodeo itself provides an economic impact of approximately 50 million non-gaming dollars to the city.

And, between the end of the rodeo and Santa's midnight run, international visitors fill the rooms.

Casinos on the strip have upped the ante on holiday decorations. Christmas trees reaching 14 feet and beyond with wreaths spanning a dozen feet across are displayed in the big resort buildings.

MGM Mirage spent more than $2 million dressing up its five Strip properties. At least half of that expenditure went to the Bellagio conservatory. The atrium area is filled with different sizes of pine trees, hundreds of red poinsettias, and other holiday appointments. White flowers in the shape of polar bears, and reindeer shaped out of green bushes help transform the huge space into a winter village.

Caesars Palace is highlighted by two signature items of the season, which make the corner of Flamingo and the Strip appear to be Rockefeller Center west.

The resort features a seven-story lighted Christmas tree sitting in the middle of its famous front-entrance fountains. The centerpiece includes more than a mile of lights - 216,510 lights on the tree alone - that line the entrance area with brilliance beyond the usual trademark neon.

The newly opened Roman Plaza on the corner has been transformed into a huge ice rink that has the Las Vegas Boulevard as a backdrop. The 60- by 90-foot rink - which cost $155,000 - features Olympic and national figure skating champions along with an Ice Capades-style show on the weekends, performing in front of an 1,800-seat grandstand.

Caesars isn't the only property to boast an ice rink. At Lake Las Vegas, way off the beaten track of the Strip, the Monte Lago Village has a floating ice rink for holiday skaters. The Ritz-Carlton hotel there has developed a holiday skating and lodging package for those wanting an Italian villa Christmas experience without leaving the good old U.S.A.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.