Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What we can learn from the closing of two casinos

It’s not always location.

Those of us who spend too much time thinking about, reading about and talking about Las Vegas, when we’re not enjoying its excesses, know that many of the prominent Sin City casinos no longer rely upon gambling revenue to turn a profit from year to year. It’s well known that with increasing competition nationwide for the gambling dollar, Vegas casinos need to make money many different ways in order to turn a profit.

Two interesting casino developments of the past month have made me wonder if we’re at the point where it’s hard to make meaningful money off of gambling.

When Lucky Dragon closed its casino, (temporarily, it is claimed,) it was seen as a failure for a variety of reasons. The Dragon had opened its brand new, shiny, boutique casino/hotel barely a year earlier, and its casino traffic has been so bad that it could no longer afford to offer gaming.

The reasons most touted: The location was horrible, the gaming was unspectacular and the enticements were missing.

I’d agree.

The location makes Lucky Dragon a tough sell right now, and for the foreseeable future. It’s just off the strip, on the north end, where there’s little of excitement. Yeah, it’s close to the Stratosphere, but it’s a destination casino that doesn’t have the benefit of foot traffic like you would get at Cromwell or Casino Royale. If you want people to go out of their way to visit your boutique hotel, you had better give them something worth going out of their way for.

The fact that the property was designed to target Asian gamblers didn’t seem to help.

And it’s that gambling demographic that resulted in the mix of gaming offered by the casino. I have never set foot in the place, but it was touted as having appeal to the Asian gamblers of the world because it featured plenty of baccarat, and put less emphasis on other table games. Space is limited, and you can’t offer everything for everybody, but you need to have a niche if you’re going to put asses in the seats, especially when you don’t have 1,000+ hotel rooms feeding into your casino floor. And baccarat wasn’t the right niche, evidently.

I never paid much attention to any promotions or enticements that the Dragon was offering, but I never heard much talk about them, either. There were some simple free play or match play promotions, but if you want people to play your games in a casino that’s not convenient, and not in the most glamourous part of the city, give them some incentive, like a lower house edge. Perhaps single-zero roulette wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but offer low-minimum tables with a single zero and you’ll be the talk of the town. If couldn’t have made things worse, could it?

Better promotions and gaming odds would have drawn more people to the casino, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been enough. Perhaps the small casino/hotel couldn’t afford the volatility that a lower house edge exposes. (There’s evidence to suggest that.)

Wouldn’t it have been nice to know?

The one thing the Dragon couldn’t change is its location. Its out-of-the-way location is seen as a major detriment to its success. For any small casino to succeed in that location, it had better attract a significant percentage of its target market, or draw a lot of people looking for an alternative to the stinginess of the big players on the strip. And those people exist, without a doubt.

So, with or without more favorable gambling conditions for the player, if you could just plop the Dragon in a more prominent location near the heart of the strip, it would have a fighting chance of succeeding, right?

Not so fast.

This month has also included the closing of the Westin Las Vegas casino. All gambling was removed from the property, making way for a new restaurant, and meeting space, or something like that.

Yeah, that’s what’s missing, a restaurant in a hotel three minutes from the hustle and bustle of the strip.

The spin seems to be that this is some sort of evolution, some sort of plan, that phasing out gambling was a good thing. The latter seems to be true, but I’m skeptical its demise is by design.

When I first went to Vegas 21 years ago, my first day in town brought me to a cheap, if not free, afternoon magic show at the Maxim. The Maxim was a modest casino/hotel just off the strip, tiny in comparison to MGM, where I stayed on that first trip.

The Maxim had a bustling crowd that Thursday afternoon in early January. Who would have guessed that it was 21 years away from disappearing? Not me.

The Maxim eventually became the Westin. I’m not sure whose guidance drove off the gambling crowd, but I was in that joint a decade ago, after the Maxim name was scrubbed from the property.

I have no special insight. I don’t know why the gambling crowd deserted the property. Was it because it was poorly run, and people stopped coming, or did people stop coming because of the fickle nature of business, and the property failed to react.

A vibrant casino, just a couple of minutes from the heart of the strip, could no longer make a go of it. Is the competition from the major strip casinos too difficult to overcome? Perhaps, but close to the former Maxim is a smaller, less spectacular property known as Ellis Island. It is doing better than ever, despite having less to work with. Its casino isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Moral of the story: Location is important, and gambling is a tougher business than ever. It remains a viable business for the smaller, secondary casinos in Vegas, but it’s tougher than ever to succeed, and is far from foolproof. We lost the Maxim, and Lucky Dragon is dying on the vine. Casino properties in the tourist districts had better offer a lot of things for a lot of people, or they face a tough battle for survival.

Friday, January 12, 2018

#VegasHalloween (day 6 and 7): A quiet ending

Unlike those who like to go out with a bang, I tend not to overdo it during my last day or so in Vegas.

I'd rather not drink all night and head to the airport hung over and tired. I'm old. I'm boring.

I had hoped to meet up with Karla for breakfast on Friday, Nov. 3. She flew into town two nights earlier from Minnesota, missing all the Halloween fun, and was heading home on Friday night. She had flown to Vegas, along with her heterosexual life partner, to gather with a few other Prince fans for two nights that really had nothing to do with Prince, the little purple musician from Minnesota who died less than two years ago.

Karla couldn't shake free of her conclave to meet up for breakfast, even though I was willing to drive down to Mandalay Bay to meet up with her for an hour. So instead I had another egg breakfast in our Tahiti Village unit and drove over to Orleans for a couple of hours of cards. My girlfriend wanted to take it easy and read a book, and we had decided we weren't going to spend our afternoon at the pool. It was still sunny and pleasant, but it was a bit windy, and not as warm as it had been at the beginning of the week. Oh well. We still have a great week by the pool, something we weren't going to get in Minnesota.

I drove over to Orleans and found, much to my disappointment, that they weren't dealing $5 double deck blackjack, again. I played Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em and didn't have much luck. A guy sat down next to me and was betting big right from the start, and he hit big hands quickly. I think he raked in about $1,000 while he was there, betting a lot of $25 hands. I couldn't get a decent payoff to save my soul for about 30 minutes. I eventually made a few decent hands to start to reverse the trend, but that didn't last long enough for me to break even. I finished my session down $145. Not a huge loss for the day, but combined with my losses the previous night, I was in the hole with 24 hours to go. Not by much, and that's fine. I'm  happy if I can break even for my week.

I picked up burgers and fries from Jack in the Box for lunch. There was a location south of Mandalay Bay that was easy to hit up on my way back to Tahiti Village. I don't normally dine at Jack in the Box when in Vegas, but it was easy, quick and not something I get here in Minnesota. We didn't love it, but it was fine.

Our afternoon started with a trek over to the Pinball Hall of Fame. That's the one place I get to during every trip to Vegas, at least once, no matter what. I'm a bit disappointed I didn't spend more than a couple of hours there during my six-night stay, but time is a precious commodity.

