Wednesday, March 20, 2019

How much help does the north end of the strip need?

I don't make enough time for creative writing. I love writing, I really do. But it's not the most efficient way of communicating thoughts and ideas, and I'm not the most colorful, animated writer out there.

If I lived in Vegas I'd definitely be producing video content in conjunction with, or in place of, this blog.

I don't religiously watch any of the Vegas "vlogger" channels on YouTube. The one I watch the most often is often not Vegas-specific, but I consider Wonderhussy a Vegas vlogger. Her exploration videos of the Nevada desert are a lot of fun.

I periodically watch "Jacob's Life in Vegas" for local commentary. He has been at it for a long time, discusses a variety of Vegas topics -- not all of which are of interest to me -- and mixes in the sights and sounds of Sin City now and again.

His recent video about the north end of the strip isn't particularly revealing, but he has a couple of interesting observations about its future, and I can't disagree with him.

As any Vegas regular knows, the north end of the strip isn't nearly as spectacular as it use to be. We've lost properties big and small, historic and not-so-historic. We had a decent investment made into a boutique hotel just off the north end of the strip, which crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. And we've had a major investment in revitalization fall flat on its face. Never mind the fact we lost a tired landmark of the north strip less than four years ago, demolished for a promise that has yet to be realized.

Jacob talks about the sad state of affairs that is the north end of the strip, and speculates about what the future holds. There's promise.

We have a decade-old unfinished building that is allegedly going to finally open in my lifetime, and the stalled project on the former site of the grand Stardust is finally taking shape. We know that the  Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which bought the Riviera property and leveled it, is suggesting the time has finally come to do something with the property. In the meantime the former Sahara, which bombed with its rebrand as a upper echelon property, is getting another major cash infusion by a known player in the casino industry, and the tired, alienated Stratosphere is rebranding itself with a shorter name and a cash infusion, as well.

I'm not sure how much those cash infusions will help the lonely former Sahara and Stratosphere, but the places are rather depressing if you drop by at the times I do, which is not Friday and Saturday nights or during the Super Bowl. People rent the rooms and stay at the property, but given their location and their lack of economic incentive to visit, you've got to really want to see a show or eat at a restaurant at either property in order to pay a visit.

Everybody agrees that new development on the north end will benefit all parties involved. Jacob notes that the addition of new rooms is good for the consumer, as it creates competition. That's true, but in the past decade or so we've lost the Riviera, Stardust and New Frontier, not to mention the one-time off-strip holding of Debbie Reynolds and the Westward Ho, a smaller, low-cost option on the strip that I stayed at during a solo trip in 2004, with no complaints, given I was a poor bastard. There are always new rooms opening on the strip, and we have seen plenty of high-end rooms at Aria and Cosmopolitan replace the lower-end rooms we lost to the north.

What will new development do for the north end of the strip? I'm highly skeptical it will do a lot any time soon.

If you build a new casino, people will visit it. People love shiny and new. New rooms and a new casino property are sure to draw plenty of visitors. But that alone won't sustain a property. Lucky Dragon proved that.

But the Resorts World project at the site of the former Stardust, is much bigger, surely it will be enough, in and of itself, to keep people coming back, yes? Maybe. Location isn't an insurmountable obstacle, but it doesn't help, and Resorts World is just far enough away that it won't benefit from the foot traffic that Bellagio gets from both north and south. It would take quite an array of attractions to replicate Bellagio traffic at Resorts World.

Jacob suggests that Resorts World, as well as the incomplete Drew, the tower north of the former Riviera, will have to offer deals to get people to spend their time and disposable income. He's right, but that's unlikely. You don't build hotels in today's dollars in order to offer discount rates. Yes, casinos will always offer comped rooms to their regular gamblers who have a habit of dropping cash on the property, but you don't open a hotel in 2020 and offer room pricing that competes with Comfort Inn. There will always be incentives available to fill the rooms thanks to the fiercely competitive nature of Vegas resorts, but you won't see Orleans pricing at new projects on the north end of the strip. And it's not as if the Bellagio and Wynn are turning away their high-buck clientele on a regular basis, otherwise we'd have seen more construction in the past several years.

The biggest boost to any property developing on the north end of the strip will be the expansion of the convention center. Originally that expansion was supposed to be right up to the sidewalk of the strip, but now there's rumblings a portion of the former Riviera property is available for purchase and development. On the surface, that seems like a brilliant strategy for redeveloping the property.

Once the convention center expands, all the properties on the north end will benefit, without question. Will that be enough to turn the former Sahara into the same bustling property as it was in the 1970s? Perhaps. Until that day, when all of the properties are operating and feeding off of each other, it's going to be more famine than feast by the time you head north of the Wynn.

Jacob also notes that the new properties on the north end won't be able to get away with the same gouging that other strip properties do. Namely: Charge for parking. I tend to agree. Asking people to pay for parking on the strip is like asking people to pay for parking at a suburban mall. It's ridiculous. It has hurt the strip overall, although how much depends upon whom you ask.

I think new properties can get away with charging for parking, if they can drive enough high-end customers to the property. But given that's unlikely, the new properties had better do everything they can to entice customers, and not charging for parking will be an important one. I could see a scenario where free parking and an expanded convention center would cause problems, but we'll ignore that for now.

