Saturday, November 18, 2017

#VegasHalloween (day 3): The best day of the year, unless you're Joe

Some of us have a favorite day of the year.

If I have one, it's Halloween.

I can't fully explain why I've come to love Halloween as much as I do, but part of me wishes I had this much Halloween enthusiasm 20 years ago.

Nonetheless, Halloween 2017 was my fifth Halloween in Vegas during the past seven years. I won't recount each of them since my first in 2011. The main reason I haven't been to Vegas on Halloween for seven years in a row: When it falls on a weekend, I am working at my haunted attraction here in Minnesota.

I started my morning with a 9 a.m. road trip. As noted from day 2, we didn't have any sort of non-stick coating for the frying pan, and I also needed one thing I forgot to bring with me from Minnesota. So it was off to Target. Having a rental car makes such trips possible.

It was a short, easy drive to Target, according to my phone map. I didn't have to fight with heavy traffic or hit the freeway to get to a Target store. The location of the nearby Target store turned out to be quite fortunate, as I would soon learn.

My friend Joe gave me cash to make a couple of sports bets for him while I was in Vegas. I warned him that I was staying at a time share property and wouldn't have automatic access to a sports book whenever he decided to make a bet. It turned out that he wanted to bet on two Monday games, but I wasn't leaving Tahiti Village until after 5 p.m., so there was little chance I would be able to make a bet for him. (Had I been able to, he would have won one bet and lost the other.) I asked at the concierge desk where the nearest sports book might be, and the woman said South Point, which she suggested was a quarter-mile south of Tahiti Village, I swear.

That sounded great, but I would learn two important things on Halloween morning: South Point was three-and-a-half miles away, and Silverton Casino was closer. Perhaps I simply misheard the woman the previous day.

So following my brief visit to Target on Halloween morning I was off to Silverton Casino, as Joe had already texted a Tuesday evening sports bet he wanted to place. There was only one problem, I assumed there was a turn to access the property after Dean Martin Drive. I was wrong. Next thing I know, I'm heading toward a variety of freeway options, and I'm not sure what I should do. Fortunately I chose to go southbound, which turned out to be a happy accident.

I drove a few miles down the freeway to the next exit, which happened to the exit for South Point. At that point it was clear that Silverton was my more convenient casino option. I asked my phone to map me back to Silverton and it basically suggested driving through a neighborhood south of the casino, parallel to the freeway. Fine with me!

It's funny how fascinating neighborhoods are in an area of the country where you don't live. I drove along neighborhoods full of modest homes, many of which seemed to be warehousing a boat, RV or some other mode of transportation in the driveway or elsewhere on the property. As I've come to expect, there's not a yard to speak of outside many of the houses, and it didn't seem like many of the houses had a lot of personal space around them. I'm sure there were plenty of patios with chairs for people to sit outside their homes when it wasn't scorching hot, but not that I could tell. I don't spend a ton of time sitting in my back yard, but I'm glad I have the space when I want it.

I was surprised to pass a roadside produce market of some sort during this five-minute drive. I didn't stop, but I couldn't help but wonder what they sold at this parcel of property between my car and the freeway. I do know they sold pumpkins, that was clear.

As I neared Silverton I saw a gated neighborhood that looked a little fancier. I was curious to know how big and fancy the homes were in that neighborhood.

Destination reached, I headed inside and quickly found my way to the sports book. Silverton has a large, pleasant casino floor, and it's rather quiet around there on a Tuesday morning in late October. People were few and far between. I bet $50 for Joe on an NBA game between two bad teams, and I felt like I was inconveniencing the guys at the sports book by showing up to place a wager. I also added $20 of my own money to the wager. I figured I wanted in on Joe's action.

It took me a minute to place the wager, because Joe wanted to bet on the Nets. I kept looking at the board and couldn't find a Tuesday night NBA game featuring New Jersey. It was only after looking at the printed odds sheet for the day's NBA action that I realized he was betting on the Brooklyn Nets. That shows you how much I follow the NBA these days.

I then returned to Tahiti Village with cheap sticks of margarine from Target to make omelets for our breakfast. From there it was out to the pool. I chose to wear pieces of last year's Halloween costume to the pool.

It's the Halloween costume that keeps on giving. A woman I passed in the lobby of our building was inspired to sing a Village People song. My ears are still bleeding.
Our lunch break was at the Tahiti Village bar/restaurant. They had a coupon in the booklet they gave us for a deal on two pizzas, so we ordered two and had leftovers to take back to the room. The pizza was decent and the price was fair, but my girlfriend's pint of craft beer was no bargain at $8. Oh well, $39 for lunch, including tip. And that was with a coupon. It would prove to be our most expensive meal of the day.

We spent additional time at the pool before getting ready for Halloween. We didn't take a picture of us together, although we planned to. My girlfriend put together a hat and necklace she ordered with a few black items to be a witch. I, inspired prior to Halloween 2016, went as writer/director/actor Kevin Smith.

