Friday, April 21, 2017

The evil that is the timeshare industry

This isn't about Vegas, but if you're a regular Vegas visitor, you can relate.

I've been to my share of timeshare presentations in my life. I don't remember how many, but too many. I feel as if the gifts are better nowadays than they were two decades ago. Perhaps it's my imagination.

I had no business going to an Orlando timeshare presentation in October 2000, but it seemed like a good idea. I was there with my friend and her sister and niece, and I was going to get a Disney admission ticket for giving up a couple of hours of my morning. I gave up a few hours of my morning, and ended up donating $10 to some charity, but I did get a Disney admission ticket out of the deal. I didn't ruin or change any plans of my friend, but I didn't feel as if it was worth it.

A few years later I was about as poor as I could be, and I wound up signing up for a timeshare presentation here in Minneapolis. It started innocently enough, I spun a prize wheel in the parking lot of a minor league baseball game. That turned into an invitation to the timeshare pitch, including a two-night trip to Las Vegas, airfare included. I should have been ecstatic about a free trip to Vegas, but I had no business spending $100 on a vacation at that time. I suffered through my timeshare presentation, received my gifts, including a $20 gas card, and was on my way.

In order to use the trip I would have had to put a deposit down and book the trip two months in advance. I couldn't afford to tie up $150 at the time, and there were too many unknowns about the free trip. What time would my flights be during the weekend I wanted to go? Would I be forced to connect, and endure a long layover, for my two-night trip?

I only had a few months to use the free trip, and couldn't justify doing so. At least I received a nominal gas card out of the deal. But it wasn't worth my time in the slightest.

I'm sure I had been to a timeshare presentation or two beyond those incidents, but I'm not recalling them at the moment.

By the time I received my free Vegas vacation via a timeshare pitch, I was done with pitches for good. That Vegas vacation might have been a nice freebie had I not been so poor, but for the most part I was convinced that the gifts weren't that valuable to me, even if my time wasn't worth a dime to anyone else, including myself. Nice gifts weren't wroth the charade. Sitting at home playing video games would have been a better use of my time, I reasoned.

Somehow I've managed to avoid sitting through a Vegas timeshare presentation. I've been to Vegas more than 30 times during the past 20 years. I've been approached occasionally, but I've managed to avoid being suckered into one. Occasionally I see a nice gift being touted as enticement, but I haven't come close to being tempted in Vegas.

I'll spare you many of the details, but during a recent vacation in Mexico, I wound up going to two timeshare presentations on two consecutive mornings. I was there for a week, so I could afford to give up the mornings. Each presentation included a breakfast, and the pitches weren't obnoxious or overbearing, although I'm not anxious to make a habit of it.

I was with my girlfriend while in Mexico, and she suffered through the sales pitches as well. She knew, like me, there was no chance in hell we'd buy anything. We have thousands of dollars of bathroom improvements we'll be paying for in a few weeks, we weren't about to take on years of timeshare debt when we have a long list of home improvement projects we'd like to finance. There was no chance any timeshare offer would be too good to pass up, that much I knew.

During the first day's pitch we walked away with a voucher for a five-night stay at one of the company's properties, for a nominal cost. I'm sure using it will require sitting through another timeshare pitch, but I won't agree to do it if I cash in the voucher and wind up back in Mexico. What are they going to do at that point, force me to attend?

I have a year to use the voucher, so it's possible we'll go back next winter. If not, then our first morning was a waste of time. We were supposed to get a few other gifts in exchange for our time, and we did get a discount card that saved us a little cash on meals and merchandise at the resort we were staying at, but the discounts and deals weren't as great as suggested.

Near the end of the first day's pitch a woman was recruiting for another property not affiliated with the resort we had just toured. The resorts weren't affiliated, but the companies had agreements that allowed recruiting of those who balked at the incredible deals offered at the first timeshare pitch, evidently. Strange, I know.

I never fathomed I'd be immediately hit up to go to another pitch when we were so close to cashing out at the first one. I started to wonder if I was trapped in a vicious circle where I'd be badgered to attend presentations every day of my vacation. I was a bit stunned.

The nice recruiter assured us that presentation two would really only be 90 minutes, and she offered us a great discount on show tickets. The show was something my girlfriend knew of, and her sister had recommended it. The street price was allegedly $145 a ticket, however, and we knew there was no chance we'd be spending even $100 a person for tickets to this show. We had vacation funds, but we needed to limit our recreational spending in order to afford our vacation. Even though we knew discounted show tickets were available without too much trouble for about $100, we weren't going to be buying.

But the nice recruiter offered us tickets for $20 per ticket. Now that's a pretty good deal. I looked at my girlfriend, who wanted nothing to do with another timeshare pitch. I said, "it's up to you." She told the recruiter "no."

The woman countered and said she really needed to get people signed up for the next morning, so she offered us two free tickets. I looked at my girlfriend again, and this time she decided we'd do it if we were going to get free tickets.

