Monday, June 4, 2018

How am I going to Vegas twice this summer?

I've been going to Vegas since January 1997. Most years I've made at least one trip, but there were a few years where I never made it.

I didn't keep detailed trip reports of my visits. The Internet was barely a thing in 1997, nobody was thinking about blogging or posting trip reports. I'd love to have a list of the trips, travel companions, nights spent, hotel(s) occupied and fortunes lost over the past 21+ years.

By my calculations, I've been to Vegas more than 30 times. My first solo trip was 27 hours. I spent less than 24 hours in Sin City during a trip to Laughlin several years ago. I tend to go at least five nights when I travel these days.

I started traveling solo to Vegas circa 2004, before I knew that was a thing. I figured if I couldn't find a friend who could commit to a trip, why should I forgo a visit? I've done the solo trip at least a handful of times, including Halloween 2011. My first Halloween in Vegas. I loved it so much that I've spend five of the past seven Halloweens in Vegas.

For a few years I was averaging two trips to Vegas per year, but that is no longer the norm. My girlfriend and I started dating in early 2012. She went to Vegas with me for Halloween that year. She doesn't love it like I do, but she loves the cheap vacation, and knows it's one of the few places I want to go. So for most of the past six years we've split our vacation time between Vegas and a destination of her choosing. I won't go to Nashville with her, but in recent years we've been to San Antonio, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, New Orleans and, as of a month ago, Key West. I had been to three of those places and liked them well enough that I was willing to return, but they're not places I plan to visit annually.

I was in Vegas last Halloween, and I expected my next visit to Sin City to be this coming Halloween. That changed a few weeks ago.

For the past several years I've been getting together during the summer with one or two college friends and attending a Major League Baseball game at a ballpark I've never been to. In 2012 I was in Boston. In 2013 I was in Dallas and Houston. In 2014 I went to Pittsburgh. In 2016 I was in Tampa and Miami. Last year I went to St. Louis, Atlanta and Cincinnati.

This year the trip was supposed to be to San Francisco and Oakland. Actually, it was supposed to be to San Fran and Oakland last year, but it was postponed. A few weeks ago it was postponed again.

That's because it's not cheap to get to San Fran when you want to go by train from Chicago, and that's part of the San Fran itinerary. One of my buddies, Woody, has been saving Amtrak points via his Amtrak credit card for about five years, but it's not cheap, or easy, to convert the points into the train ticket we want. So three or four weeks ago we postponed the train yet again and considered other destinations. Woody has been to all 30 current ballparks as of last year, so now he's doubling back to previous destinations, in part because I'm going to try to get to all 30. I've been to 18 of the current ballparks as of today.

We considered three cities as options for our 2018 trip after we aborted San Fran again. There were a few cities we ruled out this year for various reasons. Our options were San Diego and Anaheim, Kansas City or Arizona.

Kansas City is easy to visit any year I want. It's about six hours from Minnesota. And it's not far from Woody in Milwaukee. Our third friend, Roast Beef, lives in Boston and doesn't always make it on our baseball trips. He has family in Kansas City, so I thought that might have appeal to him, but he preferred to go somewhere that would feel more like vacation this year. He found great rates on weekly timeshare rentals, and soon we were booking seven night in Vegas during that same early August week we had blocked off for San Fran.

Why Vegas? Woody hasn't been there since 2000, and is curious to see how different it is. He doesn't love it, but he had been there a few times during the 1990s. I'm pretty sure he made his first trip to Sin City before I did.

Woody also knows that I have long wanted to see a minor league baseball game in Vegas. So the idea was that we'd go to Vegas for part of a trip and drive over to Phoenix for an Arizona Diamondbacks game. And that's what we're doing in two months.

Fun fact: Beef has only been to Vegas once, to the best of my knowledge, and that was with Woody and me in April 2000. So the three of us will return together more than 18 years later, and it will be the first return visit for both of these guys. I've been there at least 25 times since then, and probably 30. Needless to say I'm the driver and tour guide for this trip.

The thought of hot summer nights in Vegas never crossed my mind a month ago when I was in Key West. I was sure I'd be going to San Francisco this summer. And within days of returning from Florida: Boom, a bonus visit to Vegas.

I still intend to go to Vegas for Halloween, so this is most definitely a bonus trip.

And then a funny thing happened late last week.