It seems simple...probably too simple. The best way to fill a casino and keep it filled is to offer old-school Vegas value. The problem is that new construction cannot pay down its debt and sustain its operation by offering deep discounting. Anything that opens on the north end of the strip in the coming years is going to walk a fine line between the two, and can't afford a major misstep in either direction.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Life downtown was much different circa April 2016

I vaguely remember that night in April 2016, and it wasn't much different than tonight.

It's January 2019. I'm sitting in the same spot I was nearly three years ago. I can't promise, but in late April of 2016 there likely wasn't much snow on the ground outside my Minnesota home. And here I am in the dead of winter nearly three years later, and there are scant traces of snow. It has been a weird winter here in the cold north.

It was a weeknight in 2016 when I was sitting at the computer, later than I should have been, and reading breaking news from the Vital Vegas blog about the sale of downtown properties to the brothers Stevens. I wrote an instant response to that late evening blog post, much to the surprise of the blog's author. (I'll take praise anywhere I can get it.) And, as I'm wont to do, I provided a copy editing recommendation. (That's something only us writers understand.)

It has been nearly three years since news broke that we were losing a couple of tiny grind joints, a dying-on-the-vine casino and a dingy strip club. (That's what everyone tells me. I am proud to say I never saw the interior for myself.) Nearly three years later I'm typing on the same laptop computer about the future of downtown, and sitting in the same seat.

I can pretend to have Vegas insight, but I'm just speculating, along with everyone else. Yet there's one thing I'm confident of, the brothers Stevens are going to hit a home run if they follow through with the plans they've announced earlier this evening.

I'm still unclear why the name makes sense, but the former site of the Las Vegas Club, and other adjacent businesses, will be a new casino resort known as Circa. New rooms, new amenities and lots of uncheap booze will soon occupy the vacant lot at the west end of downtown Vegas. It's probably not for me, but I like it nonetheless.

The basic concept of the new project surprises no one.

You don't build a new property to cater to low rollers, and you don't build a new property downtown that replicates everything already offered in the business district. Therefore you end up with the plans unveiled earlier this evening, a new resort named Circa.

Nothing about this announcement surprises me. As I noted, you don't build a new resort and hope to attract low rollers with simple, cheap rooms and sparse amenities. Given downtown casinos don't have the luxury of grandiose features that their strip counterparts do, building anew allows the brothers Stevens to design a sports book that is unmatched downtown. (It will be the largest anywhere, allegedly.)  I've never sensed that sports books are the most lucrative element of the casino, but they generate a lot of traffic, and one of the keys to success is getting people in the door. Circa will accomplish that.

The elaborate sports book doesn't appeal to me, as I'm not one to spend hours in an area dedicated to wagering on sports. I make an occasional sports bet when I'm in Vegas, but it's a tiny part of my Vegas vacation.

Other major amenities planned for Circa include an elaborate pool and a spa. I suspect both of these will be smashing successes as well.

Neither element is a surprise. It has been known that the elaborate, multi-tiered pool area Circa promises has been on the Stevens radar all along. And why not? I've never understood the appeal of a "day club," but plenty of strip casinos market the hell out of the concept, and the people who favor such an atmosphere are willing to pay plenty for the privilege.

The strip casinos wouldn't bother with turning their pools into day clubs if they didn't generate meaningful cash. Although I've never experienced the preciousness of a day club, I know people drop a lot of cash for the privilege of enjoying a manufactured party in a pool. The concept wouldn't have appealed to me 20 years ago, and surprisingly doesn't appeal to me now. But I sense plenty of people who like the downtown vibe are interested in turning their afternoon in the sun into a raucous, lustful party. And the brothers Stevens are wisely banking on it. When people are willing to pay approximately $180 per case of beer at a fancy pool on the strip, I'd try to get a piece of that action, too.

There's no question the pool scene downtown is lackluster. This brings an element of the strip to downtown Vegas. I don't expect thousands to follow, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a healthy crowd dropping fat stacks of greenbacks on expensive handcrafted cocktails served by the pool. You can't put a price on that!

Like pools, spas are a foreign concept downtown. I get it, most of us who stay downtown aren't looking for the fanciest amenities, and there would be far more options buried within the bowels of the Plaza or the upstairs floors of  El Cortez if the demand was there. (Instead we get Happy Feet on level 2 of ElCo.) But you can't attract a high-end crowd to find its way to your high-end resort if there's nothing for them to dump all that discretionary cash that lines their pockets. A top-notch spa will garner plenty of fans, even if the Golden Nugget is already catering to that clientele.

My biggest disappointment is that I didn't hear anything about a fancy or exclusive showroom. I know we have a few showrooms in Vegas, and they're not exactly hotbeds of entertainment. Nobody seems to have the space to dedicate to a major production the way the strip properties to, and the downtown crowd doesn't seem to be particularly hungry for anything more than a free movie stage. So I can't say I'm not surprised that a major showroom is not part of the announcement. There are places for such shows, and Circa clearly isn't one of them.

So how successful will Circa be? It's no secret Vegas has been taking it on the chin in recent years. Increased resort fees, parking fees on the strip, high-buck bottled domestic beers at fancy casinos less favorable gambling conditions are not helping the city's image. And Circa is not the only project in development at the moment.

But for all the disappointment Vegas delivers with each passing year, nothing is replacing it. People may choose to gamble closer to home more often. And they may choose to visit other cities. But few places are cheap to visit, and for all the ways online commerce has changed the world we live in, virtual vacations are not a thing. People need to go somewhere to enjoy life, whatever the cost. Vegas still delivers incredible value. And for those who can afford more than value when they travel, (perhaps that will be me some day,) Vegas still holds a lot of appeal, despite its sins.

