Tuesday, December 27, 2016

#VegasHalloween (day 5 and 6): Flying solo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is that hot dog doing with its left hand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for day 5 and 6. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for day 4. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

More tourists being fleeced, which surprises nobody

I interrupt my slowly evolving recap of my #VegasHalloween trip to comment on the depressing Vegas news of the week: Several more casinos will start charging visitors to park their vehicles on the property.

The announcement that casinos under the Caesars umbrella will be charging for parking is the news many of us have been waiting for. The fine folks that oversee the properties under the MGM umbrella blazed the trail with parking fees. It was presumed by many that if MGM survived the public relations storm that their parking fees reigned down upon them, the Caesars folks would follow suit, just as they did with the resort fee shell game that has been in place for a few years.

And fast on the heels of the Caesars announcement, Wynn Resorts announced that their valet customers would now have to pay for the service.

Parking fees are the latest in a growing list of gripes people have against the way Vegas casinos are doing business. Plenty of people grouse about such things, but the buck stops there. It's unlikely the few people who stop going to Vegas casinos because they charge a parking fee are going to make a noticeable dent in the bottom line. Most people are going to continue to do what they have always done, for the most part, and fork over the extra dough for parking.

Some people don't seem to be upset by the fees. Those who visit regularly, and loyal to a group of properties and are active gamblers can expect to have their parking fee waived if they are using the parking garage.

And there are those who don't drive to, or rent a car, in Vegas, so the parking fee doesn't affect them, either.

And there are some who rationalize that given the expense of parking in many major cities, the $18/day fee for valet parking at Caesars Palace and Planet Hollywood, or the $13/day fee at Flamingo and LINQ isn't a big deal. (Rates for self-parking weren't announced, but Vital Vegas suggests that $10/day would be logical, based upon what MGM is charging.)

The parking fees won't affect me much. I do rent a car every trip, but I tend to stay at either Orleans or downtown, and parking is included when I stay at a downtown casino, regardless of my gambling history, as best I can tell. I just stayed at Plaza, where I hadn't gambled in years, and parking was included throughout my stay.

But I do have to wonder, will the parking fees influence my future decisions? Case in point: I wondered if I was going to have to pay for parking in the future should I want to visit the High Roller observation wheel at LINQ.

My group visited the High Roller on Halloween afternoon, and we parked in a surface lot behind the High Roller. We were there less than two hours, and if we had to pay for parking at LINQ in order to access the wheel, it would have cost us several dollars, I presume. We had a group of five, so if we had to pay to park, the parking fee wasn't going to be a deal breaker for our group, particularly since it was a first-time experience for all of them.

But it was my third trip to the High Roller. I've patronized it twice prior with my girlfriend, and at this point I don't need to do it again. But if the price is right, I'd gladly return.

A High Roller representative responded to my tweet pondering the future of parking at LINQ and noted that, not to my surprise, there won't be free parking for LINQ access. Again, would an additional fee of up to $8 really keep me from another spin on the High Roller? No, of course not. But the next time I'm planning a trip to Vegas with my girlfriend, I will have less interest in taking another spin, simply because I know that Caesars Entertainment is now charging for something they've been able to provide free for generations.

Thinking about the impact of parking fees, I had several questions about the future of Vegas.

• What will other properties along the strip do? Stratosphere and SLS are a bit isolated from the rest of the strip these days. I've never set foot in SLS, but the last time I was at the Strat on a November weekday a couple of years ago, the place was rather dull and relatively lifeless. People weren't lining up to visit the observation deck at the top of the tower, and their crappy mall was so damn dead I felt sorry for the people stuck working there. Charge people to park there and it's unlikely you're going to attract a lot of new customers.

And how about properties elsewhere on the strip that aren't under the umbrella of the big two? Can Tropicana afford to continue offering free parking? I can't picture their parking ramp, but I have to imagine that it gets used occasionally by people as cheap as me who are willing to walk an extra five or 10 minutes in order to beat MGM at its game.

When Treasure Island inevitably starts charging a parking fee, will visitors who aren't staying at a casino hotel on the trip start their day on the strip by parking at the mall and heading south on foot or by bus? I suspect some will. 

Some people will decide the daily parking fee is worth the time it saves for access to where they want to go, but some will look to beat the system any way they can. Going to Bally's? Park five minutes down the street at The Westin.

If there are ways to beat the system, there will be people who set out to do it. Any property within a short walk of the major casinos is going to have to consider how the parking fees affect them.

• How will parking fees affect the car rental companies? I'm guessing that parking fees aren't putting a significant dent in the number of daily rentals, but the fees can't be encouraging more people to rent a car. Somebody remarked today that the new parking fees will only drive more business to car services such as Uber and Lyft. 

• How pissed are the valet attendants at the major strip casinos? I'd love to know how fees have affected attendants at MGM properties. I can't imagine that people who have been parking free and tipping the valet attendant for years are going to start tipping more if they have to fork over more than $10 for a service they've been receiving free. Maybe they'll tip the same, but how much is traffic going to decrease at the casino valet if we can no longer pop in and out for an hour or two without paying a fee of $8 or more? 

• How soon will rates increase? The casinos seem to have no problem testing the limits of the daily resort fee they charge outside of your room rate. What's to stop the parking rates from increasing in a year or two? Nothing, and I expect to see rate hikes from both major chains within three years. 

