Las Vegas

November, 1998


Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the world, is growing so fast if you haven’t been there in the last year, then it’s time to go again. Even if you have been there in the last year it’s time to go again, if you do it properly. I have been to Las Vegas at least 25 times over the past 35 years, the last time being last week. I have been there with my girlfriend, my daughter, my son, my mother, sister, brother in law, friends, relatives of friends, two different wives (at separate times), once with a mistress, and a few times to work. On the most recent trip, my English friend, Pauline, and I met my daughter Kris and her friend, Nancy, who flew in from Nashville.

A small amount of applied knowledge can make the difference between the perfect trip and the disaster. I have achieved both extremes. The following account is a collage of experiences that create a sort of a composite "right" way to visit Vegas, whether it’s the first time or the tenth. I realize that different people have different tastes, but there are some things no one should do in Vegas unless they are real masochists and some things everyone should do, whether they enjoy it or not. I also include a set of rules that describe how NOT to visit Vegas. Let’s get the "NOT TO’s" out of the way up front and leave the fun for last.

WWT "Don’t/Do’s" concerning Vegas:

1. Don’t go on the weekend. It is a total zoo. Half of your time can be spent standing in line, fighting crowds, paying premium prices, and fighting traffic; even walking down the strip sidewalk is painful. 

2. Except for a few special cases don’t go inside any casino other than the one in the hotel you stay in. Once inside they are all the same, except for a few that deserve special mention. I realize this is hard to believe when you see the outside, but trust me on this one. 

3. Don’t go downtown until after dark. If you do you will ruin a wonderful experience. The Strip is okay in day time, but not Downtown.

4. Don’t waste time on "Fun Books". They are a waste of valuable time. If saving money with coupons makes you feel good, take the entertainment book provided by your hotel and use a few of the coupons inside for restaurant and show discounts.

5. It is okay to drive TO Las Vegas, but don’t drive IN Las Vegas. Park your car in your hotel garage and take trams, trolleys, and simply walk.

6. Don’t go with the idea of making money. Most of the money that enters Las Vegas stays there. Just look around at the opulence and you’ll realize that this is necessary. Las Vegas couldn’t exist if the tourists made money.

7. Don’t waste much time gambling. There is too much other better stuff to do.

8. Don’t put a quarter into a slot machine next to a little ole lady playing slots. It can be fatal. It may be "her" machine, and if you hit a jackpot, you are dead meat.

On a Tuesday morning I can set my Lexus cruise control on 78 for most of the 270 miles from LA to Vegas except for the 10 mile stretch where the 55 and the 91 freeways join, the place where the "Fast Track" conspiracy begins. On a Friday afternoon, you could make better time on a bicycle. For an extra $1.50 you can move into the two empty lanes and go 85 if you have the correct transponder. This may be the most crowded stretch of freeway in the world and the conspiracy is a well guarded plan to turn the whole damn 91 freeway into a tollway.

The conspiracy began with one pay lane, and when all the poor slobs sitting still in the remaining five lanes saw the race track available for a buck, they quickly started coughing up the money. Soon the pay lane was not much better than the free lanes, so they snipped off another free lane, made it a pay lane, and raised the price so that it now costs 3 bucks at rush hour. That made conditions in the free lanes even worse yet, forcing more guys to cough up. Now the pay lane is starting to show signs of crowding again, and it is just a matter of time until they have to add another pay lane. Guess where they get it. I figure by about the year 2001 all the lanes will be converted to pay lanes and we’ll be back where we started except we’ll be paying 3 bucks to go at a snail’s pace. At that point, there will begin a tier of prices and eventually all lanes will catch up with the most expensive, and so on. Think about it.

