WHEN JUSTINE MAKES SERIOUS EYE CONTACT WITH SIEGFRIED (OR IS IT ROY?), she's blissed out and laughing. These self-styled masters of illusion, with their magic tricks and fabulous animals, put on the kind of show that makes Las Vegas paradise for teenagers, especially those who understand the connection between the ridiculous and the sublime. "My icons, my idols," Justine sighs. Sitting in the front row, she gets not only a high five from Siegfried as he runs onstage but a mischievous wink from Roy as he ascends to the heavens atop a disco ball, a white tiger by his side.
Justine is 16, my best friend's daughter—I call her my surrogate child; sometimes she calls me Auntie Mame—and we've done a fair amount of traveling together. She's an intrepid New Yorker, a budding journalist, a big music fan, and a connoisseur of kitsch. In Vegas, of course, kitsch is everywhere, and so is the spectacle—in the hotels, the casinos, the restaurants, and along the Strip. It's a jaw-hanging, full-frontal visual smorgasbord: Paris here, Venice there, an erupting volcano across the street, and, at the Mandalay Bay, a real sand beach and a wave machine.
In Vegas, fantasy and reality boogie together along a narrow strip of Nevada desert. Day and night, the crowds are out—tourists, locals, high rollers, ordinary gamblers clutching waxy buckets of quarters, the occasional Elvis, kids and parents, brides and grooms. From hidden loudspeakers come the come-ons of a hundred electronic barkers, luring you to girlie shows, free slots, cheap food. Our first day, Sinatra is singing "Luck Be a Lady" while the fountains at the Bellagio hotel dance to the music. This is the kind of aural assault that's meat and drink to anyone who's 16 and lives plugged into headphones. Disney for Adults, it's been called, but it's really Disney for Everyone, and a lot more fun with a teenager.
I wouldn't dream of going to Las Vegas without Justine. Who else would share my appreciation for dice clocks, or ride with me on a 905-foot-high roller coaster?And who else is so hip to the nuances of style that she sees the problem with the Hard Rock Hotel?"It's full of former frat boys in oxford shirts and nineteen-year-old girls trying to be punk-rock cool," Justine scoffs.
It's our second trip, so we consider ourselves experts as we disembark at the vast airport that's all spangled slots and steel palm trees. An even better way to arrive is by road, just after dusk (though you really don't need a car once you're there). It's a four-hour drive from Los Angeles through an immense, empty moonscape. Then suddenly, around the bend, everything lights up. The fastest-growing metropolitan area in America, Vegas is a sci-fi vision powered by enough wattage to fuel a small developing nation.
Our room at the Venetian is a disappointment: overpriced, scruffy, and with a view of the parking lot. Last year we stayed at Caesars Palace, where we had palatial digs with two (two!) bathrooms and a terrific view of the Bellagio fountains. Eventually we coerce someone into giving us a better room. But we know that unless you're a high roller, you don't come to Las Vegas for hotel luxury. I've stayed at a couple of other places (Bellagio, Mirage), and the rooms had middle-of-the-road high-rise décor with a thin veneer of glitz, not to mention achingly slow service.