• Will parking fees impact the bottom line of ancillary businesses at strip casinos? I'm not aware of proof, but there are suggestions that fewer people are dropping by MGM casinos for an hour or two to dine and shop. Could it really be enough to reflect upon the bottom line of the businesses inside the casino? It seems unlikely, but the suggestion is out there. And again, it's unlikely that parking fees are driving additional traffic to the casinos. 

It's common to read comments about how Vegas isn't what it use to be. (I wrote about that not so long ago.) It's true, although it goes both ways, I'd argue.

Regardless, I can't help but wonder, what will we be adding to our list of Vegas complaints in five, 10 or 30 years? 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

#VegasHalloween (day 2): Costumes aren't just for kids

One of the benefits of staying for several nights in Vegas is that you don't have to cram 10 pounds of flour into the proverbial five-pound sack.

Having limited sleep the night before I flew out to Vegas, and then staying up past 3 a.m. Vegas time during my first night in Sin City, I was plenty tired. I vowed not to get up for breakfast or hang with the group. Despite the fact I could have used about 12 hours of sleep, I couldn't sleep much past 9 a.m., so I turned on the TV and watched random channels until 10 a.m., when "The Price is Right" came on. Yeah, I watch TPIR some mornings on vacation. My normal Mondays are very hectic, so laying in bed and watching a game show felt like vacation to me.

We had a definite plan for our Halloween afternoon. We were heading to the High Roller. But before we did that we were going to Ellis Island for lunch. My group was going to be introduced to their cafe, and since two of us had Las Vegas Advisor coupon books, we split into two groups, as I assumed they wouldn't honor two coupons at the same table. Irony, all five of us ordered the same meal, the 50-50 burger: half beef, half bacon. Damn delicious.

We didn't gamble much at Ellis Island that afternoon, but I made everyone get a player's card, as we had both LVA and American Casino Guide coupons beckoning us with free play. Nobody realized a big payday that afternoon, but I walked out of there $15 ahead for my effort. I never play to win a car payment at Ellis Island, so I'm happy pocketing a few bucks for my time.

Before heading to the High Roller we had to find a local Halloween shop or Party City store so that the group could pick up a few odds and ends for that night. Everybody brought a costume, but green hair spray wasn't going to fly in Jon's carry on bag, and he managed to travel without checking a suitcase. I flew Southwest, so I had a regular suitcase and a full-size carry on bag, at no additional cost. I looked like Imelda Marcos compared to my friends when we were loading up the SUV on Thursday morning.

We found both a Party City and a temporary Halloween store next to each other, on Maryland Avenue, I believe. They were easy enough to get to, and easy enough to leave when it came time to head to the High Roller.

I stressed a few things before our trip. I didn't plan a daily itinerary, but I had a few activities in mind. I thought the High Roller would be a fun group activity, and something special to do on Halloween afternoon. We chose the bar car, naturally. Trista and I pre-purchased our tickets in early September. Travelzoo had a deal on afternoon bar car tickets: Two for $35. That was a good deal, and we waited until the last day of the deal to order them. Magically Travelzoo offered a bonus discount on the last day of the deal cycle, $10 off a purchase. So we bought two pair of afternoon bar car tickets for $25 per pair. That's $12.50 per person... heck of a deal.

At one point we thought there were going to be six of us on the trip, so it would have worked out beautifully if Joe or Mike had taken my advice and purchased a pair of tickets in September. They didn't. And since our trip wound up being five people, I purchased one discounted bar car ticket on Halloween and Joe and Mike split the cost of my extra $12.50 ticket and the far less discounted Halloween day ticket. Their tickets ended up costing them $22.50 each, which is still a great deal.

I had been on the High Roller twice, both times at night. So it was my first afternoon spin through the air. It turns out they run fewer bar cars during the day. I'm not sure there was more than one in play that afternoon. Besides our group there were seven others waiting for the bar car to reach the loading platform. I think we waited for more than 15 minutes. I was surprised at first, but given how tepid the afternoon attendance is, it made sense. We saw a few regular cars pass by the loading platform with two people in them, and a few that had no passengers.

I had hoped that we'd end up with a bar car all to ourselves, but from past experience I've found that a group of 10-12 works pretty well. Once an initial round of drinks is poured you rarely have to wait more than a few seconds for the next drink. I had at least six drinks during our trip, and I needed to slow down near the end since I was our driver and I planned to take a can of beer with me when it came time to exit the bar car. So my last mixed drink was Diet Pepsi with a tiny splash of Jack Daniels. Joe thought that was funny.

You'll love the view from the High Roller.

High Roller trivia: If memory serves me correct, we learned there are 28 cabins on the wheel. Trista and I also bet whether or not there was a cabin 13. I didn't think so. She won $5.

I'd like to think three trips on the High Roller is enough, but if I can get daytime tickets for $12.50 again some day, I'll be back.

Following the High Roller it was time to head back to the Plaza and get ready for Halloween.

I've been a member of one Vegas online forum or another for years. I don't go out of my way for meet and greets for a few reasons, but I have met a few people in Vegas through my online networking during the last several years. On Halloween 2011 I started my day by meeting up with a handful of people at El Cortez, and I've kept in touch with one of the guys occasionally. We even met up a second time a couple of years ago for an hour.

