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LAS VEGAS DEALS OUT COUPONS TO LURE VISITORS

In those glorious days when the Mob ran Las Vegas, life was cheap. Drinks were too. And meals and rooms. Why, they just gave them away.

Those glorious days, my friend, are back.Two weeks ago, I saw the Folies Bergere at the Tropicana Hotel for $10.50. Twenty-five years ago, to see the same show, I had to pay $12.50.

Why so cheap?

I had a coupon. In fact, everyone in line had a coupon.

Discount coupons are a way of life in Las Vegas today. You will get a pile of them in the mail two days after you make your hotel reservation for an air-hotel package. Otherwise, they will be waiting for you at the front desk. The clerk at the airport car rental counter will hand you some more. They'll be stacked up in your hotel lobby.

Las Vegas is simply awash in discount coupons. Every day is like Thursday afternoon at the supermarket.

Some examples: free admission to the antique car museum at the Imperial Palace, normally $3.75; half-price on the Island Buffet at the Tropicana, already a dirt-cheap $3.95; two for the price of one at the Liberace Museum, normally $6.50 a head; two free desserts at the Flamingo Hilton.

Las Vegas has always offered bargain brunches and, to patient gamblers, free drinks. But show discounts? Free shows? What has happened? Why now?

For one thing, Las Vegas has added 13,000 rooms in the past two years, including 4,032 at the Excalibur, which opened last June, and 3,049 at Steve Wynn's Mirage, which opened seven months earlier. Occupancy has dropped from 87.4 percent last year to 77.6 percent this year. As a result, Las Vegas hotels are giving away the store to fill all those rooms.

"All the new hotels have certainly keened the competition up," said Don Payne of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. "But in this quixotic market, every time you put 3,000 rooms up, and they say there's a surplus, the new hotel suddenly gets 90 percent occupancy."

Another factor is the economy. "The bargains you're talking about," Payne said, "are a reflection of our feeling on people's will to spend discretionary income. In other words, the recession."

Kathy Espin, who handles publicity for the Stardust, has a seasonal explanation: "This is our traditional (end-of-the-year) slump. People have social obligations elsewhere. Occupancy at all the hotels suffers, and we're pulling out all the stops."

Payne compares the present to the late '60s, "before the bean-counters took over. The new management decided that everything had to pay its own way, starting with the rooms. The one thing they kept was the free parking."

Coupon madness is raging at the best places. During weekdays, rooms at the Imperial Palace, the Excalibur and the Aladdin are down to $20 for a double. They are $30 at the Sahara and Circus Circus.

(A caveat: You must book three weeks in advance for the airline deals, about two weeks for the hotel discounts. For hotel reservations, use the numbers listed in the "Guidebook," or the ones you find in Sunday newspaper advertisements. Often, main hotel switchboards are not aware of these discounts. If there's a convention in town, you will pay top dollar. A national convention of undertakers was here when I was, and I had to pay the full price of $89 for my room.)

Meal prices in Las Vegas, meanwhile, have hit Depression levels. Downtown, at Lady Luck, you can eat three buffet meals a day for a total of $8.89.

Las Vegas on $25 a day? You bet.

Somewhere between the Mirage, at $99 a night (down from $130), currently the most expensive hotel in town, and the Imperial Palace, at $20, lies a great bargain hunter's middle ground.

Circus Circus, always a good deal at $44, has lowered its rates to $30 per room, sleeping up to four people. Circus Circus pioneered the kid-friendly casino-hotel concept when it opened in 1968. The hotel, and the medieval-themed Excalibur it sired, represent the new Las Vegas, a city that Mayor Jan Laverty Jones wants to promote as a desert resort for the whole family. Late last month, Steve Wynn of the Golden Nugget and the Mirage announced that he, too, would be building a family-oriented hotel, with 3,000 rooms.

Circus Circus' upstairs midway, where kids are allowed to play unaccompanied by adults, features free circus acts, leaning to trapeze and high-wire artists, from 11 a.m. to midnight.

Even kid-haters love the dinner buffet at Circus Circus, an incredible feast for under $3.99. Ten thousand people eat here every day, the hotel claims. The lines are long, but they move quickly. Friday is seafood night, with six seafood items among the 45 at the buffet. Flounder and cod, rarely seen at buffets, are here.

On your way out of the buffet, you will be given a book of coupons.

Circus Circus has been such a success that its owners decided to build another theme hotel: the Excalibur. The Excalibur puts up nearly as many kids as Circus Circus. Its noon and 2 p.m. "Wonderful World of Horses" shows, starring the Royal Lippizaner stallions, are a big draw at $5.95. For rooms, too, the price is right: $20 per night between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The theme here is supposed to be Olde England, but the exterior is clearly modeled after a 19th-century Bavarian castle. With 4,032 rooms, this is the largest resort hotel in the world. Excalibur draws older kids than Circus Circus, mostly teen-agers, and rather than running around in the casino they go jousting out in the parking lot.

At the Golden Nugget, the AAA-rated four-diamond luxury king of downtown, is giving away its big Victorian rooms for $58 this month and $49 in December for two. We're talking about four-poster beds and expensive-looking antiques.

At show time in the new, lean Las Vegas, the real bargains begin - or end, depending on your tastes. Magic shows are steep and rarely discounted. Tickets for Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage start at $67.30.

The hottest ticket in town is "Enter the Night" at the Stardust, featuring Bobbie Berosini and his performing orangutans. At $33.25, this is no bargain by current Las Vegas standards. But if you stay at the Stardust between Dec. 1 and Jan. 30, your tickets are free. A double at the Stardust during this period will cost just $32 in the brand-new tower, $22 in the motor inn. The deal is good on weekends, but not on New Year's Eve or Super Bowl weekend, Jan. 25-26. The Stardust will give guests 25 free raffle tickets on a 1992 Saturn from Dec. 15-25.

Visitors now rate hotels by the quality of their coupons. Of those hotels that willy-nilly hand out coupon books to all who ask, the Dunes is considered the worst and the Flamingo Hilton the best, with the Sands a close second.

These coupons exist, of course, to lure you into the hotel casinos. Las Vegas hotels are set up so that no matter where you wish to go, you must pass through the casino first. Thus, while enjoying a rock-bottom, low-budget vacation, you can easily lose your house.