Five Days in Las Vegas
Daniel Emberley, November 2001
Michael and I just returned from Las Vegas. We took Michael’s Mom, brother Ellas, his wife Mary, and my parents. We had a blast. The usual write-up routine follows: quick summary up front, detail after for those who want it.
Why Las Vegas? We’d never been, and it’s a pretty major center of modern America. We were stunned by the natural beauty of the red rock valley in which the city sits. That was matched by the history of American escapist entertainment encapsulated in the casinos downtown and on the Strip. There are still a few tawdry 1950’s hotels standing that didn’t have to offer anything more than gambling, drinks, and sex. The 1960’s flashy Rat Pack grandeur still lives behind additions and remodeling. Early attempts at theme'ing hotels in the 1980’s point out the rise of cheap air travel and the need to compete with other national vacation sites. In the 1990’s casino owners figured out that you need more than costumes on the cocktail waitresses and faux finishes on the walls to keep up. The current creations attempt to recreate entire environments: Paris, desert oasis, Manhattan, Bangkok. You know we’ll be seeing these same themes in high-end shopping malls in our own cities, so it was almost like getting a preview of coming attractions.
Your basic casino now offers the following:
Recent complexes tie all of these to a theme, in varying degrees of intensity. The attraction and shopping mall will generally be a Disney-level spectacular, with electronic and live entertainment mixed with light, water, and animatronics. The hotel lobby and restaurants will take the theme down a notch, if only to allow people to figure out how to check-in and read the menu, but will still be pretty slick. The casinos need to tie in to the theme, but more importantly help people find the slots/tables/betting areas where they will drop the cash that will pay for everything. Since the games are almost identical in every casino, the only real difference is usually the costumes of the croupiers and the pattern in the carpet. At the lowest end of theme intensity are the hotel rooms, which are almost interchangeable with those at similar price breaks across the country. You need to give yourself about 90 minutes to case the average casino complex, more if there is a line for the attraction or if you are going to gamble seriously.
Things were busy enough in the city to give the bustle without being so crowded that one couldn’t get in to see things. While there are some casinos whose valets check car trunks before driving them off, the security is amazingly lax, at least from the perspective of Washington. You can walk right in to most complexes without a bag check or even dirty look from a guard. It felt like a step back in time to the innocence before September 11. It will be sad city when it has to meet what we’re developing in D.C. and New York.
Vegas is the fastest growing city in America. What a mistake. Could we live there? Heck no. It is a fake place supported by subsidized gas, water, and electricity, propped up by the excess cash of millions of Americans. The shows have New York prices and Pittsburgh standards. The food is either very cheap and bland or very high in price and quality, with little between. There are no ethnic neighborhoods. The city is hopelessly heterosexual: the comedy still turns on gay jokes, just a little nicer than fag jokes, and boobs are on sale everywhere. The housing is ugly 1970’s-1990’s tract development, and all entertainment and shopping gravitates around the casinos, the sole industry of this one-horse town.
On the flip side, it sure is fun, and pretty. Here’s what we saw and did.
Flying out of BWI was as nightmarish as predicted. One needs two hours before your flight mainly because the line to check bags takes an hour. Security was actually pretty quick, only about 10 minutes. The staff of Southwest are sweethearts, making things understandable and the flight as pleasant as possible. If you’re flying from the East Coast, sit on the right side of the plane, you’ll get a great view of the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead. The sky was clear, and the prairie, desert, and mountains spectacular once we crossed the Mississippi.
We picked up our car at McCarran Airport and took a cruise up the Strip to downtown. The tourist parts of Las Vegas are mostly linear. The airport lies at the bottom of Las Vegas Boulevard, aka the Strip. Most of the new casinos are on the Strip, with a few outliers a few Vegas blocks off. A Vegas Block is about ¼ mile in dimension, and few people walk more than a block or two. While the developers have begun tearing down older casinos and redeveloping those blocks farther up the Strip, it basically runs new to old from the south up to the north. Two miles north the big complexes fade into a mile of sleazy hotels, wedding chapels, and Ocean-City-esque decay. Above that is the old downtown, which actually acts like a city, with a grid of streets. The Strip casinos have begun connecting themselves with a hodgepodge of monorails, but they are nothing like a transit system yet: rent a car.
We doubled back and had a snack (60 cent tacos!) and tacky shopping at “The World’s Largest Souvenir Stand”.
