As I sailed over the United States on a direct flight to Las Vegas recently, it occurred to me that Sin City is probably the only flight destination where all the passengers on the plane are going for pure fun. Not many people go to Las Vegas because they have to do business there or attend an in-law’s dreadful wedding, a funeral or other unhappy family function. People go to Vegas because they want to. That explains why it’s one of the happiest and noisiest flights you can book.
The flight back is much quieter—but that’s another story.
Flying to Vegas from Washington is convenient, relatively cheap, and pleasant. After years of flying Southwest out of Baltimore, last year I found an even better far on United’s “Fly Ted,” discount carrier that leaves from Dulles. Both are good. Avoid delay-plagued America West, if you can. For about $119 each way, you see the country from 35,000 feet—that in itself is almost worth the trip. Over St. Louis, I spotted the famous Gateway Arch, and it is always interesting to peer down at the Western landscape and the Missouri and Colorado rivers.
Nearing Las Vegas, you get a marvelous look at the Grand Canyon, Lake Mead, Hoover Dam, and the outskirts of Las Vegas itself, one of the country’s fastest-growing and most exciting cities. Seeing the new subdivisions creeping against the dark-brown canyons is quite a sight.
It may seem counterintuitive, but for Washingtonians, flying to Las Vegas is almost as easy and cheap as a gambling expedition to Atlantic City. The drive to Atlantic City—there’s no significant air access—takes only about an hour less than the flight to Las Vegas. And the plane doesn’t stop for tolls.
Because there are so many conventions and meetings in Las Vegas, you run into people from home almost everywhere. On a recent trip, I saw at least half a dozen people I knew, and I met several more Washingtonians. At a poker table, I found myself playing with a lobbyist from Northern Virginia. Now I play with him regularly here in Washington and he has become a good friend.
Oddly enough, a major Las Vegas attraction these days is bowling. At least two casinos, the Orleans and the Castaways, sponsor major bowling tournaments. Half the people on my flight, it seemed, were going to Las Vegas not to gamble but to play in a bowling tournament.
In years past, I’ve been hard-pressed to suggest that Vegas had any purpose other than gambling. Not anymore. As corporations have replaced gangsters as the town’s rulers, its image is changing. Shopping, fine dining, art galleries, and chichi nightclubs are the order of the day—and night. If you bring children, there are roller coasters galore and wonderful shows with performers who are acutally fully clothed. Last year, for the first time, I took my 14-year-old daughter with me. She found roller coasters, rock-climbing walls, and age-appropriate Cirque d’Soleil shows all over town. A day trip to the Hoover Dam and the Arizona border offered spectacular father-daughter bonding. People have often told me that when my daughter turned 14, she would not speak to me anymore. I am happy to report that recently she informed me that this will not be the case. “I would have stopped talking to your already,” she explained. “And believe me, you’ve given me plenty of reason.”
Four casinos, Bellagio, Treasure Island, MGM Grand, and New York New York feature Cirque du Soleil acts as their main shows. Book your reservations for “O” at the Bellagio much in advance. It is the greatest you will ever see, but difficult to get into. Mystere at Treasure Island and Ka, at MGM are good. “Zumanity,” which plays at NewYork NewYork is R rated, not for kids, and not that funny for adults either. Now a fifth Cique show has opened based on music from the Beatles. It is called “Love.” Early reviews are encouraging.
Magic and comedy are everywhere. Headliners include magician Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino and Penn & Teller at the Rio. Even a comedy show, like Rita Rudner’s brilliant one at New York New York, had nothing that I wouldn’t want my daughter to hear. In fact, Rudner’s dead-on observations on domestic life, shopping, and husbands would have had any teen in stitches.
Several years ago, I wrote that Las Vegas wasn’t a place to take children. Now I’m not so sure. For the first time in a long time, I kept finding things they’d enjoy—the roller coaster at the top of New York New York being a prime example. Then there’s the shark reef at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, which has one of the greatest water parks anywhere. One of the many pools has a wave machine and an artificial beach. Happy rafters float on inner tubes down a simulated river that winds through the property.
