Real people. True stories. Stranger than fiction.
What happens in Vegas stay in Vegas - until now. In this dazzling 24-hour journey, James Patterson lifts the lid on America's notorious hub of gambling and excess.
It's 5:30 A.M. in the city of overnight fortunes and broken dreams.
Beneath the glittering marble halls and jangling slot machines, behind a pair of massive steel doors, twenty-five dive-certified men and women begin their workday. Some pull on scuba gear; others don blue fire-retardant work clothes, with their names embroidered on patches over their chests. It’s a secret underground world, a vast clandestine warehouse filled with giant machines, rows of tools, half-disassembled robots, and spare parts. The crew calls it the Bat Cave.
They’re a tight-knit group. A former rock ’n’ roll technician for the Stones and AC/DC. A few military vets, engineers, and mechanics. Assorted refugees from blue-collar jobs and the corporate world. Led by manager Victoria Rios, they form a band of brothers and sisters, united in the service of something bigger than themselves.
“Hope you finally caught some sleep last night,” says one.
“Barely,” answers another. “Up all night, thinking about the faults.”
The first man shrugs. The faults. There are always faults, something amiss. That’s what they’re here for: to fix the faults, in a city practically founded on faults. “We’ll get it taken care of today,” the man says.
By 6 a.m., the crew is aboard a barge in a finger of lake that extends into the Bat Cave, sailing in battleground solemnity into a crystal-blue expanse filled with twenty-two million gallons of the single most precious commodity for a city in the middle of the desert: water.
The lake, located in the heart of Las Vegas, encompasses eight and a half acres. Beneath its surface, ready to emerge at the appointed time, lies a complex network of equipment: pipes, valves, pumps, lights, motors, manifolds, sensors. The crew inspects every inch of it. Divers float through the water, using pressure gauges to search for leaks in the miles of metal tubing. They hover over computerized electronics arrayed in gigantic concentric circles. The circles are composed of robotic machinery equipped with 1,214 water jets in escalating calibers. Some are the size of a person; others are as large as a small automobile. All are capable of spraying water with industrial force and acrobatic precision. The smallest and most numerous, the 798 jets known as minishooters, can send plumes of water shooting one hundred twenty feet skyward. More powerful ones, the 192 supershooters, can reach two hundred forty-four feet. In the central ring are the monsters—the 16 extreme shooters—whose blasts soar four hundred sixty feet.
Out on the surface of the artificial lake, the team moves across the water slowly, in search of problems. The sun has yet to rise over the city, but the water is already almost as warm as blood, bathed in a brighter-than-daylight glow from the signs that encircle it. In any system this size, things go wrong. But this one—state-of-the-art when it was installed—is now twenty-five years old, and requires significant maintenance. Lines get snagged, limiting their range of motion. Hardwired programs must be manually plugged into a central computer. If there’s a fault, the crew will need to drag the defective part back to the Bat Cave, to repair the damage or swap in a spare. “Think of it as a twenty-five-year-old car—only more complicated,” explains a member of the team.
The individuals who tend to the equipment seem to be both in love and obsessed with their historic charge. On good days, the machinery confers a sense of majesty.
“When I was single, girls would flock here just to watch us work,” one worker recalls.
“Twenty-two million gallons of water going up in the air every day and night,” says another.
“I cared about it so much that it kept me up at night,” says one team member of the sleeplessness that comes with the responsibility for a massive mechanical assembly that sprawls across so many acres and so many imaginations, tended to by a crew determined to do whatever it takes to make it run absolutely right.
After six and a half hours of repairs, adjustments, and cleaning, the crew is finally done for the day. It’s half past noon as they make their way back to the Bat Cave. The sun is high in the Las Vegas sky, and sweat and sunblock drip from their faces. In summer, the mercury soars well above one hundred ten; in winter, it often plunges to just above freezing. But whatever the temperature, they have done their job. Their dream machine is ready to perform.
The Fountains of Bellagio show is about to begin.
Every weekday at 3 p.m.—and weekends at noon—the fountain’s enormous apparatus of rings and shooters rises before each performance via hydraulic arms from its resting place beneath the lake like some futuristic mechanical beast. The two hundred eight oarsmen (the fountain’s only water jets whose directions can vary) point their nimble mechanical arms skyward, preparing to erupt in a dizzy, dancing array of aquatic acrobatics. On some days, fog pours from the manifolds and crawls across the surface of the lake; at other times, the lake appears to be boiling, from a hidden apparatus below. Then comes the music, mournful and intimate, blasting from two hundred thirteen hidden speakers in and around the lake.
They call you Lady Luck…
It’s Frank Sinatra, singing “Luck Be a Lady,” one of the city’s many anthems. And with the music comes the water, so much water that it defi es imagination. Millions of gallons shoot into the air with incredible precision, a majestic spray as symphonic as the song, maybe even more so: water dancing, water shimmying, water swaying, water waving daintily like fingers curled in beckoning. And most impressively, water shooting, as high as the edifice behind it, the looming towers of the Bellagio Resort and Casino.