Shortly after we switched to the 15 Freeway, I spotted the Norco exit sign and, out of experience, quickly changed the air conditioner from fresh air to internal air circulation. The hapless tourist in the car beside me gags as his car fills with the thick odor of cowshit. There must be a million cows over there on a hundred acres. They shit so much that the farmers have a serious problem just carting it off; REALLY, I am not (pardon the pun) shitting you on this one. People are hard at work figuring out what to do with it. The smell will infiltrate a car and stay with you all the way to Vegas. I wonder again, "Could anyone really live in this neighborhood?" I chuckle as I finally realize that the guy standing next to me at Ralph’s last week must live in Norco.

I can make it to Vegas in less than five hours with two pee stops, one in Barstow and the second at one of the rest stops in the Mojave Desert. But don’t try this past three o’clock in the afternoon and especially not on a Friday. During the second pee stop, the Indians have some pretty good deals on jewelry. I couldn’t resist the bloodstone necklace, which is still in the glove compartment of my car a year later. Does anyone ever wear one of these things?

As we passed Primm, the town at the Nevada California state line, I marveled at the Size of Whisky Pete’s, Buffalo Bill’s, and Primm Valley casinos. I could never figure out two things about Primm, why someone would stop here, and why they came up with such a dumb name for a town. Later I learned that Mr. Primm owns most of PimaDonna Resorts Inc., who own most of these joints in the place that used to be called simply "Stateline". I still don’t know why someone stops here, surely not for the 6.99 steak dinner or 2.99 breakfast listed on the marquee. Maybe it’s because you can get a room for $18. Down the highway a few miles is Jean, Nevada and another collection of big casinos. I suppose Mr. Jean owns these, and I still don’t know why anyone would stay here either. But the parking lot is almost always full, so there must be a reason.

Ten minutes later, now breezing along at a steady 80, we topped the hill overlooking Vegas. What a magnificent sight! Las Vegas has more hotel rooms than any city in the world, over 80,000 and 9 of the top 10 largest hotels, including number one, the 6000 room MGM Grand. The city is divided into two main pieces, downtown and the strip, which fortunately comes first. While most of the hotel casinos are in one of the two places, a not negligible number of big hotels sit off in the boondocks by themselves, like the ones at Primm, Jean and other outlying areas. Strangely enough, even the ones in the boondocks are sometimes so crowded on weekends that you can’t walk through one of them without bumping into someone.

At night Downtown is wonderful and mind blowing, the substance movies are made of. If you must go there in daytime, make sure and do it after you first see it at night. . Downtown is not worth seeing in the day time. In fact, let me change that. Don’t go in the daytime even if you have to; it is depressing and it may ruin your past enjoyment of it. I made the mistake of taking Pauline, who had not seen Downtown, there during the day to walk around for an hour while we waited to meet yet another friend for lunch. With a strange look she asked me, "Why did we come here?" I have not yet been able to persuade her to go back and see it at night. The difference is so unbelievable that she could not imagine what happens when one turns on a billion watts of neon lights. I’ll come back to this later.

At the beginning of the strip the gold tinted Madolay Bay towers up beside the black Luxor pyramid. (By the way, these are hotel/casino/resorts that include lakesized swimming pools, tennis, malls, and thousands of rooms in each.) Then the castles of the Excaliber just blend in continuously with the New York New York skyline. Jesus, I am already in overload. There is nothing close to this anywhere in the entire world. I already got my money’s worth.

Kris and I once booked rooms in the Luxor, to take advantage of a special for three days for two people for $250 that included the show "Imagine", free buffet breakfasts, and drinks. Also, I wanted to stay in the pyramid so I could ride the inclinators, elevators that run sideways up the sloping walls. Once you arrive at your floor, walking along the exposed hallways lends a magnificent view of the inside of the Pyramid and the people all the way down to the first floor. The room decor is also Egyptian with Egyptian art. Looking out the window I had the desire to climb out and slide down the glassy sloping side. At night lights dance up along the sides of the pyramid and the brightest light in the world squirts photons out the top into space. It has been said that pilots taking off from Los Angeles can see this light on a clear night.