Circa won't be a license to print money, but plenty of people have plenty of cash to spend, as Vegas proves year after year. And there's enough of those folks willing to spend it downtown, I'm certain. Every hotel has high-end accommodations, but only the Golden Nugget markets that vibe from top to bottom. I don't think the addition of Circa is going to oversaturate that market. And the brothers Stevens are wisely positioned to pounce on that.

Nothing is foolproof, or impervious to the woes of our economy, but Circa is the downtown opportunity that nobody has jumped on, until now.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The night before Christmas

I'm sitting alone, 90 minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve, and I have no complaints. Without explanation: I'll be home soon and will spend Christmas with my girlfriend. We had dinner with her family earlier this evening. I'm sitting here alone out of necessity, and it allows me an opportunity to do something I enjoy, yet don't make enough time to do as often as I would like: Writing.

I have vague recollections of Christmas Eve from my youth. Vague, at best. From my earliest days in Indiana to my teenage years in Minnesota, with divorced parents living in two separate states. Like most people, my Christmas memories are faded and dust covered after more than four decades.

I don't remember a lot from my college years earlier. I remember working early one Christmas morning at the local hospital when I was in college. I was paid double and was done working by 2 p.m., that seemed like a great deal.

During the past 20 years I've had memorable and not-so-memorable holiday celebrations. I'm always amazed how, at least here in the Minneapolis area, the world around us nearly grinds to a halt for 18-24 hours. Yes, thousands of people are working in a variety of capacities, both essential and non-essential. And yes, there are stores and restaurants that remain open for one reason or another, both late into the evening on Christmas Eve and during the day on Christmas. But so many things are closed, and for nearly 24 hours my day-to-day life changes, even if there's still Facebook posting happening and televised sports on TV.

I'm thankful I've never had to seek out that random bar that remains open late into the evening on Christmas Eve, and I'm grateful that I've always had family members to share Christmas with. Yet I'm fascinated by the contrast that Vegas provides, and a small part of me wants to experience it for myself. If I was a wealthy, self-employed blogger, vlogger, journalist or podcaster, perhaps I'd experience Christmas in Vegas firsthand. What exactly do I want to see? Allow me to explain.

For starters, I'd want to be able to spend a day or two scouting locations around Vegas, getting a sense of what is and isn't open on Christmas Eve and Christmas. Then I'd get plenty of sleep leading up to Christmas Eve, as I'd start at 5 p.m. and make a marathon session of seeing and exploring Vegas for as long as I could physically tolerate.

I'd love to see who is or isn't hanging around a lot of places. I think I'd start at the Tropicana. It's a sad, sterile casino these days, even with all those hotel rooms and, from what I can tell, decent occupancy. How depressing is it? I'd likely run over to Hooters, as well. Is Steak 'n Shake open? Who chooses an overpriced burger and fries for their Christmas Eve dinner, assuming it is open. Is it a festive environment throughout the casino, or a ghost town?

From there I'd head to Excalibur, New York New York and MGM. Would it be any different than any other night on the strip?

I'd have to check out the Miracle Mile Shops, as well. Are they all closed? How many are filled with last-minute Christmas shoppers and tourists who don't celebrate Christmas?

I suppose I'd have to head over to Bellagio, too. That place is always bustling. What is it like on Christmas Eve?

At some point I'd head down to the Pinball Hall of Fame, as it is open until 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve. They wouldn't be open if there weren't people coming every year on the night before Christmas. So who is there, families looking to go out and do something together, or lonesome singles trying to forget the world is celebrating the birth of Jesus.

After that I'd probably sit out in the parking lot of a 24-hour rub-and-tug massage joint. I've gotta believe those places aren't closing for the holiday, and I'd be curious to see how many people show up in a 30-minute span as midnight approaches.

I'd have to run downtown by midnight to see how sedate the crowd is. I have no doubt it's business as usual, but how does the vibe compare to a typical night downtown? I'd probably bop into a few casinos, as well, to survey the crowd. Would I be surprised by how many people are gambling in the early hours of Christmas? Would Santa hats be the only way I could tell it's the holiday season?

By 2 a.m. it'd be time to take off. I think I'd head north briefly to Jerry's Nugget. I finally had their prime rib dinner earlier this month, and spent an hour gambling there. I'd be curious to see how quiet a locals casino in the middle of the night. How depressing would the gambling masses be early on Christmas morning?

So by the middle of the night It'd be time to head to Frankie's Tiki Room. This might be the first time of the night I indulge in a cocktail. Who celebrates Christmas at 3:30 a.m. with a mixed drink at Frankie's?

I'd have to enjoy in moderation, but from Frankie's I'd stop off at The Mint and the Peppermill. The Mint is a cute, modest 24-hour bar, and I'd be curious to see what kind of crowd it would attract. I've never been to the Peppermill for cocktails after the sun has set, so I'd have no idea what to expect.

From there, assuming I'm safe to drive, I'd drive around and check out a variety of off-strip joints to see what's happening, places that are always open, such as the "Pawn Stars" pawnshop, smaller restaurant/video poker joints and anything else I could identify as a 24-hour business that's not simply a grocery store or gas station. I suppose I'd like to see what the Ellis Island crowd is like after 5 a.m. on Christmas Day.