There's something about Vegas that brings out a communal spirit in many of us. I suspect there's a similar online community surrounding the Disney theme parks. I know there are plenty of online forums and resources out there for Disney fans. Do you think fans of San Antonio, New Orleans or Key West share the same sort of online kinship?

I mention this because a bunch of folks associated with the Facebook group "Everything Las Vegas" were gathering at 5 p.m. in a suite at the Plaza. I'm not known by these folks, and I don't have a lot to contribute to their discussions, but I do chime in now and then. I wouldn't have gone out of my way to track this group down on Halloween, but given the fact they were gathering in the same hotel tower I was, I wanted to stop in and say hello. I had anticipated returning to the Plaza by 5 p.m., but by the time we got back it was after 5:30. That left me 20 minutes to make a cameo, so I did, and talked to several people whose names I forgot.

I talked to a few people from the Midwest, including a guy from Madison, Wisconsin, and two women. I don't recall if both of them were from Canada, but at least one of them was, and she was from Fort Frances, Ontario, across the border from International Falls, Minnesota, where I had lived 20 years ago. Not exactly a "small world" occurrence, but amusing to me.

I also briefly met the evening's host, Michelle, and Nicki, who is a somewhat frequent contributor to the Facebook group. Nicki had no idea who I was, naturally, but I knew who she was, and had to say hello and give her a hug like I was an old friend. I have no idea how awkward that was for her, but I'll chalk it up to the High Roller cocktails.

The ELV folks headed out to Fremont Street at 6 p.m., many in costume, and I headed to my room to put my costume on before meeting up with my friends and hitting Fremont ourselves.

Fremont gets rather congested on Halloween, even when it's on a weeknight. Lots of people parade under the canopy in costume, and there are lots of pictures being taken. I swear Halloween 2016 was busier than Halloween 2011, but perhaps not. Those 2011 memories are obviously vague.

I haven't been in Vegas for Halloween the past couple of years because it has fallen on a weekend and I've been working at my Minnesota haunted attraction. I've never done anything particularly spectacular on a Halloween night in Minnesota, but it's warm enough in Vegas to enjoy the evening without bundling up, and there's always a party on Fremont Street. If you enjoy the pageantry of Halloween, Vegas will provide plenty of free entertainment. I can't recommend it enough, and certainly plan on returning in 2017.

As for my costume, I portrayed a classic pro wrestler, as depicted below. And no, I wasn't Hulk Hogan.

When "Macho Man" Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan wrestled as a tag team, they were known as the Mega Powers.
The group walked around for a while, took a break at the Main Street Station brew pub for late night munchies and then returned to Fremont for more Halloween hijinks. I regret that I didn't take more photos or better video of the ridiculousness, but here's a sample of the frivolity:

Click here for day 3. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

#VegasHalloween (night 1): They scared the hell out of us

Halloween 2011 was on a Monday night. It was my first Halloween in Sin City. I won't rehash that trip today, but I promise to do that next fall.

Five years later Halloween is again on a Monday night. In 2011 I made a solo journey to Vegas. This year I traveled to Vegas with four friends. The five of us would never have met each other had it not been for the haunted attraction we work at each fall here in Minnesota. Joe, Jon, Mike, Trista and I spent four nights together in Sin City, and it worked out pretty well.

Having been to Vegas for Halloween from 2011-13, I talked it up quite a bit around my co-workers. Mike suggested to me at some point prior to May 2015 that we should plan a group trip to Vegas. The wheels began to turn. Because Halloween 2015 was a Saturday night, and we'd all be working that night at our haunted attraction, it made sense to plan a group trip for 2016, as our haunted attraction isn't open when Halloween falls on a Monday night. So in May 2015 I began promoting a 2016 Halloween trip to Vegas. Yes, 18 months in advance!

I knew it was unlikely we'd have a huge group, and I was pleased to have a group of five. We didn't all take the same flights in and out of the desert, but we all worked on Saturday night, Oct. 29, and boarded planes on Sunday, Oct. 30, for Vegas. Mike and I were the last two arrivals. We were on separate flights, but arrived at approximately the same time. We met at the McCarran rental car center, picked up our SUV and headed downtown to meet the others, who had all arrived together earlier in the day.

Our first meal together was dinner at Market Street Cafe at the California. It's always a wait to be seated for dinner at the Cal, but I wanted to start my week off right, with a cheap prime rib dinner.

Priority one for our first evening in Vegas was a visit to one of the local haunted attractions. I've been to two outstanding haunted attractions not associated with Circus Circus during my previous Halloween trips. (I've never been to the Circus Circus Fright Dome, and everything I've read about it discourages me from ever visiting.) Assuming we would only have time to visit one haunted attraction that night, I had to choose the most unique, creative attraction I've ever been to, the Freakling Bros. Trilogy of Terror.

I visited Freakling Bros. on Oct. 30, 2011, during my first Halloween in Vegas. The location had changed in 2016, but there I was, back for my third visit, five years to the day. (I also visited in 2012, during a Halloween trip with my girlfriend. It was the last haunted attraction she has ever visited. She retired from the haunt scene after enduring Freakling Bros.)

I won't go into detail about the Trilogy of Terror, but I will note that their creativity is spectacular, and they put on a great show. Unlike haunted attractions that push hundreds of people through every hour, the Freakling Bros. mazes have design elements that limit entry to small, staggered groups. You won't run into a long line of people ahead of you because their mazes don't work that way.