Halloween was the night we decided to leave the car behind. I don't typically drink so much that I can't drive, but we decided that if there was going to be such a night, Halloween was it. Fortunately Tahiti Village has free shuttles, including a couple that run downtown during the evenings. We knew enough to sign up in advance, and did so on Monday. Our return trip, had we wanted it, was 2-3 hours after we arrived outside Golden Nugget, but we knew we'd stay downtown late, so we opted to take Lyft back to the resort.

Joe had texted me that afternoon, asking me to put $50 on the Houston Astros in the World Series. Same problem as Monday, I wouldn't get to a sports book in time on Halloween. (Houston would lose that game.) He later asked me to put $50 on the Detroit Pistons, who were playing that night in Los Angeles. That I was able to do at Golden Nugget.

We ate dinner at the Main Street Station buffet on Halloween night. Folks who dress up for Halloween don't tend to dine at the MSS buffet, I learned. We had a two-for-one coupon from Las Vegas Advisor, so we paid about $16 for our two meals. It was BBQ night, unfortunately, and none of their meats were going to be as good as what we had the previous night at Ellis Island, but we found enough to get by for the evening. I certainly didn't overeat. Our cheap, mediocre dinner reminded me why I stick to breakfast when I visit a Vegas buffet.

Halloween night on Fremont Street is a busy, crowded party. It was far more crowded up and down the street on Halloween 2017 than it was on Halloween 2011. I don't recall, but perhaps there weren't bars outside every casino in 2011. The lines for those bars certainly doesn't help the human flow. Between the lines at the bars and the crowds gathered at the music stages, it's a slow, chaotic mess for most of the evening. I wouldn't be able to put up with that on a nightly basis, but for Halloween, my tolerance is rather high.

If this is Halloween, I don't want to be there on New Year's Eve.
You see lots of creativity and bizarreness on Halloween night. I love gawking at all the nifty, head-scratching and barely-there costumes. We popped into a casino occasionally to gamble for a few minutes and escape the madness outside.

My costume wasn't one that is easily identifiable to most people, but I received an occasional comment from somebody who knew what I was going for. A guy came up to me on Fremont and his girlfriend wanted a picture of him and me together. I didn't immediately realize he was going as Kevin Smith, too. He said he slapped his costume together that afternoon. You can's see it in the picture below, but he was wearing more traditional denim shorts. I was wearing the longer "jorts" that Kevin Smith prefers.


Late in the evening I was walking through Golden Nugget to meet up with my girlfriend, and a guy sitting at a machine saw me. He was a big Kevin Smith fan, evidently, and jumped out of his seat to greet me. He asked if I'd take a picture with him, which I did. He asked his buddy sitting nearby to take the pic, and his buddy seemed slightly inconvenienced by it all.

Years ago they had a parade on Halloween night that ended near the Fremont Street Experience, and a small street party, of sorts. That doesn't quite happen any more, but perhaps they had a portion of Fremont East closed for Halloween. We never ventured past Neonopolis.

There were a few vendors on the side street toward Downtown Grand. I think one was selling temporary tattoos, or something like that, and another might have had Halloween movie memorabilia, or something of the sort. I didn't look too close, but the whole thing seemed kind of lame, including the small "haunted house" they had set up there. It was definitely small, so perhaps it was a more involved experience than simply walking through tarp hallways inside a giant tent structure set up on the street, but it looked pathetic, and not many people appeared to be lining up for the $10 experience, even on Halloween. I'd love to hear one person's report of how good or bad it was.

I don't recall what the hearse (or was it an ambulance) parked at this Halloween market represented, but it was as good of a place as any to get one decent picture of me on Halloween.

A few friends think I look a lot like Kevin Smith.
We made a late evening appearance inside the new downtown White Castle. I don't love the restaurant, but I don't hate it. I am lucky if I go once in a year here in Minnesota. I wasn't interested in eating, but my girlfriend needed a small snack. On Halloween night it was a very popular place. It only took about 10 or 12 minutes to order food, but we waited at least 20 minutes after ordering to receive our modest order. We did sit down at a table while waiting, and a guy who was leaving --  and had bought a sack of 10 sliders -- offered half of his food to me and those sitting near me. So I had a slider despite my intention not to.

White Castle, in Vegas or anywhere else, becomes far more appealing after a night of drinking.
We ordered our Lyft at about 2 a.m., so it was close to 3 a.m. by the time we got to bed. There would be no hot tub on Halloween night. After eight hours downtown, we were ready for bed.

Halloween on a cold night in Minnesota, especially when it falls on a weeknight, is far from exciting. I can promise you I have 100 times more fun on Halloween in Vegas, and if the stars align in 2018, I'll be back in Sin City to do it all over again.

Oh yeah, regarding Joe's $50 bets on Brooklyn and Detroit, they were both the favorites, and they both lost. The only gambling I did downtown on Halloween night was at Golden Nugget. I wasted $10 on a machine and lost a $10 match play on roulette. With my $20 loss on Joe's Brooklyn Nets bet and dropping $20 at the Nugget, I was down $40 for the day.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

#VegasHalloween 2017 (day 2): Go with what you know

My girlfriend said that she wanted to designate chunks of time to relaxing during our vacation. She wanted to spend chunks of time lounging by a pool in the modest Vegas sun and reading one of her books.

