06/29/2004 11:00PM

Full weekend of July 4 parties

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Americans love to come together to celebrate the Fourth of July, and a lot of people find they get the most bang for their buck by partying in Las Vegas.

This will be one of the busiest weekends of the year, as the valley's 1.6 million residents - many of whom might stay home on a typical weekend but will join in this weekend's festivities - are expected to be joined by 277,000 tourists, according to Kevin Bagger, analyst for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

"That's up slightly from the approximately 275,000 visitors we had last year on the Fourth of July, and we're expecting 94.7 percent of the hotels to be filled," Bagger said, adding that the Las Vegas metropolitan area now has 129,664 hotel rooms.

With the holiday falling on Sunday, it makes for a great weekend, with a lot of people not having to return to work until Tuesday.

Bagger said the non-gaming economic impact - hotel rooms, meals, entertainment - of those visitors is expected to be $166.6 million on the local economy. It's harder to estimate the gaming impact, which can fluctuate with the luck of the high rollers, but you can bet there will plenty of play at the tables and slot machines and that the casinos will come out fine on that end, too.

You can't have the Fourth of July without fireworks, and Vegas won't disappoint. In fact, major displays will light up the skies on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.

The Las Vegas 51s, the AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, will take on the Fresno Grizzlies, the Giants' top farm team, on Friday and Saturday at Cashman Field, and both 7:10 p.m. games will be followed by fireworks. All tickets are $11.

A lot of times when you go to see fireworks, you have to show up hours in advance and sit around waiting for the show to begin. In this case, you can watch a baseball game. What's more American than that?

"These are always big nights for the team as we get a full house," said Jim Gemma, director of media relations for the 51s. "People keep coming back because they know we put on a good show."

Sports fans whose interest is more along the lines of octane-powered engines will want to check out the "Night of Fire at the Bullring" at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The program will include pyrotechnics shooting out from cars, a jet quad demonstration, and a demolition derby. All of that will be followed by a traditional fireworks show. Tickets are $11 for adults and $4 for ages 6-12 (children under 6 are free).

One of the biggest fireworks shows in Las Vegas is the "Star-Spangled Spectacular" at Hills Park in Summerlin on Sunday night. General admission tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door, with $60 VIP tickets available that include pavilion seats, a buffet, and soft drinks or wine. The Las Vegas Philharmonic will play along with Harrah's headliner Clint Holmes, and there will also be a tribute to a fireworks pioneer, the late George Zambelli Sr., whose family produces the show.

A little more lowbrow is the "Let Freedom Ring Pool Party and Fireworks Display" at the Stratosphere at 7 p.m. Sunday. The $45 admission includes unlimited food and drinks and a great view of the fireworks overhead at 9 p.m.

In addition to in the Las Vegas Valley proper, there will be displays at the Boulder City Damboree celebration, Lake Las Vegas, and Buffalo Bill's in Primm.

NL teams should feel more at home

There will be more interest in baseball this weekend than usual, especially in the sports books, as interleague play wraps up with rematches in most of the rivalry series.

The American League teams dominated last weekend, but the teams move to the National League parks this weekend as the White Sox visit the Cubs, the Yankees visit the Mets, the Rangers visit the Astros, and the A's visit the Giants. It might be the right time to back the NL teams, especially when not having to lay too big of a price. The only AL team to host a series this weekend is the Angels vs. the Dodgers.

Offshore books are sure to offer some best-of-three series prices this weekend, and hopefully some Vegas books will follow suit.

Plenty of horsepower this weekend

The traditional Fourth of July weekend Nascar event takes place Saturday with the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Station Casinos has Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the 5-2 favorite, followed by his DEI teammate Michael Waltrip at 5-1, Kevin Harvick at 8-1, Tony Stewart at 9-1, and Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson both at 10-1.

And don't forget that all major horse tracks will be running Monday, so the race books will be packed as the weekend celebration continues for an extra day even as the tourists are leaving town.

Holiday throws curve at Hard Rock

The Hard Rock's remodeled race book was hoping to launch its new West Coast handicapping contest next Wednesday. But when race and sports book director Jamie Shea found out there was no Southern California racing Wednesday, she delayed the contest for one day.

"We'll start it Thursday, July 8, instead, and thereafter it'll be on Wednesday when racing permits," she said, adding that Labor Day weekend will likely be the next exception to the rule.

The contest is free (one entry per person) with players selecting the first five races at a Southern California track - Hollywood for the first two contests, then Del Mar. Contestants will receive the mutuel price of each horse's finish position (capped at 20-1 for win, 10-1 for place, and 5-1 for show) plus a bonus 10 points for each winner and five points for each runner-up.

The contestant earning the most points will win $800, with $200 going to the second-place finisher.