48 Hours on the Las Vegas Strip
Published: April 2009
By Julia Szabo
Vegas—sleep not included
I've just returned from a two-day, $489 Delta Dream Vacation, and dream is indeed the operative word. How like a dream it passed!
Forty-eight hours in Vegas allows many things, but it is not for procrastinators or spontaneous types who rise late and improvise. If you aim to partake of the quintessential Vegas experience—and really get your money's worth from your Dream Vacation—you must plan well ahead, and plan within an inch of your life.
You might consider the pace of my trip alarming. I was lucky if I spent a total of seven hours in my Treasure Island bed—but then, I didn't come here to sleep. If the concept of playing Beat the Clock while vacationing strikes you as more nightmare than dream, read no further. To anyone game enough to continue, I offer the following disclaimer, in the words of the artist formerly known as Prince: "I was dreaming when I wrote this; forgive me if it goes astray."
WEDNESDAY, 1:14 A.M.
After approaching the Strip by Gray Line bus from McCarran Airport, my fellow passengers and I are deposited at our respective hotels by the driver, a self-appointed one-man welcoming committee. He supplies a running commentary, pointing out sights like the world's most powerful laser beam, which is green, comes from the fountain of the Hilton, and tonight is operating at only 60 percent of its awesome capacity. No matter: every neon sign in Vegas appears to be going full strength, working up a megawattage blaze of glory. Vegas, not Paris, is the real City of Light.
Most hotels are tomb-quiet after midnight. Not Vegas hotels. At two in the morning the Treasure Island reception desk is as noisy and synapse-jangling as one of the 2,169 slot machines in the casino. It might as well be high noon. (High noon is actually quieter, I discover.) Don't assume staff members aren't on their toes at this hour. For the first time in all my travels, I am asked to present photo ID at check-in.
After napping for a few hours, I decide the hotel is nice enough, with rooms that are plenty big. The principal draw is the "Buccaneer Bay Sea Battle," whose protagonists exchange pyrotechnics five or six times daily and sink a pirate ship to the delight of 12-year-old boys of all ages. The Jolly Roger theme extends even to the carpeting (with a sunken-treasure motif) and restaurants (the staggering breakfast buffet is billed as "a captain's feast for a peasant's wage").
But for me Treasure Island is an amusing sideshow; the main event is the Mirage hotel, minutes from Treasure Island by tram. With its shark tank, dolphin exhibit, tropical rain forest lobby, volcano that erupts every 15 minutes nightly, and carpeting decorated with flowers as lush as a dehydrated desert traveler's hallucination, the Mirage is the place to be.
I may be only half-awake, but Siegfried & Roy's royal white tigers are out cold. Upon stepping off the tram, I've made a beeline to their lounging place at the Mirage, a glass-enclosed habitat "designed to mirror the palaces in India where the tigers roamed free." I'm moved almost to tears by the sight of these snowy creatures dozing like great babies, tongues protruding from their giant mouths, front paws crossed with Emily Post delicacy.
I resolve that the slot machines at my hotel—and at the airport, and in the 7-Elevens—will have no power to tempt me. I have never been fortunate with any sort of gamble, and I am not about to try fooling Lady Luck in her own backyard.
Museum-going presents itself as a virtuous alternative. There ARE "serious" exhibitions in Las Vegas—the Las Vegas Art Museum, the Clark County Heritage Museum, the Nevada State Museum & Historical Society—but who needs gravitas?
My first stop is the Liberace Museum, where Mr. Showmanship's dazzling effects are displayed in three buildings of a strip mall. The pianos, the cars, the miniature cars; the candelabra, the awards, the bow ties; the fur-trimmed, bugle-beaded, feather-crested, bright rhinestone-lined costumes, including one number Lee called his Lasagna Suit ("I always wear this when I'm cooking lasagna so you can't see if I've spilled anything"); the photo-realist portraits of him and of his bespectacled mom; the numerous objets graven with his splendid image—all are here.