This also means that admission to their mazes commands a premium price, but the experience you get from their three mazes is well worth it. You can buy a ticket for just one maze, or for $35 you can get a ticket for all three mazes. Each maze takes about 10 minutes to complete, so you're getting about 30 minutes of live entertainment for your money, and you're getting something unique. The price is only a few dollars more than you would pay for a comparable experience in Minneapolis, and probably no more expensive than you'd pay for a similar attraction in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Freakling Bros. is definitely worth the price of admission if you're the type of person who enjoys a standard haunted attraction in your hometown. 

So what did my co-workers think? We work for a haunted attraction, so it takes a bit to impress us. Here's what they had to say to our online world: 

Joe: "Holy sh*t was this place amazing. I have not legitimately been scared in a haunted house for years but did get scared in each of their 3 attractions. So worth everything!!"

Jon: "
Omg this is f*cking amazing!"

Mike: "
las vegas haunted house's!!! It was a blast. Full V.I.P. treatment. Back stage. Best time i have ever had in a haunted house!!!"

Trista: "Having a haunt meltdown freakout! Got VIP wristbands, AND getting backstage tours after each attraction! They wanted to show some Halloween love to our out-of-state group of haunters"

Yes, we were treated like royalty. I had contacted the folks that run Freakling Bros. prior to our arrival, and they responded by rolling out the blood-soaked red carpet upon our arrival. (Figuratively, of course.)

Duke and his son JT are the proprietors of Freakling Bros., and they went above and beyond in welcoming us. I had met them back in 2012, but only briefly. They didn't know me, or have a reason to go out of their way for my group, but they did. We were simply a group of five out-of-state haunters who came to see their show, and they acted like we were doing them a favor. It was incredible. 

I won't go into detail, but Duke gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the mazes, and explained many of the intricacies that go into their annual production. As a three-time visitor to their attraction, I knew a few tidbits about their operation, but I learned quite a bit late that Sunday night. Duke shared details about how and why they do some of the things they do, and spent about 30 minutes doing so. Sure, there's a method to the madness, but it was Duke's explanations that made me realize just how thoroughly and purposefully everything is done in each of their mazes. 

It's an incredible show they've put together at Freakling Bros., and I was happy to share it with my co-workers that Sunday night. The VIP treatment we received made it extra special. I can't thank them enough for that. 

Without giving away details, here are a few tidbits to keep in mind if you should want to visit in the years to come: 

The mazes are not handicapped accessible. And there is at least one instance where you'll need to crawl. I note this because Mike wasn't expecting it, and while he was able to do so, he has a bad knee, and he needed help getting up. 

The Gates of Hell, their R-rated maze, involves minor contact. They won't strangle you, but there is contact. A few people I know don't like haunted attractions where there's contact. If you're that type of person, you'll want to skip Gates of Hell. 

The Trilogy of Terror is mobile. The mazes were in a different location in 2011, and in both instances I had to drive at least 15 minutes to get there. If you didn't drive to Vegas or rent a car when you arrive then you'll have to decide if the cost of cab or Uber fare is worth it to you. 

So how did we conclude our first night in Vegas? After a cameo at a nearby Walmart we returned downtown. Jon and Trista retired for the evening while Joe, Mike and I headed over to Main Street Station for microbrews. I was sad to learn that the days of the $1.75 pints had come to an end at the Boar's Head Bar. Pints now cost $2.50. While we were sitting at the bar the power went out for about two seconds. That was a weird experience. Everything lost power, but generators kicked in and within a couple of minutes it was business as usual at the slot machines. Vegas is amazing like that. 

Click here for day 2. 

On Saturday night, Oct. 29, we were working at Valleyscare, a haunted attraction in the Minneapolis suburbs. On Sunday night, Oct. 30, we visited the Freakling Bros. Trilogy of Terror in Las Vegas. We had a blast.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

So, what happened in Vegas?

In the days to come I will detail many elements of my Halloween week trip to Las Vegas. For now, here is a list of highlights:

The night before Halloween my group received VIP treatment from the Freakling Bros. Trilogy of Terror. It was our first night in Vegas and one hell of a great way to kick off our trip.

My group also did the High Roller on Halloween afternoon. It was my third spin through the air, but my first daytime trip.

Halloween night was spent roaming up and down Fremont Street. I didn’t take enough pictures, but here’s one:

My group took a road trip to see Seven Magic Mountains on Wednesday, Nov. 2, and our visit included a free show.

Since my nieces are fascinated by mermaids, I had to visit Silverton Casino on Nov. 3 and see them for myself. I shared my visit with my nieces via FaceTime. 

Those are the highlights, but there were plenty of stories to share, and I will. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I like saving $5 in Vegas

Disclaimer: The links to products listed below do not benefit me in any way, financially or otherwise.

For many years I bought coupon books here in Minnesota that were known as "Happenings." There are versions of these books around the country, and they still exist, although I think they're all known as "Entertainment" books now.

They're huge coupon books, and have deals for hundreds of businesses in the region they're sold. They typically sold for around $25, and were often sold by groups or organizations that used them as fundraising mechanisms. The organization would receive a commission for every book sold.

I remember my uncle telling me why he wouldn't buy the book: He didn't get a lot of use out of it.