Our day two sales pitch was not much more than 90 minutes, and our saleswoman was fun to talk with. I'm not entirely sure why, but she didn't push the product very hard. I think it had to do with the fact we downplayed our personal situation when it comes to vacations. We weren't big enough spenders to fork over the minimum she'd need to get in order for us to become buyers, we hinted, so she quickly stopped trying.

As I said, I'm not planning to make a habit of sitting through the agony of a timeshare sales pitch for free tickets to a show, and I had no intention to do so ever again. And yet more than a decade after I attended what I thought was my last timeshare pitch, I sat through two in two days.

There are plenty of websites with suggestions on what to do and what not to do if you're going to trade your time, on vacation or otherwise, for a gift from a timeshare company. Here are a few of mine:

1. Downplay your spending and vacation habits. The salespersons like to round up and try to show you that you're spending $1,000 or more for a week of vacation at a hotel when you go on vacation. The salesman from day one didn't seem phased by the fact that I go to Vegas somewhat regularly and get great deals and rates for the hotels I stay at. He had a scenario where I was spending plenty on vacations every year based upon the fact that I might spend $100 occasionally for a night in Vegas. And thanks to his catalog of places I can use my points or weeks, I can stay in Vegas at Polo Towers!

Also, don't mention many other trips you've taken in recent years. If you sound like you take a vacation every single year, you'll have a harder time getting the salesperson to throw in the towel.

We were much more liberal with our vacation talk regaring the past five years during day one. On day two we didn't travel as often, and our big vacation was using a friend's cabin in northern Minnesota at no cost to us.

2. Make sure you have major expenses that are forthcoming. In our case we really have a major bathroom renovation forthcoming. But if I ever find myself in a timeshare presentation again, I'll be up to my eyeballs in debt. I'll have recently purchased a home that needs renovation. I'll have just finished one expensive project I'm trying to pay off, and I'll have another I need to start financing after I return home from vacation.

You'll be reminded that you are taking a vacation right now, so vacationing must be a priority. But downplay that, too. Tell the salesperson that you're there thanks to bonus points you received for signing up for an airline credit card, and note that this is the first time in years you've taken such an exotic vacation.

The less worldly and wealthy you sound, the better. The salesperson may not give up based upon that, but if she smells deep pockets, it will take longer to get her to throw in the towel.

3. Find things you don't like about the property. You'll see a beautiful room with an incredible view, but don't be too impressed by it. If it's a huge resort that has lots of kids out and about, (and you don't have kids,) or the resort isn't very close to things you'd like to be able access without driving, such as restaurants, mention that. You'll be reminded that you can buy today and use your points/weeks at billions of other properties, but at least you'll have planted another seed of doubt.

4. Have a pre-existing condition. Yes, you're on vacation, but note that you have a family member who you can't afford to be away from every single year. This isn't the best excuse, but it's an option. And you'll likely be told you can bank your time for a multi-week vacation whenever that family member dies.

5. Express doubts about agreeing to a purchase without adequate financial planning. All of these deals are based upon buying a package that day, with little basis of comparison. They don't send you home with a brochure and offer sheet because they know you won't be dazzled by the offer on paper a week after you get home. If anything, you'll learn how a $30,000 commitment over 30 years isn't such a great deal.

When I'm expressing doubt, I note that I don't like to buy a car or make other purchases without adequate consideration. That won't put an end to the game right then and there, but it plants another seed of doubt in the saleswoman's mind.

Beyond those five suggestions, I'd advise not bothering with a timeshare presentation. But if you find yourself signing up because the lure of the gifts is too good to pass us, plan ahead so that you don't open doors for the salesperson to walk through. It had been years since I had endured a pitch, so when I ended up doing two in two days, I sharped my skills between pitch one and two, and it paid off. I was polite and friendly enough, but I gave the poor saleswoman little to work with, and she quickly added us to her long list of strikeouts.

And if you are signing up, barter a bit. The folks signing you up for the presentations usually don't care if you're likely to buy. Their job is to put asses in the seats. All they care is that you meet the minimum income and other requirements. (In Mexico it was important that we were married, or at least reside at the same address, according to our IDs. The latter is true.)

In Mexico we saw that our initial reluctance to say yes to discounted show tickets turned into free show tickets. So hold out for better loot if you think you're willing to sit through a pitch, and don't be afraid to walk away if it's not that great of an offer. Show tickets to a show you weren't interested in aren't worth giving up a morning for, even if the tickets sell for $100 each.

Once you say yes you'll probably be asked to hand over a small deposit, because otherwise you'll blow off your appointment. So make sure you're offered good, valuable gifts before you finally say yes.

And a reminder... an important lesson I had to re-learn in Mexico. If you're not interested in a timeshare pitch, and don't want to be politely hassled by people trying to talk you into attending one, remember the golden rule. You're going home tomorrow morning. Say that, even though you might be in town for another five days.

