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.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My #VegasHalloween itinerary

For the fifth time in seven years I will spend Halloween night in Las Vegas. (Three weeks from now Halloween will be over.) Damn, I wish I was having as much fun on Halloween night when I was in my 20s.

I have a lot of plans for my visit to Sin City, and not all of them will come to fruition, I know. Here's a rough list of things I plan to do during my time in The Meadows.

Halloween fun: I haven't been to Las Vegas Haunts since 2011. I plan to see their show again, as they do a nice job. They have two mazes, one is a hotel, one is an asylum. During a recent conversation I had about their attraction, I came to realize that they should have redesigned their haunted hotel to pay homage to the Riviera after its closing two years ago.

 I also plan to stop by the Freakling Bros. Triology of Terror when I get to town, as I have a thank you gift for them, given the hospitality they showed my group last year.

Halloween night will be spent downtown. Yes I will have a costume. No, I won't be the "Macho Man" Randy Savage again this year.

Lunch with a friend: It turns out two friends will be in Vegas during my trip. Rachel will be arriving the same day I do, and will be staying at Luxor. Karla will arrive after Halloween and will be staying at Mandalay Bay. Since I'm staying at Tahiti Village, south of the strip, it should be easy to meet up with them on the sound end of the strip for lunch. Karla will be there for all of 48 hours, so there's a decent chance she won't have time to meet for lunch, but you never know. There's something magical about seeing friends in Vegas when your trips coincide.

Magic: There's one show on my itinerary for this trip, and that's Xavier Mortimer's Magical Dream. It comes recommended by the folks at Vital Vegas. (It's one guy.)

Art: My girlfriend was not with me last Halloween, but she was intrigued by Seven Magic Mountains, so we'll probably take a road trip south to visit the site, and use it as an excuse to have lunch at Steak 'n Shake. There's only one in Vegas, and it's at South Point. I love that place, and I can't get it in Minnesota.

I'm also planning to visit the Wheel of Misfortune. A peculiar art installation in the desert which I didn't know anything about until I read about it at Vital Vegas.

My trip will include visits to plenty of my usual properties. I'll play cards at the Orleans at least one night, I'll eat cheap food at Ellis Island a couple of times (with coupons) and I'll spend a few hours, at least once at the Pinball Hall of Fame. When I'm in Vegas, it's the one thing I must do. Hard to believe I've never finished my blog post about it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Vegas will never be the same

Exactly 48 hours ago I was sitting at this computer, reading tidbits about the Vegas massacre online, wondering exactly how bad it was.

I watched overnight coverage of the situation for two hours. I was on fumes at work all day Monday.

Plenty of people have shared thoughts about the chaos, theories about why it happened, conspiracy theories on what actually happened and sentiments of resilience.

I live in the Minneapolis area. I live less than 10 miles from Mall of America, one of the largest malls in the world. It was built to be that way 25 years ago. And since Sept. 11, 2001, it has been carefully monitored as a potential target of terrorism, not unlike Las Vegas.

Whether a perpetrator is a foreign terrorist with a vendetta against America or a U.S. citizen determined to cause domestic chaos, popular gathering places are a magnet to such people. Safeguards have been in place for years, but we all know that there's a limit to how much any shopping mall, sports venue or city can do to prevent a mass casualty incident from happening.

I was talking with a police officer months ago, an officer I know well. I told her that I'm certain a mass casualty incident will occur at the mall in my lifetime. It's not a matter of if, but a question of when. She agreed. Law enforcement agencies prepare for such events, never knowing exactly how they'll unfold, but expecting that they will at some point.

Vegas has been cited as a terrorism target by the fear mongers that spout hatred. Likewise Mall of America. I haven't been anticipating a mass casualty incident in Vegas, but like Mall of America, I expected it in my lifetime. I never imagined an incident on the scale of what unfolded late Sunday night in Sin City.

There will be plenty of rhetoric in the weeks and months to come about how we prevent the next Vegas massacre from happening elsewhere. It seems plenty of us agree on one thing, when it comes to gun control, nothing will change. I'm not sure greater gun control would make a difference in the future of our country. It wouldn't prompt an increase in mass casualty incidents, and perhaps it would prevent one or two from year to year. But at the end of the day, we'll never put an end to the gun trade, legal and illegal, and we won't see an end of terrorism, mental illness or whatever it is that drives mass casualty incidents in our country.

Four weeks from right now I'll be wrapping up my Halloween in Vegas celebration. I'll forget, for the most part, what happened on that horrific night at the beginning of the month. I'll enjoy my evening, and not worry about my safety. I'll be thankful I've never been personally affected by any of the mass casualty incidents that have scarred our country. I'll go back to life as normal, even if I'll never forget.

I can decide what should or shouldn't be done for the betterment of our country. But the reality is that I personally cannot resolve the issues that plague our country and prompt mass casualty incidents. All I can do is pray (and be thankful) that I never have to endure or live with the pain associated with experiencing a mass casualty incident, or lose a friend of family member because of one.