I had a different perspective: If I used a few coupons without making special effort, and saved $25 or more, then I was winning. And so was the organization that sold me the book. Some people think they have to save $1,000 when they purchase a $25 coupon book in order for it to be worth their time, but I've never subscribed to that theory.

I haven't seen one of those "Entertainment" books in years, so I haven't purchased one in a long time, but I'm still a fan of coupons. I'm not going to be rich any time soon, so I'm happy to save money when I can, and I try not to go out of my way to spend money at restaurants just because I have a coupon in my wallet.

In Vegas there is no shortage of ads and gimmicks offering discounts for shows, meals and experiences. Quite often the coupon deal is little more than a marketing expense. Sure, you can pay full price for a ticket to see Mac King's magic show, but there are plenty of "free" tickets out there. That free ticket, by the way, comes with the one-drink minimum caveat. That one drink ends up costing about $15 for a weak single-shot drink. So it's hardly a free show by the time four people redeem their coupons for "free" tickets, but at $15 it's a good price for an entertaining magic show.

I'm not sure when I finally learned that there were coupon books available for Vegas, but thanks to online forums I discovered there was money to be saved at a variety of casinos, and money to be made, too.

"Entertainment" has a Vegas edition, but I've never seen it. From what I know, it's mostly geared toward restaurants and venues outside of the tourist districts. There are a few discounts for touristy destinations, but not enough to make the book appealing to the Vegas vacationer, from all indications.

One of the coupon books geared toward the Vegas tourist is the American Casino Guide. It has information about casinos around the country, lots of information about gambling and travel, some of which is specifically about Vegas, and dozens of coupons, many for Vegas. A small portion of the coupons are good at casinos around the country, but it's clearly a book aimed at the Vegas tourist.

The book can be had via Amazon for less than $15, typically. A small price to pay for all those coupons, right? Well sure, but in my experience the ACG isn't going to net a lot more in savings than your initial buy-in.

Many of the coupons are tied to off-strip and downtown properties. There are coupons that are for casinos on the strip, but that's a small percentage of the offerings, and some of those coupons aren't all that special. (ACG has a Mac King coupon, for example.)

The coupons are for restaurant discounts, attraction discounts and casino gambling benefits, such as $10 in free slot play or a $10 match play on an even-money table game bet. But there aren't a ton of those to be found in the book. Nonetheless I've been buying the book for several years now because for $15 I'd usually find at least two coupons that were worth more than the price of the book.

For example, for years the ACG has had a $10 match play at the Orleans, a casino where I frequently stay. The match play is like a free $10 chip. I have to bet $10 on a hand of blackjack or a spin of the roulette wheel in order to use the match play for $10, but if I win I receive $20 for my win instead of the $10 I put up, and the coupon is surrendered. If I lose, I lose my $10 and the coupon is surrendered. So I'm not guaranteed to receive $10 from the coupon, but it's the equivalent of making a $10 bet without risking my own money. Essentially I'm making a $20 bet on a hand of blackjack while only putting up $10 of my own money.

Coupons change from year to year, and I don't find as much value in the book as I did years ago, but there's enough value that I continue buying it, and this fall I'll easily get more than $15 value out of it through coupons to a few places that I regularly go to during my trips.

I was quick to invest in the ACG, but I was hesitant to buy the Las Vegas Advisor Member Rewards Book. The book costs about $40 delivered, and that seemed like a bit much. During my first few years of using the ACG I didn't buy a copy of the LVA coupon book.

What changed my mind? A few years ago I bought a used copy online. That's against the LVA rules, but the book is not registered to whomever purchases it, so the casinos are none the wiser. I bought the book for half its full price, and it was only missing a few coupons. I realized after using the book during my next trip that I was missing out on far more deals that were of value to me, so now I purchase the book annually.

The book has better coupons, and far more of them, than the ACG. Like ACG, these coupons are mostly geared toward off-strip and downtown destinations, but there are far better offers from front to back, and several of them are for restaurants on the strip. The LVA book has more two-for-one meal deals, from buffets to traditional restaurants, and more match plays and free slot play offers, as well. And there's a discount coupon for the Palms that can save you the entire $40 cost of the book if you play your coupon correctly. (Irony: I have never used the Palms discount.)

For my upcoming trip I will use LVA coupons for two different meals at Ellis Island, coupons for two-for-one buffets at one or two downtown casinos and gambling coupons for free play (or match play) at a few downtown joints, as well as Ellis Island. The food coupons will save me, and a friend, at least $20 each, as I'll split the bill rather than make my friend may full price for a meal. And even if I don't win a dime with the gambling coupons, I'll have had a chance to win cash. And I'll have to be unlucky if I fail to turn one $10 free play coupon into $10 in winnings via video poker.

A few simple stories of good fortune: I played three $25 match plays on roulette wheels and three $10 match plays on roulette wheels during a trip last year. (Most of these match plays came from the coupon books, but not all of them.) I won all six times. Even had I lost one or two, I'd have made money. And had I lost all three $25 bets, but won all three $10 bets, I'd have been out only $15 for my trouble. If I was really unlucky I would have lost $105 for all my effort. Since I was really lucky I won $210 for those six bets.