When somebody in Vegas asks me how long I'm in town for, which happens in areas of high pedestrian traffic, both on the street and in casino/hotel lobbies, I always say I'm leaving tonight or tomorrow morning. That's all it takes. It doesn't matter if the guy is setting up timeshare presentations, selling discounted show tickets or booking Grand Canyon tours. If he thinks you're about to leave town, he won't waste time with you.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A thought regarding MGM's parking fee increases

I read this today:

“We are adjusting the parking rates for a variety of business-related reasons,” said MGM spokeswoman Yvette Monet. “These adjustments are based on market analyses we have conducted since we implemented the program.”

My translation: "People are threatening to boycott our strip properties that charge for parking, but not enough of them are carrying through to the point that it affects our bottom line, so we'll keep charging more, a la resort fees."

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Neil Sedaka, naughty nurses and Tropicana

I really didn't envision using my blog as a vehicle to comment on Vegas podcasts, but I had a few thoughts about topics inspired by the latest episode of the Vital Vegas Podcast.

The host gushes over Neil Sedaka, who he interviewed. I'm not that much younger than the host, but young enough not to remember how big of a presence Sedaka had in the world of popular music. I know the name, I know he's a big deal, but I don't know much about his music, his career or anything else.

I learned a bit thanks to the podcast, and it was entertaining to listen to the host's interview.

I don't consume any Vegas podcast religiously, but there are a few I listen to with great regularity, and what sets the VVP apart is that the host includes interviews periodically. The interviews are with entertainers, like Sedaka, and Vegas movers and shakers, some of whom are otherwise anonymous to tourists like me. Most of the interviews have been worth the time to listen, even if I didn't think it was a person I was interested in hearing from. I'm not that interested in learning about Sedaka or his career, but I gave it a listen earlier tonight and was entertained.

Kudos to the host for giving me something unique, and highly valuable, via the podcast.

The host also discussed the awkward circumstances surrounding the short-lived existence of a Heart Attack Grill on the Vegas strip. I'll assume you know HAG is a gimmicky, high-calorie burger restaurant downtown. For less than two months it opened a second location on the strip, in a sports bar that once bore the name of Pete Rose.

The host had an explanation for why the HAG was gone within two months. Allegedly the lease was on a month-to-month basis, leaving the building's ownership the ability to sell off the property the restaurant is a part of -- and swiftly kick out its tenants -- for redevelopment by an eager buyer.

That's plausible. And allegedly the HAG ownership wanted to invest more into its leased space, but was unwilling to do so without some sort of lease that extended beyond one month. That makes sense.

What didn't make sense to me, and wasn't addressed by the host, was why HAG moved into the space in the first place.

If you are serious about a restaurant on the strip, and you want to invest in the space you're going to lease, then you don't move in without negotiating a lease agreement prior to occupancy. The former Pete Rose sports bar was already equipped to run a bar/restaurant, so it was probably easier to open HAG there than it would have been in other places. But it's hard to believe a restaurant proprietor would take over such a space on a whim, hoping to get what s/he wants after the fact.

I don't doubt the ownership wanted to invest in the property, and the ownership wanted a longer lease term than 30 days, but I'm skeptical that the lack of a long-term lease was the reason HAG pulled out in less than 60 days.

I suspect the real reason was that, by most online reports, HAG had a tepid reception on the strip. If an established business was failing to drive a lot of traffic through its new doors upon its arrival, (even if it was relying upon word of mouth for advertising,) it was easier to pull out quickly, given its investment into the space was likely minimal by most restaurant standards.

I'm quite certain that if HAG was doing gangbuster business in its first six weeks, the month-to-month lease wouldn't have been enough of an issue to quickly shutter the breastaurant.

Choose to believe what you will. I continue to believe it was a cheap, easy way to try to duplicate the downtown HAG success on the strip, and with early returns as soft as they were, the ownership cut its losses.

One might only have needed to look at how lackluster the Pete Rose experiment was to guess that naughty nurses serving mediocre food wasn't going to set the strip on fire.

Lastly, the host talked about a variety of new show offerings coming to Tropicana, a casino with a great location on the south end of the strip, but one that seems to enjoy "also ran" status.

I was contemplating this today during a discussion thread online about how the big two, Caesars and MGM, are monopolizing the strip and stifling the concept of competition. It's not quite that simple, but that's the general overview of the strip casinos these days.

Tropicana is not part of a strip conglomerate, but it is part of some sort of hotel group. Being the only strip casino in the corporation's portfolio, Tropicana should be operated like a loose cannon. Decisions don't need to be weighed in relation to several properties, and with plenty of people continuing to express dissatisfaction with the big two and their bloodsucking ways, the Tropicana should be selling its old school vibe and offering many of the things Vegas gamblers love about Vegas of yesteryear.

Old school sells downtown, and using that approach, while positioning the property as the only one of that kind on the south end of the strip, certainly couldn't hurt the Trop's bottom line. There's a real appetite for vintage Vegas on the strip, and it's pretty hard to find these days.

It's unlikely that formula would result in record profits for Tropicana, but I suspect it would be well received.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

When do resort fees have a profound impact?