My next stop is a natural. Vegas, where everything is the mostest, serves as one of the logical homes of the Guinness World of Records Museum & Gift Shop. (Vegas itself is reportedly the fastest-growing city in the United States.)
Thankfully, the experience is not nearly as depressing as I'd anticipated, despite the life-size replica of the world's tallest man, who, at an impossible eight feet 11.1 inches, also looked like the world's saddest man. (Robert Wadlow died in 1940, at age 22.)
Vegas is not about fine lunches, but there are plenty of opportunities for snacking between breakfast and dinner. I start with Kidd's Marshmallow Factory in Henderson. Kidd's free self-guided tour is an appropriate way to commune with the spirit of Las Vegas, a place arguably built on fluff. Each visitor is rewarded with a sample of what the French call guimauves miniatures (that's mini-marshmallows to you). "I feel like I'm in an episode of I Love Lucy," remarks one sightseer, gazing upon the tranquilizing sight of white clouds traveling down the assembly line. That Lucy episode took place in a chocolate factory not unlike the nearby Ethel M. (no relation to Lucy's sidekick), which also offers free tours. To balance this diet, an enthusiastic cabbie suggests I investigate Fun City Popcorn—then proceeds to drive me there. Excellent caramel and cheese corn await.
I'd heard that everyone at the Luxor hotel walks like an Egyptian, down to the doormen, who wear headdresses and flowing white pants. This I had to see. The Luxor's entrance is dominated by a 10-story-high sphinx, and the hotel is even more elaborately landscaped inside. (Attention, Guinness: the Luxor boasts the world's largest atrium, allegedly big enough to hold nine 747's.) Here you may engage in any number of Egypto-activities; I choose a virtual-reality romp called "In Search of the Obelisk."
Perhaps inspired by the Guinness Museum's video spectacle of a man putting away 100 yards of spaghetti in 27.75 seconds, I begin to experience a Pavlovian craving for pasta. Piero's is a favorite hangout of Jerry Lewis, Tom Selleck, and Debbie Reynolds. I don't normally eat dinner this soon after lunch, but I'm told to arrive early if I have a curtain to catch. (I do. I'm holding a ticket to Debbie Reynolds's show.) Time is short. I forgo Piero's "world-famous osso buco" in favor of a dreamy linguine pomodoro.
A two-minute walk from Piero's is the Debbie Reynolds Hotel/Casino/Hollywood Movie Museum, where Debbie and the Uptown Country Singers take the show to supercamp. (The curtain doesn't rise until eight, but I'm advised to arrive at least an hour ahead of time.) Debbie doesn't disappoint. Amid a collection of Hollywood memorabilia that is—ahem, Guinness—the largest of its kind, the voice of Charlotte in "Charlotte's Web" turns in a performance that is nothing less than a brilliantly bitchy dissertation on survival: disparaging Liz Taylor and Eddie Fisher, trying to explain her claim to fame to the younger ones in the crowd ("I'm Princess Leia's mother") over a montage of her greatest celluloid hits. Debbie personalizes each pre-autographed program for her fans. Alas, there is no time for Debbie to personalize mine; I'm in a mad hurry to make it back to the Treasure Island Showroom.
Cirque du Soleil doesn't do stupid pet tricks; only humans are dumb enough to entrust life and limb to a fraying bungee cord. While the troupe is busy defying gravity, I weigh myself down with more popcorn and a super-size Coke.
THURSDAY, 12:33 A.M.
At this point, I'm too beat and too stuffed to venture beyond the Treasure Island lobby, so I devise my own independent study course in gaming: Intensive Baccarat 101. I don't want to spend any dough, so I just spend my time watching.
Now, I'd imagined baccarat to be an elegant affair, the one game left for which people still dress, Cary Grant-style. I was wrong. Tonight's big man at the tables—the Baccarat Player—is dressed like any other American in Vegas, pairing white socks with sandals and the like. But the Baccarat Player is doing something right: he is winning. After the dealer invites me, for the fifth time, to join the fun, I decide to turn in for the evening. Or is it morning?