At Ellis Island a few years ago I had to earn my free play by playing $10 on my player's card before redeeming the coupon. I played keno at the bar and managed to win $12 before I turned in my coupon. The coupon offered from $10 to $100 in free play, and by luck of the draw I received $20 that day. I used that free play to play four $5 hands of video blackjack. I won all four hands, and cashed out for $40. I walked away from the casino with $52 in winnings, and my goal was simply not to lose any money. I wasn't a big winner, I know, but I nearly paid for both books with those winnings, and I was with my girlfriend that night. We used a two-for-one coupon at the BBQ restaurant, and that saved us more than $10 at dinner.

A story of bad luck: I played seven $10 match plays during a trip a few years ago, all at blackjack tables, and I won one of seven hands. Sometimes you're just not lucky. Had I won two of the seven I would have lost $10 on the deal. Had I won three of the seven I would have made $20. Instead I lost $40 by using match plays. I was quite unlucky that trip, but that was a small price to pay for the good luck and the $210 I won a few years later using my match plays at roulette wheels.

My advice: Buy coupon books if you tend to spend a lot of your time downtown. Buy the LVA for sure, but don't overlook the ACG if you know you'll easily redeem two or three of the coupons in the book. A list of the coupons in both books is available online through their websites.

Other things to remember:
• Most coupons require redemption at the player's club desk prior to redemption at a restaurant or on the casino floor. You'll need a player's club card at each casino, and that means waiting in line for a few minutes. Most coupons are limited to one redemption per cardholder per year, but if you travel with a spouse or partner, you can each get a book and redeem the coupons once on each person's club card.
• If you travel solo, the dining coupons are sometimes good for half off of a meal if you're dining alone. That's a nice benefit at the buffets, and the gambling coupons don't care if you're traveling solo or with five other people. If you're traveling with somebody, having two books is usually worth the trouble if you are both apt to gamble, or go to Vegas twice in the same year.
• LVA coupons technically must remain in the book until the time of redemption. That prevents people from trading the coupons or giving an unwanted coupon to a friend. The book is thin and easy to carry in a pocket or purse, however, so it's not a burden to carry around, unless you don't have pockets or a purse. The ACG is a much thicker book that's not as convenient to carry around to the casinos, but you can cut those coupons out of the book to take with you. You also need to have the membership card within the book when you make the redemption, although from my experience showing the card is rarely requested.
• Don't expect discounts to high-end restaurants at fancy casinos on the strip. They cater to people who don't care how much the meal costs, so they're not looking for penny pinchers like you.
• Don't buy the books expecting to save $1,000, and don't buy the books if you have to go out of your way to redeem the coupons. It's not worth that much trouble, but I like the idea of buying the book a few weeks to a few months in advance. That's like pre-funding your vacation. The money is spent long before you arrive in Sin City, and you did spend it, but it makes the money you budget for your vacation time go further, and that's a good feeling.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Brain Invaders guide to Las Vegas

Earlier this evening I contributed to a podcast called Brain Invaders. The topic for the podcast, which will probably be broken up into two episodes (78 and 79) was Vegas. Specifically things to see and do if you're a fan of the BI podcast. That means comic books, comic conventions, sci-fi, museums and gaming (outside of gambling).

I will update this page with links to the episodes when they are available. Until then here's a resource list, taken from my show notes, for most of the destinations I discussed:

Pinball/video games:
Pinball Hall of Fame – pinballmuseum.org
Flipperspiel Undergournd Arcade Club– vegaspinball.com
Hi Scores (2 suburban locations) – hiscoreslv.com

Toy Shack (Neonopolis) – vegastoyshack.com
Kappa Toys (Downtown Container Park) – kappatoys.com
Rogue Toys (3 locations) – roguetoys.com

Alternate Reality Comics – alternaterealitycomics.net

Rocky Horror/B movies/sci-fi:
The Sci Fi Center – thescificenter.com

Comic cons:
Great American Comic Convention (Dec. 3-4) – greatamericancomicconvention.com 

National Atomic Testing Museum – nationalatomictestingmuseum.org
Mob Museum – themobmuseum.org
Neon Museum Boneyard – neonmuseum.org
Nevada State Museum – museums.nevadaculture.org/nsmlv-home
Natural History Museum – lvnhm.org
Burlesque Hall of Fame – burlesquehall.com

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Adam the who?

Summer goes by faster every year, I swear.

I seem to be extra busy in the summer, and while I appreciate having a lot to do, I wish I had more time to waste. I guess that's what winter in Minnesota is for.

If I had more time to waste, I'd watch a lot more videos from Adam the Woo. He's a character who has turned a hobby into a 24/7 lifestyle, as best I can tell.

I don't know his history very well, but I've watched an assortment of his videos, and learned a thing or two. He's a dude who is about 40 years old, worked in the prestigious world of retail for many years and began creating YouTube videos of his visits to abandoned places, I think. He likes to visit abandoned amusement parks, movie sets and anything else that strikes his fancy. He's not the only one doing this and filming it for the Internet, but he's the first one I stumbled upon some time ago.

As the popularity of his videos grew, he started a second YouTube channel, which he calls The Daily Woo. On that channel he produces daily videos of his exploits, more or less. I don't follow it religiously, but it's what the kids call a "vlog."

What was once a hobby that he devoted his free time to has now become a lifestyle. Not long ago he unloaded his personal belongings and hit the road to dedicate his time, day and night, to traveling the countryside in an old, unglamorous van.

