Las Vegas - October 2006 Megamail

Hey, I told you yesterday that this was coming, what, you didn't believe me?

I'm going to change the format of this Megamail around a bit to further confuse you. Instead of a daily rundown of what we did, which could be easily summarized as 'we walked from casino to casino marveling at the audacity of the brilliant beacons predicating the ruin of western civilization,' or something like that. No, this one will be broken down more into 'tour guide' format because that should provide, heaven forbid, a more concise Megamail.

As background, this trip was a Christmas present to my parents. They could have taken a week to relax on the beach in North Carolina but nooooo! They wanted the glamour and glitz of Las Vegas. I hope afterwards they didn't feel they made the wrong decision.

We both arrived, by separate planes, to Las Vegas without much excitement. I was surprised at the slot machines in abundance in the airport and was wondering why they didn't just hand them to each passenger as they departed the plane. It would probably be more cost effective.

I was also amazed at how busy the airport was past 11pm. It was packed. And the lines for a taxi were huge. Fortunately for us, my mother brought a cane, more as moral support than for physical support, and an alert taxi stand operator noticed and immediately bumped us up to the front of the line. That probably saved us at least 30 minutes of standing in line. So keep that little trick up your sleeve in the future.

Of course, that savings in time came at a price of probably about $5 because our taxi driving took a much longer trip to our hotel than was necessary. But I guess that was a fair trade. Along the way I was surprised at how small Las Vegas was. The airport is within stone throwing distance of The Strip. My first thoughts were that it looked like the Mall of America opened a branch at Times Square. That, in the end, wasn't too far from the truth.

Our hotel actually turned out to be a pretty good deal. Scared off by the prices of the traditional casino resorts, I found a nice budget hotel a whisper off the strip within stumbling distance of the Stardust. It was called the Royal Resort Hotel and we paid an average of about $75/night for a one bedroom suite that contained two bathrooms and two pullout sofas in addition to the king bed. It made a good base of operations for the trip even though most taxi drivers didn't know where it was located. Also, although it did not include a continental breakfast, the restaurant in the hotel had an inexpensive breakfast menu that we utilized every morning.

The only other bit that I wanted to mention about our arrival on Thursday evening was that Sam and I decided to check out the Stardust before going to sleep. It was well past midnight when we did so, but we wanted to capture the flavor of the town before heading out with my parents the next day. Actually, we wouldn't have been opposed to venture further, but this was the only day that it rained while we were there so we just went to the closest casino. The weather during the rest of the trip was awesome with warm, sunny days and cool, crisp evenings.

I have to say, although New York claims to be the city that never sleeps, Las Vegas clearly takes this title. It was bustling all the time no matter what the hour. With the casinos open 24 hours and many other establishments open 24 hours, the place is always a buzz. We didn't check it out, but I wouldn't be surprised if they sell beer and wine 24 hours a day as well.

OK, so the Stardust as you may or may not know has been around awhile, about 50 years, and it shows. The casino... has been well used. Of the casinos we checked out, this was definitely one that was more rundown. But the Stardust did have something to offer us that evening that we weren't expecting.

At the Starlight Lounge that evening they had a pretty outstanding Elvis impersonator by the name of Brandon Bennett. He was physically a 'middle Elvis'. No longer fit and trim, but not the fat slob Elvis either. So he could play both roles pretty well. We arrived to see the latter day Elvis and he did a great job without being disrespectful. I would definitely recommend seeing him if you see his name. Best of all, it was free!

The Freebies

Speaking of free, Las Vegas has a number of free attractions. Some of these are inside of the casinos, which makes sense to me as they will entice tourists into their casinos with their sirens of free temptations, which will in turn encourage people to spend money while they are inside. Others are outside, which I think is more of a hold over from Vegas' awkward 'we are for families' phase.

Without a doubt, the best freebie is the fountain at the Bellagio, as seen in the movie Ocean's Eleven. This starts at 3pm and occurs every 30 minutes until midnight, though, on Friday we noticed that it was running every 15 minutes. Basically, they have synchronized the fountains to a variety of songs and the results are pure joy. I don't know how many songs they have, but we did not see a duplicate in the several that we saw. The fountains shoot water to amazing heights, at least 100 feet for certain. Definitely do not miss this gem!