The Luxor is the closest to Los Angeles and the easiest to get in and out of at least until the Madalay Bay next door opens. The Mandalay Bay opening was delayed because the building is sinking on one side. It did look a little crooked as we passed it. One can arrive at one o’clock and stand in line for an hour to check in or at 3 and walk straight up to reception. The reception lady at the Luxor was a little stunned at the price I had and asked me where I found the deal. Upon replying that I found it on their web page, she laughed and said she must look at it some day. Las Vegas hotel people are the friendliest in the world.

Las Vegas is a study in deception. One looks at the outside of a hotel/casino and it can be so striking that one can only conclude that it must be worth going inside. Once inside, for the most part, they all look alike, acres of slot machines. The Luxor is one of the few hotels that is worth walking around inside past the front end. The place is full of Egyptian sculpture, statues, monoliths, and neat little Egyptian shops that sell neat stuff. Out front is a sculpture they call a Sphinx. Actually they took some liberties here. Anyone familiar with Egyptian art will recognize that the face is not that of the Sphinx but more like that of Tutankamen, who was much prettier than the Sphinx. Also, his nose wasn’t shot off by a bunch of peckerhead Germans like that of the Sphinx. There is also a monolith and a new lake and fountain under construction, apparently to exploit the great success the Belagio down the strip is having with their fountains.

We found a passageway that leads from the Luxor across the street to the Excaliber. There is nothing inside the Excaliber worth seeing but this walk is easier and quicker than going out on the street. The outside of the Excaliber is a magnificent sight. Beginning at the front of the Excaliber we used the crosswalks to examine the outside of the four casinos at the intersection, Excaliber, Tropicana, MGM Grand, and New York New York. This exploit takes about an hour and would be worth a trip all by itself. Pauline and I found it fun to do also in daytime. We tried the free slot pull outside of the Tropicana just for kicks. Everyone wins something that requires you to go inside. I have never seen anyone win money on one of these things, but supposedly it happens. My pull won a ticket to one of the shows. The MGM Grand Hotel across the street towers like a manmade mountain and just looking at it is exciting. It sports huge sculptures, lights, interesting architecture, and a staff of over 12,000 employees. Too bad there isn’t anything inside worth seeing. Hard to believe isn’t it?

There isn’t much point to gambling, but everyone does it anyway. The colors, the payoff frequencies, their random payoff order, and the sounds are all carefully designed to suck as much money out of you as possible without creating too much pain. When you win, the bells scream and shout for everyone in the room to look at this great guy who just won. They make winning feel so good. Losing is accompanied by a quiet gentle little tune that sort of leaves you apologetically feeling the need to stick in something else. Watching little ole ladies feed quarters into two or three machines at once, as fast as they can move, in a machine-like gesture is fascinating and depressing. They don’t even stop to see if they won. I wonder how many social security checks wind up here. This is one of the true marvels of Las Vegas that is not to be missed, and it is free in all casinos. It is one of the social wonders of the world and definitely worth watching in any casino once or twice. But don’t try going near one of the machines near her. Try putting a quarter in the machine next to her and you’ll draw back a nub. By God that is her machine, because she put something in it recently.

There are fun ways to get the feel of gambling without really taking a risk at losing, and indeed, being in a position of some probability (quite small) of winning big time. Most of the hotels have clubs with enticements to join. By signing up and plunking down something like $50 one can get $60 or so in slot play, enough extra to make the odds almost breakeven. Now this takes discipline, but if one pockets all the winnings and cashes out immediately upon using the $60 in play, one usually breaks even or maybe even comes out a little ahead. Most people can’t stop. The first time I checked this out my party had four guys in it. After a few minutes of play, I noticed that Lou was winning big practically every pull. I was quite worried about my own lack of win bells, but when finally cashing in I had made 12 dollars. The two other guys with us had won 8 and 10 respectively. Where did Lou go? After waiting another 10 minutes we found him still at the machine. He couldn’t quit and he was now operating at a loss. Somehow, it seems that winning for a while makes one lose more later. Probably the best thing that can happen to you in Vegas is for you to lose your ass at the beginning so you can then enjoy Vegas. Psychologists have run experiments on mice that show random reward is more effective than regular reward. The slots are designed after the rat experiments, apparently because people act like rats when they get in casinos.