The following, edited comment was hastily constructed for a Las Vegas message forum discussion. It was a discussion regarding the latest resort fee increase announcements from the major players on the strip. I'll assume you've heard the rants and understand why resort fees irritate many people.
Not so long ago I wondered when we'd see a resort fee base rate (pre-tax) of $50. I predicted by the end of 2018 or very early in 2019. Of that I have no doubt as of today.

People will continue to fill hotel rooms, parking and resort fees be damned. People will fill them because they're waived due to casino loyalty, because they don't have to concern themselves with the bill at the end of the weekend or because the company is paying for them to be there.

With increasing declarations by people that they're done, or nearly done, with Vegas, particularly on the strip, and the number of locals who don't have any reason to darken the doorstep of strip properties – now more than ever – how soon are we going to hear about woeful economic times for the hourly workers who rely upon the tourist for their income?

It has been reported that parking fees are cutting foot traffic inside strip resorts, and that has affected the income of dealers and valet personnel, as well as the retail revenue inside the resorts. It has the potential to snowball into something not good.

Doesn't mean doomsday, but is it possible that we see a vicious circle that has a long-term effect?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

#VegasHalloween (day 5 and 6): Flying solo

My group was leaving on Thursday, Nov. 3, and it was an anti-climatic day, as it should be.

Given I was up late on Wednesday night, I wasn't in a hurry to get up Thursday morning. We were all meeting about 11 a.m. to load up the SUV. I managed to wake up early enough to clean up, pack and load my bags before making a final appearance downtown. I needed to buy one of those ridiculously cheesy "women of Las Vegas" calendars for a buddy at one of the downtown souvenir stores. I had a simple contest for my Facebook connections, and the person who came closest, without going over, to guessing the total in the coin collection pictured on my Facebook page was to receive a tacky Vegas souvenir. Given the winner was Jared, the ridiculous, impractical calendar was a great gift. And since they were two for $4, I now have one, too.

I also had time that morning to play a $25 Plaza match play I had not made a point to use during our stay. I feel like I come up on the short end of match plays too often, but I owed it to myself to take a shot with the $25 match play. I chose roulette, and nobody was playing. I bought in for $25 and decided that rather than look at the previous spins and guess where the ball was going to drop, I'd let the clock on my cell phone decide. If it was an even minute, I bet red. An odd minute, I bet black. My play was on red.

Normally I don't watch the ball drop when I have a match play working, but I decided to change up my strategy. I stared the ball down as it dropped into the wheel, and it found its way into a red number. I won $50, putting me up a few bucks for the week. I tipped the croupier a $2 bill and went to cash out.

Our last meal as a group was at In-N_Out Burger, and not that ridiculously busy one at the freeway exit, just down from New York New York. I'm smarter than that. Following lunch we finally made an appearance at the Pinball Hall of Fame. We weren't there long, however, at least not all of us, as Mike was the first to depart. Since his flight was separate from the rest of the group I had to drop him off a couple of hours prior to the rest. I left Joe, Jon and Trista at the hall of fame and dropped Mike off. When I returned to the hall of fame everybody was ready to go somewhere else. Nowhere in particular, but an hour of pinball was enough, unfortunately.

We drove west and found our way to The Sci Fi Center. It's close to the Orleans, which stunned me when I read about it a year or so ago through an online list of ways to "geek out" in Vegas. I imagined a giant store full of comics, movie memorabilia, toys and other sci-fi goodness. I was disappointed.

The Sci Fi Center has comics and other stuff for sale, but it's not exactly a retail hotbed for the latest in sci-fi books, T-shirts, games or anything else. The inventory was far less than I imagined, and rather random. I couldn't help but wonder if anyone buys merchandise there on a recurrent basis.

Although the retail business was underwhelming, there's a very cool element of the Sci-Fi center. Part of it is a makeshift theater, with seating for 65-70 people. This small theater is used to show B movies double features, live cast performances of Rocky Horror Picture Show and other occasional entertainment, such as a burlesque review. If I lived in Vegas I suspect I'd find the entertainment and crowd that gathers for it to my liking. Unfortunately I'm unlikely to see any of their Rocky Horror presentations, which often have special themes, as they perform them on Saturday nights, and I'm rarely in Vegas on a Saturday night.

Following a brief stop at The Sci Fi Center we went down the street to Club De Soleil, a timeshare property west of the Orleans, and my home for the final night. Rates were more than I cared to pay for a night at the Orleans, and I found an online deal for a glorified hotel room at Club De Soleil.

I stayed at Club De Soleil several years earlier. They rent out their units when they don't have them booked by people who own timeshares. Every major property on the strip, downtown and close to the strip wanted $100 or more for that Thursday night since it was during a major convention. I found an online booking through Trip Advisor for less than $65. I planned to have a rental vehicle for the final night, so Club De Soleil worked for me.

Although we went to check in early, somehow they didn't have a room ready for me. But we killed a little time there, sitting by the pool. The fact the pool has a hot tub which is accessible 24 hours per day was enough to make my friend jealous.