No offense to Jodi and Elias, the Luxor hotel's remarkably lifelike talking robotic camels, but I feel myself craving the company of living, breathing quadrupeds: I miss my dog. So off I go, 40 miles from Treasure Island (where I've checked out and left my bags with the bellman) to the Mountain T Ranch, which offers 90-minute, $20 horseback rides. What a difference 40 miles can make! Not only is it 10 degrees cooler up here, but at the Mountain T, waiting as if just for me, are two magnificent mixed pit bulls, distant cousins of the dog I left at home.
Bruce Weber should consider doing a shoot here at the Mountain T; staff members have names like Bo and Autumn and are impossibly photogenic. I entrust my neck to a 13-year-old horse named Rooster, and my trail guide, Rick, promises that the ride will "take you back a hundred years." It does exactly that—punctuated by the breathtaking scenery of Mount Charleston and the canyons of La Madre Mountain, complete with yuccas, Joshua trees, miscellaneous cacti, deep-red Indian paintbrush, and a cameo appearance by a horned toad.
Just before I left, my friend Jennifer challenged me to find real fashion in Las Vegas. Okay, I declared, I will find Vivienne Westwood. Jennifer's response: "No way."
Way, Jen. There in the lobby of the Mirage, I discover the Street of Shops, a series of boutiques stocking fashion-forward numbers by Todd Oldham, Byron Lars, Ozbek, Moschino, and—ha!—Westwood. There are other locales, too: the Fashion Show Mall has Saks, Louis Vuitton, and Banana Republic; among the Forum Shops at Caesars you'll find Versace, Gucci, the country's only freestanding Estee Lauder boutique, and a Warner Bros. Studio Store. (It's called "Warnerius Fraternius Studius Storius.")
What Vegas junket would be complete without a survey of wedding chapels?I start with Candlelight, where the likes of Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Caine, and Barry White have tied the knot. Couples may buy refrigerated corsages, opt for the Elvis wedding, with impersonator, and choose from among 11 illustrated wedding certificates. My favorite is the one signed "Your Loving Son." It reads, in part: "Dearest Mother, even as I take her into my heart and life, I promise to keep you, Mother dear, in my heart and life always." Don't tell my husband's mother just yet, but I have every intention of renewing our vows at the elegant (really!) Long Fung Wedding Temple in Vegas's sparkling new Chinatown Plaza. I will wear an ivory cheongsam and chopsticks in my hair.
Thinking I might finance that fantasy second honeymoon, I shed my antigambling resolve faster than you can say "Craps." It begins innocently enough. I cross the Strip to Circus Circus. My morning horseback ride made me miss the free daily craps lesson at nine. Tough luck. I venture upstairs to the Midway arcade, which allows gaming novices to start small. Literally. This place is designed for kids, so the stakes are negligible, as are the prizes (stuffed animals). For 50 cents I play a game of Three-in-a-Row, tossing three balls in perfect vertical formation and, incredibly, collecting a Sonic the Hedgehog piggy bank.
Flush with the satisfaction of winning a game of skill, I soon outgrow the Midway arcade. The time has come to graduate to games of chance. I could go for high-tech glamour at the just-opened Hard Rock Hotel, but instead, driven by a longing for seediness past, I head to Fremont Street in historic downtown, where the carpets are neither as clean nor as themed as they are at the newer joints. Because of the closeness of the buildings, downtown has a perfectly desperate air, as if the walls are closing in fast.
They do for me, at any rate. I begin by playing baccarat at the Golden Nugget, where the unthinkable happens: I win. Then I win again. And again. I am on the proverbial roll.
I want so much to quit while I'm ahead, but the voice of the benevolent Bugs Bunny on my left shoulder is drowned out by the demon Bugs on my right, who exhorts me to go for it. Trouble is, I can't seem to stop until I run out of chips. I leave the baccarat room in self-imposed disgrace and cross the street to Binion's Horseshoe, where I take a beating in their baccarat room. We won't discuss how much I lost in how many minutes; let's just say I may have set a Guinness record of my own.