I won't say much about the HOF. I have long intended to write about it, although it has been featured in hundreds of blogs and Vegas tourist websites. It's not a secret at this point. Here are a few pictures from this visit.

This game is often hard to photograph. It's called "Pinball Circus" and this is a prototype machine that's more than 20 years old. It was from the early '90s, and is unique in that it's a pinball machine built within the confines of an arcade video game cabinet. The project was shelved, and this prototype was eventually donated to the Pinball Hall of Fame years later. It's the only one you can play here in the United States, and perhaps the world. I'm still not clear about where any other prototypes are, and opinions differ as to how many were produced. Some say two, others say four.

This long, silly, old baseball game involves rolling an object (puck, if I recall correctly) into the playfield, sort of like Skee Ball. It's silly, it's old-fashioned fun, and you likely won't ever find this old game anywhere in the United States

This machine has a very old-fashioned playfield, but it was produced in 2015. It's very creative and cheesy, and a little suggestive, obviously. It's not the most exciting game to play, but somebody decided there's a market for new retro pinball gaming, and this is the end result of that. 

Nothing special about this old, simple pinball machine, but you will find dozens of old machines like this, and many more from the past 40 years, at the Hall of Fame.

Here's another classic machine that is impressive to see. I always play several games. It's a poker game where balls bounce into a 25-hole board that represent playing cards. You get to "discard" the cards you don't want for a second chance at making a better hand. It's pretty neat to see how well this machine works, given it was created long before arcade games have any sort of "computer" components within them. It's one of several old relics you won't find on display in many places. I have seen this game on display at some roadside attraction video I watched on YouTube once, but I've never seen it for myself anywhere else, and I'm quite sure I never will. This game likely dates back to 1959, based upon my Internet searches. 
We left the HOF and made the long, slow trek to downtown about 5 p.m., taking Maryland Parkway much of the way there. Damn, Friday afternoon traffic is a slow, tedious exercise.

We parked in the California's ramp, which didn't have many spaces to spare, and used a Las Vegas Advisor coupon for two-for-one dinner in the cafe. We both had the prime rib meal, which is decent and offers you plenty to eat for, including a salad bar, for about $10. I expected it to take 30 minutes to get a table, it always seems to at dinnertime, and yet we were able to get a seat without having to wait. So weird!

After dinner we went to Main Street Station. My girlfriend likes their microbrew, so we always end up having a couple of beers at the Boar's Head Bar. This time, however, I left her behind and trekked down to El Cortez, expressly for redeeming my free play coupon from the Las Vegas Advisor coupon book. I'm not militant about using every free play, but I always make a point to visit El Cortez, and my girlfriend didn't want to walk back and forth.

I ran $10 through video poker and won a few bucks more than that. Rather than chase a big payoff, I took my modest cash payout and headed back toward Main Street Station. During our stay there I did play a little $5 double deck blackjack. I didn't win much, but I got a beer out of the deal.

After Main Street Station we popped in and out of a few casinos, turning in a couple of match plays and free plays. We eventually went to the Fremont, where I played more $5 double deck blackjack, with no luck. I was about $30 down by the end of our night, which ended a bit early for a Friday. We weren't going to stay out and booze it up until 1 a.m.

We drove back to Tahiti Village and enjoyed one last late night session in the hot tub. The tub was a bit crowded as a bunch of folks who were in town for the annual SEMA show and were soaking up the warm water. I listened as several people traded stories about how many time share weeks they own, how great of a deal they got for the second week they purchased, all the ways the time share property try to upsell people who already own a week, etc.

Nobody asked if we were owners, so I didn't have to tell them I bought a week of time share at Tahiti Village through the resale market for less than these folks pay for their annual maintenance fees. Entertaining stuff.

After the hot tub we called it a night, as we had to pack up and be out by 10 a.m. on Saturday.

Our final morning was uneventful and we had a late first meal back at Ellis Island. I had another two-for-one cafe coupon, so we had lunch. I ordered the ridiculously sinful half-and-half burger. The patty is half ground beef, half bacon. I'm sure my blood pressure went through the roof following that meal.

We had an early afternoon departure, so Ellis Island was our last stop. While waiting for a table in the cafe, I played a few $5 blackjack hands. I was down $29 to start the morning, and won $15 before lunch. I figured if I could break even it would be a huge victory, despite my lousy luck the previous 24 hours.

I had but a few minutes left after lunch before it was time to head to the car rental center. I played $5 hands at third base, and lost seven in a row, including a double down hand. And I made a couple of decent hands during those seven, yet would be beat by the dealer every time. Disgusted with the seventh consecutive loss, I grabbed my remaining chips and cashed out. Had I not sat down after lunch, I'd have been down $14 for the week, and that includes at least $14 in table chips that had been used as tips.

Instead I lost my final seven hands and left Vegas down $54. Not a bad week by any gambler's standards, but so damn annoying as I'm about to leave town. Such is life in Sin City.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

#VegasHalloween (day 5): Seeing it for myself

It was back to making eggs in our Tahiti Village unit on Thursday morning, and then it was off to see a rather unusual sight.

I didn't plan it this way, but my Thursday included checking out two things that I learned about from reading the Vital Vegas blog. The first of those was our first destination of the day, the Wheel of Misfortune.

I had never heard of this odd curiosity until I read about it via Vital Vegas shortly after I completed my Halloween trip in 2016. As somebody who has an unhealthy affection for TV game shows, I had to see this odd, unauthorized art installation on the outskirts of the Vegas area, near an area known as Lake Las Vegas. It took about 25 minutes to reach it from the Tahiti Village.

I knew from doing my homework that there was convenient, nearby parking in the area, and that you could park at a bicycle rental and/or boat storage business that offered the parking spaces. It appears that some, if not most, of the people who pay $5 to park there do so in order to access bike trails in the general vicinity. I may have a reason to return to the Lake Las Vegas area in the years to come.

I went inside the store to pay my $5 parking fee. I told the guy working that I was there to see the wheel. He replied by saying "sure." I thought that was odd. I tried to confirm which way I wanted to go in order to access the wheel, and he affirmed my understanding of the directions by saying "sure."

OK, accessing the wheel means trespassing on private property that may have been sitting idle since 1961. (Vital Vegas has a little site history included in the blog entry, as well as better photos/video than I'll provide below.) But I sensed the guy was trying to avoid making any acknowledgment of the wheel, as if he feared he was being set up for some sort of law enforcement sting. That or he was just super weird.

My girlfriend and I made the short trek to the site of the wheel. There are several large, round cement areas grouped together. They all have walls about five-feet high surrounding them. Some of them have a portion of the wall missing, making for easy access inside the "thickener" pits of the manganese mining operation that once took place there. (Again, info gleaned from Vital Vegas.)

There was no opening into the wheel, however, but there was a nice mound of dirt built up outside the wall in one area, making it easy to step onto the top of the wall. I was ready to jump in, much to my girlfriend's surprise, when she asked how I planned to get out. That was a great question.