From there we stopped in at the Orleans, so I could show my friends the pool area I use most often in Vegas. At this point we were killing time, and it wasn't very exciting. Nobody was interested in gambling or anything spectacular prior to their departure. When the time finally arrived to drop the gang off for their flight home, I made them go to the car rental center with me and take the shuttle bus to the terminal. Their flight on the prestigious Spirit Airlines was already delayed, so they had a little extra time to kill. We turned in the SUV, said our goodbyes and I went to pick up my Mustang convertible for the final night of my trip. It was about $5 more than a regular car, so I figured I should spoil myself.

I rent from Alamo, typically, and like the fact I get to pick my car and color. They had a bunch of mustangs, as well as a couple of Camaros. I have rented a Mustang before, so I considered trying a Camaro, but after sitting in one I didn't like the feel of it, so I opted for a Mustang. I didn't want a typical touristy color, so I chose a dark gray car.

I never took a photo of my convertible in the sunlight, or with the top down. I'm an idiot. 
My first stop was the Silverton Casino. I had never been there, and I had read about their mermaids over the years. Seeing the mermaids wasn't a priority in the past, but I learned this past summer that my nieces are fascinated by mermaids. So I went to see them, and connected with my nieces in Minnesota via Facetime. Once we had the connection set up with their iPad I walked back into the casino from outside the building, making sure they couldn't see what I was about to show them. I carefully delayed the reveal for a few seconds, and as soon as I turned my phone toward a swimming mermaid I could hear their excitement and amazement through the phone.

There were two mermaids performing at Silverton, although you wouldn't know it from any of my pictures. 

I took several selfies, and the look on my face was typically ridiculous. 
After spending time filming video and taking pictures of the mermaids I headed back to Club De Soleil, with a brief stop at a nearby grocery store. I had the basic mini-suite, or whatever they call it. It's a decent room with a nice bathroom, and it has a mini-kitchen. By mini-kitchen I mean a mini-refrigerator and a microwave. I knew this, given my previous stay, so I picked up a few snacks at the grocery store, including snack food for Friday's flight home. I also picked up a 25-ounce Bud Light for the hot tub at the end of the night.

I was getting hungry, and my final dinner of the week was going to be back at Ellis Island. I considered using my half-price Silverton buffet coupon from the Las Vegas Advisor book, but I had an extra coupon for the Ellis Island cafe. That meant a cheap prime rib dinner for me.

Unfortunately I had to wait about an hour for a table for one. But that gave me an excuse to play blackjack for only the second time all week. I didn't win big, but I won a few bucks while killing time, and that was good enough for me.

After dinner it was time for a night of gambling at the Orleans. I like their casino and try to make an appearance there even if I'm not staying there. Perhaps they'll get the hint that I'd like a room offer for a future trip, I figure.

I started by playing Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, and didn't have much luck. It was a full table, and I won't soon forget the loud, annoying woman that sat down after I did. She'd yell out the cards she was looking for, and she'd get them often enough, prompting a celebration on her part. I'm all for being enthusiastic, but she was a bit too much to take.

I never had a good run of cards, and I don't think I hit a full house one time. After losing $100 I moved over to a $5 blackjack table, and proceeded to play for about four hours. I wasn't having much luck there, either.

A dude at my table lived in Vegas, and had lived in Minnesota for about 30 years prior to moving west. He had intended to move to California, but somehow he ended up not getting that far. He claimed he was finally going to move to California in a few months.

The dude was enjoyable to talk to, although he became increasingly distracted as the night progressed. The woman sitting next to me was not happy about it.

I started to think I was doomed to a long night of losses at the Orleans. I was near $200 down, which wasn't a big deal when looking at the big picture, but it was annoying. As I started to wonder when I had to give up and call it a night, I finally hit a nice run of cards. I started winning more often than I was losing, and I pressed my bets a bit.

At one point I was ready to call it a night and said that if I lost the $10 I set aside, I'd cash in and call it a night. I'd have still been in the hole, but by less than $100 at that point. Instead of having to cash out, however, the cards kept falling my way. So I rode it out and worked my way back to even with bets of $5 to $10. Approximately four hours of slowly burning my chip stacks were erased in 30 minutes or less. As it was rapidly approaching 3 a.m. I decided I had better be happy with not losing money. Did I want to try and win a fast $100 at that point? Sure, but had the cards turned on me, I'd have been rather pissed to walk away $75 or $100 in the hole after all that time. Breaking even for the night made me happy.

And technically I cashed out $2 ahead. All my tip money came from my chip stacks, and I tipped my final dealer several dollars in tip bets as I was winning my buy-in back. So it truly was a winning evening.

I retired to Club De Soleil, grabbed my beer and headed to the hot tub at 3 a.m., where I spent about 30 minutes under the stars drinking Bud Light and eating Pringles. I posted the following pic for my friends back home to see, noting it was 5 a.m. back home.