Sometimes I spend my morning laying in bed and watching TV if I can't sleep. Monday wasn't entirely intended to be that way, but I did have plans to watch "The Price is Right" that morning, specifically because a guy I've followed via YouTube for a couple of years, Adam the Woo, was in the audience for the taping of the show, scheduled for Oct. 30. He didn't say if he was a contestant on the show, and I still don't know. Due to what I have to assume was a hastily scheduled episode meant to promote the "Bad Moms" Christmas flick being released on Nov. 1, his episode was bumped, and not to the next day. It is now scheduled to air on a Wednesday in January.

But I watched the actresses from the flick parade around the stage and screech too often when they'd open their mouths. I miss the simpler days when the show wasn't constantly looking for some sort of promotional gimmick to tie into the show.

I mad eggs, over easy, and bagels for our breakfast. I soon realized that without purchasing any sort of butter or nonstick spray, the eggs didn't flip so easily, despite having an alleged nonstick pan. It didn't help that I didn't have a large, flat spatula for flipping the eggs. There were utensils provided, but the only spatula in the bunch was the kind you use to scrape the side of a mixing bowl when you're dumping the contents into a pan. The eggs looked less than glamorous, but they were edible. I guess I should have made scrambled eggs that first morning.

We spent plenty of time in the pool, and it was a warm day. The average high temp in Vegas on Halloween is 74F. On the day before Halloween it was in the low 80s, and we loved it. (By comparison, it was 45-50 degrees cooler back home in Minneapolis that afternoon.) We soaked up plenty of sun, and I went for a dip in the pool occasionally to cool off. The Tahiti Village pool is heated, most of the time. It was like bath water on that Monday.

Yes, I drink cheap domestic beer in aluminum bottles when at the pool in Vegas. Shame on me. 

We also spent some time floating in their lazy river, which is adjacent to the main pool. The lazy river doesn't seem to get much sun, at least in late October, and the water wasn't as warm. It was pleasant enough, and I'll bet it's great in July, but I wasn't going to spend two hours floating around the river, especially since I had to steer my girlfriend away from every water feature that rained down upon the river. She seemed to have an aversion to the pool water.

We didn't plan ahead, so we didn't have any pre-made sandwiches for our lunch. We decided to go to the Denny's on the perimeter of the property for a late lunch and spend more on that meal than we'd spend on dinner. Go figure.

Our evening was built around my desire to return to Las Vegas Haunts, the other local haunted attraction with a history in Vegas. Las Vegas Haunts has two mazes, an asylum and a hotel. They're run very similar to the Freakling Bros. mazes, you have to send small groups into the maze because there are areas that take time to pass through.

My girlfriend, not wanting to visit the attraction, fond a nail place nearby, so I dropped her off there prior to my showing up for the haunted mazes, which opened at 6:30 p.m.

I was near the front of the line when the entry gates opened, so I decided I could skip spending the extra $10 for the VIP ticket. I spent $25 for their two mazes and got in line for the hotel first. I worked in an asylum maze for years at my seasonal Halloween job, so I have an affection for the asylum theme, and therefore wanted it to be my finale.

As I said, I was returning to Las Vegas Haunts, as I visited their attraction in 2011 when I made my first Halloween trip to Vegas. (I went to both haunted Las Vegas Haunts and Freakling Bros. on the same Sunday night that year.) My return visit was six years to the date of my first visit, Oct. 30.

Since it was the beginning of the night and I had no friends with me, I was able to go through the hotel by myself. I assumed I'd be added to a family or other group, but that wasn't the case. Although I had been there six years prior, I didn't remember much about their attractions, so it could have been exactly the same and I wouldn't have known it.

Following the hotel, there was already a decent line that accumulated for the asylum. I forgot just how long the stagger is between each group, and it took longer than I anticipated to enter. I regretted not spending the $10 for a VIP ticket. I would have been done 30 minutes sooner, and my girlfriend wouldn't have been stuck waiting for me.

I won't win an award for my iPhone photos, but this is the entryway into the asylum at Las Vegas Haunts.

Both Las Vegas Haunts mazes have really good set decorations and plenty of actors. They don't put on as spectacular of a show overall when compared to Freakling Bros., but it's entertaining. They have a great effect using fog and a room in their asylum, and there's a room in the hotel with several doors that you have to open before you find your way out.

I wouldn't say Las Vegas Haunts is fun for the whole family, it will creep out children and scare those who jump at the site of their shadow, but it's not as intense as Freakling Bros.

Somehow they get away with not paying the actors in their haunted attractions. I don't get it. Their website claims you do receive perks for your effort. The only perk I'd accept is straight cash, homey.

After picking up my girlfriend we headed back to Ellis Island. Las Vegas Haunts was set up in the parking lot of Meadows Mall, just west of Springs Preserve, so we were somewhat close to downtown, but we decided to go back to Ellis Island for a 2-for-1 meal at their BBQ restaurant.