My assumption was that the dude comes from a wealthy family and he never had to work for a living, he simply could afford to travel whenever he wanted and slap together videos of his exploits. But as I learned recently, that's not the case. As I noted, he was a retail lackey for most of his adult life, although he was a drummer in a band of minor notoriety at one point, allegedly. (UPDATE: The latest evidence I have seen suggests he was a bass player.)

As his popularity has grown he has been able to earn a few pennies off of the thousands and thousands of views his videos generate. He also has T-shirts available for purchase via the Internet, and does accept donations to help sustain his work. Although it might seem he's getting rich off of Internet notoriety, that doesn't appear to be the case. He has fuel and lodging expenses during his travels, and there's little indication his accommodations are Kardashian-like. From the sounds of it, the support he receives from his viewers has afforded him the luxury of dedicating his life to traveling the countryside and chronicling his adventures in that tired van.

He doesn't beg for support, and he doesn't beg people to promote his content. He seems to like the idea that his popularity is organic. As best I can tell, he's not doing it for 15 minutes of Internet fame. But he does communicate and connect with his viewers via various social media platforms.

His style is not for everyone. At times he's a cornball. His style reminds me a bit of MTV-era Pauly Shore, with a dose of Adam Sandler thrown in. Although his videos are creative and well produced, his on-camera persona hasn't advanced with his production skills. I think his Wayne and Garth view of the world is endearing to some, nauseating to others.

Regardless, his adventures are a lot of fun to follow, when I can make the time to do so. He was based in California, and now that he sold off most of the things that kept him tethered to SoCal, he's on the road. Naturally it didn't take him long to find his way to Las Vegas as he headed east. It's not the first time he's been to The Meadows, but when I saw he spent time in Sin City recently, I had to check out his videos of his visit, particularly since he stopped at Seven Magic Mountains. I'm looking forward to seeing it this fall.

He also visited the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings. I've read about it, but have yet to visit it.

The video of his visit to Seven Magic Mountains wasn't as informative as I'd have preferred, but it was fun nonetheless. He did provide some good information and footage from his stop in Goodsprings, so props to Adam for that. And he shoots cool drone footage of places he visits. I know, he ain't the first, but it's a nice addition to his videos that he doesn't overuse.

But don't take my word for it, check it out for yourself.

Join him... shall you?

 Here is his second day's video chronicling his recent layover in Lost Wages:

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What happened to the Vegas we loved?

It's summer, and I biked 27 miles earlier this evening. How I love the 9 p.m. sunsets in Minneapolis. We get them for a few weeks of they year, and I take advantage of them. I have things I want to write, and will, even if it kills me. For now, here's my attempt at polishing an idea I started a few months ago, but shelved. It lacks keen insight, but here it is nonetheless.

Why do we pine for the days of yesteryear? The simple answer is that it is in our DNA to do so.

I've been going to Vegas since January 1997. I've seen a lot change in nearly two decades, but the evolution of mega-resorts on the Las Vegas strip was already underway. My first trip included three nights at the enormous MGM.

I can cite a lot of changes in Vegas over the 19 years I've been visiting Sin City. I no longer stay on the strip, and my bankroll hasn't grown as much as I'd like given two decades of professional employment.

I follow a few Vegas conversation resources, and one thing that caught my attention was a discussion on the Facebook page for the "Five Hundy by Midnight" podcast. 

A gentleman by the name of Bob Smith wrote the following: 

Last week, Tim & Michelle spent some time talking about how change is a constant in Vegas and how many of us believe it was a better experience when we first took it in, whether that was 10, 20 or 40 years ago. The comparison Tim used was how most of us think the best music happened to arrive in our teens and early 20's. That's a very valid point. However, when it comes to recent changes, there's nothing nostalgic about assessing better vs. worse.

Resort Fees: inarguably worse
6:5 blackjack: ditto
MGM parking fees: yep
Double odds at Wynn craps: worse
Reduced video poker pay tables: not better
Early check-in & related random fees: bad

Those are just off the top of my head. Yes, those who say Vegas was better "when the mob ran the town" may be indulging in nostalgic revisionism, and it makes for an interesting discussion. However, the steady march toward squeezing nickels and dimes out of every visitor is a different matter entirely. Many (most?) of the items listed above have taken hold in just the past decade. It has rapidly and permanently changed the Vegas experience for the worse. We can try to avoid these fees and gaming odds adjustments and we should. But in time, all the Strip & Downtown casinos will almost certainly fall in line, as they have with resort fees. Yes, we'll still visit Vegas on a regular basis, but with an increasingly jaded eye. Better or worse? Mostly, it's really just sad. 

I took a few economics classes in college, and I use to be really good at math. A long time ago. So here's a layman's analysis of why the good old days that Smith spoke of have gone by the wayside. 

In the 1980s Vegas had a huge advantage over the rest of the country, it was the place to go for gambling. Yes, there was Reno, and Atlantic City's casino industry was trying to put a dent into the Vegas experience, but for the most part, Vegas was a magical destination like no other. We like to think of it as a Disney World for adults. 

The thrill of hitting it big at a slot machine couldn't be matched locally, at least here in Minnesota, where I live. Gambling just wasn't a part of our day-to-day life here in the Midwest. I remember churches would occasionally run some forms of gambling under the guise of a church festival, designed to make money for the parish... and why not? Isn't that how God wants a church to be funded?