I'd also want to see how few, or how many, people are gambling at the Orleans. How quiet is the poker room?

I think I'd spend the rest of my day, for as long as I have the energy to do so, checking out the Christmas morning atmosphere mid-strip. What restaurants are bustling on Christmas morning? Are tourists out and about, sightseeing, like any other day of the year? Are people hustling tours, time share presentations and rap music CDs? Are the small, strip mall businesses near the north end of the strip open for business as usual on Christmas morning? Is there a different sentiment among those walking up and down the strip because it is Christmas morning?

Vegas is a 24-hour city, but things get awfully quiet on the strip, and in casinos, after 4 a.m. on a nondescript weeknight. I suspect Christmas Eve/Christmas morning are a bit quiet by Vegas standards.

I'd love to see it for myself. Unlikely I ever will, but damn, I'm curious.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Christmas spirit is everywhere in Vegas

I haven't found time to write about my early December visit to Vegas, but that will change soon.

For now, here's a collection of Christmas tree pictures from my recent trip. I hope I remember the location of each of these. Correct me if I'm wrong.

I'm not a shutterbug, but I have carried a digital camera with me in the past. Cellphone cameras are so good these days that I am content with relying upon it for capturing images from my trips. I have plenty to share in the weeks to come. I won't win any awards for my photography, but I can live with that. Photography is not an art form I have the time or patience to study. Plenty of people are better than I ever will be, and I appreciate those who share their work with the masses. How did we enjoy life without the internet?

Merry Christmas!

Outside the New York New York, I believe. (Dec. 3)

Big tall tree in the outdoor park area of Park MGM, leading up to T-Mobile Arena. (Dec. 3)

Modest trees inside The Shops at Crystals. (Dec. 3)

And then there's the Swarovski crystal tree at the Shops at Crystals. (Dec. 3)

This giant tree looms large over Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. (Dec. 3)

This modest tree was near the poker room at The Orleans. (Dec. 4)

A lovely tree near the entrance to the cafe at Ellis Island. (Dec. 4)

A fancier tree display near the hotel check-in at The Orleans. (Dec. 4)

One of the trees along the retail mall area leading into Bellagio. (Dec. 5)

An off-center shot of another tree inside Bellagio. (Dec. 5)

The big tree inside Bellagio's conservatory. (Dec. 5)

A tree inside Caesars Palace. (Dec. 5)

A tree outside The Cromwell (Dec. 5)

A tree and menorah inside El Cortez (Dec. 7)

Small, but festive, this tree can be found inside The Mint. (Dec. 7)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

And things got interesting

So there I am, headed to the strip after 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night in early August, and I couldn't have been less excited.

I don't do the strip these days, so a night on the strip holds minimal appeal. I wasn't exhausted from the past few days of running back and forth to Phoenix, and I wanted to be a team player, but somehow I didn't have the Vegas adrenaline my buddies had.

Nonetheless we head toward Flamingo, where we're intending to meet up with Woody. I oppose it, simply because I hate the idea of paying to park at Flamingo. Beef, being the team player, offers to pay for parking. I begrudgingly consent.

What I don't realize while we're heading up toward Flamingo is that Woody has texted me. So we get to the strip, park at Cromwell, head over toward Flamingo and I grab my phone to text Woody that we're arriving and looking for him. That's when I see he sent me a text message not so long ago. He's following his new friend over to Caesars Palace.

The hell with that, I'm not chasing after him. And Beef and I are looking to have dinner. So we decide to look around and consider our options for a meal. I have no coupon deals to take advantage of, and I am not excited about paying $20 for a burger on the strip.

We consider our options along the Linq, and almost go to the Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips, but the smell of the oil when we walk into the place, which is doing a brisk business as it approaches 10 p.m., is too overwhelming to stomach. We bow out quickly.

We wander down the street and try our luck at Harrah's, and by dumb luck discover an acceptable dinner option, the Fulton Street Food Hall.

The new trend in casual casino dining, evidently, the street food hall is a glorified food court. It's not exactly fast food cheap, but it's better than fast food. And I opted for a big sandwich. I was able to upgrade from a worthless bag of chips to a cup of soup at no extra cost, and you get a bottled soda or water for your meal deal, instead of one of those crappy fountain drinks. It ain't cheap, but it was good, filling and not obscene. Beef upgraded his chips to a salad or something ridiculous like that, and that cost him an entire extra buck. I wouldn't dine like this daily in Vegas, but it was a satisfying meal that wasn't horrifically overpriced. And it was good.

The sandwich is larger than it looks, and quite filling. The soup that I chose instead of a bag of potato chips: clam chowder. Good meal, minimal complaints. I was on the strip, dining at the Fulton Street Food Hall, I was happy not to lose my shirt. Total cost: $18.40.
Woody makes contact with us as we're starting to eat. He's on his way back. That can't be a good sign.

He finds us at our table and shares with us a Vegas story I've never experienced in 35+ trips to Vegas.

After pounding the pavement for a few hours he went back to Flamingo, where we dropped him off late in the afternoon, and ordered an overpriced drink at the bar. He made conversation with a woman from Ohio. She was about his age, works in real estate and has daughters who are 14 and 20.

She seems to be fond of Woody's company, and shows it simple ways. He tells her all about himself and his trip, and she really wants to meet his buddies, but not enough to stick around when we're finally making our way to the strip. Woody followed her, and they end up at a bar inside Caesars. That's where the woman meets up with her boyfriend.