Not the best lighting for a 3 a.m. photo at the hot tub, but you get the idea. 
A short night of sleep gave way to my final few, uneventful hours in Vegas. I checked out of Club De Soleil at the 11 a.m. check out time, headed down to the Pinball Hall of Fame for a few hours of pinball action and headed for the car rental return center. I wish I had given myself more time to exploit the joy of driving that convertible on the open highway. I was tempted to drive back to Seven Magic Mountains simply for a chance to cruise with the top down, but pinball was more important. I didn't even have lunch before heading to the airport on Friday afternoon.

It wasn't the most exciting night of my life in Vegas, but I was glad I stayed one final night and was able to do things on my schedule. I wish I could do that more often.

For the week I finished up about $40 at the tables. I always tell myself I need to dedicate $20 or $40 to the slot machines so I'll have a chance of pocketing $1,000 during my week in Sin City, but I rarely pull that trigger. Maybe next time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

#VegasHalloween (day 4): The beginning of the end

Our final day together in Vegas began with a cheap breakfast. A very cheap breakfast.

We all met before 10 a.m. and headed down the highway, the Boulder Highway. I enjoy gawking at all of the down-and-out motels that extend east of the Fremont Street Experience. It's an interesting look back at a simpler time, when hotels didn't need to be named Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn or Courtyard by Marriott. Unfortunately I'm always the driver on these excursions, so I can't gawk as much as I'd like to. Old buildings, especially those that are abandoned, always fascinate me.

I suggested a road trip during our visit as an excuse to experience a cheap breakfast. Thanks to the roundup of bargains by Las Vegas Advisor, our destination was Klondike Sunset Casino, a small, locals joint that had recently opened up, and was offering a $1.48 breakfast special before 11 a.m.

Cheap breakfast often means a mediocre breakfast, but not at the Klondike. Two eggs, toast, hash browns and meat came with the $1.48 meal, and it was well done. I would have liked a larger serving of hash browns, but they didn't skimp on my bacon. I added a pancake as a side order and my meal was still dirt cheap.

A couple of people chose a different breakfast special, but it was still very cheap, and everybody was happy with their meal. Add in a few drinks for those who enjoy coffee and our total bill for five people, prior to tip, was about $27. Insane!

The restaurant was nice and the casino seemed like a decent little room. There were no tables, just machines, but if you're a local who wants to play a slot machine or video poker machine and eat cheap, the Klondike seems like a nice place to go. According to online resources, the casino has a bit of a history, much to my surprise.

I had no plans to stop at Sam's Town, Eastside Cannery or Joker's Wild during our trip to the outskirts of the Vegas area, but we did stop at the Skyline Casino for a few minutes. I had to try their $1.49 shrimp cocktail, finally. I wouldn't have made a trip out to Henderson just for the shrimp cocktail, but when in Rome...

The cheap shrimp cocktail also comes at the recommendation of Las Vegas Advisor. And it was pretty good shrimp for the money. I wish I could find a decent shrimp cocktail for less than two bucks on Fremont Street, but that ship sailed several years ago.

I offered to buy a shrimp cocktail for anyone who wanted one, but only Mike took me up on it. Not everyone subscribes to "when in Rome," evidently.

After a cameo at Skyline, and a picture of Jon and a giant hot dog, we weaved our way to Seven Magic Mountains, the art installation in the desert. Travel south toward the California border and you'll pass it about five miles south of the M Resort. The Seven Magic Mountains are a series of colorful, stacked rocks. It's pretty nifty, although I wouldn't say it's a must see attraction.

What is that hot dog doing with its left hand?

We took group pictures while we were there and I shot a live video via Facebook during our visit. The woman who asked us to take her picture while she was doing a headstand was an added bonus.

We saw colorful rocks!
We were treated to a free show at Seven Magic Mountains.

Following the magic mountains we headed back downtown. Our afternoon was a bit unscheduled and erratic. Jon and Trista wanted to spend time at the pool, although the Plaza hot tub was out of commission, and there wasn't much sun to be had on the pool deck. They decided to spend a little cash and lounge at the Golden Nugget pool. The Nugget charges $30 per person for access to their pool, but there's a 2-for-1 coupon, good on Wednesdays only, in the Las Vegas Advisor coupon book. It was a Wednesday, so they used it.

Joe, Mike and I headed down the street to the Fremont Arcade. I was happy to see an arcade with pinball machines at Neonopolis, and this arcade did not disappoint. (I have said more than once the past few years that Neonopolis needed an annex of the Pinball Hall of Fame.)

Fremont Arcade has about a dozen pinball machines, most of which are games that have been produced within the past five years. There are also modern video games, the type that don't interest me much. But Fremont Arcade also has the "world's largest" Pac-Man. It's classic Pac-Man, played on a huge video screen. I couldn't pass up playing one of my childhood favorites on a giant screen.

I like what they're doing at Fremont Arcade, although it doesn't have a lot to offer those who are seeking classic games. It's no replacement for my visits to the Pinball Hall of Fame, but it's nice to see new, well-maintained pinball machines downtown. I hope it succeeds, as there's a shortage of places to play pinball these days.

After we finished we found a bar at the Fremont Casino to have cheap drinks while we waited for Jon and Trista to wrap up their afternoon at the pool. Game 7 of the World Series was beginning, and I was interested in seeing some of the game.