But gambling here in Minnesota, and certainly other parts of the country, began to change in the 1980s. The 1980s brought parimutuel betting to Minnesota. The poor man's Churchill Downs gave degenerate gamblers a place to prove reading the Daily Racing Form was a sweet science. During the 1990s our neighbors to the east, Wisconsin, had a handful of dog tracks for the same purpose, including one less than 30 minutes from St. Paul, one of our celebrated Twin Cities.

Lotteries weren't unheard of in the '80s, but we didn't have them in Minnesota until the late 1980s, or perhaps early 1990s. I'm quite sure Wisconsin beat us to the lottery game by a year or three, but nonetheless, both states climbed aboard that train, turning just about every gas station into a neighborhood casino. Do lottery games replace the thrill of the craps table? Not by a long shot, but suddenly there was a way to turn $1 into $100, even if the odds were lousy.

I didn't go to bars in the '80s, but at some point bars became places to gamble, under the guise of "charitable gambling," at least here in Minnesota. It's amazing how many bars host a pull-tab operation, which pays rent for its space within the bar, and an hourly wage to employees, all in an effort to make money for a nonprofit entity. 

Pull tabs are basically slot machine games played with small cardboard game pieces. (I have no idea how prevalent pull tabs are nationwide, but I assume plenty of states have them in their bars.) In the past few years pull tab proprietors in Minnesota have been able to offer the games electronically, using a tablet that players are given at the time of their purchase. 

Pull tab gaming seems to be profitable at many bars across Minnesota, even though the games seem to offer less than spectacular odds for the player. 

All of those things have made gambling a part of life in the Midwest, but as we know, the expansion of the casino industry across the United States has provided many of us from coast to coast with a taste of Vegas, sans the airfare.

In Minnesota we have plenty of tribal-owned casinos scattered across the state. Most of us live within one hour of a casino. They emerged in the early 1990s, much like other tribal casinos across the country. Minnesota doesn't allow our casinos to offer live craps or roulette, but you can get those in our neighboring states, for they have casinos, too. (I'm too lazy to research if the casinos in our neighboring states are all tribal entities. I get a sense the answer is "no" in Iowa.)

Once upon a time playing casino blackjack was a privilege, one frequently enjoyed in Vegas. I've been to casinos in California, Mississippi, Louisiana, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin, and in some cases my appearance was simply because it was convenient to drop in and survey the scene, not because I had an itch to gamble. I ate at the Hollywood Casino in Toledo, Ohio, and never gambled a dime.

Three of the six points Bob wrote about above were diminished gaming conditions in Vegas. You'd think that Vegas would want to be offer better gaming odds to attract people who can opt instead to spend a weekend at a fancy tribal casino closer to home and save the cost of airfare. But better odds aren't enough to trump the tribal casinos, evidently, so instead of offering better odds to Vegas visitors, the tourist casinos are looking at how to squeeze more out of every dollar wagered, any little way they can. The casinos are no different than most other American businesses. When your profits start to decrease, find ways to make it up, be it at the expense of your customers or your employees.

The expansion of the casino industry, and other forms of gambling, denied future generations the thrill of Vegas, at least when it comes to winning or losing your paycheck.

Plenty of people come to Vegas for conventions, sightseeing and hedonistic ambitions, and plenty of those people will gamble. But reports over the years have illustrated how the gaming portion of the casinos is now part of a multi-faceted effort to turn a profit. Gaming is no longer king, and rather than make gambling more enticing with better odds, the casinos have finally accepted that they're attracting customers who grew up with casinos in their backyards, and don't get the same thrill their parents or grandparents got from a trip to Vegas.

Enough people don't care, or know better, so they accept 6:5 blackjack or reduced video poker pay tables. And those reduced payouts are due, in part, to the fact that the casino industry is now raising generations of gamblers across the country.

Vegas has lost its luster as a gambling mecca, and the deteriorating conditions we see today are a result of that.

As for resort fees, that's obviously the result of the Internet. As has been discussed many times in the online world, resort fees are a shell game the casinos play in order to minimize the commissions paid to third-party booking services.

Regarding the other points Smith made, about parking and other fees, those go hand-in-hand with diminished gambling conditions. They're ways to squeeze more cash out of the tourist.

I'm not sure how many casinos around the United States charge for parking, but I'm guessing many don't. Casinos located in downtown districts, such as New Orleans and St. Louis, might not have free parking because the real estate is expensive and in high demand. But you won't find a casino or race track in Minnesota that charges for general parking. They may charge for valet parking, but free parking is still the norm.

Will people stop going to Vegas because of the cost of parking? Heck no. Some will change their plans because of the cost of parking, but no particular fee is likely to drive people away. Give people enough reasons and they'll throw in the towel, but new generations are awaiting their turn at the adult playground, and they won't scoff at throwing away a portion of that disposable income for a parking space, especially those who have $1,000 or more budgets for their weekend at the ultra lounges.

How would Vegas be different today if our country had never gone casino crazy and had never given tribes the keys to the casino industry? (It's not quite that simple, but we'll leave it at that for now.) If the gambling landscape of 2016 was similar to the landscape of 1976, would Vegas casinos be turning the screws on its gamblers and hotel guests?

Perhaps, but not to the degree we see today. Our nation's love affair with gambling has taken something from Vegas that Vegas will never get back: cachet.