Yes, she's there with her boyfriend.

Woody is taken aback by this, naturally. She introduces him to her boyfriend. He's a farmer, if I recall correctly, and he was rather friendly. He had been gambling at Ceesars and paused to meet up with his girlfriend and meet the guy she has been chatting with for an hour or more. His friendliness made the whole thing all the more confusing for Woody.

The boyfriend returns to gambling and Woody wonders what the hell is going on. That's when the woman fesses up.

She and her boyfriend are swingers. He's more into it than she is, but she doesn't mind going along with it, and they were looking to swing while in Vegas. Her boyfriend seemed to have a woman lined up, and Woody was identified as her possible partner, evidently.

I'm not sure if the woman ever had the chance to formally ask him to join in their fun. While this scenario sounds like the type of Vegas fantasy every guy dreams about, this held no appeal to Woody. He didn't linger long, he wasn't interested in their swinging lifestyle. He made that clear, bid farewell and made his way back across the street to find us.

But man, he had one hell of a story to tell his friends, at least some of whom I know would have chosen the exact same outcome Woody did.

The night was still relatively young and the guys want to see a little scenery. By this point it's nearing midnight. For whatever reason, it is determined that Planet Hollywood is our destination. Less excited I could not be.

As we make our way toward the Ho, we notice the Beer Park outside of Paris. It's not where I thought it was. But thanks to Beef's interest and perusing of Groupon, I had purchased a $40 voucher for about $20, and I had forgotten that. Suddenly we're heading upstairs, in the heat of the night, for beer.

What a waste of time and money that place is.

It's not that crowded, so we're able to get seats looking out onto Las Vegas Boulevard. Thanks to the design of their outdoor seating, you can't easily see people walking along the sidewalk below. Yeah, you have a decent view of the Bellagio fountains, but it's kind of a lame outdoor seating area.

You'd think this was the worst Vegas vacation ever. Nope, just a buzzkill moment at Beer Park.

Nice view of Bellagio from Beer Park. Too late to catch a fountain show, however. 

You get a good look at the Eiffel Tower from Beer Park.

Not sure what kind of avant-garde photo I was aiming for with this shot from Beer Park. 
They have plenty of fancy beers on tap, and Beef, who claims to not have noticed the prices, manages to pick the most expensive beer on the list. The beers are about 24-ounce pours, and his beer was $21. Oh, Beef.

I pick a $16 beer, Woody picks an $11 beer. The total, with tax and the fraudulent CNF fee that I didn't realize was going to be tacked on, comes to about $54. Even with my $40 Groupon we owe another $14, which Beef picks up, along with the tip. So even with a Groupon discount, three large tap beers cost us about $40 including tip. What a deal!

They randomly decide they're going to close about 20 minutes after we sat down, and we're about ready to go. It's time to visit the Ho.

I'm a bit surprised by how lively the casino floor is as. There's a good crowd as it approaches 1 a.m., at least in the table games area. I don't know why, but I expected a bit dull of a crowd.

We look around a bit and Woody and Beef decide they're going to hit up a lounge, as they see two women sitting at the bar. I want nothing to do with this, so I leave them to their business and wander around for a couple of minutes. I eventually sit down at a cheap video poker machine where I can see into the lounge and proceed to play 25-cent hands of cards. I'm just killing time, and giving my Total Rewards card a little action for the first time in at least eight years.

Woody eventually sees me sitting out there and comes out to chat with me. There's talk about getting together with the women at the bar, perhaps at South Point. Why, I'm not sure, other than our timeshare unit is a lame place to socialize.

Minutes later Woody and Beef are introducing me to their new friends, and there's talk about going to South Point. I suggest we can all fit in our SUV, but the women are sure they want to drive there themselves.

Cellphone numbers have been exchanged and off we go. Woody has had a few drinks at this point, so he's Mr. Social. He is loving every minute of this. He's often a bit reserved and quiet of a guy, so it's nice to see him let loose.

We exit the Ho and are trying to head back to Cromwell, but Woody quickly starts chatting with a woman he has said hello to out on the sidewalk. It seems rather obvious that she's not there waiting to cross the intersection. But Woody is enjoying his chat, and she's quick to put her cellphone number in his, just in case he's interested in meeting up later. She has no idea there's no chance he will take her up on her offer, but he's loving it all the same.

I was surprised during my walk to the Ho, and exit from, that there were so many dudes trying to get me to take a free limo to a strip club. I know the free limo is a thing, and dudes are working to get asses in the seats, but I've been away from the strip far too long. I was surprised by the competition.

I foolishly engage a dude in chatter, just for the hell of it. There's no chance I'm going to a strip club during this trip, and definitely not at 1;30 a.m., but I acknowledge one of the dudes, suggesting I might be interested the following night, but I was just too tired to go tonight. He suggests I should go tonight, naturally, but I make it clear there's no chance. So he gives me a card, tells me to call him the following night, and thanks me. So now I'm a jerk for wasting his time when I had no intention of going to a strip club.

One thing I will never forget: As we're walking by a couple of strip club promoters, or whatever their job title is, one dope trying to drum up some business announces that he has a free limo to the strip club. Then follows that up by saying, "Prove that it still works, guys."