We parked the car at the Frontier, where it was too early to check in, and took a walk south on the Strip. The Frontier is old, from the 1960’s, and though they recently renovated, it seems they are just trying to eek out a few more years before they are replaced by a theme casino. The “Wild West” theme looked like a Sizzler steak house, but it was clean, comfortable, and had a casino that was easy to understand and so fun to play in. Across the Strip had been the Desert Inn, which you may remember from the TV show “Vegas”. It had been imploded the previous week, after serving as the casino blown up in “Rush Hour 2”, so was a big pit of broken concrete with a Chinese restaurant marquee left behind by the set decorators. Next to the Frontier is the Fashion Show Mall, dully like any regional mall from the 1980’s. South of that is Treasure Island (pirate theme) and the Mirage (jungle theme, Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers, exploding volcano). The Venetian comes next, which has possibly the best them'ing in the city. Having recently been to Venice, we were having déjà vu moments all over the place, inside and out. Yes, one can take a gondola to The Gap, but at $12.50 a person it’s better to walk. Sensational spaces.
Across the Strip (up the Rialto and the Gothic arched pedestrian skywalk), Caesar’s Palace extends in the resplendent self-satisfaction of a complex that’s stayed high end through 40 years of casino trends. The shopping mall is a blast, the fountains fun, the Roman gladiators and toga’ed waitresses silly and wonderful. Caught the talking statues (Country Bear Jamboree with togas) and checked out the new Coliseum they’re building. Michael got to pose with Caesar and Cleopatra.
South of Caesar’s is the Bellagio. This is the casino for those who want to be rich: very Ralph Lauren Polo, themed around a villa on the Riviera. One attraction is a parterre botanical garden, another the fountain show up front which performs to a computerized soundtrack (Elton John, Copland’s “Billy the Kid”, “One” from “A Chorus Line”). The fountain show is the best we have ever seen. Ever. Beats out Trevi, Versailles, and Longwood Gardens. Amazing.
That was enough of a walk. We hiked back to the Frontier, met my parents, and got ourselves checked in. We went to Treasure Island to see the pirates battle the English. The show happens on either side and over the entrance to the casino, so you are in the middle of the performance. Live actors blow up each other’s ships every half hour, with the English going down in flames. Yes, the boat really sinks in the moat in front, and the captain goes down with the ship. Tres cool. We found a pleasant mid-priced restaurant inside for dinner, and headed back to the Frontier to conk out.
Thursday, October 25
The Frontier had a decent breakfast buffet. We jumped into the car for a drive out to Hoover Dam, stopping off in Chinatown to stock up on baked goods. Chinatown is a themed strip mall, similar to those on Rockville Pike in Maryland or Bellaire Road in Houston. Not too big, but sufficient. The Dam is about 45 minutes east of the city. Tours of the structure have been suspended for the duration. In place of the tour, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation offers lectures by interpreters on the history of the Dam and how it works, followed by an orientation film from the 1930’s. Very worthwhile. The views of Lake Mead and Black Canyon from the dam are spectacular.
We came back by way of Henderson, Nevada, and the Ethel M Chocolate Factory. A bunch of M&M Mars heirs founded this gourmet chocolate factory in honor of their mother in the suburbs of Vegas. There is a self-guided factory tour, free samples, big shop, and cactus garden. The garden was pretty amazing. They have installed an environmentally-sensitive water purification plant on the grounds of the garden, using plants to clean the water naturally. Or at least, as naturally as an electrically powered concrete reclamation facility can do anything. Between the Dam and the filtration plant I felt like I had absorbed my engineering education fix for the week. Stop by their store in Tysons II, if you’re a D.C. resident, for a chocolate sample.
Back on the Strip we visited M&M World. This is basically a four-level advertisement and store dedicated to M&M’s. They have a cool interactive 3D movie and walk through a “factory” that feels like an amusement park ride. Fun, but I hope they don’t spring up in every city, a la Nike Town and Hard Rock Café.
That evening we went to New York, New York. They have captured the NYC experience beautifully, with recreations of the Chrysler Building, Coney Island roller coaster, Statue of Liberty. Right down to steam coming from the manhole covers. The interior spaces are supposed to divide into Greenwich Village, Central Park, Soho, and Times Square, but honestly, they all sort of blended together. The facility is slick, noisy, flashy, confusing, sometimes unpleasant, and always alive. In other words, a great encapsulation of Manhattan. The food court was as disappointing as most food in Times Square: fried, fried, and fried. Still, useful for dinner. We had tickets to see comedienne Rita Rudner there. She was a hoot, as promised. She should hold out for a better theater, however. Perhaps management is trying to evoke the look of a Village cabaret, but the catering-standard-vinyl chairs and draped walls scream “anonymous Hilton function room”.