I realized there was no easy way out of the wheel, but I did see an empty five-gallon bucket inside the wheel. I figured I could use it as a step to help climb out of the wheel when I was done taking photos and videos. It turned out the bucket was cracked, and it wouldn't support my weight when I tried to step on it. So I had to use a metal rod sticking out of the wall, about six inches above the pit's surface, as my step, and grab another metal rod sticking out of the top of the wall to pull myself out of the pit.

The Vital Vegas story notes that the wheel's creation was a multi-day project of a graffiti artist or artists in 2012. If you Google photos of it, you'll see the colors were much brighter in 2012 than they are today. And plenty of visitors have added their own graffiti to the wheel in the years since it was created. As you'll see below, the wheel was carefully created (over a span of a few days) to replicate the big wheel from TV's "Wheel of Fortune." It is obvious a lot of planning and effort went into its creation.

Besides the numerous pits in the area, there's a small structure that appeared to serve as some sort of catch basin for the contents of the other pits. It looked like it was about 30 feet deep, and there was an opening that allowed access into it. Unfortunately there was no way to get down into it, or back out. There was a ladder or two inside that graffiti artists had used to access the interior, and you could see graffiti in the tunnels that led into this peculiar building. (Think of it as a large silo that extends beneath the ground.) You would obviously need more ladders or other equipment to get out of this structure if you somehow managed to lower yourself into it. And graffiti artists clearly found the interior of this structure to be too inviting to ignore. I captured images of it during a Facebook live video I streamed that morning, but I didn't take any specific pictures of the structure or its deep interior. You can see a photograph of it, however, thanks to Google.

The Wheel of Misfortune is far from a must-visit site in Vegas, but for me, I had to see it for myself.

Mother Nature, and other graffiti artists, have not been kind to the Wheel of Misfortune since its creation in 2012.

The artist or artists responsible use(s) the moniker "Aware," evidently.
After visiting the Wheel of Misfortune, it was time to head to another art installation, this one a sanctioned display.

For the second consecutive November I made an appearance at Seven Magic Mountains. South of Vegas, a few miles south of the M resort, these colorful stacked rocks are easily accessible. I wrote about them extensively last year, so I won't say a lot about them this time around. My girlfriend wasn't with me during my 2016 visit, and she was interested in seeing them for herself, so we made the trip.

I'm not sure why I realized it, but at some point I noted that my visit was exactly one year after my previous visit with friends for Halloween. So I had to send them a picture to remind them of our time, and that I missed them.

I won't post many pics of the mountains, there are millions online, and mine aren't anything special.
Photos like this make for great cell phone wallpaper. 

After the colorful rocks it was time for lunch. Normally my girlfriend and I have lunch at In-N-Out Burger prior to our Vegas departure. But I had spotted a restaurant near Silverton Casino two days earlier when I made my Target run. We decided that we'd have our traditional In-N-Out meal early this year.

I like their burgers, but I don't love their fries, even if they're cut fresh. I like thicker cut fries. I had read a recommendation suggesting to order them extra crispy. I did that, and it didn't make them worse.

We ran over to Silverton after lunch because my buddy Joe wanted to place one last bet for the week, assuming he lost. I had to loan him the $50 for his final bet. There was a Thursday night NFL game, and he picked the visiting Buffalo Bills, who were playing the New York Jets. The Bills were favored, and they lost. Joe didn't have a good week.

We spent a little time at the pool late in the afternoon, but with the sun going down, the temperature dipping a few degrees and the wind picking up a bit, the pool wasn't quite as pleasurable as it had been days previous. But it was still better than being in Minnesota, where it was 40 degrees, or more, colder.

Our Thursday evening included tickets to see Xavier Mortimer's Magical Dream, a show recommended by Vital Vegas. (It's one guy.)

I received VIP tickets as a birthday gift, so we headed to Planet Hollywood early and had a light dinner in the mall. We had the most unspectacular meal of our week, a shared plate from Chipotle in the adjoining Miracle Mile Shops. We didn't want a lot to eat, and we didn't need anything spectacular, so we settled for a known commodity.

The show started at 7 p.m. in a small Planet Hollywood theater. The show lasts about one hour, and it's pretty good. It's not spectacular, but it's pretty good. It features variations of your standard magic, includes an assistant, tells a story and uses a lot of choreography special effects. Xavier does a good job, although my girlfriend said that she noticed where/how he was pulling cell phones out of thin air. I didn't notice, but I wouldn't have cared if I had. Overall, his magic was quite smooth.

It also included audience participation, and I was chosen to participate in one of the tricks. I did nothing more than answer a couple of questions that were integrated into the trick, but it was fun nonetheless.

You can take pictures during the show, so long as you're not using the flash. In this trick Xavier communicates without talking. Hilarity ensued.  
The image is a bit dark, but here's Xavier floating in the air, and jumping rope. 

The show had a couple of incredible tricks. At least my untrained eye thought so. The guy doesn't truly float in the air, of course, yet the way he did, seemingly without the use of any sort of wires, was impressive.

But the show lacked a big, spectacular, mind-blowing finale. That was disappointing.

I liked it, and if you gave me free tickets I'd go see it again, but I wouldn't recommend it for magic fix while in Vegas. Back in November the show was performed once per evening, at 7 p.m. most nights of the week. I assume his schedule has not changed in the two months since I attended.

After the show we drove over to Ellis Island for cheap pizza, cocktails and gambling. I wasted time playing on the cheap at the bar and lost $20. I eventually sat down at a blackjack table and lost $30. I wasn't a profitable night, which is rare for me at Ellis Island.

We were on our way back to Tahiti Village by midnight.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

#VegasHalloween (day 4): The worst day of the year

If you really love a holiday or a day of celebration, the day after can be a bit of a let down.

Yeah, the spirit of Christmas lingers on after Dec. 25, but for most Hallmark occasions, there's little happening after the fact. For some folks, that's fine. For me, there's a sense of disappointment when Halloween is over. With the exception of the years when Halloween is on a Friday, the only Halloween leftovers to be found come Nov. 1 are discounted decorations and candy, and a bunch of pumpkins left sitting on the front steps of houses in the neighborhood.

Given how anti-climatic Halloween night is for me, I'm glad that I've spend five of the past seven Halloween nights in Vegas. Vegas provides a big flourish for Halloween, bigger than I'd get on a Tuesday night in Minnesota, making it an appropriate way to end a season of silliness and scariness.

Having spent eight hours downtown and not getting to bed until 3 a.m., it was a slow morning for us at Tahiti Village. When we finally got around to cleaning up, we didn't have a simple egg and bagel breakfast. We decided that Wednesday was our day to put miles on the rental car, have a late breakfast and violate one of the Five Hundy by Midnight podcast rules. We drove to the Suncoast Hotel and Casino for breakfast at Du-Par's.

What rule did we violate? Co-host Tim, in his guidebook published a couple of years ago, explains that it doesn't matter how extraordinary a meal might be. When he's in Vegas, he's not going to spend 20 minutes traveling by car for a breakfast when he can get a good meal at his casino, or next door to his casino. I agree with the logic, to a point.