There’s plenty to see and do outside Las Vegas, too—helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon, Lake Mead, and Hoover Dam, to which hotels will arrange grount tours, too.
All is not perfect in the land of Oz. In the past five years, there has been major consolidation in the casino and hotel industries. Once upon a time, cutthroat competition among casinos resulted in benefits for travelers, but too many casinos today are owned by just two companies—MGM Grand/Mirage or Harrah’s. This means that where once you could once get deluxe rooms for $50 to $60 a night, today they go for for up to $400.
Ironically, the most expensive casino is the one independent in town—the Venetian, owned by Sheldon Adelson. It’s a spectacular place with multilevel marble terrazzo floors in the rooms, a mini canal with gondola trips, and a marvelous art gallery operated jointly by the Guggenheim Museum of Art in New York City and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Steve Wynn’s new casino is called “Wynn’s.” It is also expensive but has a prime location in the middle of the strip and has Tom Fazio-designed championship course.
It’s getting easier to get around once you get to Las Vegas. Taxis are expensive, but a network of monorails has taken shape linking almost all of the main Las Vegas Strip and will eventually extend to the airport. This is a major shift in the way Las Vegas thinks. In the past, doing anything to facilitate a patron’s exit from your casino to a rival’s was unthinkable. Caesars Palace once had a movable walkway that led into the building, but the exit walkway was never turned on. Now the Paris casino is linked to Bally’s, so you never need to face the desert heat.
MY FAVORITE CASINOS
Bellagio. Built by Steve Wynn, a former Maryland bingo-parlor operator, Bellagio is now owned by MGM Grand. Included in the sale were the Mirage, Golden Nugget, and Treasure Island casinos. MGM Grand also owns New York New York and of course the MGM Grand itself.
For gamblers, casino credits accrued at all properties can be used for room discounts at any of the hotels. This explains why Las Vegas casinos now allow you to go out the door. They have no objection to your moving to any other MGM casino. The frequent-player cards are designed to encourage people to play at casinos within the family group. Bellagio is the high end of the MGM properties. We got a slot player’s rate of $79 per night, and when we left, my wife’s slot play was considered active enough to give us the equivalent of one free night. She found the slots generous, hitting several jackpots over $300. For table-game players, Bellagio is less advantageous. Most of the time there are $10 limits on table games—sometimes higher—a little steep for the casual visitor to Las Vegas.
The six swimming pools at Bellagio are nice but not nearly as fun as those at Mandalay Bay, whose pool has a beach.
Bellagio’s main show is a spectacular and witty water production by Cirque du Soleil called “O.” Just seeing the stage rise to create a deep-water diving pool and fall to shallows that actors can walk on is worth the $150 ticket charge. (The cheap seats were $93.50.) Unlike in some other Vegas shows, all cast members wear clothes, so you can take the kids. Popcorn is even sold. You must make reservations; otherwise, the box office opens an hour before every show—a line starts forming an hour or so earlier—for cancellations. (Most people seem to get in.)
The Bellagio’s spa, my wife can attest, is terrific. Although our spa bill was more than the cost of the room for a night, the place made sure she had all the juices, sodas, towels, and accouterments she could want. The whirlpools were luxurious.
The leading restaurant at the casino is the five-diamond Picasso, which serves French cuisine and is booked three to four months in advance. The more casual Noodles is one of the best Asian restaurants we’ve ever visited. And the buffet ($24.95 Monday through Thursday, $31.95 weekends) is arguably the best in town, with endless crab legs and large shrimp as well as lamb chops, elk, and more.
For the well-heeled customer who’s not looking for lots of kids’ activities, Bellagio is a top place to stay.
Bellagio, 888-987-6667; www.bellagiolasvegas.com.