It is hard to say where the best viewing location is from because regardless of where you are located, you get a different perspective. However, if I were to guess, the best location is not from The Strip, but from the Bellagio as there is a large circle of jets that is frequently obstructed by the 'chorus line' of jets if seen from The Strip.

And without a doubt, the worst freebies were the animatronic statues in the mall in Caesar's Palace. If you are there with kids, then you might want to check it out, but do not, I repeat do not, go out of your way to see these things. Boring!!! Another free draw in this place is a large aquarium, but there is a better one mentioned below.

Everything else falls in between these guys; fortunately, they are closer to the fountains of the Bellagio than to the statues at Caesar's. The next best one is kind of out of the way, the Masquerade Show at Rio. The Rio is off-strip on the other side of the interstate. You can walk, but it isn't a pleasant walk and besides, a free shuttle exists from Caesar's Palace, Bally's and Paris.

The show is termed as the 'Carnival in the Sky' and they do a great job. The entertainment lasts a good 10 minutes at least and is comprised of some scantily clad, good looking young women. The 'in they sky' portion comes from the clever way they include carnival floats. On the ceiling is a rail system that allows various floats to literally float on by. I would recommend viewing this from the ground floor as opposed to from the upper level as the stage is frequently obstructed by these floats as they pass by.

The longest freebie was unquestionably the Sirens show at Treasure Island (TI) clocking in at 20 minutes. This features yet another bevy of even more scantily clad young, well, sirens as well as a ship full of pirates. I would not give it high marks for plot, nor dancing ability, but the pyrotechnics are worth the price of admission. And hey, nearly naked chicks, can't go wrong there either.

I would recommend arriving up to 30 minutes early to get decent standing room locations. The best spots are reserved for TI guests. I would also recommend attending either the 8:30 or 11:30 shows and then fast tracking it over to the Mirage to see the volcano.

In front of the Mirage is a pretty good water fountain and waterfall display during the day. At night, at the top of every hour, the fountain turns into a volcano. This is not something I would go out of my way to see, but if combined with the Sirens show at TI next door, you get a nice double feature.

Of the two free animal exhibits, the white tigers at the Mirage and the lions at MGM Grand, I have to give the nod to the one at the MGM. These exhibits are as you might expect, rather zoo like, however the exhibit at the MGM allows you to walk underneath the lions to get up close and personal. And yes, that is drool you see dripping overhead.

However, the Mirage has another draw that is worth a peek while you are in the neighborhood. Behind the reception desk is a huge aquarium loaded with fish. Take a couple of minutes and look at that... and maybe you want to pick up a mimosa from the bar within spitting distance. They give you one of the personal bottles of champagne in the drink at a very reasonable (for Las Vegas) price.

Let's see, there are two circus-like freebies, the father-son feats of balance and strength at the Aladdin and the trapeze performers at Circus Circus. Both are worth the hoof, though the Aladdin's performers are better, and can be combined with the free Rainstorm, which isn't particular worth it, but as you are there anyway, why not. I only say the balance boys are better because it contains something you might not have seen before while the trapeze chicks are just good looking chicks in thongs... hold on, I just changed my mind. Circus Circus is definitely better!

Of course, the casinos themselves are free to enter and explore. I'll go from south to north giving my personal critique of each.

The Casinos

Mandalay Bay: I think it should be called Mandalay Boring. Unless you stay there and use the water park, don't bother. They also have a shark exhibit, but the dolphins at the Mirage kick their butt. The water feature out front is the best thing about the place.

The Luxor: This is the pyramid with the Sphinx out front and the big beam of light in the evening. The inside of the pyramid is very cool to explore and just to look up at the vastness of the space. However I thought it would have been more unique to have the casino open up to this space as well. Definitely worth a visit. We had lunch one day at the deli here. It seemed like all the casinos had a deli of some sort. This one wasn't bad. The Reuben was way better the Italian Special #2.

Excalibur: Best seen from the outside. But it does get the reward for the most obnoxious and frequent use of the terms: 'Where are you from?', 'How long are you in town for?', 'Interested in some free show tickets?' You see, it would seem Vegas is run like the ski resorts where people own the individual rooms at the resorts and the renting agency, i.e. the casino, takes a healthy cut off the top to pay for advertising costs, etc. So, every casino we visited had these obnoxious people all over the place trying to find new property owners. They are far worse than bums asking for spare change... which we saw very few of actually. I did like the sunken casino floor though, but other casinos have this as well.