We arrived after 8 p.m. and didn't have to wait to be seated. We ordered the same meals we always do, the half chicken, half rack of ribs combo. After our order I ran out to the casino and put $5 into a poker machine to play hands of video blackjack at $2 a hand. I wanted to print the player's club discount coupon for running $5 through the machine, and managed to win $2 for playing a few hands. With our Las Vegas Advisor coupon and our player's club discount, we spent $14.30 on two meals, pre-tip.

I don't look creepy at all. Yes, I'm wearing a five-year-old T-shirt representing the amusement park of death in Minnesota, where I work each fall. 

During our dinner I was able to see the end of the Broncos/Chiefs Monday Night Football game. Remember that sports bet from Sunday. I bet $40 on the Chiefs at -7. The Chiefs kicked a field goal  in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter that gave them a 16-point lead. I was quite confident that I was going to win. Then Denver runs a two-minute offense that ends with a touchdown and cuts the lead to 10. The failed two-point conversion pretty much iced the game for Kansas City with a couple of minutes left, but Denver did get the ball back with a little time to attempt to score once more. A late, meaningless touchdown would have made me a loser against the spread, but thankfully that didn't happen.

After dinner we cashed in our three free rounds of drinks coupon at the bar, and I continued to play really cheap video blackjack and keno. I ran enough cash through the machine to redeem two free play coupons, and each coupon gave me $10 in free play. I used the free play on $5 hands of video blackjack and won three of four hands. That free play, and my modest winnings at 50-cent and $1 video blackjack gave me $40 in winnings.

I also spent 30 minutes or so playing blackjack in the pit. I wouldn't say I had great luck, but I won a hand with a $10 match play, and I received a free $25 bet for buying in at $100 and having a Las Vegas Advisor coupon. When I finally played that free bet I was dealt a 14. The hand was against some high card, so I hit, and made 20. The dealer also made 20, so we pushed. I was dealt a lousy 13 or 14 hand again, and had to hit against a high card. I made another 20, and the dealer didn't beat me, so I won $25. When I cashed out I was $25 up, so that tells me I didn't have a winning session, but I was happy to walk way with more than I bought in with, and I left Ellis Island that night with a modest $101 in profit. My girlfriend won a little money playing cheap slots, too.

Our night concluded with pints of Bud Light in the hot tub, which wasn't very hot. The heat had been cut, so the hot tub was merely warm. But we chatted with a couple from Cleveland for a few minutes and drank our beer before retiring for the night.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

#VegasHalloween 2017 (night 1): It's good to be home again

Most people like to hit the ground running when they arrive in Vegas. That seldom seems to be the case for me these days.

Despite that, I logged several hours of activity during my first evening in town, although gambling wasn't much a part of it.

I enjoy spending Halloween in Vegas, and this year was my fifth time doing so in seven years. The drawback to traveling to Vegas in late October, it comes after the busiest month of my year. As a suburban newspaper reporter, I have some sort of election to cover every fall. There's a lot I have to do, besides my regular weekly routine, during the weeks leading up to an election. As demanding as that is, I make my life more exhausting by working most Friday and Saturday nights leading up to Halloween. I do security work at a local haunted attraction, so that means long hours on my feet during an already busy and challenging month. I'm an idiot, but I chose to be.

So in the 48 hours prior to departure I tend to get little sleep. By the time I sit down on a plane, I'm exhausted.

This year's trip was with my girlfriend, flying via Southwest. And it was super cheap because we worked their credit cards to earn not only a boatload of points, but a companion pass as well. Given the annual fees for two credit cards and a few bucks in tax for our tickets, we spent less than $200 on two round-trip tickets, and we have tons of points left to use for future travel.

The drawback to flying Southwest from Minneapolis to Vegas, you can't get a direct flight. We flew through St. Louis to get there.

My brother uses Southwest quite a bit, and he provided us with four coupons for free drinks. We didn't order any on the short flight to St. Louis, but we ordered two rounds on our way to Vegas. Our flight attendant didn't collect them initially, and we wondered if she would. Uncertain, I decided I'd spend the $10 for a third round, should she collect for our tab at the end of the flight. She didn't, so we kept the four drink coupons and each had three free drinks on our way to Sin City. I was winning before I got off the plane.

Once again I rented my car through Alamo, via my Costco membership. Costco beats the price Alamo gives me, even as an "insider," or whatever they call their free program I signed up for. Costco usually offers a comparable vehicle for a little less through Budget, but I like Alamo 100 times more, so I gladly pay the extra $10 or so.

Our destination this year was Tahiti Village, a time share property near the car rental center, south of the strip. It's on Las Vegas Boulevard, and it's huge, but there's not a lot nearby to make the location ideal. But there's a lot to like about it, and it worked out well for us this trip. I did not get a promotional rate to stay for three nights and sit through a tedious presentation. I bought a seven-night stay outright from an owner, in a one-bedroom unit with a full kitchen. I didn't need the full kitchen, but I did make use of it. The cost for seven nights, only six of which we used: $400. There were no fees on the back end, and I didn't have to sit through a presentation.

There was a lot to like about the property, and it turned out to be a good deal for us this year. I'll detail all of those things in a couple of weeks, whenever I wrap up my trip reports.