We dropped off Mom and Dad with a drink at the Frontier, and took a walk to see the Strip attractions at night. Caught the Mirage volcano (lights, steam, and fountain, actually, but cool) and Bellagio fountain show. We kept thinking the fountains were done, and would walk on, but five minutes later a new number would start. That meant we got to see three numbers from three vantage points: directly in front from the terrace, to the side from the pedestrian walkway, and across the street in front of Paris. Most excellent.
Friday, October 26
Started off the day with Mom and Dad at the Venetian. Showed them around the mall, lobby, and casino, then went into the two Guggenheims. The Guggenheim New York, in a continuing quest for world art domination, has opened two branches in this casino. The Guggenheim Hermitage is a large shoebox designed by Rem Koolhaas, split into three manageable rooms. The show is the first of the Guggenheim-Hermitage (St. Petersburg) joint venture, and showed early modern masterpieces (Van Gogh, Rousseau, Matisse, Picasso) from both museums. Safe, but well presented and worthy. The Guggenheim Las Vegas may have been designed by Koolhaas, but it was totally redesigned by Frank Gehry before it ever opened to house the “Art of the Motorcycle”. This show premiered on the ramp at the Guggenheim New York. Gehry did an excellent job taking a big cube space and turning it into competition for both Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York space and for Vegas glitz. He used mirrors like scales on a reptile’s skin, huge metal mesh curtains, and projections in places you never thought possible. Unfortunately, this is a big auto show. Motorcycles, who cares? Lots of straight guys who need baths, apparently. The installation was more art than the objects displayed, but was probably a good marketing move to establish the venue.
We connected with Michael’s Mom, Ellas, and Mary at Paris. The theme here is very well done, with replica Opera, Eiffel Tower, Champs Ellysees, and Arc de Triomphe all presented higgledy-piggledy on the valet parking deck. The shopping/food court street did a decent job at presenting generic Paris, right down to our not being able to find the restaurants. Found a bakery for lunch, and got caught up with the Setos. Got ceramic cups in the shape of the giant neon balloon that serves as the casino’s marquee for the price of a frozen margherita.
The new Aladdin is next door to Paris, so we walked over. This is not the old Aladdin, where Elvis married Priscilla, but a new oasis-Sahara-1001-Nights-fantasy that has arisen from the ashes of the old. Or at least, on the same site. The mall, the “Desert Passage Shops”, is probably the best of the themed shopping areas, complete with a thunderstorm that darkens the “sky” every half hour. The stores are the same-old-same-old, but there is one venue selling beautiful Polish crystal at affordable prices. In the casino, I turned a $1 into $8 on the nickel slots, my only win of the trip.
For the record, I only lost $60 the whole time, which was pretty great, much less than I’d budgeted to lose. Michael won $3. We stuck to the slots, being intimidated by the game tables that actually require some knowledge or skill.
We piled into our two cars and headed up the Strip to Stratosphere Tower. This is the tallest structure west of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, it looks like a combination of Seattle’s Space Needle and cast-off sets from the film “Logan’s Run”. Hopelessly 1970’s. The shopping mall is supposed to be themed to represent New York, Hong Kong, and other cities, but compared to what is now in the casinos, came across as lame. Mega lame. We were there for the afternoon show “Viva Las Vegas”, which was an inexpensive mélange of Vegas show themes. Some of the comedians were pretty decent, and the five showgirls did their best to look more numerous. The lounge singer had a bad case of Celine-Dion-itis. However, we were able to treat seven people to a show and didn’t have to buy drinks for our moms from a topless waitress, so it worked.
Friday night is seafood buffet night at the Frontier, so we loaded up on peel-and-eat shrimp and clams casino. We drove to Bellagio for an after-dinner walk through the conservatory and to show off the fountain show to our families.