Regardless, I never experienced the glory of the Du-Par's pancakes when the California institution operated a restaurant at downtown's Golden Gate. I like pancakes, but it was never a priority. Unfortunately, when talking about the places that Vegas fanatics love, it came up in a conversation, and my girlfriend decided she had to find out what the hype was about. That was a couple of years ago. Since that time the Golden Gate location closed. So she wanted to experience Du-Par's before the Suncoast location closed, and this was the trip to do it.

We both ordered a stack of pancakes, sans meats or any other add on. They were as big and filling as advertised by everybody on the planet. And they were better than any pancake I had ever consumed at any restaurant or church fundraiser. They live up to the hype, no doubt. Would I drive 20+ minutes from Tahiti Village to Suncoast again? Nope. I tried them, I understand the hype. Unless I have another reason to travel that direction, I'm not stopping at Suncoast again.

There was a benefit to hitting up Suncoast the day after Halloween.

When I dropped my girlfriend off at a nail salon on day 2 while I went to the haunted attraction, she got long, black, fake fingernails to go with her with costume. She doesn't do long, fake fingernails, and found them to be highly difficult to live with for 36+ hours. For example, she never considered how she would take her contacts out with long fingernails. She found a Youtube video with tips on how to do it, so crisis averted, but even using her cellphone was a challenge with those nails.

While she could have gone anywhere to get the fake nails shortened to something manageable, we had to pass the exit we hit on day 2 for the salon and haunted attraction. So we hit it again and went back to the same strip mall salon.

Since we were going to be there for a while, I decided to indulge, as well. I got a pedicure. I do a terrible job of trimming my toenails. They always look mangled by the time I'm done. And they were due to be cut, so I paid to have them done.

And what a deal that was! I have had a pedicure once, about five years ago. I knew what to expect, more or less, and the woman doing my pedicure was thorough and outstanding. She did foot massaging in addition to all the work on my nails, and the chair I sat in was very relaxing. It was one of those massage chairs, so that was a nice bonus. And as I sat there in the chop shop, on a pleasant Vegas Wednesday, with the doors of the chop shop open, I looked to my left, and through the windows I could see the Stratosphere off in the distance. I loved it.

I knew to expect the service to cost about $30. The woman spent more than 30 minutes working on my nails, so $30 seemed reasonable. And as I stood at the register to pay, the cashier told me the total was $23. I was amazed. That was one hell of a deal. I paid by credit card, and tipped $7, as I expected to pay at least $30 before the tip.

The cashier asked to see my ID since I paid by credit card. She was surprised to see I was from Minnesota. This ain't a place that sees a lot of tourists, I'm sure. She asked me if it was cold back in Minnesota. I told her it snowed the past Friday, which it did for a while, even if it didn't last a day.

By mid-afternoon we were back at Tahiti Village for pool and hot tub time. As the sun started to set and the warmth went with it, we cleaned up and headed to The Cosmopolitan for dinner. We don't spend much time on the strip, and we don't dine at many buffets, but my girlfriend had wanted to try a high-end buffet. The Cosmo had a 2-for-1 coupon in the Las Vegas Advisor coupon book for its buffet, Wicked Spoon, so we gave it a try.

First off, we had to pay for parking. It was my first time paying for parking on the Vegas strip. I wasn't excited about it, but I wasn't going to spend an hour trying to circumvent the parking fee by walking a mile or riding the bus up the strip. I will say this, the red light/green light system and tabulation of available parking spaces is slick.

We went inside, signed up for player cards and headed to the buffet. It's about $45 per person for dinner on a Wednesday night.

The food is well done, overall. They had pre-split crab legs, so it was easy feast upon my second-favorite Vegas delicacy. They serve many of their entrees in single-portion dishes, which is a nice touch. I tried a variety of them and found most to be very satisfying. I had a couple of slices of their prime rib, too. It's my favorite Vegas indulgence, but I wouldn't go back to Wicked Spoon for it. The first trip to the carving station produced a satisfactory, thin slice. On my second trip the cut I had wasn't as good. If I go there again I'll certainly have a slice, but it didn't dazzle me like I expected given the Spoon's reputation.

Obligatory photo of the buffet sign.
I can't tell you what's in that little dish, perhaps it's the fancy mac and cheese, but on the right is one of my favorite Vegas delicacies, crab legs. The only drawback to buffet crab legs in Vegas, they're often served chilled. But good crab meat and hot butter is never a losing combination. 

I don't love sushi, but I don't hate it. I stick to the basics and had one serving at Wicked Spoon.

Fancy desserts are tasty at Wicked Spoon, but not to die for. 

Overall I was highly satisfied with my meal at $22.50 per person. Our server was prompt in clearing our plates, but not very proactive when it came to refilling my beverage. Oh well, he saved me a buck on my tip.

Plenty of fancy desserts available at the Spoon, as you might expect. I sampled a few. They were very good, but I didn't fall in love with any of them.

We did gamble a bit at Cosmo after dinner. I dropped $40 in a Top Dollar slot machine, and although I did get the bonus twice, my bonus offers weren't much more than $10 at best. I was not impressed by the machine.

My girlfriend had read about the Verbena, a unique drink they serve at Chandelier. So we made it a point to venture over and try it. I won't try to describe it if you don't know what it is, but it's a unique cocktail sensation I've never had anywhere else. It was $16 per drink, I think, and that's typical for cocktails at Chandelier. It was worth trying.

I'm not exactly Cosmo material, but it was fun to clean up and spend a few hours among the beautiful people, watching the parade of well-funded men and women parade to and from. Cosmo is a nice place and I like it. Perhaps one day I'll forgo the vow of poverty I took when I chose my career and will be able to afford to drop $100 or more on a few rounds of drinks without thinking twice about it.

Some day.

Which way is up? I'm not sure, but it's a photo I took at The Chandelier inside The Cosmopolitan. I won't be winning any photography awards any time soon, clearly.

Funny thing about my brief cameo at Chandelier. I looked toward the bar and saw a woman walking away. I didn't get a head-on look, but I got a profile view. I was sure it was Marci, a frequent visitor who shares a lot of pictures and stories of her Vegas travels through Facebook groups dedicated to Vegas travel. I know several names and have seen pictures of the most prolific contributors to these groups, but I wouldn't expect to see or recognize them while wandering about. I didn't chase the woman down as she was walking away from my area, but I checked on Facebook that night, and sure enough I spotted Marci, one of the frequent contributor to a group called Talk Las Vegas. It was like spotting a celebrity.

We left Cosmo before four hours had passed. I paid $7 for parking. Not the end of the world, and I likely would have been ready to leave even had parking been free, but the fact that the base rate for parking increases after four hours was all the incentive I needed to move along. Who knows how my night might have been different had I not been paying for parking. I was content with paying $7 in order to park for dinner and a cocktail, but I didn't want to pay more than that. No big deal, I'm not Cosmo material anyway.