For those whose lives will never be the same because of the Vegas massacre or other such incidents, you have my deepest sympathy.

I will enjoy my time in Vegas, and I won't change the way I go about my business because of one horrific night. But I will think back to that night for the rest of my life, and will always remember the sorrow associated with it. For me, and many others, Vegas will never be the same.

Friday, September 8, 2017

How I spend my time when I make a solo trip to Vegas

I didn't intend to take the summer off when it comes to writing about Vegas, but that's what happened.

I'll have a few thoughts to share in the weeks to come, as forthcoming trips always inspire creativity. I'll be spending Halloween in Vegas again this year.

This morning I responded to one of the many online discussions about the merits of traveling solo to Vegas, and wrote enough that it should be memorialized here. (I need to keep my answers short and sweet when it comes to online forums.)

Here's a slightly edited version of what I posted: 

There was a time in my life when I wanted to go to Vegas, and friends claimed they wanted to go to with me, but wouldn’t pull the trigger. I got tired of waiting for somebody to travel with and realized that Vegas is a city I knew well, and that I could find enough to do without somebody to do it with. My first solo trip wasn’t inspired by online discussions about the merits of traveling solo to Vegas. I had no idea it was such a common thing to do when I made my first trip.

I wasn’t getting comps, but I could afford to go solo if I was frugal about my accommodations.  I wish I had better records of my solo trips regarding when I went and where I stayed. My first solo trip was more than 10 years ago. I stayed at Westward Ho. Pretty cheap for a handful of nights, and just fine. Zero complaints about my room, and more than adequate as I didn’t have to impress anybody. (My most depressing solo stay was four nights of a six-night trip at Vegas Club. The room was almost free, and included a Friday night, so I didn’t care. But I really had to stick to the “I only sleep and shower in my room” mantra. I do appreciate a decent room for a morning of relaxation during a multi-night visit.)

I have made a handful of solo trips since the early 2000s, although not since May 2012. (My one solo night last fall doesn’t count; I was with friends for the first four nights.) I have stayed downtown, off-strip and spent a couple nights at the Riv several years ago. Location dictates some of the things I've done on solo trips, naturally, and a Halloween 2011 trip changed things forever as I needed a rental car to do some of the things I had planned. From then on, I became a rental car guy.

So what have I done, and what wouldn’t I do again?

I don’t dine anywhere fancy or trendy. Personal preference, even though solo diners have been known to eat at the bar at finer places. I stick to the cafes and simpler places… paying for atmosphere or fancy service isn’t of much enjoyment to me if I’m not sharing the time with somebody.

It it's pool season, I'll spend time soaking up the sun and reading. Being solo at the pool can sometimes be a bit lonesome, but if you’re there to relax, relaxing solo shouldn’t be too painful.

Gambling is often a solo activity, so when you do, it shouldn’t be a big deal. You just won’t have a friend or loved one to hug moments after you hit for $1,199 on the slot machine.

I go for five nights minimum when I go, and am not compelled to gamble every day. I need time to see and do things outside of the casino. I use to be into geocaching, so sometimes I scouted out places I could access for geocache searching, be it on the strip or elsewhere nearby. I always make sure to find my way down to the Pinball Hall of Fame, which is a great place to spend time solo.

I recommend solo travelers find something they're into and finding a way to check out the local scene. Is there a craft brewer that’s not at Neonopolis? I went to Hop Nuts a few years ago, a bit far to walk from Fremont St., but a short cab ride or Uber from the Plaza, right on Main Street. 

Collect comic books? Check out a local shop. (Alternative Reality Comics on Flamingo, east of the strip, is a great one, and another short Lyft ride away.) 

If you're there during sporting events, particularly football season, find a local bar where fans of your favorite college or pro team congregate. My friend did that a couple of years ago during the NCAA hoops tournament and ended up going to a Wisconsin Badger bar twice, and met a former Green Bay Packer while he was there. 

If nothing else, find one of those smaller, secondary museums or points of interest that your drunk, gambling buddy would never want to waste his time seeing. This is your chance to visit the Burlesque Hall of Fame. (And it’s close to Hop Nuts.)

When I have a rental car, which is just about every trip these days, I take one of my days or evenings to go see something I haven’t seen before. This might not make sense for those who are only in town for three nights, but I have enjoyed driving north to Valley of Fire, more than two hours northwest to Rhyolite, a “ghost town,” and up Mt. Charleston. Getting away to see something is a great way to spend a day, and there are ways you can do a few things like that even if you don’t rent a car.


What I wouldn’t do: Go to shows solo. I did that several years ago, when Caesars had its all-access pass for 48 hours. I used it to see a bunch of secondary shows in the CET empire. I paid a little over $100 and got good value out of it. I deliberately waited until close to show time to take my seat, even when I had claimed a ticket 30 minutes or more prior to the show. The seating arrangements made it awkward occasionally to have to sit there minutes before the performance. Crime? Not a chance, but just not as much fun to see a show and not have a friend to chat with before or after. Yes, I chatted with people sitting next to me, but it wasn’t the same as being solo at a blackjack table.