Between inning I was inexplicably struck with inspiration. As a reader of the Vital Vegas blog, I find myself trading quips with its author, Scott, now and then. Knowing he worked downtown, I decided to send a random tweet to see if he was around. It was after 5 p.m., and he's known to hang out on Fremont, so I sent him a note via Twitter, inviting him to come find a guy he had never met. After a sarcastic quip or two from Scott, and an appearance at the wrong bar area at the casino, he found me.

Given we're both fans of Captain Morgan and diet cola, I ordered us a round. (Scott is a bit famous for his consumption of the spiced rum.) We proceeded to chat about a variety of Vegas topics during the short window of time we had to trade stories. Even though we had never met, and our previous communication had been limited to Twitter exchanges, we could have killed an hour without thinking twice. I'm not sure all writers have the gift of gab, but put two writers together who share an interest in a subject and you'll easily travel down a road that may not have an exit ramp for quite some time.

Fortunately for Scott, Jon and Trista joined us at the bar and everybody in my group was ready to eat dinner. I told my friends to get in line for the Fremont buffet and said I'd join them in a few minutes, as there's always a line for that buffet, from my limited experience. I bid farewell to Scott and went to join my friends, only to find out there wasn't much of a line for "steak night" at the buffet. I'd never seen the buffet so empty. It was 6 p.m., prime time for dinner, and yet the buffet was half empty. Go figure.

And yes, we had Las Vegas Advisor coupons reducing the price of our meals.

Following dinner we headed back to the Plaza and went our separate ways for a while. I went up to my room to continue watching the World Series, and watched as the Chicago Cubs gave away their lead in the eighth inning, and then had to sit through a rain delay before winning the game in the 10th inning.

I decided I should head down to the sports book to watch the end of the game and hear the cheers if the Cubs were to hold onto the lead they regained in the top of the 10th inning. It was a dramatic finish, but the Cubs won it, and several Cubs fans celebrated. I, wearing a Chicago White Sox hat, went over to a couple of dudes who fell on the floor hugging each other in celebration. White Sox fans are supposed to hate the Cubs, and vice versa, but I wanted to congratulate them, as I knew what it was like to wait a lifetime for my team to win a World Series. The White Sox won their first World Series of my lifetime in 2005, and their first World Series in 88 years.

Before gambling that night I met with Gary, a manager at the Plaza. He had helped me book my rooms, thanks to his networking on the Vegas Message Board forums, and suggested I stop in and see him while I was staying at the Plaza. I'm not a high roller, but he was able to reduce our room rates a bit and wanted to know how our experience was at the Plaza. Overall my group was happy with our stay. The Plaza is an older property at the end of the Fremont canopy, but they're doing a lot of good things there. It was my first time staying at their hotel, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

After meeting with Gary I met Jon, Trista and Mike. Joe was enjoying live music on Fremont Street, but the rest of us cruised the strip after dark. It was about 11 p.m., so traffic wasn't bad. We drove all the way down to the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, where we stopped for pictures, and then headed back toward downtown. My iPhone pictures at the sign sucked. Here's proof:

Sometimes you need a real camera to capture a moment adequately. 

Our return trip included a stop at Frankie's Tiki Room. Great, unique drinks in a quirky 24-hour bar. It's worth experiencing at least once if you visit Vegas with any regularity.

Upon our arrival at the Plaza I headed to the tables. I had planned to spend a few hours gambling that night, and it started after midnight.

I had lousy luck at the tables on my final night, unfortunately. I lost some of my previous night's profits playing Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em, and I played craps for a while, with no luck. I finished even at craps after about an hour, however, so I guess that was a win. In the wee hours of the morning Joe, Jon, Trista and Mike made their way through the casino floor and found me at the craps table. It turns out that they all went down to Main Street Station. Jon hadn't had a chance to try their microbrews, and while they were there a guy from another group insisted upon buying shots for my friends. It sounds like the two groups had a good time, and given I didn't win money, I wish I had wound up with them instead of refunding my profit at the tables.

Click here for day 5 and 6. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

#VegasHalloween (day 3): My boyfriend loves crack more than me

I wanted Tuesday (the day after Halloween) to be a low-key day, at least for me, so I suggested we meet for lunch. That meant another morning spent watching The Price is Right.

Our destination for lunch was Main Street Station. There's always a nice variety at the MSS buffet, and at a great price, especially when  you factor in a coupon from the Las Vegas Advisor coupon book.

I used lunch as an opportunity for a discussion. While I know, more or less, what my friends do when it comes to employment, and I know their current life situations, for the most part, I didn't know how or why my friends wound up working at the haunted attraction where we all met. Three of us have been there since 2006, and the other two have been there for several years. It was interesting to hear the life circumstances that led each of us to what I like to refer to as "the amusement park of death." None of us knew each other before we became members of the haunt industry, and none of us would have guessed that applying for a seasonal job all those years ago would unite us in Vegas. It's a crazy world I live in.