Paris Las Vegas. Across the Strip from Bellagio, connected to Bally’s, is Paris. Inside is a replica of a French street so skillfully constructed you might forget you’re in the middle of a casino.
Among the ten restaurants are all-night patisseries, cafes, and a brasserie with rich crepes and delicious French onion soup. In keeping with the motif, all waiters speak a little French—though seldom more than that. The $24.95 Le Village buffet features very good cuisine from five French provinces.
The highlight of our visit to Paris was a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower, a half-size but otherwise precise replica of the original that provides a view of the colorful Las Vegas skyline and the mountains that ring the Nevada desert. We were quoted room rates slightly above those at Bellagio. The equally luxurious rooms do a good job of making you feel you’re in France.
Paris Las Vegas, 888-266-5687; www.paris-lv.com.
The Venetian. Can’t go to Italy? Here you can ride with a singing gondolier through the canals of “Venice” under a simulated blue sky with billowy clouds.
The extravagant resort, which cost $1 billion to build, features restaurants from many cultures, including a branch of Piero Selvaggio’s magnificent Valentino. From the giant Alaskan prawns (in season) to the veal medallions and heavenly foie gras, a meal here is one of the best you’ll find. There’s also an on-site Canyon Ranch Spa Club with its own spa-food cafe.
The suites in the all-suite hotel are the best I’ve seen in Las Vegas. Each has marble floors, two levels, and a bathroom you could throw a party in
The Venetian, 877-883-6423; www.venetian.com.
New York New York. This whimsical version of Manhattan is a good stop if you have kids but too busy if you don’t.
A Coney Island–style roller coaster flies high over the city. It’s a great ride, with a 360-degree loop just as you think you’re about to run into King Arthur’s castle at the Excalibur Casino across the street. Restaurants include a branch of 52nd Street’s Gallagher’s Steak House and a mock selection of Greenwich Village bistros. The Cirque d’Soleil show at New York is called “Zumanity,” and it is definitely not or kids. It lacks the high-flying aspects that make “O” so magnificent and at $100 per ticket is a disappointment overall. As at the Paris, the casino at New York New York is so cleverly integrated into the hotel that they become one. The side-splitting comedian Rita Rudner performs nightly. Rudner is a better and cheaper option than Zumanity.
New York New York, 888-693-6763; www.nynyhotelcasino.com.
The Orleans. You may not see this reasonably priced place on many top-casino lists, but it’s fun.
Built in 1996, the Orleans is a $9 cab ride from the Strip, where most of the better-known casinos are clustered, but a free shuttle runs every half-hour.
The casino contains a bowling alley, a multiplex movie theater, and more—plenty to do while a spouse is whiling away the hours in the legendary poker room. The Orleans also has some of the loosest slots in town, according to my wife, who milks a certain bank of slot machines as if they’re her personal ATM.
On weekends, when the Strip hotels double their rates, you can get a decent room at the Orleans for around $80 a night. The buffet is almost as good as at a fancy hotel like the Bellagio but much less expensive. The raw-oyster bar is the best in town.
The Orleans is popular with locals, so you can meet real Las Vegans here, not just tourists. The atmosphere is casual, and the limits on table games go down to a spectacular $3. The Orleans ranks among my favorite casinos, even though it’s slightly outside the center of activity.
The Orleans, 888-365-7111; www.orleanscasino.com.
Mandalay Bay. For the money—and it helps to have some—there’s no more elegant operation on the Strip. This casino has leased the top five floors of the Mandalay Hotel Tower to the Four Seasons. The only disconnect is that the place is so nice, the gambling seems tawdry. Mandalay was recently purchased by MGM-Grand.
Mandalay features one of the hippest restaurants in town. Red Square’s “ice bar” is exactly that—a bar surface made of ice. For kids, Mandalay offers a fantastic shark-reef aquarium ($15 adults, $10 kids, children under four free). The real star of Mandalay Bay is its 11-acre lagoon, with four pools and a sandy beach. One pool has a wave machine; another is shaped like a lazy river on which you can go tubing.