The next hotel is the Monte Carlo, where we stayed on our recent trip. Shortly after checking in, we headed for our room where I had requested the highest room possible. On the way up a Japanese tourist got off at the 13th floor. I was surprised that there even was a 13th floor. But I guess there are enough Japanese here who don’t know the difference so there is not a problem. The view from the 17th floor was spectacular and worth the extra cost of the room if you can afford it. The Monte Carlo has a magnificent Greek motif and especially on the front we spent a lot of time admiring the sculpture and architecture. The rendering of the "Rape of the Sabine Women" in sculpture is worth more than a casual look. There are several smaller hotels that can be had for a bargain along here. The Holiday Inn next door is one that Kris found, for example. We also once stayed in the Barbary Coast across the street for a great price. At any rate you really need to be located along here somewhere.

The next hotel is the Bellagio, the most expensive hotel in the world, costing Steve Wyn 1.3 billion bucks.. This is one of the newest and most spectacular free shows on the strip. I just learned today that Mr. Wyn is blind. For a blind man to create such a beautiful place is truly ironic as well as exciting, like Beethoven writing the ninth symphony while being deaf. It has a 20 acre lake in the front where land goes for millions per acre. Every half hour a 6 minute musical dance of fountains takes place in the lake. Eleven hundred (yes, 1100) fountains spray as high as a hundred feet in the air and are choreographed to classical music, a different one each half hour. You can’t watch this without getting cold chills of excitement. We watched it several times. Inside is a 300 million dollar art collection that can be seen for 10 bucks and a rather spectacular arboretum that is free.

Vegas is loaded with great things you can pay for and see, like shows, exhibits, and collections. Such an art collection is not shabby. But since there is so much free stuff that is just as good, one has to ask "why pay?" The Museum of Modern Art in New York charges 3 bucks to see a 10 billion dollar art collection, but no where in New York can one see anything that comes near to the outside of the Bellagio. The inside is not exactly bad. The glass ceiling in the reception and the arboretum are quite unique.

Most of the large casino hotels have their own malls. None beats the Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops. These shops are set in a motif that resembles walking through a Greek village, with a curved ceiling illuminated to resemble a sky. The sculptures are wonderful. The shops include galleries, and many very exclusive shops where one can buy $100 ties and $1000 dresses. Who buys all of this shit? I find it really hard to believe that people really go shopping there. But then, someone who just came in from Tokyo where a Gucci bag sells for twice as much must go wild in here. The mall used to have a magnificent laser light show that worked each hour on the hour. A collection of statues surrounding the God of pleasure would come to life while the light show filled the curved ceiling above. If you saw the laser light show, the slideshow replacement for this is rather boring. Some asshole must have sued them for eye damage or something to destroy what used to be something really worth waiting for. If you had not seen it as a laser light show, you may still enjoy it though. Statues that look like marble come alive and revel with each other.

The greatest bargain in almost any European city is a day pass on the tram system. In Vegas, the greatest bargain is the free sidewalk that runs along the Strip. You can spend two or three days doing nothing but ambling along here and being entertained and even the day time is good. The casinos have recognized this as both a blessing (for getting people to come) and a problem (because they are still out on the street enjoying the free entertainment) so they are coming up with ways to keep people inside and off the sidewalk. For example a connecting tunnel at the end of Bellagios mall takes one from Bellagio to Caesar’s Palace next door, and this is easier than going back to the street. Tunnels and connecting trams have been added a lot of places and although they are fun, they do keep you near the slots, which are, of course, their purpose. One really funny one is the moving sidewalk that takes you from the street to the Caesar’s palace Forum shops, quite a long way. I was thinking all the time how nice of them to save me the walking. Once inside you realize the only way out is back through the casino. It is so damned far that you just about have to have a drink, a meal, or at least stick something in a machine before returning to the street.