Tropicana: I.e. Stardust South, as in it's showing it's age.

Hooters: Strangely enough, I couldn't convince my parents to check it out.

MGM Grand: Home of the largest and most confusing casino. Holy huge! The shopping area was OK, but others are more interesting. The lions are worth a peek inside though. Our most interesting dining experience occurred here at a place called Diego's. This was a Mexican joint, but it was like no Mexican I've ever had and as far as spicy, this place rates near the top of the list.

We should have known from the chips and salsa that they handed out. The medium was hotter than most place's hot and the hot was borderline toxic. Then, I don't think any of us got anything close to what we were expecting based upon the descriptions in the menu. Sam's shrimp martini was a little to much like sushi and my pork included a habanera salsa that the waiter described as liquid fire and made my lips go numb on contact. Holy hot!

New York, New York: Definitely worth a visit both inside and out. The outside crams just about every major New York landmark of consequence in a few acres area, and does a fairly admirable job at the reproductions to boot. The casino is setup as though you are in Central Park. This was my second favorite actual casino space behind Paris. The food court is the best of the bunch though and does a good job trying to recreate Greenwich Village, complete with steaming manhole covers. I found the $12 fare for the roller coaster a bit steep but a daily pass of $24 might be the way to go for the kids.

Speaking of kids in Vegas, if you don't have a problem with your children seeing naked women with the strategically placed black boxes all over town, and I literally mean 'all over town,' then I could see bringing them along. There are enough water-parks, pools, arcades and other rides to keep them busy.

Monte Carlo: Home of the only brew pub on The Strip, it therefore becomes by definition a must visit. The brew pub's beer is pretty good and may come served in the ever popular table tap format. The food is really good too though the pepperoni pizza was a little too cheesy for this cheesehead. The chicken spinach wraps are a must. The casino at the Monte Carlos itself was stylish, but not like the Bellagio or Wynn.

Polo Towers: Looked old and therefore unappealing, didn't check it out. Though the outdoor luau looks like it might have potential.

Aladdin: This resort has a Middle East or Moroccan theme, though it is sometimes difficult to tell with the construction going on now. The casino itself is pretty crappy and also under renovation, however the shopping mall is entirely done in the style of a Moroccan market and is worth a stroll. This one contains the most frequently used ceiling style seen in Vegas: the arched painted clouded sky. Kind of cool the first time you see it, but it gets old fast. The mall contains an outpost of the Sin City Brewing Company, which I recommend visiting to pick up a brew whilst you stroll. It is located right next to the Rainstorm and is more quickly reached if you proceed counter clockwise through the mall.

Actually, that brings up a point, Vegas has no open intoxicant law, or so it seems. So feel free to take a drink to go.

And, as this was the first mall that I mentioned, I should note one thing I didn't realize about Vegas until we got there. I'm sure you've heard Vegas called 'Disneyland for Adults' and that is true, but what I didn't realize is that The Strip is effectively one huge shopping mall as each casino has its own set of stores. Some more than others to be certain, but all had stores, most of which contained items of unreasonable cost. Though the Aladdin's shopping area seemed a little more economical and is one I would visit.

Paris: This one contains my favorite casino of the bunch. Done as though you are in Le Champ de Mars, the park containing the Eiffel Tower, it has an elevated ceiling with the cloud sky painted on. But here, I don't mind it. We had dinner at Mon Ami Gabi one evening and would recommend this restaurant if you have a chance. It has outdoor seating along The Strip, though we decided not to wait for those premium tables. The bread was fantastic and the meal equally as impressive. I had the skate, a fish that I've never heard of, but it was very delicious. But make sure you save room for dessert. The banana's foster crepe is what you should have.

Bally's: Old, skip it.

Bellagio: OK, can't say enough, you must see the fountains while you are there. They start at 3pm, though seeing them at night is better. The Bellagio is definitely the fanciest casino we saw, with the Wynn coming a close second. Everything is very classy and naturally very expensive. Inside you'll find a conservatory, which is also free and worth a visit. We saw some very cool mallards comprised of various plants and flowers. The Bellagio exudes the 'look but don't touch' mantra.