My girlfriend and I have stayed at The Orleans a handful of times, although not since 2015, as we stopped getting good offers from our favorite Vegas casino. We're not high rollers, but we'd get decent offers that would entice us to stay and spend money there, as opposed to downtown.

Although I put in more time gambling at Orleans than my girlfriend does, she was the only person to get an email offer last week. She priced a five-night hotel stay over Fourth of July week and found that we could stay there for $257, resort fee included. (It's waived for this offer.)

Obviously the Fourth of July week isn't a super busy week, and reservations are light, otherwise she wouldn't be receiving a $50/night offer. Although Vegas isn't her first choice for a vacation destination, she knows how cheap it can be, and she wants an excuse to travel this summer if at all possible.

Last year we jumped through the necessary hoops to score a great deal from Southwest Airlines. She signed up for two credit cards and we used them to charge the minimum required on each within three months. We earned bonus miles for both cards, and my girlfriend earned a companion pass from Southwest for the remainder of 2017 and all of 2018. We have only used it thus far to go to Vegas last fall and Florida this spring, but my girlfriend has plenty of points left in her account and wanted to go somewhere this summer and fall. So with free airfare for both of us to Vegas and a $250 room for five nights, she offered to go to Vegas in less than four weeks.

Needless to say, she didn't have to twist my arm.

I have yet to tell my buddies I have booked a pre-Vegas trip for our August Vegas trip. I'm still in awe of the fact that five days ago I was tickled by the fact I'd get to go to Vegas once this summer. And now I'm going twice.

And yes, Halloween in Vegas remains on my to-do list this fall. Wish me luck!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

15 minutes for tips on how to go about saving a few bucks on a trip to Vegas

Occasionally I get a request for advice on things to do, ways to save money, etc., regarding Vegas. You go annually, people notice.

I received a request from Randi for some advice today. Randi and her husband Luke live here in Minnesota and are looking to go for 2-3 nights, and like most people, their budget isn't unlimited, so they're looking for ways to save a few bucks. Randi has been to Vegas for the past few years, attending an annual conference. But that hasn't afforded her a lot of time to see Vegas for herself, but I suspect it gives her a few ideas of what she might like to do. All I know is that she doesn't have a strong preference for her hotel. So I'm going to make a few recommendations without the benefit of knowing ultimate preferences. I'm also going to see what I can come up with in only 15 minutes of typing. So here it comes, unedited. Start the clock:

When booking airfare and hotel, there are two ways to go about it. There are packages that you can book, thru Travelocity and other providers, and you can book air and hotel separately. Spend time comparing costs for your chosen hotel and nights, both ways, and do it a few days in a row, at minimum, so you can get an idea of what a deal is for your itinerary.

If you book airfare, consider Southwest. Bags are free, and they're competitive. It's a bit goofy of an airline, and you can't fly direct, but if you can afford the extra 90 minutes or so on each leg of your trip to fly through Denver, you can save $100 or more on your trip. That pays for a fancy dinner. Sometimes you'll even find a good rate via a direct carrier, such as Sun Country. I say avoid Spirit airlines.

Hotel deals are hard to find. YOu can find them, but not as easily, and not as spectacular. Figure out what property you want, more or less, on the strip and downtown. Then watch and pray.

My philosohpy, if you paln ahead, you can buy airfare at the lowest rate, and get a godo deal on a hotel, probably at a time when the airlines aren't having sales.

As for your costs once you get there, every casino wants to make money any way it can, and will charge you plenty if you dont' care. Since Luke is a culinary master, he'll be keenly aware of cost versus quality. When it comes to quality and fine dining, there aren't many corners to cut, but when it comes to eating decent food at a good price, there are options. There are more options downtown, and I can list a few if you stay downtown. If you stay on teh strip, there are options, too. Assume you're going to watn to spend cash on a fine meal somewhere. You'll pay plenty for a restaurant with Giada's name on it. But if you want good meals at low prices, we can point you to a few. You're not going to eat a fancy steak for $10 at dinner, but you need not pay ridiculous prices for a lot of meals, if you're willing to sacrifice a few minutes or more per meal to get a good deal. AGain, that's something I'd speak more to once you have an itinerary.

TRansportation: No matter where you're staying, if you need to get back and forth, use Uber or Lyft. Most casinos make it easy to access them somewhere on the property, and so many people report such significant savings that it's crazy to use a taxi. Since yoru time is limited, I don't recommend using the bus very often. It's slow when teh strip is busy. In the morning, if you're going north from MGM to the the Wynn, it might not be so slow, but don't rely on the bus to get you places otherwise.