Our next stop was Orleans, the casino I liked staying at during the past several years. Unfortunately those comped weeknights that my girlfriend and I received two years earlier have stopped coming. We spent five nights at the Orleans in September 2015, and four of those nights were comped. We paid for the fifth, ate meals on the property, drank beers at the pool and charged it all to our room. And at that point they stopped comping me weeknight rooms. I don't get it.

I was disappointed on this Wednesday night to find that all of their $5 tables were auto-shuffle machines. I swear they were. I looked, and looked again. I use to be able to count on $5 double-deck pitch games, but not that night. I was highly disappointed.

I used that as a sign that it was my night to play Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em. I had good luck over the course of a couple of hours, winning $150 on $5 play. I cashed out and used a $10 match play to win a $10 spin on roulette. After tipping a few dollars, I finished my night at Orleans up $166.

We were on the road back to Tahiti Village around midnight, early enough to close out our night with a visit to the hot tub.

It was symbolically one of the saddest days of the year for me, but it turned out to be a pretty good one. Thank you, Vegas.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

#VegasHalloween (day 3): The best day of the year, unless you're Joe

Some of us have a favorite day of the year.

If I have one, it's Halloween.

I can't fully explain why I've come to love Halloween as much as I do, but part of me wishes I had this much Halloween enthusiasm 20 years ago.

Nonetheless, Halloween 2017 was my fifth Halloween in Vegas during the past seven years. I won't recount each of them since my first in 2011. The main reason I haven't been to Vegas on Halloween for seven years in a row: When it falls on a weekend, I am working at my haunted attraction here in Minnesota.

I started my morning with a 9 a.m. road trip. As noted from day 2, we didn't have any sort of non-stick coating for the frying pan, and I also needed one thing I forgot to bring with me from Minnesota. So it was off to Target. Having a rental car makes such trips possible.

It was a short, easy drive to Target, according to my phone map. I didn't have to fight with heavy traffic or hit the freeway to get to a Target store. The location of the nearby Target store turned out to be quite fortunate, as I would soon learn.

My friend Joe gave me cash to make a couple of sports bets for him while I was in Vegas. I warned him that I was staying at a time share property and wouldn't have automatic access to a sports book whenever he decided to make a bet. It turned out that he wanted to bet on two Monday games, but I wasn't leaving Tahiti Village until after 5 p.m., so there was little chance I would be able to make a bet for him. (Had I been able to, he would have won one bet and lost the other.) I asked at the concierge desk where the nearest sports book might be, and the woman said South Point, which she suggested was a quarter-mile south of Tahiti Village, I swear.

That sounded great, but I would learn two important things on Halloween morning: South Point was three-and-a-half miles away, and Silverton Casino was closer. Perhaps I simply misheard the woman the previous day.

So following my brief visit to Target on Halloween morning I was off to Silverton Casino, as Joe had already texted a Tuesday evening sports bet he wanted to place. There was only one problem, I assumed there was a turn to access the property after Dean Martin Drive. I was wrong. Next thing I know, I'm heading toward a variety of freeway options, and I'm not sure what I should do. Fortunately I chose to go southbound, which turned out to be a happy accident.

I drove a few miles down the freeway to the next exit, which happened to the exit for South Point. At that point it was clear that Silverton was my more convenient casino option. I asked my phone to map me back to Silverton and it basically suggested driving through a neighborhood south of the casino, parallel to the freeway. Fine with me!

It's funny how fascinating neighborhoods are in an area of the country where you don't live. I drove along neighborhoods full of modest homes, many of which seemed to be warehousing a boat, RV or some other mode of transportation in the driveway or elsewhere on the property. As I've come to expect, there's not a yard to speak of outside many of the houses, and it didn't seem like many of the houses had a lot of personal space around them. I'm sure there were plenty of patios with chairs for people to sit outside their homes when it wasn't scorching hot, but not that I could tell. I don't spend a ton of time sitting in my back yard, but I'm glad I have the space when I want it.

I was surprised to pass a roadside produce market of some sort during this five-minute drive. I didn't stop, but I couldn't help but wonder what they sold at this parcel of property between my car and the freeway. I do know they sold pumpkins, that was clear.

As I neared Silverton I saw a gated neighborhood that looked a little fancier. I was curious to know how big and fancy the homes were in that neighborhood.

Destination reached, I headed inside and quickly found my way to the sports book. Silverton has a large, pleasant casino floor, and it's rather quiet around there on a Tuesday morning in late October. People were few and far between. I bet $50 for Joe on an NBA game between two bad teams, and I felt like I was inconveniencing the guys at the sports book by showing up to place a wager. I also added $20 of my own money to the wager. I figured I wanted in on Joe's action.

It took me a minute to place the wager, because Joe wanted to bet on the Nets. I kept looking at the board and couldn't find a Tuesday night NBA game featuring New Jersey. It was only after looking at the printed odds sheet for the day's NBA action that I realized he was betting on the Brooklyn Nets. That shows you how much I follow the NBA these days.

I then returned to Tahiti Village with cheap sticks of margarine from Target to make omelets for our breakfast. From there it was out to the pool. I chose to wear pieces of last year's Halloween costume to the pool.

It's the Halloween costume that keeps on giving. A woman I passed in the lobby of our building was inspired to sing a Village People song. My ears are still bleeding.
Our lunch break was at the Tahiti Village bar/restaurant. They had a coupon in the booklet they gave us for a deal on two pizzas, so we ordered two and had leftovers to take back to the room. The pizza was decent and the price was fair, but my girlfriend's pint of craft beer was no bargain at $8. Oh well, $39 for lunch, including tip. And that was with a coupon. It would prove to be our most expensive meal of the day.

We spent additional time at the pool before getting ready for Halloween. We didn't take a picture of us together, although we planned to. My girlfriend put together a hat and necklace she ordered with a few black items to be a witch. I, inspired prior to Halloween 2016, went as writer/director/actor Kevin Smith.

Halloween was the night we decided to leave the car behind. I don't typically drink so much that I can't drive, but we decided that if there was going to be such a night, Halloween was it. Fortunately Tahiti Village has free shuttles, including a couple that run downtown during the evenings. We knew enough to sign up in advance, and did so on Monday. Our return trip, had we wanted it, was 2-3 hours after we arrived outside Golden Nugget, but we knew we'd stay downtown late, so we opted to take Lyft back to the resort.

Joe had texted me that afternoon, asking me to put $50 on the Houston Astros in the World Series. Same problem as Monday, I wouldn't get to a sports book in time on Halloween. (Houston would lose that game.) He later asked me to put $50 on the Detroit Pistons, who were playing that night in Los Angeles. That I was able to do at Golden Nugget.