Caesar's Palace: Despite being old, this place has aged gracefully. The casino had the most space, meaning it wasn't jam packed with slots, but had a little more breathing room. The grounds outside of the resort are also worth a promenade. The mall, which is probably the largest, is also probably the most typical meaning nothing really called our attention. We grabbed some tapas at Planet Hollywood in here one day.

Harrah's, The Flamingo, Casino Royale, Jockey Club, Barbary Coast, O'Sheas and Imperial Palace: These places never enticed us enough to enter.

The Venetian: Definitely worth a trip. Outside it seems they managed to pack all the big attractions that exist in Venice, and do a pretty good job, though I'll be able to tell you for certain how well in a month when we go to the real deal. Inside though, it gets even better. The lobby has some amazing painted ceilings and the shopping mall is done up like you are walking the streets and canals of Venice, complete with gondolas with singing boatmen. Definitely a must see.

The Mirage: Another one I would check out. It has the theme, of well, a Mirage or an oasis in the desert. Besides the freebies mentioned earlier, they have a dolphin and tiger habitat that costs extra to enjoy. And I would recommend it. Although it is not very expansive, you do get up close and personal to both dolphins and the white tigers. However, if it is raining, they will close the tiger habitat so make sure the weather is nice when you go. The casino is similar to the Monte Carlo's.

Treasure Island: Ahh, whatever. See the Sirens but otherwise it didn't excite us.

Wynn: The newest, and still under construction in places, is most like the Bellagio. Very classy and very pricey, though I think the Bellagio was better. The Wynn also has a nice water feature outside.

Frontier: Didn't check it out but I noticed it had mud wrestling so that might be interesting.

Stardust: Showing it's age, definitely. But don't miss the Elvis impersonator.

Circus Circus: Well, it is a circus after all. Except for the free trapeze attraction, not all that appealing. The casino was very confusing to navigate.

The Riviera: Although we did not check out the inside (hey it's a casino, you can pretty much figure out what's going on inside), I found the bronze statue of the Crazy Girls, with their behinds in all their glory intriguing to look at. Their butts clearly have been the target of affection over their years as the rest of the statue is dark and dirty, but the butts are bright and shiny.

The Stratosphere and The Sahara: We didn't make it this far north, but we were very interested in checking out the rides at the top of the Stratosphere.

Off-Strip Activities

During our stay in Vegas, we only departed from The Strip twice (well, three times if you include the short jaunt to Rio). The first was to the Liberace Museum, which was on my mother's must-see list. Liberace was a Wisconsin native which explains my mother's interest in him. I had doubts, but actually it was a very interesting place that I would encourage everyone to experience.

There is a free shuttle that leaves from a few of the casinos. TI was the closest, but we were running late and missed the shuttle so we took a cab instead. We took the shuttle back to the MGM later on though. BTW, if you need a taxi, best to go to one of the casinos and get one there. Taxis are swarming around the casinos like flies to bratwursts while getting one in the street can be difficult.

Anyway, at the museum I would recommend sticking with a tour guide. You can go back and see what you might have missed later on, but the tour guide we had was both entertaining and informative. She was very engaging and made the whole experience fascinating.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the visit were the costumes. They give a good background on how they developed and then what madness they became. The ones they had on display were... interesting. It makes people like Madonna, J Lo and Michael Jackson look positively normal. But, unlike those characters, Liberace only wore these getups on stage.

At the end of the guided tour we got a 'preview' of a concert they have every day by a pianist. It was pretty good and prompted us to get tickets. The one-hour show was fast-paced and high energy and didn't bore me a bit, as I feared it might. The pianist mimicked some of Liberace's vocals and attire, but was very much his own thing. If you have time, I would recommend it, even though the emcee was rather annoying.

The other off-Strip adventure was to Freemont Street downtown. This is where they have that big overhead light show every hour during the evenings. I know that, like the Bellagio fountains, there are different shows, but the one we saw was not worth it by a long shot. It was this hokey patriotic mess that did not take advantage in anyway the size of the canvas at its disposal. I hear other shows make it worth the trip, but I still have my reservations.

One good thing about downtown though, if you would like to gamble but not lose a ton of money, the casinos downtown tend to have much lower stakes available. Here you can play the roulette for $0.25 as opposed to $25 a spin. That probably would make it more enjoyable for some.