Before checking in, we stopped at the nearby Total Wine store to buy some beers to get our week started. Inside the store was a guy carrying what I could only presume was a "therapy" pet. It certainly wasn't a service dog, but it had one of those little jackets on. Call me a jerk, but I'd argue that if you need a therapy pet in order to go shopping, you probably shouldn't be buying alcohol.

After checking in and hauling our luggage and beer to our unit, we headed to Ellis Island for our first meal. I'm a big proponent of the Las Vegas Advisor coupon book, and we immediately put it to use in the cafe, ordering two prime rib dinners with a 2-for-1 coupon. Two good meals for under $20, it's hard to knock that. My only mistake, ordering the $5 shrimp cocktail. I didn't pay attention to what they serve, I only wanted decent shrimp and sauce, and they serve a true cocktail, modest shrimp mixed with disgusting celery. Live and learn.

After dinner I dropped $40 on the Monday night football game and we left the building. I saved the free drinks and free play coupons from our book for another night, as I knew we'd be back a couple of times.

We headed to a Walmart store to pick up groceries. We bought breakfast food, fruit, bottled water and more beer, at a better price than we paid for beer at Total Wine. (We were buying aluminum pint bottles of Bud Light. The craft beer we bought at Total Wine, we weren't going to find that at Walmart.) I also bought three bags of Halloween candy, as I had a delivery to make.

Last year I traveled to Vegas with four friends from the haunted attraction where I work. Our first night in town included a visit to Freakling Bros., a brilliant, well-crafted haunted attraction which features three mazes. The folks who run Freakling Bros. had no reason to treat their Minnesota guests like royalty, they didn't own us anything. But I had contacted them prior to our arrival, and they rolled out the red carpet. I was stunned.

My friends couldn't afford a return visit to Vegas this year, but I wanted to say thanks to Duke, the owner, and his staff for their hospitality and great show. We took a group picture of all of us outside the "Gates of Hell" last year, and I had a copy of the picture printed, which we signed. One of my friends suggested we stage a similar picture at our haunted attraction this year, in costume, and give them that picture, too. So that's what I did. The bags of candy were for their staff, as well.

My group's visit to the Freakling Bros. Trilogy of Terror, Oct. 30, 2016. 

The same group at the entrance to one of the haunted attractions where we work, Oct. 20, 2017.

Duke didn't immediately recognize me, but he remembered our group when I explained who we were. (He remembered the picture of us, too. We realized he took it for us last year.) He was touched by the gesture, and this shouldn't surprise me. He had no reason to expect that a member of the group from Minnesota that he had forgotten about would show up again this year, and I'm sure he wasn't expecting simple thank you gifts.

Duke and I talked for a bit, and he asked if I was planning to go through the mazes. I wasn't since I was there solo. I explained that my girlfriend stayed back at the resort, as she had visited Freakling Bros. with me in 2012. She had been to a few haunted attractions with me prior to that night in 2012, but after three Freakling Bros. mazes, she decided it was time to retire from haunted attractions. She hasn't been to one since.

Duke wasn't going to send me on my way without giving me some sort of show. He practically insisted that I go through a maze, at least "Gates of Hell," their R-rated attraction. He noted that one of the rooms had been redesigned this year.

I wasn't surprised that Duke offered me a free visit to his attraction, given how generous he was to our group last year. I agreed to visit "Gates of Hell," and was inserted into the VIP line.

I won't spoil the details, but I will say a few simple things about "Gates of Hell." It's the only attraction where they'll make physical contact with you. It's mild, but it's an element of the maze. They will use mild profanity during the maze, and they mock traditional Christian beliefs. If you're offended by that sort of show, you probably shouldn't visit the "Gates of Hell."

The mazes at Freakling Bros. are designed to accommodate small groups, typically no more than five. There are design elements that prohibit the operators from pushing through large groups in conga lines, and that's what makes it such a great attraction. It also costs a bit more than your standard haunted house, and the wait in the main line can take quite a while, but I suspect few people complain when the experience is over. It's that good. I can't recommend the place enough to those who enjoy a good Halloween show.

I went through with a couple. The guy was our leader, and his girlfriend was in the middle. She was a little freaked out by the very first element of the maze, and I thought she was going to chicken out immediately, but she survived. At some point during our adventure one of the monsters not only touched her, but picked her up as if he was going to carry her off. That freaked her out a bit. She not only insisted upon holding onto her boyfriend ahead of her, she insisted upon holding my hand as I followed behind her. She really didn't want anyone coming up behind her and scaring her like that again.

We all shared a good laugh during our conversation after we exited. I talked with Duke further, and without asking he answered a question I had wondered about. How did the Oct. 1 massacre affect his attraction, particularly since the "Gates of Hell" relies upon gun violence as part of its show. (His opening weekend was the same weekend as the massacre.)

Duke said he was nervous about public backlash to his maze, but he kept it as is. He said that his overall receipts were down a bit in comparison to the previous year, and that the numbers were finally comparable toward the end of the season.

After chatting with Duke again, I departed for the resort. The Freakling Bros. mazes were about 20 minutes from Tahiti Village. I returned to find my girlfriend had fallen asleep waiting for me. She wasn't surprised one bit that it took me more than an hour to make my visit. She knows I like to chat, and she wasn't surprised I ended up going through one of the mazes.

