11/28/2003 12:00AM

New years - two of them - a big draw


It's holiday time and when people plan vacations, Las Vegas is always one of the top choices. This is Thanksgiving weekend with Christmas not far away, but you might be surprised to hear neither is among the seven busiest weekends of the year.

I will list the top seven holidays, according to the website lasvegas.com, and where they fall in the coming year. One thing to keep in mind is where a holiday falls on the calendar can make a big weekend bigger or slide a holiday up or down the ranking.

The preferred holiday comes on a Friday or Monday to make for a three-day weekend. This creates a mini-vacation where the tourist is not using up a lot of valuable vacation time, but still leaves for an elongated getaway.

Number one among the more than 35 million visitors who will come to Las Vegas this year will be New Year's Eve. Dec. 31 falls on a Wednesday night, which is a precarious placement. Among the attractions is the world-famous fireworks show from the rooftops of casinos up and down the Las Vegas Strip.

Second is Chinese New Year's, which will be celebrated on Thursday, Jan. 22. This is the Year of the Monkey and year 4701 on the Chinese calendar. Strip casinos will cater to high-roller "whales" from the Far East while many others will do well with visitors from a rich Asian population in California.

Super Bowl Sunday is the third most popular weekend of the year. The 2004 Super Bowl will be on Sunday, Feb. 1, at Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans. The trite, but true, phrase is if you can't be at the Super Bowl, the next best place to watch the game is here in Las Vegas. There will be lavish parties at every casino to fit anyone's budget.

Next comes Memorial Day weekend, which falls on Monday, May 31. This kicks off the summer, as we will start to see an influx of families on vacation.

Fifth on the list is the Fourth of July, which falls on a Sunday in 2004. That is considered a bad break because many visitors will have to return to work on Monday morning.

Next is Presidents Day, which will be on Monday, Feb. 16. This has the makings of a monster weekend because Valentine's Day will be on Saturday, Feb. 14. Many visitors come from cold weather climates as many seek to escape a deep winter freeze.

The seventh biggest holiday is Labor Day weekend on Sept. 4-6. Labor Day signals the end of summer and the last chance for many families to get away.

In reality, every Las Vegas weekend is big, as the nearly 130,000 hotel rooms in town have an occupancy rate on average of more than 90 percent. The Internet has spawned a lot of sales as savvy travelers shop for value and, if you play your cards right, there is much of that to be found.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.