Mandalay Bay, 877-632-7000; www.mandalaybay.com.
The Mirage. Siegfried and Roy’s no longer perform here, but you can still see their white tigers as you walk into the casino. The casino features popular singer/comedian Danny Gans for $100. Those shows, and the excellent dinner buffet, are big draws. They are opening a new Cirque-Beatles show in 2006.
The casino’s contemporary Polynesian-style decor replicates a tropical rain forest minus the heat. The swimming-pool area includes lagoons and water slides. There is a good no limit poker tournament most nights. I find the casino floor of the Mirage the most seductive in town. The Mirage has redesigned its already excellent buffet ‘Cravings,” into the best Las Vegas buffet ever.
The Mirage has lost some of its gambling clientele to the fancier Bellagio, and its mundane guest rooms aren’t as spectacular as those at the Venetian or Mandalay Bay. The Mirage’s best-known feature is its exploding volcano, which goes off every 15 minutes at night. It’s a good choice if you have kids or want something less expensive than Bellagio.
The Mirage, 800-374-9000; www.mirage.com.
Treasure Island. An even more family-friendly operation than its sisters, the Mirage and Bellagio, Treasure Island is undergoing big changes. The pirate-ship battle that for ten years took place several times an evening closed in July. The new pirate-ship show, Sirens of TI and featuring more scantily clad participants. I haven’t seen it, but you want might want to preview it before bringing Junior. The Buccaneer Bay Restaurant, where my wife and I had one of the best steaks we’ve eaten in years.
Treasure Island is a decent place to stay if you don’t mind noise. At the very least, stop by the show.
Treasure Island, 800-288-7206; www.treasureisland.com.
Caesars Palace. No longer the high-roller joint that chased away the $2 bettor, Caesars has remodeled. Its newest tower has huge Roman baths in all the rooms but lacks the sparkle that the casino was once famous for. Rooms in the new tower are fine, though not up to the Venetian’s standards.
The main draw of Caesars is that it’s a legendary property. It has recently been sold to Harrah’s Corporation, which one hopes will maintain its historic aura where you could see Frank Sinatra rolling dice. Its new claim to fame is as a shopping mecca. Caesars Forum Shops are now the number-one shopping mall on the strip. Forum Shops II,has even more stores, but everything is so upscale that for many tourists its more of a shopping show, than a shopping place.
Singer Céline Dion has a long-term multimillion-dollar contract to perform at Caesars. If Céline is your cup of tea, fine. If not, she’s hard to avoid. The casino has put her likeness on virtually every $5 gambling chip in the building. Employees aren’t wild about Céline—they complain that she’s cold—so they’re crabby about about her becoming the Caesars cover girl.
Despite its changing aura, Caesars to my mind remains a prime place to play craps or blackjack. There’s something still classy about the old joint. Maybe its just the name. But on our way out of town, my wife and I hit a $2,000 score at craps. That always leaves me singing their song.
Caesars Palace, 877-427-7243; www.caesars.com.
MGM Grand. This is still a giant casino—you need GPS to avoid getting lost. The best attraction is the lion habitat on the casino floor, but can’t you see lions at the zoo? We did have a very good meal in Craftsteak, a marvelous new restaurant that first popped up in New York City. MGM Grand has a couple of hot nightclubs, including its version of New York’s Studio 54 and a very hot club appropriately called Tabú.
MGM Grand, 800-929-1111; www.mgmgrand.com.
PLACES TO AVOID
The Luxor. To me, this pyramid is bad luck. Its neighbor, the Camelot-themed Excalibur, seems a little dingy. Both properties are now owned by MGMGrand.
The Stardust and the Sahara. These older Strip properties have seen better days, and most of the action has moved south, especially since the Desert Inn, across the street from the Stardust, closed down.