We ate dinner at the Main Street Station buffet on Halloween night. Folks who dress up for Halloween don't tend to dine at the MSS buffet, I learned. We had a two-for-one coupon from Las Vegas Advisor, so we paid about $16 for our two meals. It was BBQ night, unfortunately, and none of their meats were going to be as good as what we had the previous night at Ellis Island, but we found enough to get by for the evening. I certainly didn't overeat. Our cheap, mediocre dinner reminded me why I stick to breakfast when I visit a Vegas buffet.

Halloween night on Fremont Street is a busy, crowded party. It was far more crowded up and down the street on Halloween 2017 than it was on Halloween 2011. I don't recall, but perhaps there weren't bars outside every casino in 2011. The lines for those bars certainly doesn't help the human flow. Between the lines at the bars and the crowds gathered at the music stages, it's a slow, chaotic mess for most of the evening. I wouldn't be able to put up with that on a nightly basis, but for Halloween, my tolerance is rather high.

If this is Halloween, I don't want to be there on New Year's Eve.
You see lots of creativity and bizarreness on Halloween night. I love gawking at all the nifty, head-scratching and barely-there costumes. We popped into a casino occasionally to gamble for a few minutes and escape the madness outside.

My costume wasn't one that is easily identifiable to most people, but I received an occasional comment from somebody who knew what I was going for. A guy came up to me on Fremont and his girlfriend wanted a picture of him and me together. I didn't immediately realize he was going as Kevin Smith, too. He said he slapped his costume together that afternoon. You can's see it in the picture below, but he was wearing more traditional denim shorts. I was wearing the longer "jorts" that Kevin Smith prefers.

Who is more convincing as Kevin Smith?
Late in the evening I was walking through Golden Nugget to meet up with my girlfriend, and a guy sitting at a machine saw me. He was a big Kevin Smith fan, evidently, and jumped out of his seat to greet me. He asked if I'd take a picture with him, which I did. He asked his buddy sitting nearby to take the pic, and his buddy seemed slightly inconvenienced by it all.

Years ago they had a parade on Halloween night that ended near the Fremont Street Experience, and a small street party, of sorts. That doesn't quite happen any more, but perhaps they had a portion of Fremont East closed for Halloween. We never ventured past Neonopolis.

There were a few vendors on the side street toward Downtown Grand. I think one was selling temporary tattoos, or something like that, and another might have had Halloween movie memorabilia, or something of the sort. I didn't look too close, but the whole thing seemed kind of lame, including the small "haunted house" they had set up there. It was definitely small, so perhaps it was a more involved experience than simply walking through tarp hallways inside a giant tent structure set up on the street, but it looked pathetic, and not many people appeared to be lining up for the $10 experience, even on Halloween. I'd love to hear one person's report of how good or bad it was.

I don't recall what the hearse (or was it an ambulance) parked at this Halloween market represented, but it was as good of a place as any to get one decent picture of me on Halloween.

A few friends think I look a lot like Kevin Smith.
We made a late evening appearance inside the new downtown White Castle. I don't love the restaurant, but I don't hate it. I am lucky if I go once in a year here in Minnesota. I wasn't interested in eating, but my girlfriend needed a small snack. On Halloween night it was a very popular place. It only took about 10 or 12 minutes to order food, but we waited at least 20 minutes after ordering to receive our modest order. We did sit down at a table while waiting, and a guy who was leaving --  and had bought a sack of 10 sliders -- offered half of his food to me and those sitting near me. So I had a slider despite my intention not to.

White Castle, in Vegas or anywhere else, becomes far more appealing after a night of drinking.
We ordered our Lyft at about 2 a.m., so it was close to 3 a.m. by the time we got to bed. There would be no hot tub on Halloween night. After eight hours downtown, we were ready for bed.

Halloween on a cold night in Minnesota, especially when it falls on a weeknight, is far from exciting. I can promise you I have 100 times more fun on Halloween in Vegas, and if the stars align in 2018, I'll be back in Sin City to do it all over again.

Oh yeah, regarding Joe's $50 bets on Brooklyn and Detroit, they were both the favorites, and they both lost. The only gambling I did downtown on Halloween night was at Golden Nugget. I wasted $10 on a machine and lost a $10 match play on roulette. With my $20 loss on Joe's Brooklyn Nets bet and dropping $20 at the Nugget, I was down $40 for the day.

My nieces would enjoy this colorful costume. 

This is what you get when you buy a bunch of overpriced costume pieces thru Amazon. Yeah, it's the "Macho Man," but not a very impressive effort. 

I didn't get very good pics of these guys, but they had different versions of the same costume idea. It's a clever bit, but if that' becomes the extent of my Halloween effort in Vegas, I'll no longer make the trip. 

If you're familiar with the DC superhero universe, then you'll recognize this guy as Aquaman. Perhaps not the most athletic depiction of Aquaman I've ever seen.

This wa a nice, simple, creepy look... but I did a lousy job of capturing it.

Let your freak flag fly on Halloween night in Vegas!

Nice homage to the little purple guy from Minnesota.

I found another "Macho Man" late in the evening. The addition of a "Miss Elizabeth" was a nice touch.

Not a great picture, but you can see that there's a group costume theme happening here. These folks were bandoleros, I suppose. I'm not sure wearing bandoliers of bullets is the most sensitive thing to do in Vegas 30 nights after a mass shooting on the south end of the strip.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

#VegasHalloween 2017 (day 2): Go with what you know

My girlfriend said that she wanted to designate chunks of time to relaxing during our vacation. She wanted to spend chunks of time lounging by a pool in the modest Vegas sun and reading one of her books.

Sometimes I spend my morning laying in bed and watching TV if I can't sleep. Monday wasn't entirely intended to be that way, but I did have plans to watch "The Price is Right" that morning, specifically because a guy I've followed via YouTube for a couple of years, Adam the Woo, was in the audience for the taping of the show, scheduled for Oct. 30. He didn't say if he was a contestant on the show, and I still don't know. Due to what I have to assume was a hastily scheduled episode meant to promote the "Bad Moms" Christmas flick being released on Nov. 1, his episode was bumped, and not to the next day. It is now scheduled to air on a Wednesday in January.

But I watched the actresses from the flick parade around the stage and screech too often when they'd open their mouths. I miss the simpler days when the show wasn't constantly looking for some sort of promotional gimmick to tie into the show.

I mad eggs, over easy, and bagels for our breakfast. I soon realized that without purchasing any sort of butter or nonstick spray, the eggs didn't flip so easily, despite having an alleged nonstick pan. It didn't help that I didn't have a large, flat spatula for flipping the eggs. There were utensils provided, but the only spatula in the bunch was the kind you use to scrape the side of a mixing bowl when you're dumping the contents into a pan. The eggs looked less than glamorous, but they were edible. I guess I should have made scrambled eggs that first morning.

We spent plenty of time in the pool, and it was a warm day. The average high temp in Vegas on Halloween is 74F. On the day before Halloween it was in the low 80s, and we loved it. (By comparison, it was 45-50 degrees cooler back home in Minneapolis that afternoon.) We soaked up plenty of sun, and I went for a dip in the pool occasionally to cool off. The Tahiti Village pool is heated, most of the time. It was like bath water on that Monday.

