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.