Monte Carlo and the Tropicana. Unless you get a really good room rate, these places are boring. Monte Carlo does have Lance Burton, a fine magician, but otherwise little of interest.
The Aladdin. This $1.2-billion reconstruction of the place where Wayne Newton gained fame has turned into a fiasco. There’s a good shopping center, where rain actually falls into a little stream every hour or so. The shopping area is slightly less expensive than the fancier one at Caesars. The hotel and casino are forgettable. In our room, we needed binoculars to see the television from the bed—although this is the only hotel we know of in town that receives two Arabic TV channels. Downtown. I used to think it was fun to stay in the cheap hotels downtown—about a $17 cab ride from the Strip—but now it’s a pain. The only place with good rooms is the Golden Nugget. And Binion’s Horseshoe is dilapidated, although you can learn to play craps there cheaply, with $3 bets. You may also see ads for the Fremont Street light show. Compared with the exploding volcano at Mirage and the pirate battle at Treasure Island, the laser show is lame.
Lake Las Vegas. A newer resort on the south end of town. Excellent for golfing. Otherwise its equivalent to having to live on Alcatraz. You can see the real Las Vegas in the distance, but they don’t make it easy to get back and forth.
IMPROVING YOUR ODDS
Comps. Until recently, Las Vegas comps could still be had by asking. Unfortunately, those days are coming to an end—the ubiquitous player cards, which measure your slot and table play, are becoming the be-all and end-all. This is one of the sad results of the casinos’ now being owned by corporations instead of individuals.
Slot clubs. The big push in Las Vegas is to get customers to join slot clubs. Casinos use these membership lists to convince investors and banks that business is expanding; that’s why Bellagio was eager to sign my wife up. Membership is free—there’s no catch. Just for joining, we’ve gotten everything from free rooms to nice T-shirts. At the Bellagio, my wife got $50 to play with. Sign up for as many clubs as you can. Nickel machines. If you want to win at slots, play the nickel machines and bet the maximum number of coins. You’re not actually feeding in buckets of nickels; you put in, say, a $20 or $100 bill and then punch in the maximum each spin, usually 45 nickels ($2.25). In the long run, you may lose less money, and this is the only chance for a big jackpot. If you play 45 nickels a spin, you’ll almost certainly be rewarded with free-room offers, buffet comps, and even cash back. Even if you play the higher-denomination machines, play the maximum coins and lines—it’s the only way to win.
Many casinos are now offering penny slots, though again no actual coins change hands. My wife won 25,000 pennies on a Beverly Hillbillies machine. That’s $250.
Another hot machine these days is “I Love Lucy,” on which you try to get at least three Lucys or three Rickys in a row. Slots have come so far that you can be entertained while you play. Touch Lucy’s image on the screen—there are no reels—and she changes personas. If you hit three “Classic Moments,” you get to pick one, and a TV clip of Lucy stomping grapes or Fred and Ethel bickering will play. You also win some money.
One encouraging trend is that many slot machines now neither take nor give coins; instead, they take bills and emit vouchers when you win. This is good on many levels. Your hands don’t get filthy scooping up coins, and you don’t get stuck at a machine waiting for an attendant to pay off your jackpot. Best of all, you can move quickly from a cold machine simply by getting your voucher and inserting it in another machine. In the not-too-old days, you had to cash out the coins, scoop them into a bucket, and carry them to a change booth before you could start over. Casinos resisted this change for decades because they thought the sound of coins was an enticement to players. But gamblers need no enticements—we’re there to play. Even so, some machines simulate the sound of coins. Shop first, bet later. Sports bettors should shop around before betting—the odds aren’t the same at every casino. The Redskins could be 10–1 to win the Super Bowl at one place, 15–1 somewhere else. In Las Vegas, you can bet on anything from the Masters golf tournament to Wimbledon.