We finished our night with beers in the adult hot tub, which is accessible 24 hours a day. That's a great benefit of staying at a time share property, and we took advantage of it multiple times.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My #VegasHalloween itinerary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Vegas will never be the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Vegas: Fun for the whole family, sort of

The Five Hundy podcast Facebook page has a rule about not discussing the merits of children in Vegas, as it will never end, and few poeple will change their minds on the topic. I tend not to get heavily vested in such discussions elsewhere for those reasons.

Thie topic came up in another Facebook group discussion recently, and I provided some food for thought to lobbyists on both sides of the aisle. Here's an expanded, edited version of that:

Vegas is not a family-oriented place, yet at the same time there is plenty for families to do in the Vegas area. The Dirty Circus amusement park would not survive if it relied upon adults only, I'm certain.

There are plenty of shows and attractions that are family friendly. Mac King's magic show is a perfect example. And there's nothing adult about the attractions atop the Stratosphere, other than you may need to be with a parent to ride them, or perhaps have more courage than a parent to ride one. The Ethel M (chocolate factory) tour and outdoor gardens couldn't be less about Vegas. The Pinball Hall of Fame is fun for all ages. Plenty of attractions at Excalibur are designed with children in mind.

Is Vegas the first place I'd think to take a child? Hell no. I wouldn't want to explain to my child why there's a giant rolling billboard on the strip showing a hot babe in a tiny outfit, with the promise she can be at my door for just $69. I wouldn't want to parade my child past porn slappers, even if they were to respect the fact I have a child with me and not try to pass off a handbill. (Unlikely.) I wouldn't want my child to see the realities of alcohol and homelessness on display nightly at the Fremont Street Experience, no matter how much fun that zip line appears to be.

Reality: I've stayed at the Orleans and watched plenty of girls young enough to be my daughter walk around the property. They were there, along with their parents, for some sort of big cheerleading competition. I'd rather not see that, but who I am to tell the Orleans how to run its business, or tell the parents where they should or shouldn't travel to spend money on their child's oh-so-important cheerleading competition? There are likely hundreds of youth-oriented events all over the Vegas area, filling casino hotels, each year. Shame on those hotels, they're as guilty as the parents who drag a 1-year-old child through the Orleans food court at 2 a.m. (seen it) and the parents who are walking a 4-year-old child down the strip at 1 a.m. (seen it).

Another reality: Disney parks are designed for kids, and it costs an arm and a leg to spend a day there. Vegas ain't Disney, by a long shot, but I wouldn't be surprised if part of the appeal of Vegas for families is that with planning and care, you can see and do a vareity of things at less of a cost than a trip to Orlando. That doesn't mean people shouldn't take their families to Disney, but I can see reasons why folks would give careful consideration to Vegas as a family vacation destination.

Sad reality: Many folks bring their children to Vegas and don't seem too concerned about what they're exposing them to at an early age. That's because we live in a Jerry Springer society. And that's not going to change.

Yes, some consider it a crime to bring children to Vegas. And for a variety of reasons, people are continually guilty. Likewise those casinos that you love and adore are catering, in some fashion, to those families you loathe. They want you, the hedonistic big spender, and the family of four, to all co-exist on the same property. No, not all casinos, obviously.

I don't usually say much about the topic, which finds its way to forums and message boards on a recurring basis. I'm not smarter or better than any of you. (And I have no children, for what that's worth.) I've obviously thought a lot about both sides of the coin, and can't damn either side.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Paid parking in Vegas: Where are the apples?

I’m like many others, I don’t like paying for something that has been free for decades, especially when there’s no meaningful reason for charging the fee.

Therefore, I’m irked by the idea that casinos along the Vegas strip are charging for parking. I think the MGM conglomerate initially tried to sell the idea that paid parking would offset all sorts of improvements to their parking ramps, etc., but I’m not buying it. It’s simply a cash grab that many people will tolerate, as far as I’m concerned.

The fine folks at the Vital Vegas blog (it's still one guy) pointed out today that paid parking is now in effect at the Cosmopolitan. Everybody else along the strip is in on it, so it's only natural that Cosmo is, too. I'd argue the folks running the Cosmo need to be at this point, otherwise their parking is going to be overrun with cheapskates like me, if it wasn’t already.

Scott, the CEO, editor, reporter and photographer of Vital Vegas, points out that paying for parking is the norm in major cities across the United States. He's right. But his logic is a bit flawed. Here's how:
He wrote, “While parking fees are annoying, they are becoming the norm in Las Vegas, just as they are in other cities.”

I would expect to pay for parking when I go to Harrah's in downtown New Orleans. I would expect to pay for parking if I were to go to one of the downtown St. Louis casinos. I’ve been to both, but I didn’t have a vehicle in my possession during those visits.

I expect to pay for parking in downtown New York. I expect to pay for parking in downtown Chicago. I expect to pay for parking when I go to a Pirates or Steelers game across one of the three rivers in downtown Pittsburgh. I even expect to pay for parking when I go to downtown Toledo, Ohio, for a Mudhens game.

