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They don’t call it “Sin City” for nothing – even my tour guide openly encourages drinking, gambling and marrying strangers. But Vegas is definitely more than just that – added to the mix of sex and gambling is a whirl of cultural activities, international influences, and lots of live entertainment.

Discovered in 1829 by Spanish explorers, Las Vegas soon became a hub for visitors. By 1950, the Hoover Dam was completed, gambling was legal, and casinos were popping up left and right. The downtown area was the place to stay in the second half of the 20th century, but in the past 10 years, all that changed. Hotels in a new area now known as the “Strip” started competing to become the biggest and best, which resulted in many of the older, historic hotels both on and off the strip to be demolished. First to go was the Dunes Hotel, the very first to offer a topless show, which was replaced by the Bellagio in 1993.

In 1995, the downtown area tried to revive itself with the invention of the “Fremont Street Experience”, featuring a canopy of televisions equipped to present a magnificent light show. While this worked for the most part, and staying in “old” Vegas is certainly less expensive than the “new,” flashy Vegas, but it can also be more dangerous, especially after midnight. Luckily, God created credit cards – which lasted me a fun four days in the new part of town.

When our connecting flight landed in the land of “what happens here, stays here,” the flight attendant came on the speaker and said, “The safest part of your trip is now over.” Soon after, I realized he was right.

We hopped on the airport shuttle bus that we booked ahead of time (Gray Line - $5.25 per trip per person or $10.50-$14.50 roundtrip per person), and were on our way to the Monte Carlo, one of the newer hotels on the strip.

Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that our beautiful, very expensive hotel was under construction. We felt a little better though, when we realized that most of Las Vegas is under construction – constantly.

Luckily the finished product is well worth it. Each casino has a theme, whether Egypt or Paris to New York or Medieval Europe, and provides an attendant experience. Additionally, almost every casino features free entertainment of many kinds. At the Fountains of Bellagio, 1,000 water fountains are choreographed to music, bubbling, shining, and shooting forcefully up into the blue sky, wowing audiences young and old. Then there’s the MGM Mirage Volcano that shoots fire into the sky every 30 minutes, and of course, there’s the famous pyrotechnic pirate show at Treasure Island, called Sirens of TI. In addition, most casinos also offer a variety of musical entertainment, sometimes in the lobby, or in a bar, that is also completely free.

Of course, there are also very expensive attractions in every casino –something to please every taste. Don’t miss Celine Dion performing in her own theatre, Monty Python’s Spamalot or the famed Blue Man Group, the fantastic Cirque de Soleil in Mystere, O, or Zumanity, or how about Menopause: The Musical. In addition, there are many other Production Shows, Magic Shows, Adult Shows, Comedy Shows, Hypnosis Shows available, and even shows that take place in the afternoon.

We chose “O” at the Bellagio, which turned out to be one of the most amazing performances I have ever seen. Inspired by the thousands of weddings in Vegas each year, “O” features acrobatic characters in and over water, including fire eaters, trapeze artists and contortionists. The show opens with a gigantic diving pool filled with 20 synchronized swimmers, and slowly tells the story of two lovers during their honeymoon celebration. It is entirely incredible; especially spectacular is the “Russian Swing”, featuring more than 30 people swinging back and forth and diving over and under each other. This show is not to be missed! ($93.50-150, and worth every penny)

For romantics, singing gondoliers can take you down a replica of the Grand Canal in Venice on the Gondola Ride at The Venetian (indoor, $15; outdoor, $12.50). In Paris Las Vegas, you and your sweetie can take a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower and see all of Las Vegas from one place ($8).

For animal lovers, Las Vegas has just the answer. The MGM Grand Lion Habitat is free to watch and explore, but that’s one in a million around here. The Mirage houses Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, which is filled with white tigers and lions, black panthers, an elephant, and more, all adjacent to bottle-nosed dolphins ($15). The Flamingo Hotel features its namesake – Chilean flamingos, all housed in the Flamingo Wildlife Habitat. You’ll also see penguins, ducks, and turtles (free!). Finally, there is the amazing is the Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef, a gigantic shark aquarium that will consume an entire day, if you let it ($15.95).