McDonald's seems a suitable place in which to lick my wounds. At least it doesn't have slots. Over a Happy Meal, I ponder my situation. I am a card-carrying loser. Surely the dealers are all having a laugh at my expense. Then I see the light: chumps like me help sustain the Vegas economy. At Treasure Island, only a few hours before leaving town, I celebrate my conversion—how else?—by pouring $20 into a slot machine.
Because I'm due at the Mirage theater for the 7:30 Siegfried & Roy show, I retrieve my bag from the Treasure Island bellman's desk, catch the tram, and stop for Japanese food at Mikado, in the Mirage. The sushi is perfectly decent, and the service lovely. But what I really wanted was Chinese. Alas, Rik Shaw, home of "authentic Chinese cuisine" at the Riviera (the "Tangier" of Martin Scorsese's "Casino," due this month), is closed tonight.
Siegfried and Roy neatly live up to the "Masters of Illusion" moniker. But after the third or fourth disappearing act, reluctantly, I must vanish myself. I have one more show to catch.
The Luxor has installed in its Pharaoh's Theater the performing phenomenon known simply as Wayne. I learned earlier that he holds Guinness records for the greatest number of performances as a solo artist in Las Vegas; for the greatest number of attendees; and for the biggest ongoing draw. (I wonder if he holds the Guinness record for the greatest number of Guinness records.)
It's Wayne's world; we're just tourists in it. He may be modest to a fault, but Wayne Newton is the wonderful wizard of this Emerald City and, appropriately enough, he appears onstage in a puff of smoke. Wearing a casual tux with red satin panties for a pochette, kissing the "pretty ladies" full on the lips and buying them bottles of champagne, cracking wise at the expense of his Cherokee heritage ("If you don't like the show, I can always go back to the reservation"), the Man is larger than life, bigger even than the sphinx guarding the Luxor gate. Of course, the Man doesn't send me any champagne. Danke schön for nothing, dude.
I suppose I wouldn't have been able to enjoy the bubbly anyhow; I'm obliged to leave long before the finale or risk missing my Delta 737 out of town. On the way to the airport, as I contemplate the end of this Dream Vacation and plot the next, my car passes Wayne Newton Boulevard. I wager that next time, the Man will send me champagne. Bets, anyone?My deck will be stacked—I'll be the one sitting ringside in a Wonderbra and a skintight cheongsam, with golden chopsticks in my hair.
The Delta Dream Vacations Las Vegas package (800/872-7786) starts at $218 for two, but can cost as much as $1,280, depending on hotel choice, departure city, and days of travel. The trip described here—traveling midweek from New York and staying at Treasure Island—cost $819 for two at press time, though prices change weekly. Here's what you get:
Round-trip airfare for two from anywhere in the United States. (Few of these flights are nonstop, and many arrive in the middle of the night—not that Vegas will mind.)
Two nights' lodging (choose from the Mirage, Treasure Island, or 14 other hotels).
Discount vouchers for scenic airline tours of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Monument Valley.
Discounts on tickets for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express" at the Las Vegas Hilton.
An Alamo rental car for your first 24 hours in town.
DON'T LEAVE VEGAS WITHOUT . . .
- An early-morning massage at the Treasure Island Salon and Spa— you'll need one with this manic schedule.
- Visiting Bugsy, the most adorable member of the Mirage Dolphin Habitat's family of bottlenoses.
- Seeing Liberace's desk at the Liberace Museum—"reputed to have been among the possessions of Czar Nicholas II."
- Viewing the 300 cacti and desert-plant species at the Cactus Garden of the Ethel M. Chocolates factory.
- Getting Debbie Reynolds to personalize your program after her show.
- Ogling the $1 million in cash displayed at Binion's Horseshoe.
- Watching the statues in the fountain at the Forum Shops at Caesars move and talk (every hour on the hour).
- Trying the Hard Rock Hotel's Rainforest Slots. They benefit (you guessed it) the rain forest.
- Playing "big six" at the Golden Nugget: fast, easy, cheap.
- Taking a barge tour of the "Nile" at the Luxor—its dark passageways will soothe you after the punishingly hot Strip.