Does this dope have a ridiculous sense of humor, or does he think his idiotic line is going to convince some drunken buffoon to suddenly change his plans and hop in a limo? If this stupid line works, even .000000000001 percent of the time, Lord keep me from the moron who hears the dope and thinks, "Yeah, that's a great idea. I should prove it still works!"

As we approach the outside of Bally's there seem to be a few people milling about, and people coming and going. Woody is saying hello to women, single women and in tandem, many of whom look like they're coming from or going to a precious nightclub. But no, the women seem to be quite available to hook up for a price. Beef is enjoying the show, too. Me, I'm just hoping to get on the road and call it a night, as it's approximately 1:45 a.m.

Then a tall woman comes walking, alone, toward us. Beef is a couple inches shy of 6 feet, and this woman is probably taller than him without heels. He wants a picture with her, just because she's tall and he has some sort of taller woman fantasy. She happily says yes, and Beef snaps a selfie with "Starr." (I'm guessing the spelling of her name.)

I'm nearby and Beef is making chit chat. He asks where she's from and what she does. She says she lives in Vegas part-time. This intrigues Beef. She then modestly notes that she's an escort. Beef doesn't flinch, and moments later she's giving him her cellphone number. I see this, and have to interject, asking the most bizarre question she'll get all night. Would she be willing to talk about her work for my friend's Las Vegas podcast? She seems quite agreeable and that's all I need to know. I step back and let Beef continue chatting with his fantasy girl.

There are a handful of these interactions as we're milling about outside of Bally's. I sit off to the side, tweeting my agony via @vegasinsight, and try to enjoy the show. A super skinny woman comes walking toward us, by herself, and both Woody and Beef are cordial to her. She stops to talk. I try to discretely get a picture of her, and Beef calls me out, which pisses me off. I just needed a souvenir of this wacky night.

A local gives us directions to the Cromwell. 
Another duo approaches us at some point, and Woody is quick to chat with these women. I step back aside and mention I need to tweet. One of the women says to me, "Is tweeting more important than us?"

"Yes," I reply.

"Don't you want to party with us?" I'm asked.

"I'm gay," I reply.



I sound like a miserable jerk, don't I? But despite being tired, I'm enjoying the show, and know I have a little fodder of my own for years to come.

As we're milling about outside of Bally's, Beef receives a text from the Planet Hollywood duo. He takes a moment to update them on our progress toward our rental vehicle and ends up having a phone discussion with one of them. The brief discussion includes a question from the young lady on the phone. What's their budget for the night?

Beef simply says he's not sure and will have to talk to Woody and call her back. And that was the last communication between the parties, as far as I know.

Woody wasn't surprised by Beef's revelation, but I was. We discussed the possibility inside the Ho, and as we were walking toward Bally's. Woody had told me that one of their comments at the bar suggested perhaps they were looking for cash, but it wasn't clearly stated. When he told them he had talked to me and I was gambling, one of the women was very curious to know if I was winning money, he said.

Those two things didn't convince me that they were looking to get paid. And remember, I had met them. They were casually dressed, didn't give off the "working girl" aura, had been sitting by themselves at the bar, spent a decent amount of time chatting with my buddies and seemed willing to meet up down the road without any mention of getting paid. My theory was that they were tourists who wanted a "what happens in Vegas" story and liked the idea of my buddies paying for drinks, even if it meant going to South Point.

I was wrong. They're simply the worst prostitutes working the strip. And clearly I have no Vegas insight, despite 35+ trips to Sin City.

One last encounter outside of Bally's that I vaguely remember. As I'm assuming the wallflower position, I see Woody engage a woman in chat. She's obviously interested in something, as she reaches down and grabs him between the legs while they're chatting. Again: Something I've never experienced while navigating the strip.

We finally get inside Cromwell and are preparing to leave. Just when I think we're heading to the door, Woody announces he wants to stick around and will take a cab back later. He's just enjoying the show and doesn't want it to end, as this is likely his only late night on the strip of our trip.

Both Beef and I are opposed to this. I can't speak for Beef, but I'm a bit worried about Woody's safety. No, he's not going to get in a random vehicle or wander somewhere unsafe. No, he's not so tipsy that he can't stand up. He's fine on his own, but I'm afraid he's going to chat with some random woman and somehow wind up losing his wallet, or something stupid like that. Without one of us to watch his back, he might have another beer and let his guard down just enough that he'll wind up losing his wallet or phone somehow.

I finally concede. I'm tired. Good luck to him, I say, and Beef and I begin the journey south. Woody stayed out a couple more hours and finally headed back via cab to Grandview. His wallet was $40 lighter because he didn't have the Uber app, but at least he still had his wallet.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The politics of a Vegas haunted house

There were rumors that the annual haunted attraction "Fright Dome" was not coming back to the amusement park at Circus Circus this year. There were a few tidbits to suggest all was not kosher in the world of amusement park death, and some of those came from the fine folks at the Vital Vegas blog. (It's one guy.)

Now Vital Vegas has some interesting inside scoop on how the relationship between the dirty Circus and the folks that run Fright Dome have broken down. The company running Fright Dome, a horror attraction run seasonally within the amusement park by a company called Egan Productions, also runs an escape room based upon the "Saw" horror movies. It's unclear why the seemingly lackluster performance of the escape room, which does not seem to be tied to the Circus Circus property or corporate parent MGM, has ended the business relationship between the dirty Circus and Egan Productions. But it has something to do with money, naturally. It always does. (UPDATE:
The Vital Vegas blog post has been amended to offer an explanation for how the business relationship between the entities has deteriorated.)