With each word Frank Sinatra sings to Lady Luck, the water responds. Staccato horns punctuate the lyrics, each brassy burst accompanied by an upward stab from the minishooters.
The water drops, the fountain is still for a beat, and then the nozzles fire at full blast as Sinatra and the big band roar, Luck be a lady tonight!
The oarsmen unleash slinky tendrils, evoking Lady Luck striding across the casino floor, her eyes wandering toward the other gamblers she might take up with for the night.
The fountain’s jets fire off in unison like a high-kicking chorus line, then gently spiral outward like an unfurling flower, to accompany the tender pleading in Sinatra’s voice. With the final repetition of the chorus comes the big finish, the raw power of the extreme shooters harmonizing with the delicate sprays of the minishooters.
When it’s over, and the fountain falls silent, a thunderous roar rises from the spectators that have gathered to watch the show. They’re cheering both the melancholy defiance of the music and the breathtaking majesty of the fountain, the lake that can make water dance.
From now until midnight, the Fountains of Bellagio will perform up to four times an hour—on weekends and holidays, as many as thirty-three times over the course of a day and night. Since its debut in 1998, it’s a spectacle that has become the iconic image of a city built on image, replacing the symbols that came before it: the WELCOME TO FABULOUS LAS VEGAS sign erected as a neon welcome at the edge of town in 1959; Vegas Vickie, the neon cowgirl who kicked up her bootheels above the Glitter Gulch strip club; or her “husband,” Vegas Vic, the neon cowboy who still stands in front of the old Pioneer Club. But all of those were mere signs, now rendered tired and tame by comparison to the dancing waters, which have been called the eighth wonder of the world.
The idea was dreamed up over dinner one night at the palatial home of the Bellagio’s creator, Steve Wynn, back when the resort was still in the process of being born.
“What are the characteristics of all great gathering places in Europe?” someone who was at the meeting recalls Wynn asking the executive team he had assembled. Was it sculpture? Art? The views? The people watching?
From Paris to Madrid to Vienna to Rome, the great piazzas of Europe all feature fountains.
From there the concept grew from a mere fountain into one of the world’s most colossal spectacle machines, free to everyone in Vegas, from the high rollers in their mansion-sized supersuites to the down-and-outs hoping for a turn of fortune. But the best view is from the Strip itself, where some fifty thousand people stop to watch the fountain each day, gathering at the railing around the lake to revel in the towering spumes of spray.
As the sun sets and the Strip is swathed in a neon glow, the Fountains of Bellagio dress for the evening, adding 4,792 underwater lights to their display, choreographed to an ever-changing lineup of thirty-five songs such as Andrea Bocelli’s “Con te Partirò,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” and Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” A miracle of mechanics and magic for a city once dismissed as a folly, forever determined to prove its worth to the world.
In advance of the final season of Game of Thrones, for one night only in 2019, the fountain is where holograms of flying dragons were projected onto the spray and mist while real flames flickered on the surface of the lake. At the end of Ocean’s 11, George Clooney’s charming gang of thieves—Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and the rest—gathered at the fountain on the night after their big heist and leaned on the railing, enthralled by the waters dancing to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” as the camera panned across their faces. Céline Dion performed a special televised rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” on a floating replica of the Titanic bowsprit alongside comedian and TV host James Corden, before dropping a replica of the film’s famous Heart of the Sea necklace into the lake’s crystal-blue waters.
The crew found that necklace. Just as the four-person, dive-certified “clean team” finds almost everything else when they scour the bottom of the lake between shows, the collective hope and despair of a gambler’s town: real jewelry, cast into the fountain for luck or flung in rage; empty bottles of booze; discarded clothes, cell phones, and cameras; and an estimated two tons of coins per year, each token an unspoken wish, and every cent donated to charity.
At the heart of the fountain, as in most attractions of Las Vegas, is fantasy. And while the city was built on fantasy, fantasies must be created, and every act of creation requires skill and coordination and hard work, the unseen toiling of armies of personnel.
Behind the curtain of water and music and magic lies a clandestine world of grit and gumption—the daily, hidden work required to conjure up the desert mirage of Las Vegas. Like the Fountains of Bellagio, the city’s attractions require a complex network of labor to run. The endless battalions who build, service, and maintain the perpetually expanding facilities; the dealers and croupiers who run the games; the international superchefs, cocktail wizards, and servers who fortify the multitudes; the dazzling superstars of stage, screen, nightclub, and stripper pole; the pilots, limo drivers, and cabbies who keep the city on the move.
All of this effort produces something greater than the sum of its infinite parts: a sense of fantasy and escape, perhaps the greatest fantasy and escape machine on Earth, everything working together as a whole to create an illusion, a spectacle as seductive, and, for some, as fleeting, as a mirage—the experience of Las Vegas, Nevada.