For thrill seekers, there are roller coasters galore. The New York New York Hotel and Casino Manhattan Express is no exception. Taking you over 200 feet in the air, and through a series of 540-degree twists, 360-degree loops, and 144-feet drops, this ride will make you scream, shout, and curse ($12.50). Also, the Stratosphere, features three of the world’s highest rides. Xscream throws you over the edge, Big Shot shoots you in the air, and Insanity spins you over the rim ($9/ride). My suggestion- wait between each one, unless you like throwing up off the tallest building in Vegas. Then there’s Speed – The Ride at the Sahara, which takes you through a series of loops, then back again…in reverse ($10). If you like your fun all in one place, Circus Circus’s Adventuredome is for you, with 21 rides and attractions. (all day pass, $24.95).

Las Vegas is known for its lounge singers – and believe it or not, Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton continues to perform regularly, now at the Stardust. He may have lost his voice, but he’s still an obvious show man. Tickets are rather expensive ($90-200), but worth it – that is, if you grew up with him. Just as a warning, don’t take your kids; they won’t like it.

Also in Vegas is the newest incarnation of “The Rat Pack”, with an all new Frank, Sammy, Dean, Joey, and Peter. Same old story, and just as entertaining. If you’re lucky, your husband might even get a lap dance from the seductress herself, Marilyn Monroe. Sadly, the Sands Hotel where they used to perform, was demolished in 1996, but the “Rat Pack” stays true to form. They regularly perform for sold-out audiences at The Greek Isles ($50-90).

Then there’s the food. First, there’s Mermaids, which you might have heard about on the “Food Network”. This is the only place in Vegas where $1 will buy you a deep fried Oreo, deep fried Twinkie, a hot dog, or a margarita. However, after standing in line for about 25 minutes, I finally reached the counter, only to find they were out of those fried delights. So disappointing!

If deep fried junk food is not your thing, there’s always the fine dining option. Unfortunately, apart from the newly-revitalized downtown area, eating cheap is not a theme in Vegas, and every casino seems to serve the same exact food in texture, and taste, but not always price. From extremely expensive five-course meals to moderately priced buffets, nothing is very different, but everything tastes delicious.

Here’s some (very good) advice – never pay for alcohol, even if you are not planning on gambling. Sit down at a slot machine, put in $1 and wait for the overworked waitress with obviously fake breasts to serve you. Then walk away. Who knows? Maybe in the time you wait you’ll win some money.

Unfortunately, there’s one gigantic problem in Vegas- transportation. It is difficult getting from place to place, unless you or going from one casino to another that is owned by the same company. For instance, there is the Las Vegas Monorail that connects all of the MGM-owned enterprises – MGM Grand, Bally's /Paris, Flamingo, Harrah's / Imperial Palace, Las Vegas Convention Center, Las Vegas Hilton and the Sahara ($5 a ride). Another line connects other MGM-owned hotels – the Luxor, Mandalay Bay, and Excalibur (and is free!). In other words, if your hotel isn’t owned by MGM, it’s probably not convenient. And when you’re walking in the desert heat, convenient transportation is really what you need. Also, be careful when you take a cab because there is no standard pricing. Prices vary from cab to cab, so be sure and ask before you get in.

There is one bright exception in the midst of all this mess, but good luck getting a seat. The Deuce, a double-decker, air-conditioned bus will take you all over the city, and for cheap. too (only $2 a ride, $5 for a 24 hour pass).

And, of course, if gambling with money isn’t your thing, you can always get hitched in Vegas, just like Jane Fonda, Elvis Presley and thousands of others. Weddings are cheap and plentiful, but here’s one surprise – no one cares. I saw a different bride every hour or so, making her way to the chapel, and that was just in my hotel. No one even batted an eye.

I didn’t know what to expect on my first trip to Vegas, and the entire time I wished everything wasn’t so expensive and corporate owned. But in the end I was happy, winning some money (and losing some as well), watching several hot new shows, walking around under the hot desert sun, and, of course, considering marriage.

(A note for families: Vegas isn’t necessarily the best place for kids. During the day is ok, but if you go out at night, be warned – drinking on the street is legal on the strip and downtown, and prostitution, while illegal, is still prevalent, and obvious. Also, children are not allowed around slot machines or open containers of alcohol. The only good news is there usually are reduced ticket prices for children, in places that are appropriate for them.)

For more information about Las Vegas, please go to www.visitlasvegas.com

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 72 - September 2018
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