04/23/2003 11:00PM

Kiddie City pitch is fading quickly


Depending on who you ask, this may or may not be your father's Las Vegas, but it's certainly not your children's - at least not until they turn 21.

It amazes me when I hear people say that Vegas is kid-friendly. That is so 90's. A decade ago, Sin City tried to redo its image and be viewed as more than a gambling town.

The Excalibur opened in 1990 with its fairy-tale castle motif. Treasure Island came next in October 1993 with a free pirate battle show outside the entrance. A little more than a month later, in December 1993, the MGM Grand debuted with a Wizard of Oz theme and an amusement park on the back lot. Circus Circus, the original family-friendly casino that opened in 1968 and featured live circus acts, also added an indoor theme park in August 1993.

The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Bureau ran ads far and wide, proclaiming fun for the entire family.

The downtown hotels constructed the Fremont Street Experience light show in 1995 that was meant to appeal to all ages. Arcades popped up all over, as well as additional rollercoasters at the Stratosphere (1996), New York-New York (1998), and Sahara (2000).

The masses came, filling hotel rooms and prompting another building boom that led to the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Paris, and Venetian opening in the late 1990's.

But there was one problem. Minors aren't allowed in the casino areas, so parents with kids in tow were spending all their time keeping the kids entertained and not gambling. It wasn't until then that the city realized that marketing to the family crowd was a flawed strategy, so with each new hotel that was built, you saw less and less emphasis on kid-friendly attractions.

But, children are still welcome here. There are still plenty of things to do, from the aforementioned arcades and rollercoasters to lion, tiger, dolphin, and shark habitats at various hotels, as well as kid-friendly swimming pools. But it's not like it was a decade ago. Nowadays, you hear tag lines such as, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

Some signs of the kiddie apocalypse:

* Just this past week, the New York-New York unveiled plans for its upcoming production show, "Zumanity," billing it as the sexiest Cirque du Soleil production to date.

* Since MGM Grand closed Grand Adventures, it has opened the Studio 54 nightclub, imported the topless revue "La Femme" from the Crazy Horse in Paris, and just last month opened Tabu, an ultra-sexy lounge.

* Just about every hotel in town has put a lot of money into nightclubs, from the leaders of hip at the Hard Rock, the Palms, and Mandalay Bay, to resorts up and down the Strip (Luxor, Venetian, Caesars Palace, Aladdin, Harrah's, Barbary Coast, and Paris).

* Mandalay Bay and the Hard Rock have already spoken to the Nevada Gaming Commission about having topless sunbathing areas at their pools. Caesars Palace already has what is usually referred to as "European-style bathing."

When historians write about the end of the family era, they will likely point to September 2000, when the MGM Grand Adventures theme park was closed to the public. It's still open to be rented for conventions and corporate events, as well as hotel-hosted parties, such as a pre-party for the Jimmy Buffet concert this weekend.

Those looking for an earlier signal will recall that when the Bellagio opened in 1998 that it had policies prohibiting minors who weren't accompanied by a hotel guest and banning strollers.

But the real death knell will likely come July 6 when Treasure Island closes down its G-rated pirate show. For anyone who hasn't seen it, the 12-minute show depicts a pirate ship named the Hispaniola thwarting an attempt of a British war vessel named the HMS Britannia trying to steal its bounty.

The cannon battle that ensues, sends actors in Buccaneer Bay, before the pirates eventually sink the British and offer to share their bounty with the crowd. Show times are 5:30, 7:30, 8:30, and 10 p.m., with 11:30 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday.

Nobody is debating the popularity of the show. Last Wednesday night, a relatively slow midweek night on the Strip, people were grabbing the prime viewing spots more than an hour before the 7 p.m. performance, and the entire viewing area was packed.

But it didn't take a marketing genius to see that most of the people with kids walked away, despite Treasure Island greeters trying to lure them inside with 2 for 1 drink coupons, in favor of other all-ages attractions.

The current show has no "va-va-voom," and Vegas is getting back to the old axiom of "sex sells." So, what will replace the pirate show? A battle between male and female pirates with an emphasis on sexy costumes and dancing. Being on a public thoroughfare, it won't be X-rated, but it'll at least be PG-13. Management obviously won't mind if the crowds are smaller, as long as they're of legal age and more likely to come through the front door.

Treasure Island has already undergone major changes, including an estimated $150 million in renovations to the casino and the hotel rooms, to downplay the kitschy pirate theme. It's more of a sophisticated feel, and they're looking to make the outdoor appearances a better match for the changes to the interior.

Along those lines, the huge 40-foot skull marquee - which looks like it's straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon - will be replaced by a sign that is reminiscent of the Desert Inn's "DI" sign, which makes sense since Treasure Island is often referred to as "TI." The skull sign will be moved downtown to be part of the Neon Museum of historic Vegas icons.

It probably won't be long before other kid-friendly welcome signs from a soon-to-be-bygone era get sent to the neon graveyard.