There are food discounts avialble, the best of those is in a coupon book I wrote extensively about. Here's the link.

This isn't a way to save thousands on your vacation, but it will easily save you $40, or more. I'll skip my speech about gambling benefits of the book. There are benefits, but don't factor that into your equation.

Show tickets. If you want to go to the biggest name shows, you'll pay plenty, and deep discounts are typically tricky to see. Most evening shows don't come cheap, but there are some decent, entertaining shows that do rely upon selling discount tickets around Vegas on teh day of teh show. This is tricky, you have to get up in the morning and go stand in line at one of the many ticket broker booths, but some people are happy with teh savings they get. I think you can get 2-for1 to Zombie Burlesque pretty easily without a lot of work.

I'm out of time. I'll provide better suggestions as yoru planning dictates.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book review: 14 things to do in Vegas before you die

Among the things given to us when we checked in at Tahiti Village last October was a sheet listing 100 things to do in Vegas.

I didn't inspect it closely, but I kept it, thinking I would critique it at some point via this blog. Instead I threw it away. 

Now I'm curious to know what that list contained, and if it was as bizarre as the 100 things listed in a 2016 book, "100 Things to do in Las Vegas Before You Die."

I was perusing my local library's Vegas book collection not so long ago and found the book. It is written by two former writers for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. You'd expect it would have great details and great local perspective. Well, not so much. 