Yes, I drink cheap domestic beer in aluminum bottles when at the pool in Vegas. Shame on me. 

We also spent some time floating in their lazy river, which is adjacent to the main pool. The lazy river doesn't seem to get much sun, at least in late October, and the water wasn't as warm. It was pleasant enough, and I'll bet it's great in July, but I wasn't going to spend two hours floating around the river, especially since I had to steer my girlfriend away from every water feature that rained down upon the river. She seemed to have an aversion to the pool water.

We didn't plan ahead, so we didn't have any pre-made sandwiches for our lunch. We decided to go to the Denny's on the perimeter of the property for a late lunch and spend more on that meal than we'd spend on dinner. Go figure.

Our evening was built around my desire to return to Las Vegas Haunts, the other local haunted attraction with a history in Vegas. Las Vegas Haunts has two mazes, an asylum and a hotel. They're run very similar to the Freakling Bros. mazes, you have to send small groups into the maze because there are areas that take time to pass through.

My girlfriend, not wanting to visit the attraction, fond a nail place nearby, so I dropped her off there prior to my showing up for the haunted mazes, which opened at 6:30 p.m.

I was near the front of the line when the entry gates opened, so I decided I could skip spending the extra $10 for the VIP ticket. I spent $25 for their two mazes and got in line for the hotel first. I worked in an asylum maze for years at my seasonal Halloween job, so I have an affection for the asylum theme, and therefore wanted it to be my finale.

As I said, I was returning to Las Vegas Haunts, as I visited their attraction in 2011 when I made my first Halloween trip to Vegas. (I went to both haunted Las Vegas Haunts and Freakling Bros. on the same Sunday night that year.) My return visit was six years to the date of my first visit, Oct. 30.

Since it was the beginning of the night and I had no friends with me, I was able to go through the hotel by myself. I assumed I'd be added to a family or other group, but that wasn't the case. Although I had been there six years prior, I didn't remember much about their attractions, so it could have been exactly the same and I wouldn't have known it.

Following the hotel, there was already a decent line that accumulated for the asylum. I forgot just how long the stagger is between each group, and it took longer than I anticipated to enter. I regretted not spending the $10 for a VIP ticket. I would have been done 30 minutes sooner, and my girlfriend wouldn't have been stuck waiting for me.

I won't win an award for my iPhone photos, but this is the entryway into the asylum at Las Vegas Haunts.

Both Las Vegas Haunts mazes have really good set decorations and plenty of actors. They don't put on as spectacular of a show overall when compared to Freakling Bros., but it's entertaining. They have a great effect using fog and a room in their asylum, and there's a room in the hotel with several doors that you have to open before you find your way out.

I wouldn't say Las Vegas Haunts is fun for the whole family, it will creep out children and scare those who jump at the site of their shadow, but it's not as intense as Freakling Bros.

Somehow they get away with not paying the actors in their haunted attractions. I don't get it. Their website claims you do receive perks for your effort. The only perk I'd accept is straight cash, homey.

After picking up my girlfriend we headed back to Ellis Island. Las Vegas Haunts was set up in the parking lot of Meadows Mall, just west of Springs Preserve, so we were somewhat close to downtown, but we decided to go back to Ellis Island for a 2-for-1 meal at their BBQ restaurant.

We arrived after 8 p.m. and didn't have to wait to be seated. We ordered the same meals we always do, the half chicken, half rack of ribs combo. After our order I ran out to the casino and put $5 into a poker machine to play hands of video blackjack at $2 a hand. I wanted to print the player's club discount coupon for running $5 through the machine, and managed to win $2 for playing a few hands. With our Las Vegas Advisor coupon and our player's club discount, we spent $14.30 on two meals, pre-tip.

I don't look creepy at all. Yes, I'm wearing a five-year-old T-shirt representing the amusement park of death in Minnesota, where I work each fall. 

During our dinner I was able to see the end of the Broncos/Chiefs Monday Night Football game. Remember that sports bet from Sunday. I bet $40 on the Chiefs at -7. The Chiefs kicked a field goal  in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter that gave them a 16-point lead. I was quite confident that I was going to win. Then Denver runs a two-minute offense that ends with a touchdown and cuts the lead to 10. The failed two-point conversion pretty much iced the game for Kansas City with a couple of minutes left, but Denver did get the ball back with a little time to attempt to score once more. A late, meaningless touchdown would have made me a loser against the spread, but thankfully that didn't happen.

After dinner we cashed in our three free rounds of drinks coupon at the bar, and I continued to play really cheap video blackjack and keno. I ran enough cash through the machine to redeem two free play coupons, and each coupon gave me $10 in free play. I used the free play on $5 hands of video blackjack and won three of four hands. That free play, and my modest winnings at 50-cent and $1 video blackjack gave me $40 in winnings.

I also spent 30 minutes or so playing blackjack in the pit. I wouldn't say I had great luck, but I won a hand with a $10 match play, and I received a free $25 bet for buying in at $100 and having a Las Vegas Advisor coupon. When I finally played that free bet I was dealt a 14. The hand was against some high card, so I hit, and made 20. The dealer also made 20, so we pushed. I was dealt a lousy 13 or 14 hand again, and had to hit against a high card. I made another 20, and the dealer didn't beat me, so I won $25. When I cashed out I was $25 up, so that tells me I didn't have a winning session, but I was happy to walk way with more than I bought in with, and I left Ellis Island that night with a modest $101 in profit. My girlfriend won a little money playing cheap slots, too.

Our night concluded with pints of Bud Light in the hot tub, which wasn't very hot. The heat had been cut, so the hot tub was merely warm. But we chatted with a couple from Cleveland for a few minutes and drank our beer before retiring for the night.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

#VegasHalloween 2017 (night 1): It's good to be home again

Most people like to hit the ground running when they arrive in Vegas. That seldom seems to be the case for me these days.

Despite that, I logged several hours of activity during my first evening in town, although gambling wasn't much a part of it.

I enjoy spending Halloween in Vegas, and this year was my fifth time doing so in seven years. The drawback to traveling to Vegas in late October, it comes after the busiest month of my year. As a suburban newspaper reporter, I have some sort of election to cover every fall. There's a lot I have to do, besides my regular weekly routine, during the weeks leading up to an election. As demanding as that is, I make my life more exhausting by working most Friday and Saturday nights leading up to Halloween. I do security work at a local haunted attraction, so that means long hours on my feet during an already busy and challenging month. I'm an idiot, but I chose to be.

So in the 48 hours prior to departure I tend to get little sleep. By the time I sit down on a plane, I'm exhausted.

This year's trip was with my girlfriend, flying via Southwest. And it was super cheap because we worked their credit cards to earn not only a boatload of points, but a companion pass as well. Given the annual fees for two credit cards and a few bucks in tax for our tickets, we spent less than $200 on two round-trip tickets, and we have tons of points left to use for future travel.