There’s usually adequate parking to accommodate those parking in a major downtown, but it comes at a premium. Downtown New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and many others cities were first developed as the central business district for a trade area, long before people were driving cars, which it seems like about 80 percent of adults do these days. (That’s a wild guess.) I suspect these downtowns weren't developed with the anticipation of thousands of cars flooding in and out of them every day. Ask Mrs. O'Leary, whose cow kicked over a lantern and started the great Chicago fire of 1871 (allegedly), what a car is. She's tell you it is part of a train.

Downtown New Orleans and downtown St. Louis were established long before they had major casinos, so I expect to pay for parking. A free parking ramp for a downtown casino would a nightmare, without a doubt.

When I go to a Native American-owned casino in Wisconsin, I park for free. Even the one near downtown Milwaukee had free parking the last time I visited years ago. (And it still does.)
Casinos in major downtown areas will need to charge for parking. Free parking in a major downtown, with or without a casino, is hard to come by most days. Casinos built in the middle of nowhere, such as casinos I’ve been to in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota, do not. They’re casinos built away from major downtown districts. When I shop at a suburban Target store, I don’t pay for parking. When I gamble at an outlying casino in the Midwest, I don’t pay for parking.

So how does this apply to Vegas? The casinos on the strip aren’t in a downtown district. Granted, they weren’t nearly as big when they first sprouted up along a desert highway in the 1950s, but they managed to expand and provide parking for decades without much of a problem. Nothing about that has changed in the past two years.

Yes, real estate around the properties is far more expensive, and harder to come by, but there wasn’t exactly a shortage of parking when the fees were instituted, despite the fact millions of people visit the strip each year.

It may be the norm to pay for parking in a downtown district, but applying that logic to the strip casinos, which developed and redeveloped without difficulty thanks to the fact they aren’t in downtown Vegas, is flawed.

Yes, there’s a cost of maintaining the parking ramps, and providing minimal cleaning and security within them. Target stores can maintain their parking lots without charging a fee. Same goes for my grocery store. I’m not convinced the casinos are unable to do so.

Scott makes a good point about parking. We pay for it elsewhere, why let it ruin our trip to Vegas? I agree. And it doesn’t affect me much, as I spend so little time on the strip these days. Fortunately, the casinos I stay at, either off strip or downtown, provide free parking or validated parking for me as a hotel guest. (I typically rent a car in Vegas.)

But his comparison of paying for parking in Chicago versus paying for parking on the Vegas strip is not apples to apples. There’s evidence that people are staying away from strip properties because of the parking fees, but in the end that will wash away, much like the outrage and boycott of casinos that charged “resort fees.”

Whatever fees a casino charges, we need to add it all together and compare it to other cities. Is the cost of a weekend in Vegas a good value for a person driving in from California when the room rate, resort fee and parking fee are added together? Probably when compared to downtown San Francisco.

But we shouldn’t normalize these fees simply because they exist in some other form elsewhere around the country. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How to succeed in business without really trying: SLS edition

If you hang around with enough Vegas rubes, you're bound to hear somebody profess their love for Ellis Island, a small, hole-in-the-wall casino that has two things going for it: Location and affordability.

There is nothing glamorous about Ellis Island. It's reasonably clean, has a decent variety of slot and video poker machines, a few table games, a small sports book and restaurants. It would do just fine as a locals casino three miles from the strip. But tourists from every outpost of the United States will profess their love for it. Why? For starters, it's easily accessible. 

It's not on the strip, but it's a short walk off the strip. It's behind Bally's. That makes it easy for the tourist to access. I'd argue that its location is detrimental to attracting locals, as locals are less inclined to deal with the hassle of going near the strip, typically. There's no shortage of places to gamble, big and small, all over the greater Vegas area. 

But it's just offset enough from the strip that locals frequent the joint. Ellis Island has the best of both worlds, it seems. 

So it has a good location for its modest footprint. And it is a favorite with gamblers near and far for its cheap eats and drinks. 

It's no secret, the 24-hour cafe has some of the cheapest meals you'll find around, and the food is pretty good. And then there's the barbecue joint that's open for dinner only. Great meats at a good price. 

Drinks at the casino bar? Not ridiculous, because the casino bar is nothing trendy or precious. And they brew their own beers, which are always cheap. It's not my favorite micro brew, but they have decent beers, and the price is right. 

Add in frequent food and drink promotions, great incentives and kickbacks for the gamblers and karaoke every night of the week, (the appeal of which I have never understood,) and you have a hopping little casino that shows no sign of slowing down. And they're adding a beer garden.

What does this have to do with SLS? 

I've wondered why nobody with a strip property tries to cater to the downtown crowd. Yes, the Bellagio and its well-coiffed customers are dumping millions per day into the property, and who doesn't want to cater to that crowd? 

I sense that the loss of low-roller joints along the strip have helped drive people downtown. And I've said that Tropicana should find a way to offer the best of both worlds within their classic casino. It won't translate to record profits, but give people a reason to go out of their way, and they will. Brew beers and sell them cheap, a la Ellis Island and downtown's Main Street Station , and people will find their way inside the building. 