My guess, and it's purely a guess, is that there's some sort of business arrangement that requires some sort of up-front payment by Egan Productions. Rent, if you will. The dirty Circus can't be giving Egan Productions use of the amusement park space for free. I suspect Egan rents its space, brings in its sets and props, pays the employees and collects on the back end, meaning they get a cut of admissions sold during the haunt season. If Egan is hemorrhaging cash right now, they might not be in a position to make payments up front for their 2018 rent, and at a certain point they get the boot. 

A couple of things in the Vital Vegas blog piqued my interest. 

One tidbit that the fine folks at Vital Vegas reported is that "Circus Circus expressed it would run its own haunted house." 

That wouldn't surprise me. I have had a seasonal job for most of the past 12 years at the corporate owned amusement park in the Minneapolis area, which started its own haunted attraction in 2006. (I work building security these days, but I was once an actor. Boy do I have stories, and I've written plenty of them for a different blog.) While I don't study the amusement park industry, I'm well aware that our corporate parent runs haunted attractions at its parks around the country, as do some of the other heavy hitters in the amusement park industry. With all the parks in the haunt business, it wouldn't surprise me if MGM decides it wants to invest in its amusement park and run its own operation in the future. That won't happen this year, but it could definitely happen in 2019. 

MGM could have pulled the plug at the end of any contract period, or simply non-renewed its lease with Egan Productions, I imagine. Perhaps the wheels were already in motion. Perhaps MGM is working on plans to cut out Egan and run its own show, and the demise of Fright Dome is simply an unplanned hiccup. 

It makes plenty of sense. If the corporate penny pinchers at MGM, who never stop finding a way to make an extra $5, realize that they're making a certain amount of money per season at Fright Dome, and surmise they could make more than that by cutting out the production company, then of course they'll do that. Although, this assumes they want to invest in ownership of their haunted attraction. It will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop attractions that work within the confines of their amusement park. Yes, it will cost a lot of money to design several attractions that people will pay big money to see. I'm no expert, but that's not exactly a trade secret. 

Will we see a new haunted attraction at the dirty Circus in the future? I could see why MGM would say yes, and I could see why MGM would say no. I don't know how lucrative the Fright Dome deal is, and that will likely influence the eventual decision. If I had to wager $5, my hunch is that they'll try to develop their own. 

It sounds like Vital Vegas has insight into the financials of their business agreement. He often has Vegas insight. I, ironically, don't. 

For the record, I've never been to Fright Dome, and that's by design. You can't trust any one online review, but I've ready more than a couple of reviews that suggested over the past several years that the attraction is so popular that the lines are too long to get through all of the haunted attractions during any one admission without paying for the "fast pass" upgrade that plops you into a faster moving line. The "fast pass" seems to be a marketing strategy that amusement parks embrace, and why not? We live in a country where not all men and women are financially equal, and with that, some places will cater to those with more dollars to part with. Not a new phenomena. 

But given that Fright Dome has a reputation of being overrun by obnoxious teens, and the fact that I h have worked at an amusement park overrun with obnoxious teens every October, seeing the Vegas version of that held limited appeal. Yeah, I've had mild curiosity, but not enough to spend a night of my Vegas Halloween trip at the dirty Circus. (I've been in Vegas five of the past seven years on Halloween night.)

When Vital Vegas notes that "Fright Dome at Adventuredome was considered the premier Halloween haunted house in Las Vegas," I'm not sure I agree. 

It depends upon how you define premier. It's the most noteworthy for tourists, as it's on the strip, and it draws big crowds to the amusement park. If you base the statement upon which puts the most asses on the property, I'm sure Fright Dome wins.

But given my experience and observations during the past seven years, anyone who critiques the quality of the production and the originality of the show would tell you that Freakling Bros., a locally-owned haunted attraction, is the premier attraction in the Vegas area. It just doesn't do the volume that Fright Dome does, for a variety of reasons. Do a little Googling and you'll soon find out that it gets plenty of raves from all corners of the haunt industry. And I echo those sentiments. I've written about it, too, both for this blog and for my aforementioned blog. 

Either way, the demise of a haunted attraction at the dirty Circus has been extra interesting for me to read about, even if I had no intention of visiting it. It will be interesting to watch what happens in 2019. The dirty Circus might return with a new haunted attraction, and I wouldn't rule out Egan Productions finding a new place to try selling its product in the Vegas area. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

It was a long, wild night on the Vegas strip

We returned to Vegas on Tuesday night, after spending half of our day in Phoenix. We had three items on our Phoenix agenda prior to departure.

Woody likes to tour state capitols, so we did that in Phoenix. The capitol has a self-guided tour of its original footprint, built more than 100 years ago. The current capitol offices, as well as the house and senate chambers, are on the capitol campus, but were built decades after the initial capitol. The current capitol offices are attached to the original footprint, but the original space has not been repurposed. Instead it is a museum of state history. It's free to tour, and worth an hour of your time.

This is the original Arizona House of Representatives chambers.

Following the capitol tour we headed back to the ballpark. Yes, we returned to the ballpark. No, there wasn't a day game. We toured the ballpark early in the afternoon. The Diamondbacks offer tours of Chase Field for $7, with the proceeds benefiting one of their charitable efforts. The tour includes the standard building history and fun facts. Some ballpark tours include a tour of the press box. Some include a clubhouse tour if it's not during a team home stand. Chase Field offered neither, but we did get to visit the Diamondbacks dugout.