The book's preface notes that it lists "bucket list" items for both the tourist and the Vegas area resident. Many of the items aren't worthy of any such list, regardless of your residency status. There are some interesting, obvious and bizarre suggestions in the book, and here's a sampling of what you'll find in the book. I'll leave it to you to decide which entries are interesting, obvious or bizarre. 
  • The book has a list of craft breweries and places to find craft beers, both in the touristy areas and in the suburbs. I'm not sure going to a craft brewery in Henderson really needs to be on a bucket list, but for the uninitiated, the book gives you a clue that you can sample local, small batch beer at a few casino properties.
  • Enjoying a meal "al fresco" warrants an entry, and offers three suggestions of places to eat outdoors. You haven't lived until you've eaten an outdoor meal at Paris Las Vegas.
  • If you want to drink or dine at a "Vegas dive," there are a few suggestions, although the book doesn't tell you why you should visit Frankie's Tiki Room. Hint: Don't go there for the veal.
  • I had no idea there were wineries in Pahrump, but if I die tomorrow, I don't think not having visited one will be near the top of my regret list.
  • I'm not sure why tasting boba tea in Vegas is critical for tourists or residents, but a place called Cafe Teaze has servers who wear lingerie. Suddenly I'm interested in trying boba tea, otherwise known as bubble tea, as best as I can tell. I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of this before. I had to look up this place to learn more about it. Located in Chinatown, it changed its name to Milk Teaze at some point, evidently, and a Facebook page for the business notes that as of late January the location has closed due to a lease issue. But the owners promise to find a new location.
  • An eclair at Jerry's Nugget gets an entry, although nowhere is it mentioned that this should be the last item you knock off your bucket list, for safety reasons.
  • Three happy hours are worthy of mentioning on a page dedicated to the topic. Perhaps they should have limited the book to 99 things.
  • Celebrating Oktoberfest in Vegas is a must-do, so they say. Yes, make sure to experience a knock off of the German celebration at Hofbrauhaus, by all means.
  • White Castle at Casino Royale makes the list. Of all the chains that aren't called McDonald's, White Castle is the one to highlight? A "tip" at the bottom of the page, which is found on a bunch of the entries, mentions a few other chains you can find, including In-n-Out.
  • Two entries are set aside for gambling and exploring the strip. Do we really need bucket list items for such general activities that are a lot of the reason people come to Vegas in the first place?
  • Glorifying an EDM DJ at an expensive nightclub makes the book's list of things to do in Vegas. If I live another 50 years my life will be incomplete when I die.
  • I haven't lived unless I've experienced the National Finals Rodeo, allegedly.
  • Going to a concert, at places such as Bunkhouse Saloon, Brooklyn Bowl and The Pearl is unlike anything you'll ever experience in Milwaukee. The "go to a concert" page does note two festivals that take place annually, although it tells you nothing about why you should go to all the trouble to attend Life is Beautiful.
  • I had no idea that I could discover a desert oasis at Wetlands Park. I can't recall seeing any chatter or discussion about this county park, where you can ride your bike, allegedly. I'm curious to learn more about this park, wherever it is.
  • You can pick your own produce at Gilcrease Orchard in North Las Vegas. You haven't lived until you've picked apples from a spring-fed orchard in the desert.
  • It turns out there are at least three parks in the area that have ponds stocked with fish. Catch a catfish from a stocked pond in Vegas before you die!
  • For some reason geocaching in Vegas is worthy of your bucket list. If you don't know what this is, it's a high-tech game of hide-and-seek. It's a great hobby that can be fun for the family, and can be a great way to discover and explore parks and other public areas near and far. I use to spend time enjoying the activity, and have done it in Vegas during a few trips. Some people like to do a little geocaching everywhere they travel, and I've done my share of it in multiple states while on vacations in the past, but I'd say skip going to the trouble of doing it in Vegas unless you've tried it at home first, are hooked on it and can't take a vacation from it.
  • There are three places to shoot a machine gun, or other firearms, the book reminds us, including AR-15s. I'm gonna guess a new printing of the book would include an edit of this page. 
  • You haven't lived until you have signed up for slot clubs at Vegas casinos.
  • Dancing in a casino lounge: Gotta do it!
  • You must savor an artisan cocktail in Vegas. You must. While four places to do so are noted, including The Cosmopolitan, nowhere does it note one of the most unusual cocktails you'll ever discover, the Verbena at Cosmo's Chandelier bar.
  • Witnessing a wedding, if not having your own, in Vegas is essential. I've never been to a Vegas wedding. What am I to do? According to the book, I can hang out at the wedding license bureau to see if there's a couple looking for a witness.
  • There's a Martin Luther King Jr. statue in North Las Vegas. It's in a historically significant area, I'm told, but I'd argue that visiting Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King once preached, and is now maintained as a national park, might be a better way to honor his memory.
  • Almost every review I've read says that Gold & Silver Pawn, famous thanks to the "Pawn Stars" TV show, is not worth the effort to visit. The authors think you need to go there before you die.
  • Somehow a nail spa that does fancy nail art makes the Vegas 100 bucket list. How much did Scratch Nail Spa in Henderson pay to be included in the book?
  • You gotta "drop some cash at the finest stores around." Until you do, you haven't lived.
  • For some reason you need to visit one of four record stores listed in the book, if record collecting is your thing. Why not list comic book and toy stores as two more items when you start running out of ideas?
  • If I had to judge the quality of this book based upon one thing, I'd base it upon how well it touts the Pinball Hall of Fame. As a devout pinball enthusiast who knows a decent amount about the place, I could tell you more than you'd want to know, unless you're a pinhead like me. As for the book, its summation of the hall of fame is lackluster. It gives you a basic description of the place, noting that there are machines from the 1950s through the 1990s, and cites a few machine themes. I'm not sure where their info came from, but it's a rather sloppy entry that could have done a far better job of detailing what you'll find. But the tip at the bottom of the page notes you can peruse the interior of it via Google Maps. The images are outdated, as many machines have been moved around, but it gives you a good idea, and a great view of a bunch of the machines you can find in there today.
The book is a compilation of information, some of which is outdated, naturally, thanks to the nature of Vegas. It has some good information about things that would be of interest to Vegas rookies as well as transplants who haven't had a chance to explore the greater Vegas area, but not enough to make it worth the $16 cover price.

The book falls short in a several ways. It gives you addresses for many places, but doesn't tell you where they are in relation to anything else, with limited exceptions. Sometimes it's obvious a business is in a casino, sometimes it's obvious a location is outside of the tourist districts, but plenty of times it's not very clear.

There are driving directions, and time estimates, for a few of the destinations noted in the book, such as ghost towns, but nowhere does it suggest which items are best suited for locals or which places are reasonably accessible for tourists who don't have their own vehicle to get around.

While prices are subject to change, there's rarely a hint of what it might cost to see a museum or attend a festival. Yes, I can do my own research, and that's what this book seems to expect me to do. I get it, it's not a visitor's guide with excruciating detail, but it has so little information about anything it references that it serves as little more than a book of ideas, ideas you can find on websites galore.

The book's title leads you to believe that it's a great resource full of great ideas, but it falls short on both counts. 

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.