The drawback to flying Southwest from Minneapolis to Vegas, you can't get a direct flight. We flew through St. Louis to get there.

My brother uses Southwest quite a bit, and he provided us with four coupons for free drinks. We didn't order any on the short flight to St. Louis, but we ordered two rounds on our way to Vegas. Our flight attendant didn't collect them initially, and we wondered if she would. Uncertain, I decided I'd spend the $10 for a third round, should she collect for our tab at the end of the flight. She didn't, so we kept the four drink coupons and each had three free drinks on our way to Sin City. I was winning before I got off the plane.

Once again I rented my car through Alamo, via my Costco membership. Costco beats the price Alamo gives me, even as an "insider," or whatever they call their free program I signed up for. Costco usually offers a comparable vehicle for a little less through Budget, but I like Alamo 100 times more, so I gladly pay the extra $10 or so.

Our destination this year was Tahiti Village, a time share property near the car rental center, south of the strip. It's on Las Vegas Boulevard, and it's huge, but there's not a lot nearby to make the location ideal. But there's a lot to like about it, and it worked out well for us this trip. I did not get a promotional rate to stay for three nights and sit through a tedious presentation. I bought a seven-night stay outright from an owner, in a one-bedroom unit with a full kitchen. I didn't need the full kitchen, but I did make use of it. The cost for seven nights, only six of which we used: $400. There were no fees on the back end, and I didn't have to sit through a presentation.

There was a lot to like about the property, and it turned out to be a good deal for us this year. I'll detail all of those things in a couple of weeks, whenever I wrap up my trip reports.

Before checking in, we stopped at the nearby Total Wine store to buy some beers to get our week started. Inside the store was a guy carrying what I could only presume was a "therapy" pet. It certainly wasn't a service dog, but it had one of those little jackets on. Call me a jerk, but I'd argue that if you need a therapy pet in order to go shopping, you probably shouldn't be buying alcohol.

After checking in and hauling our luggage and beer to our unit, we headed to Ellis Island for our first meal. I'm a big proponent of the Las Vegas Advisor coupon book, and we immediately put it to use in the cafe, ordering two prime rib dinners with a 2-for-1 coupon. Two good meals for under $20, it's hard to knock that. My only mistake, ordering the $5 shrimp cocktail. I didn't pay attention to what they serve, I only wanted decent shrimp and sauce, and they serve a true cocktail, modest shrimp mixed with disgusting celery. Live and learn.

After dinner I dropped $40 on the Monday night football game and we left the building. I saved the free drinks and free play coupons from our book for another night, as I knew we'd be back a couple of times.

We headed to a Walmart store to pick up groceries. We bought breakfast food, fruit, bottled water and more beer, at a better price than we paid for beer at Total Wine. (We were buying aluminum pint bottles of Bud Light. The craft beer we bought at Total Wine, we weren't going to find that at Walmart.) I also bought three bags of Halloween candy, as I had a delivery to make.

Last year I traveled to Vegas with four friends from the haunted attraction where I work. Our first night in town included a visit to Freakling Bros., a brilliant, well-crafted haunted attraction which features three mazes. The folks who run Freakling Bros. had no reason to treat their Minnesota guests like royalty, they didn't own us anything. But I had contacted them prior to our arrival, and they rolled out the red carpet. I was stunned.

My friends couldn't afford a return visit to Vegas this year, but I wanted to say thanks to Duke, the owner, and his staff for their hospitality and great show. We took a group picture of all of us outside the "Gates of Hell" last year, and I had a copy of the picture printed, which we signed. One of my friends suggested we stage a similar picture at our haunted attraction this year, in costume, and give them that picture, too. So that's what I did. The bags of candy were for their staff, as well.

My group's visit to the Freakling Bros. Trilogy of Terror, Oct. 30, 2016. 

The same group at the entrance to one of the haunted attractions where we work, Oct. 20, 2017.

Duke didn't immediately recognize me, but he remembered our group when I explained who we were. (He remembered the picture of us, too. We realized he took it for us last year.) He was touched by the gesture, and this shouldn't surprise me. He had no reason to expect that a member of the group from Minnesota that he had forgotten about would show up again this year, and I'm sure he wasn't expecting simple thank you gifts.

Duke and I talked for a bit, and he asked if I was planning to go through the mazes. I wasn't since I was there solo. I explained that my girlfriend stayed back at the resort, as she had visited Freakling Bros. with me in 2012. She had been to a few haunted attractions with me prior to that night in 2012, but after three Freakling Bros. mazes, she decided it was time to retire from haunted attractions. She hasn't been to one since.

Duke wasn't going to send me on my way without giving me some sort of show. He practically insisted that I go through a maze, at least "Gates of Hell," their R-rated attraction. He noted that one of the rooms had been redesigned this year.

I wasn't surprised that Duke offered me a free visit to his attraction, given how generous he was to our group last year. I agreed to visit "Gates of Hell," and was inserted into the VIP line.

I won't spoil the details, but I will say a few simple things about "Gates of Hell." It's the only attraction where they'll make physical contact with you. It's mild, but it's an element of the maze. They will use mild profanity during the maze, and they mock traditional Christian beliefs. If you're offended by that sort of show, you probably shouldn't visit the "Gates of Hell."

The mazes at Freakling Bros. are designed to accommodate small groups, typically no more than five. There are design elements that prohibit the operators from pushing through large groups in conga lines, and that's what makes it such a great attraction. It also costs a bit more than your standard haunted house, and the wait in the main line can take quite a while, but I suspect few people complain when the experience is over. It's that good. I can't recommend the place enough to those who enjoy a good Halloween show.

I went through with a couple. The guy was our leader, and his girlfriend was in the middle. She was a little freaked out by the very first element of the maze, and I thought she was going to chicken out immediately, but she survived. At some point during our adventure one of the monsters not only touched her, but picked her up as if he was going to carry her off. That freaked her out a bit. She not only insisted upon holding onto her boyfriend ahead of her, she insisted upon holding my hand as I followed behind her. She really didn't want anyone coming up behind her and scaring her like that again.

We all shared a good laugh during our conversation after we exited. I talked with Duke further, and without asking he answered a question I had wondered about. How did the Oct. 1 massacre affect his attraction, particularly since the "Gates of Hell" relies upon gun violence as part of its show. (His opening weekend was the same weekend as the massacre.)

Duke said he was nervous about public backlash to his maze, but he kept it as is. He said that his overall receipts were down a bit in comparison to the previous year, and that the numbers were finally comparable toward the end of the season.

After chatting with Duke again, I departed for the resort. The Freakling Bros. mazes were about 20 minutes from Tahiti Village. I returned to find my girlfriend had fallen asleep waiting for me. She wasn't surprised one bit that it took me more than an hour to make my visit. She knows I like to chat, and she wasn't surprised I ended up going through one of the mazes.

We finished our night with beers in the adult hot tub, which is accessible 24 hours a day. That's a great benefit of staying at a time share property, and we took advantage of it multiple times.