Our afternoon began with a visit to Container Park. My friends were entertained by the quirky retail center, and I made a visit my favorite little toy store, Kappa Toys. I picked up a handful of small trinkets for my nieces and nephew, which went into their pumpkins upon my return. Halloween was over, but I had a Halloween party to host after vacation.

I had dropped everyone off at Container Park and drove over to the El Cortez valet, because we planned on stopping in afterward. Trista and I thought it might be worth checking out Happy Feet, the massage joint on the second floor of ElCo. Joe, Jon and Mike thought it sounded like a good idea, as well, so we all went upstairs.

Happy Feet offers a variety of services, and the rates are lower than you'll typically find at a casino spa. Unlike a traditional spa, there aren't private rooms for each customer. Massages are performed in one room, with customers separated by curtains. But they were only able to take four of us. We discussed our options and I settled upon sitting out by myself. I had barely gambled nearly 48 hours into our trip, so I was happy to play blackjack while everybody else had a massage. I suggested I'd head up after they were done, but I knew it was unlikely I would.

Everybody was pleased with their 30-minute session, which included hot stones, evidently. I didn't ask how much anybody tipped, or if they were hassled about the tip. A few online reviews suggest that the staff of Happy Feet will strongly suggest what you should tip. True or false, my friends had no complaints about their experience.

And I won a couple of bucks playing blackjack while the gang was upstairs, so I have no complaints about my experience, either.

It was late afternoon and we headed back to the Plaza. Word from my friends on Halloween morning was that the hot tub wasn't working. The word Tuesday afternoon was that the hot tub was functioning. So I went down to the pool to join them.

Mike was lounging on a chair and Jon was nowhere to be found. He had left his room key in the room, and needed security to let him in. That left Joe, Trista and I to soak in the hot tub. It was less than 30 minutes until closing, and the three of us had the hot tub to ourselves... until a woman showed up to join us.

She was by herself, and as I saw her approaching, I could tell there was something odd about her, and I'm not talking about the blinking pumpkin earrings she was wearing. Or the tutu.

When she entered the hot tub, still wearing the hot tub, I knew I was right.

Being rude Midwesterners, none of us said hello, or engaged her in conversation. We kept to ourselves and continued our conversation. About two minutes into her appearance, with no prompting whatsoever, she broke down crying, telling us her boyfriend loved crack more than he loved her. Trista was the first to express condolences, and we engaged her in conversation at that point.

The woman pulled herself together and explained to us that she and her boyfriend had been at MGM for a week, that they were from Colorado and that she had recently quit a job. I'm sure she told us more than I can remember, or cared to know, but our conversation was otherwise drama free until it was time to go.

Lesson to the kids: What happens in Vegas will never be forgotten by some of us.

Our evening plans called for another meal at Ellis Island and a trip to the Pinball Hall of Fame. That changed a bit when Trista had to bail out. She wasn't feeling well when it was time to depart, so she bowed out. That left the four of us to dine without her.

Our trip to Ellis Island started with a detour to the Hard Rock. We parked at the casino. Jon and I headed across the street to a CVS store, as I had to pick up a prescription that wasn't filled back home in time for my departure. Joe wanted a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt, and as it turned out he had to go to the actual cafe across the parking lot. They don't sell cafe T-shirts in the hotel gift shop. Had my memory been better, I might have remembered that I could park outside the cafe, instead of in the hotel parking ramp.

We had to wait a while for our seats at the Ellis Island BBQ restaurant, which is not uncommon. We had two Las Vegas Advisor coupons for three free rounds of drinks for two people, so we cashed them in as we waited to dine. We also had the two-for-one dinner coupons for the BBQ restaurant, so we feasted on chicken and ribs for less than $10 per person, and there was not a complaint to be heard.

It was getting late, and Trista was feeling better. She wanted to join us for pinball, but there wasn't time to pick her up and still make it to the Pinball Hall of Fame before closing. And even if we went without her, we'd have had about an hour to spend there, so we postponed our pinball trip and headed back downtown.

I concluded my evening with a couple hours of cards at the Plaza. I played Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em and had decent luck. I played alongside a guy from California who was having even better luck, and betting a bit carelessly, only to be rewarded for it. He was celebrating his birthday, by himself it appeared, and was in a good mood. He had plenty of drinks while I was at the table, so that probably helped. I cashed in for the evening when my friends showed up, including Trista, so we all had drinks, which I paid for with my winnings, and headed to our rooms.

It was late, I was tired, but the final table of the World Series of Poker was still going on. I arrived in my room to see what looked to be the final hand, but the all-in player hit running cards after the flop to make a winning hand and extend the heads-up battle another hour or more. I tried to stay awake through the wee hours of play, but it was a struggle. I posted comments on Facebook and Twitter as I watched, but by 3 a.m. I could hardly stay awake. I drifted off, only to magically awaken just before 4 a.m. as another all-in moment commenced. This all-in moment would prove to be the concluding had of the tournament, and I promptly went back to sleep.

Click here for day 4.