Gamblers are feeling the heat

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 August, 1997, 12:00am

Carefully time your drive down the street beside Melbourne's new casino complex on a cold winter's evening, leave the car windows open and suddenly a wave of ferocious heat will roll over you.

Don't worry though. It's just the fireballs, the 10-metre-high gas propelled fireballs the Crown Casino publicity says evoke 'ancient rituals or the gates of a Medieval castle'.

The same fireballs had Melbourne's media in a frenzy when they supposedly fried many of the doves released on the night of the casino's gala opening - though a casino spokeswoman insists the doves were just exhausted when released and fell from the skies.

Step inside the five-storey atrium of the A$1.6 billion (HK$9 billion) complex, so large it covers two city blocks and a street runs through it in a tunnel, and you'll see dozens of people standing with bent necks, staring at the ceiling.

Come back in an hour and chances are the same people will still be there, taking in the newest free show in town.

From the ceiling hang 310,000 crystals, rising and falling like a 100-metre-long wave in time with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing specially composed 90-minute-long music called Four Seasons in a Day, pumped out continuously through 70 channels.

Crown has dealt in hyperbole since well before it opened: the largest casino outside North America, Melbourne's most expensive meal (Kobe beef at A$350 a serving), the most restaurants under one city roof (35), Victoria's largest employer (8,000 staff), the first cinemas with meals and drinks service and 'love seats' which give new meaning to the old song about kissing in the back row at the movies.

But it is this kind of excess that has people queuing to see what its detractors say is a flashy way to extract money from the state's citizens via 2,500 gaming machines and 350 tables offering 20 games. The special effects - using the four elements, earth, air, fire and water - are part of a product that involved two Hong Kong and one Australian fung shui men.

The casino has been designed to eliminate any chance of offending what Crown hopes will be one of its most lucrative markets - people from Asian countries.

Already Crown has six Asian offices and this year it is aiming for Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

And it is offering special package deals to Hong Kongers, with a red and gold bilingual brochure featuring Chinese people shopping, eating, drinking and, of course, gambling.

It has multilingual staff and advertised widely in Hong Kong for staff before opening.