I have long been in love with the concept of Vegas. I love games. I love theatre. I love math. And Las Vegas is a city that is built on games and theatre (of a sort).
And, even better, it is an outpost in the middle of a desert that is built entirely on the concept of punishing people for being bad at math. How could anyone not be thrilled by this?
And yet, my love has always been from a distance. I studied probability for too many years to be able to kid myself even the slightest about the end result of most any gambling endeavor. I learned to count cards while playing blackjack and started to get the hang of it, but that felt too much like work for me to want to keep at it. I already have a job.
So I stayed away from Vegas for over a decade. However, since my wife had never seen it, in all of its gaudy splendor. It really is something every American should experience before death, so we went for a few days. We didn't gamble (much). We just took in the experience. These are a few observations about my stay, which might aid and amuse those who aren't so familiar with the place and are planning to go.
Vegas Is Fun
Las Vegas, as it exists now, was constructed by some of the smartest, savviest people in the world, using many billions of dollars, in order to be the most fun experience possible for the largest number of adults possible. They have succeeded. I don't care how superior to it you think you are. If you have a few hundred bucks to burn, Vegas will provide you with two or three days of enjoyment, crass or sophisticated. There are some really smart, funny shows and some restaurants that are fantastic by even the most picky standards. You don't have to gamble a cent.
However, Vegas is a money town. If you have no money to spend, it hates you and you suck. There are free entertainments, but not many of them. It's not New York City or Paris. Even a city as legendarily expensive as London has awesome things to do for free. In Vegas, nothing is cheap except the escort ads they pass out on the Strip.
Some Things Are Cheap
It is possible to get hotel rooms for very cheap, as long as you avoid the luxury joints. For example, as of this writing, you can stay at the Hooters Casino Hotel for $29 a night. Oh, and the Hooters Casino Hotel is a thing that exists.
Valet parking at casinos and hotels is always free. Since most of the tourism in Vegas involves driving to various hotels, this is awesome.
You can occasionally still find dollar shrimp cocktails, if you enjoy frozen shrimp and vomiting. If you are determined to pay bottom dollar for seafood in the middle of a desert, you deserve what you get.
Vegas Is a Hotel-Based Ecosystem
For most tourists, the Vegas experience involves going from one enormous, mind-bogglingly expensive hotel to another. Most of these are on Las Vegas Boulevard South, also known as The Strip. It is also where restraint and moderation went to die.
The warrenlike reputation of the hotels is accurate. Once inside, it is impossible to find anything without walking through the casino eight times. There are no windows and no clocks. There will be shiny things and people carrying open drinks and lit cigarettes. Coming from Seattle, which is basically Communist Russia with more salmon, seeing people actually smoking indoors without shame is marvelously exotic.
When touring the Strip, I strongly recommend visiting The Venetian. It is very nice, with murals, marble, and a shopping mall with an indoor canal. It is also the only hotel on the strip that is actually less touristy than the real-life location it is based on.
The Planet Hollywood Resort, also on the Strip, features a Pleasure Pit. Basically, it's like every other set of gaming tables, except that all of the dealers are young women in lingerie. So, if you ever dreamed of visiting a place called the Pleasure Pit, I regret to inform you that it contains far less pleasure than you hoped for. Though it is wonderful to find any place that makes Hooters look classy.
Oh, Yeah. Some People There Will Sleep With You For Money
One feature of walking up and down the Strip is that guys will constantly be trying to stuff thick packs of cards into your hand. Each card bears clip art of an attractive young woman, an improbably low price, and a phone number. Dial the number on the card and a woman who looks nothing like the picture will come to your hotel room and charge an amount nothing like the listed price to give you an experience nothing like what you were hoping for. Alternately, you can collect several handfuls of these cards, stack them up, and pretend you're about to play the most awesome game of Pokemon evar.
You can also find thick magazines full of escort ads. These work just like the cards, only there's many more pictures of women that look nothing like the women you will get. Also, the descriptions of the escorts within are frequently awesome. Actual example:
"I'm half Japanese and half American. People call me an Amerasian. I am independent and an Amerasian. I am independent and available to entertain you."
In other words, Rain Man is now a Vegas prostitute. Please try to be done quickly. She gets really upset if she's not out of there before Wheel of Fortune is on.
You Can See Shows
There are many shows in Vegas. There are shows that feature magicians, ventriloquists, singers your grandmother loves, and, of course, boobies. All shows in Vegas are 90 minutes, on the dot. Because why would anyone ever have a show last for more or less than that? It would be unthinkable! A 92 minute show? An 88 minute show? Pure anarchy, I tell you!
Happily, you can always go see Cirque de Soliel. They have six shows on the Strip as of this writing, soon to be seven, and only a few of them suck. I saw Mystere and Ka, and both were great (the former far more than the latter). They also feature isolated moments of quiet subtlety, and elegance, because someone in Vegas has to.
We also saw Penn & Teller, which was a great show. A lot of remarkable bits and well worth the large cost. My general opinion of magic shows is the same as my view of improv comedy: Neither should be performed by anyone under any circumstances whatsoever. But I'll make an exception for Penn & Teller, bless their cynical, arrogant, atheistic hearts.
One More Thing, Which I Think Says a Lot About the Whole Tenor of the Experience
I saw one bar (in Mandalay Bay) which featured a 100 oz. daiquiri for $35. What sort of person sells that? And, my God, who would buy it?