Magazine article USA TODAY

It's No Gamble: There's a Lot to Do at Mohegan Sun.(Going Places)

Magazine article USA TODAY

It's No Gamble: There's a Lot to Do at Mohegan Sun.(Going Places)

Article excerpt

VARIETY isn't only the spice of life, it's an absolutely essential ingredient--for me, at least--in creating a successful (long) weekend getaway. I like options, even when it comes to gambling. For quite awhile, my wife and I had wanted to take a trip to Mohegan Sun, the sprawling casino operated by the Mohegan Tribe on their reservation in southeast Connecticut (a relatively painless three-hour drive from our home on Long Island). Margaret was excited about gambling (and why not, she's very good at it), while I, who usually only dabble in various games of chance, was equally interested in the venue's recent $1,000,000,000 expansion, Project Sunburst, spearheaded by highly acclaimed designer David Rockwell, whose goal was to bring nature's elements--earth, wind, fire, and rain--to the project.

Mohegan's Casino of the Earth, with 180,000 square feet of gambling space, opened in 1996. Casino of the Sky, the centerpiece of Project Sunburst, opened in September, 2001. The expansion added 115,000 square feet of gambling space. The casino features the world's largest planetarium dome --some 150 feet across--which showcases ever-changing fiber-optic displays of the sun, moon, and stars accompanied by the lighting effects of Wombi Rock, a three-story crystal mountain built inside the casino, crafted from more than 12,000 individual plates of onyx and alabaster fused to glass, serving as a three-level nightclub and bar, the latter, Leffingwells, boasting more than 50 varieties of martinis. So, the planetarium sky overhead will change one way or the other.

Mohegan also is changing the way live music is seen and heard with its new Cabaret and Arena. The Cabaret seats 300, though it easily could hold almost twice that. However, management wisely has opted for the high (or at least less-crowded) road. Instead of cramming in extra bodies in order to sell more tickets, they've placed a premium on space and comfort while maintaining an intimate atmosphere. Although seated near the back, we still were close enough to see the facial expressions of Tony Bennett and his band. Bennett, whose nightclub act of old favorites is perfect for this venue, even delivered one song sans microphone to demonstrate the acoustic quality of the room. He sounded great.

Meanwhile, most new arenas built today seat about 20,000 since those they play host to--hockey and basketball teams, prizefighters, and rock bands--need the huge amounts of revenue that such massive audiences can generate. Mohegan, however, has cleverly downsized the concept of the big arena. Here, less is indeed more, as the 10,000 seats provide the feel of a large crowd while considerably shortening the sightlines. The sound, too, is impressive. (We saw Gloria Estefan.) We'd really like to return to this arena for a sporting event since every seat is a good one and there are no nosebleed sections. (2006 Winter Olympic Selection Committee take note: This place is absolutely perfect for hockey and figure skating.)

Another wonderful spot within Mohegan Sun is the Wolf Den, a 350-seat no-cover bar that has offered free entertainment since opening in 1996. The stage is practically right on top of the tables, and it's SRO all the way around. Since the stage and seats are enclosed by half-walls, those gambling at the nearby slots and tables can hear the band, and patrons cram the area outside to listen and dance. An oversized screen beside the stage makes viewing easy for everyone. John Secada, a former member of Gloria Estefan's Miami Sound Machine, had the place hopping the night we were there. Well, kind of there. That was the evening we saw Tony Bennett at the Cabaret. Since his show had an earlier start time and lounge-style acts don't last as long as concerts, we made our way over to the Wolf Den when Bennett was through. We couldn't get in, so, drinks in hand, we joined those on the fringes and enjoyed the latter part of Secada's set.

One of the major pluses of the whole Mohegan scene is the fact that you're permitted to leave and enter places with your drinks. …

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