We dropped the ‘rents off at the hotel and drove downtown for “The Fremont Street Experience”. If all the old downtown casinos weren’t originally on Fremont, they have since moved there or shut down. The classics were here: Binion’s Horseshoe, Golden Nugget, Barbary Coast. The city is establishing a museum of neon at one end of Fremont, which already has some great examples of the lights and signs from institutions that have disappeared. The “Experience” is a galleria of light bulbs above four blocks of Fremont. On the hour they present a computerized sound and light show where images dance across the sky above your head. Pretty neat. Downtown is certainly tawdry and old, and is having a hard time competing with the Strip. The Experience helps, it got Michael and me there when we hadn’t really planned to. Plus, you can get dollar daiquiris and custom-made frozen bananas. Not bad.
Saturday, October 27
Dad had been sent on a mission to retrieve a slot cup from the Orleans, favorite casino of a friend. This is well west of the Strip, and looks like what Wal-Mart might build if they were doing a casino. The theme was supposed to be “Mardi Gras”, but it looked like plastic alligators slapped onto a big warehouse with slot machines, all attached to a Motel 6. To be fair to Wal-Mart, they have built a casino here, but after the Orleans none of us was up to Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall.
Piled into the cars and drove north and east to the Hilton. This is east of the Strip by about three blocks, next to the Convention Center. It is not the original Hilton, of Rat Pack fame, or the Hilton Flamingo, on the Strip. It’s just a big Hilton, with an appropriately gold and tasteful (for Vegas) casino. The draw is that a good chunk of the casino, a restaurant, a shopping stretch, and attraction have all been turned over to Star Trek. We saw the “Museum of the History of the Future”, and got our photos taken with the “Voyager” crew. The simulator ride is a great blend of live actors and video, taking you on an abduction by Klingtons, onto a transporter, through the Enterprise, and back to Las Vegas 2000, complete with destruction of the Hilton’s neon sign by an alien invader. Michael was enthralled, and the rest of us surprised to have so much fun with it. This is the best-integrated theme-attraction-food-gambling experience in the city.
We did the auto caravan back to the Strip, to Luxor. The building is a very slick black glass pyramid topped at night by a klieg light shot into the desert sky. The attractions, unfortunately, can only be described as lame. A phony King Tut’s tomb was sparsely filled with reproductions; the movie had lots of visuals but no content. Maybe this would have been amazing when the complex opened, but is now as exciting as soggy toast.
We walked next door to Mandalay Bay. Last time Ellas and Mary were in Vegas they stayed here, in the old Hacienda. It is now a skyscraper/casino complex loosely themed around Southeast Asia. Where is Mandalay, anyway? From the lobby, one can only guess that it is the place where Pier One gets their painted wood trays and sculptures. Well done, actually, but without a formal attraction, we walked, we shopped, we left. There is a monorail that runs from Excalibur to Luxor to Mandalay, but does a poor job of replicating a transit system. The trains can only stop at Luxor on the north-bound stretch, as there is no passenger platform on the southbound side. Dumb. But, it was free, and got us back to our cars at Luxor, so it did the job.
For dinner Michael’s Mom took us to Chinatown for a feast. She cased the mall, determined the best Cantonese barbecue joint, and took care of everything. This was the best meal we had in Las Vegas. Maybe there’s a connection between authenticity and quality?
After dinner Michael and I hit Caesar’s for some last chance shopping, then took in the “Masquerade in the Sky Parade” at Rio. The Rio’s theme is carnival in, well, Rio de Janeiro. The “parade” is a stage show matched with parade floats on a set of tracks in the ceiling above the casino and shopping. You can watch from the second floor of the mall. It is truly spectacular, with the best showgirls we saw. The Rio is off the Strip, but worth the trek for this evening event.
Sunday, October 28
Mom and Dad left in the wee dawn. The rest of us had a little time before check-in at McCarran, so hit the MGM Grand for one last experience. This had been built as the world’s largest hotel, in emerald green glass for a Wizard of Oz theme. Apparently that theme had been beaten into the ground, so the complex has renovated, pulled back, and is now themed around the Hollywood experience more generally: movie posters, columns like Oscar statues, L.A. Deco. The shopping malls theme Los Angeles nicely, with a Brown Derby and Farmer’s Market and lots of touches that work. By this time, though, we were theme professionals, and having explored, we pulled out and on to the airport. Got to spend some quality time with the Setos before Southwest got us on our planes back home.
Have a chance to go to Vegas, and have never been? Do it. Love to gamble? Do it. Have been there in the past five years? Eh, wait. The best theme attractions will be coming our way shortly, and you won’t have to fly five hours to see them.