We had dinner one night downtown at the Lucky 7 Brew Pub in the Main Street Station. I liked this casino because it kept a strong, old western saloon feel throughout. The brew pub's beers were fantastic and the price was amazing. However, their food was on the rude side. Sam's Alfredo would have been better if they used Ragu sauce out of the jar and my steak was like John Candy eating 99 ounces of gristle.

The Shows

Besides the Elvis and Liberace impersonators I previously mentioned, we took in two shows while we were in Vegas. The first one, the one we arranged prior to our visit was the Cirque du Soleil production of Ka at the MGM Grand.



This was certainly the highlight of the trip. Unlike a lot of plays or musicals that I've seen, where I pay an absorptive amount for what I don't know, I know that I got each and every dollar's worth at Ka, with interest!

What was so amazing about it? Well, I don't want to ruin it for you, but from my understanding, this was not a typical Cirque production. It had a very cinematic quality to it and at times it felt you were watching an IMAX movie instead of a live production.

But the star of the show, in my opinion, was... the stage! This thing is an engineering marvel. I've never seen anything like it. I've seen stages that go up and down and I've seen stages that spin in circles. I haven't seen them do both at the same time before, but that wouldn't surprise me. This one did all that, and, this one could also tilt 90% so that 100-foot wide stage suddenly becomes a 100-foot tall cliff face with performers falling down its side to certain death... or a net, more likely.

The show was a spectacle and if you are in Vegas I would definitely suggest you try to score some tickets.

The other show was Jubilee at Bally's. This is one of those standard Vegas shows with showgirls and yes, they did perform topless. I have to say, I was expecting something pretty gaudy, but the performance was pretty classy all the way around. It reminded me to those song and dance numbers they have in the Oscars or during Miss America pageants... but with breasts!

The high point was the Samson and Delia sequence, which also included some beefcake in thongs for the ladies. The low point was the aerial ribbon swingers immediately after that. Boring!

I was surprised at the number of Japanese people in attendance. For some reason I didn't think it was their thing, but whatever. Actually, that brings me to a point. I've heard that Vegas provides a good cross-section of this country's population. I don't think I would agree with that. First, there were far more international tourists present than I expected. However, what I did not see were a whole lot of American minorities present. It reminded me more of the skiing demographics than say Disneyworld demographics.

Anyway, I don't think I would recommend Jubilee, though I give them marks for trying. Supposedly the show has been around for 25 years and I think that is a good time to call it quits. Come back with something with more bite, like the Sirens at TI, but with plot and actual dancing ability. And maybe have comedians between the dance sequences instead of circus performances. But by all means, keep the breasts.

If you are looking for last-minute tickets, you can try out the half-price ticket booths sprinkled around town. However they mostly had tickets to the showgirls, magicians and comedians. The main productions are few and far between. Though there was usually a small discount for Mystere, another Cirque du Soleil production that you might want to take advantage of.

The only other thing that these half-price booths are good for, if you are interested in them, are the Star Trek Experience and Madame Tausauds wax museum. Don't even think about paying full price for those rip-offs when you can get them on the cheap here.


Sorry, didn't do any so can't provide much in the way of pointers. I lost $20 for my boss at the roulette wheel, but that wasn't my money and I had no creative control in the betting process so that doesn't count. I also gave my mom a dollar at the penny slots before Ka to kill some time. Just so that she could say that she gambled while she was there. Boy did that get boring after awhile.

I think that about covers it. I don't think I would go to Vegas again in the future, but I wouldn't deter anybody from going either. But it was certainly better than I was imagining it to be. Maybe if the Badgers end up there for a bowl game some year I might go for a visit, or to take in more Cirque du Soleil shows.

What's Next?

As hinted, Sam and I are heading to Rome and Venice next month. Though I've started reviewing the attractions in Rome and don't think it possible see it all in under a month. It will be difficult to filter that down to four days. Italy has been on the list for quite some time so we are really looking forward to it. We hope everything is well in your neck of the woods, wherever those woods may be.

Go Badgers!


Your hosts on this tour of Las Vegas.


The fountains of the Bellagio.


The volcano in front of the Mirage.


Standing by the gardens in front of Mandalay Bay.


The skyline of the New York Casino.


The lagoon in front of the Bellagio.


The canals inside the Venetian.


Outside the Wynn Casino.


Costumes in the Liberace Museum.


We gambled on the dophin races at the Mirage.