I look like a member of the grounds crew, not a member of a professional baseball team. 

Beef played the part of an outraged manager in the press area of the stadium.

Our final stop in Phoenix before departure, late lunch at the downtown Tilted Kilt. It's not on my bucket list when we travel, but it has decent food and is reasonably priced, typically. Yeah, it's a breastaurant, and not a place I'd take children, but I've never felt like I've overpaid. Woody suggests it when we travel. I'm not about to say no.

We took a different route back to Vegas, traveling north out of Phoenix. This was a more scenic drive into the mountains.

So Wednesday morning rolls around and we don't do much. Beef is thinking about and researching possible tours he wants to do, Woody was up bright and early and put in more than an hour in the fitness center. I woke up, made my simple breakfast, put in 30 minutes at the fitness center and returned around lunchtime. Woody walked with me to drop off postcards at the lobby of Grandview, and showed me where the hidden fitness center is. We chatted while I began riding the exercise bike, and we both speculated that Beef would not shower before I returned from my 30-minute workout, despite the fact he could have, and knowing that we were going to lunch at some point after we both cleaned up.

Sure enough, I return to the room and Beef is working his phone, contemplating tours of the Grand Canyon. So I shower first, at his suggestion, and sometime after 1 p.m. we finally head out for lunch. We decided to go back to Ellis Island, where my Las Vegas Advisor coupon will get us a free meal in the cafe. Beef, Woody and I all ordered a giant beer before our meal, and Beef and I had the prime rib dinner for our late lunch. Woody opted for chicken-fried steak, or something like that. Our waitress was fabulous, and comped one of the more expensive prime rib dinners, despite the fact she should have comped Woody's cheaper meal. It ain't fancy, but I love Ellis Island.

Lunch at Ellis Island. Woody is on the left. 
Woody wanted to do more strip exploration, so we dropped him off on the back side of Flamingo, the hotel where we stayed in 2000 when Beef and I crashed his room while he was there for work. That was the last time these guys had been to Vegas. Me? I've been there about 25 times since that April 2000 gathering.

Beef and I returned to Grandview so I could finally put in a little time at the pool. Beef decided he wanted a massage. A real, legit massage, not one of those "happy ending" massages at the 24-hour joints. So I turned over the SUV to him and headed to the room at 4 p.m.

I headed down to one of the pools to soak up a little sun, with a beer in hand. There are several pool areas at Grandview, and our room looked down upon one. Unfortunately it was the children's play pool, not the place I wanted to hang. So I walked a couple of buildings over for a regular pool area. I parked my butt and slathered on sun screen, despite the fact it was mostly cloudy at the moment, and rather dark to the south.

I had been at the pool for about 15 minutes when a few light drops of rain started to fall. I didn't worry about it. I figured it wasn't really going to rain. The wind picked up a bit, but again, no worries. Then a security guard and lifeguard announced that the pool was closing, and that we had to vacate the pool area. I was not happy.

So by 5 p.m. I was back in our room, not sure what to do with myself. It never rained, by the way.

I toyed with the idea of going to South Point to play poker, but opted instead to use the laptop to write the previous installment of this blog. Writing is an enjoyable recreation, despite the fact I do it for a living. Since I don't usually have a computer with me, I took advantage of the fact I dragged the company laptop with and wrote a mid-trip update. I goofed around for a while before I sat down to do so, and Beef came back to prior to me sitting down to write.

He rolled in after 6 p.m. and I expected to hear he had found a local spa to get a massage. He considered going to the spa at South Point, but that ain't cheap. I figured he could find a local, non-casino place that wasn't all the way up near the strip. But I was wrong.

According to Beef he drove around looking, stopped to make calls on his phone and finally decided to book a 7 p.m. service at a Massage Envy in Henderson. So he returned to Grandview at approximately 6:15 to tell me he was getting a 60-minute massage at 7 p.m.

At that point I knew I had time to write, so I gave myself an hour to pound out all the details I could, starting at 7 p.m.

So I put a wrap on my writing about 8 p.m., expecting to receive a text from Beef that he was on his way back to pick me up. I thought we were going to have dinner at the Palms buffet, using my Las Vegas Advisor coupon, but that clearly wasn't happening on this particular evening. No big deal, I figured.

I finally received a text from Beef about 8:30 p.m., 30 minutes later than I expected. According to Beef, the woman on the phone was hard to understand, and seemed confused. Despite the fact he wanted a 60-minute massage, she penciled him in for 90 minutes. Beef, always the sucker, shows up, finds out there was a mistake and decides a 90-minute massage sounds like a nice treat. It was an amazing massage, he claims.

Woody and I have been in contact by text while I'm waiting to head back to the strip. He doesn't seem bothered that we haven't returned to fetch him. The dude covered a lot of ground. He was up at the Venetian, over at Cosmopolitan and made stops elsewhere. I thought he was nuts, but he likes pounding the pavement and seeing places he visited many years ago.

He had returned to Flamingo and sat down at a bar to have a beer. That's where he made the acquaintance of a woman from Ohio. She was friendly, our age and wanted to meet Woody's friends. I wanted nothing to do with the strip, honestly, and I didn't want to have to park on the strip, purely on principle. When Beef finally returned to Grandview I met him in the parking lot and we headed straight to the strip. Things were about to get interesting.