Visitors by the thousand streamed into the newest casino-resort on the Las Vegas strip early Thursday, an influx that casino officials hope will help yank Sin City from its two-year economic funk.
Fireworks and fanfare inaugurated the official launch of the Aria Resort & Casino, the 4,000-room, 61-story centerpiece of the $8.5 billion CityCenter complex. Crowds began swarming through the doors around midnight, welcomed with cheers and dozens of photographers snapping pictures. Models stood at aisleways and casino executives greeted guests, and hundreds got a preview of an Elvis-themed Cirque du Soleil show to debut in February.
"It's beautiful," said 73-year-old retiree Bernard Bouley of Saint Jerome, Canada, about 30 miles from Montreal.
Bouley waited for the opening with a friend in a small park outside the Crystals mall, peering inside the doors to Aria's lobby and glancing at the colorful fountains outside the resort's main valet.
MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren said that while many experts thought CityCenter would never open, its employees drove the company to make sure it carried through on grand design.
"It was because of (the employees) that we got here, and the promise of 12,000 people that wanted to work hard to provide for their families," Murren told The Associated Press. "It was that promise _ that we didn't want to let them down _ that got us here."
About 5,000 VIPs began entering Aria after 6 p.m. for a gala, greeted by smiling cocktail servers with trays of Dom Perignon champagne and displays of hors d'oeuvres of caviar, seafood and other savory treats.
"This is really 21st century Las Vegas," said architect Cesar Pelli, whose team designed Aria. "This is really setting up very high standards that will be very hard to match _ but I hope they will try."
Earlier Wednesday, CityCenter owners MGM Mirage and Dubai World thanked architects, employees and each other at a morning ceremony.
Murren, flanked by executives and employees of the Las Vegas-based company, then rang a bell used for prizefights at the MGM Grand to remotely close the New York Stock Exchange. Shares of MGM Mirage were unchanged at $10.35 Wednesday.
A Nevada gambling regulator last month likened CityCenter's development to a 12-round boxing match, with the opening signifying its midpoint.
"I think clearly that that was the seventh-round bell. Our foe is weakening," Murren told the AP after hammering the bell 56 times. "Our foe _ the economy, the recession, the financial crisis _ our opponent is now the one that's close to its knees, and we're just gaining momentum and gaining strength."
As CityCenter begins operating, it's now up to its 12,000 employees to deliver an entertaining, exciting environment that makes guest want to keep coming back, Murren said.
Aria's rooms, along with those at CityCenter's Mandarin Oriental and Vdara hotels, increase room capacity on the Las Vegas Strip by 8.5 percent, UBS Investment Research analyst Robin Farley said.
Murren said investors have wondered whether CityCenter would finish, and now they want to know whether it can be successful in this economy without cannibalizing its other resorts.
Like many other businesses, the Las Vegas gambling industry has been hit by the economic downturn. Casino officials are hoping the Aria with its size and glamour can help put customers back in the game.
MGM Mirage owns the most casinos on the Strip, but Murren believes CityCenter will help, not hurt, the company's other resorts.
The room increase has competitors worried, as visitation to Las Vegas has decreased in the past two years as consumers spent less time and money traveling and gambling.
On Tuesday, a representative of the venerable Sahara hotel-casino less than three miles from CityCenter said it would shutter two of its towers until demand improves. A day earlier, Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel in downtown Las Vegas closed its 365 guest rooms and cut 100 jobs to cut costs.
Competitors worry that CityCenter brings immediate pressure to lower room rates to keep hotels filled. But Murren and other MGM Mirage officials predict CityCenter will help Las Vegas as a whole, spurring visitation and bringing a catalyst for long-term prosperity.