Caesar’s Palace is set back against a famous collection of soft blue lit fountains and Greek sculpture, between and along the driveways leading to the front door. One should spend a good half hour just walking amongst the statues and fountains. After Caesars Palace, we approached the volcano of the Mirage Hotel. The volcano erupts in a smashing light and sound show ever hour. The Mirage is also a beautiful hotel and a true work of art best admired from the outside. A lot of people take the moving sidewalk to see the white tiger used in the magic show of Siegfried and Roy. They should turn around and leave by the same sidewalk, but most don’t. Unlike Caesar’s Palace this sidewalk does run both ways.

Next to the Mirage are Treasure Island and one of the most spectacular free shows on the strip. Every one and a half hours, two full size (well, almost full size) tall sailing ships take each other on in a blazing gun battle, they both burn to some extent and one of them, honest to God, sinks. You need to get there about half an hour before the show to get a good viewing place. Unfortunately, the planners of this show failed to realize that they didn’t leave enough room for the audience. Unlike the Bellagio Lake show, this one is not easy to see if you get there late.

From here to the next spectacle on the South side of the strip is not really walking distance. This spectacle is the Troposphere, the tallest structure in Las Vegas. The operators of this joint realized that it is not walking distance so they provide a free shuttle to the place. I will leave riding the rollercoaster on top as an exercise for the student.

By now, any normal person should have become totally saturated as well as exhausted. Since we have walked about a mile, it is time to head back. We missed a lot of hotels on the North side of the strip, notably, Paris which sports its own Eiffel Tower in the front yard which I would guess is about ½ scale. Actually, the reason we missed it was because it hasn’t opened yet, another reason to come back in a few months. If you aren’t worn out by this time a casual stroll back down the North side of the strip is fun. If you are worn out, you can take the tram that is located inside Bally’s all the way to MGM Grand, a five minute ride almost to the Luxor. We chose to walk.

The walk along the North side of the strip provides some perspective to the size of each of the casinos. These are not just buildings; each is a small city. The distance between the casinos is deceiving. The huge signs out front makes each look close to the next one. These marquees, all covered with the names of famous entertainers, gives one the impression that you can see them all. The fact is that any one of them is worth a drive from LA. To try to see all of this in one trip is like trying to see all of Europe in one trip. I, for one, believe that the architecture, the works of art that line the Strip, and the lights are highly underrated, and gambling is highly overrated. Nevertheless, I must admit that the gambling is what makes the rest possible. I think one truly knows how to visit Las Vegas when he finally feels thankful for all those people who come here and stuff money into machines so that some of us can stroll up and down the Strip for two or three days and go home without thinking of it as a place to come and gamble.

Outlying Las Vegas has a number of nice attractions and these are excellent ways to spend the day time hours. Hoover Dam, Red Rock Canyon, and Valley of Fire are too much to cover in one day. Each may be worth a day, depending on your interests and especially if you like to hike. The closest is Red Rock Canyon, just half an hour’s drive to the West. After a nice hike among the Rocks I recommend lunch in the small town of …….. which also features an old western town and an hourly gunfight in the streets. Restroom visits are usually not something the WWT reports on, but after lunch in the café, I got a real chuckle from the urinal in the men’s room. It is a bathtub.

During our second day in Vegas, we met up with my high school friend, Sam Kennedy, who has lived and worked in Las Vegas now for nearly forty years. Over the years Sam has worked in many of the casinos and always has some good stories to tell. In high school, the gang often met at Sam’s house on Sundays to play poker and watch Maverick. Sam was one of the best gamblers then and we probably could have guessed he would wind up in Las Vegas. It’s nice having a friend in this city. Sam and I have been dreaming up get rich quick schemes for many years, beginning in high school with our idea to go into the moonshining business. Fortunately for both of us that one was delayed forever by an event that I shall hold secret. None of our ideas made us rich, but, then there is still time.

The shows in Las Vegas are unmatched for quality and variety. I have not seen a bad one. I am a firm believer that one should stay in the hotel that is hosting the show you attend. It saves time and anticipation. And more than one show per trip is too much. These are not shows where one goes in for an hour and sees someone sing or dance. In these shows, tigers disappear, naked women come out of the ceilings by the hundreds, rivers flow down the walls, dozens of people do impossible trapeze acts, and lights and costumes and orchestras wow the audience. Beautiful women have elaborate costumes and headdresses that cover everything except. The famous Cirque du Soleil has two different resident groups here, one in Treasure Island and one in the Bellagio. These are the kind of shows you see once a year if you are lucky. Don’t even think about seeing one on Friday and another on Saturday.

Downtown Las Vegas is really a different city. Twenty or so casinos are all within a few minutes walk lining both sides of a pedestrian mall. Clowns and entertainers stroll along the street to draw the crowds. The lights are so bright they are almost blinding and they cover the walls of the buildings from ground to rooftop. The neon lights are programmed to stay dynamic with lights running up and down the walls. There is not much inside worth seeing, but unlike strip casinos, some of the downtown casinos will allow you to take photographs of yourself pulling the lever. My mother never gambled anything in her life until I got her to stick a quarter in a slot so I could take her picture. She won fifty cents and never was tempted in the least to put any more in.

The buffets get a lot of good and bad press. My experience has been mostly positive. On our recent trip we had a Sunday brunch at the Monte Carlo that would be hard to beat. For about 10 bucks a head, they have just about everything that has been created in a kitchen spread out for the taking. The décor is wonderful too including ice sculptures, chocolate sculptures and fifty pound blocks of cheese sitting around on the tables. Kris and I joked about loading one of the big cheese hunks on our plate and bringing it back to the table. The closest brunch to this in my own memory is the world famous brunch at the world famous Del Coronado Hotel, in San Diego, where after an hours wait (assuming you had a reservation a week before) one has, indeed, a magnificent brunch for four times the cost.

Returning to Los Angeles is harder to judge with regard to traffic. The day to avoid, of course is Sunday when you have a steady string of traffic for the whole 270 miles. Most of the guys who came out have to be back to work tomorrow. Any weekday is a piece of cake.

On the crowded stretches of freeway, there are several interesting phenomena to observe. This can make for exciting entertainment. On some stretches, twenty miles of bumper to bumper traffic are visible. Even so, the freeway is loaded with MPAs (Must-Pass-Assholes) who feel they must pass. Most of the drivers are seasoned freeway drivers; they attempt to stay in one lane, set a speed, and put a safe distance between them and the guy in front. This would work well except for the MPA who screws it up entirely, making what would otherwise be a steady stream of traffic become a stop and go nightmare. One can set the distance and start becoming comfortable until MPA, who thinks he is the only one who really wants to get home soon, squeezes in, turning what was a safe distance into a bumper twenty feet away at 80. To make matters worse it is the bumper of a person with a half of a brain. I begin wishing I had brought my gun so I could shoot the son of a bitch. Pauline helps me stay calm and avoid freeway rage by keeping me busy with conversation.

This situation gets worse when MPA is mixed with trucks going up some of the long hills. All of the sane drivers move to the left seeing that the truck up ahead is doing 20. This leaves a long stretch of highway empty behind the truck. That is when a flock of MPAs bunch up as they race by the traffic on the right, bunch up behind the truck and damn near kill someone attempting to squeeze into faster traffic on the left. This almost always brings the left lane traffic to a complete stop before reaching the top of the hill. I love giving the MPA on my right a heart attack by squeezing up so close that he has to stay behind the truck for a few more minutes. It really gets crazy when an MPA is in an eighteen wheeler and he decides to overtake another truck on the hill. As bad as I would like to I don’t mess with the trucks, though. What the MPA in the eighteen wheeler says……Goes.

Half an hour later, it is some consolation to see the MPA about two cars ahead after having passed a thousand cars. I doubt that they ever realize that all the passing got them nowhere.