Early today the fine folks at (it's one guy) reported that SLS, formerly the Sahara, was in a position to be sold. Within hours news broke that it is indeed being sold. Changes are expected at SLS. The name may revert to Sahara, for starters. 

I started this blog in early 2015 when it was announced the Riviera would be closing. I wrote something about the fact that the north end of the strip was basically dead. The Sahara property has never been the epicenter of the strip, and yet it persevered for decades, only to shutter six years ago and re-emerge as the glitzy, isolated SLS a few years later.  

I don't spend much time on the strip, and the fancy new SLS doesn't hold much appeal to me. They put a lot of effort into making it a more upscale, younger skewing destination, and none of that speaks to me. I'm not younger, and there are plenty of places to spend more for a meal than I'd spend at Ellis Island. 

They tried offering entertainment that would attract a young crowd, and I'm not aware that they failed to do so. But that alone doesn't pay the bills. 

Vital Vegas has noted, by tweet I think, that SLS had recently started to market their gambling to locals through some sort of promotional kickback. Locals aren't the most coveted demographic, but given the challenging location, shouldn't enticing the local crowd have been part of the marketing strategy early on? 

It's unreasonable to think that you can run a major casino/hotel in Vegas and expect only the prettiest of the pretty people to darken your doorstep. And if you're on the wrong end of the strip, such as SLS, you'd better find a way to cater to multiple crowds. 

SLS is too big, and too much has been invested, to turn into an oversized Ellis Island. But it's simple economics, I swear. If you accept that plenty of plain folk, like me, don't want a celebrity chef experience while on vacation in Vegas, and can offer them something they can't get everywhere else, such as the barbecue dinner at Ellis Island, you might get them to find their way inside.

Give me, and many people like me some other incentives to spend a few hours, such as plentiful $5 table games, (which I can find off the strip at Orleans, for example,) and reasonable drinks that aren't "crafted" by a bartender, and suddenly I'll be getting discounted room offers to stay at SLS during a future trip, which I'm likely to accept. Happily. 

How do you think the Orleans earned my loyalty? 

SLS is never going to have the benefit of location. It will be decades before we see a continuous line of developed properties reaching SLS, and probably not in my lifetime. 

Without the benefit of proximity to Bally's, the solution is obvious, give gamblers a reason to show up, and give them a reason to stay, whether they're the young, EDM loving crowd (for those too old to know, EDM=noise) or the Ellis Island loving gamblers that kept the Sahara afloat during its final years. 

Bellagio ain't going to offer a $13.99 barbecue plate in any of their restaurants. And Ellis Island isn't going to serve an $18 handcrafted cocktail any time soon.

The future of SLS shouldn't be an either/or proposition. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Could Vegas casinos go dry?

It seems unlikely that we'll see a day when comped cocktails at Vegas casinos are no longer a thing. But the booze doesn't flow as easily as it use to.

We are in an era where casinos are using technology to monitor your gambling and dictate when you are permitted a comped drink. Some folks have shared stories suggesting that it's not a big deal if you're serious about gambling.

We're also in an era where most comped cocktails are made with cheap, generic liquor rather than quality products you buy at the liquor store.

And to top it off, people are increasingly willing to pay obscene amounts for craft cocktails from bartenders who allegedly have an art degree of some kind. If people are willing to fork over more than a McDonald's employee earns in an hour for one single-shot mixed drink, why not bleed everyone and his sister when it comes to passing out drinks around the bar?

Perhaps the day will come when gamblers will pay the low, low price of $2 for a beer at the blackjack table. I'm not entirely convinced.

The following is an edited version of a comment I made on Facebook regarding the suggestion that free drinks may be drying up in Vegas casinos. (I have a bad habit of writing short novels when I contribute to a Facebook discussion. I need to stop doing that.)


I can't imagine all free drinks being cut off for all gamblers any time soon. The casinos will become more stingy down the road, but c'mon, that "Captain" they're serving to the $5 blackjack player downtown ain't costing the casino much money, especially since they're serving Admiral Nelson in place of the Captain.

If they ever get to the point where they stop serving free booze, the casinos might as well pull out the gambling and start offering more beer pong for the millenials. Plenty of people don't drink when they gamble, but the end of complimentary cocktails will essentially be telling gamblers in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and everywhere else not to bother bringing their gambling dollars to Nevada.

The end of free drinks will be the nail in the coffin people profess is coming. Paid parking isn't helping drive traffic, fake fees and taxes at bars on the strip aren't helping drive traffic and the erosion of modest, low-cost meals at casinos isn't helping drive traffic. For every person who wants to pay extra for everything on vacation, including $50 a plate for dinner, there are two other people who won't.

Can Vegas price out the low roller and survive? The strip properties seem determined to find out. (I keep trying to tell the folks at Tropicana that they need to counter this mentality, but they won't listen.)

And by low roller, I don't mean cheap people who won't spend a buck. I spend plenty in Sin City when I travel, but I'm not interested in paying $18 for a precious cocktail "crafted" by a millenial, or being gouged other ways just because I'm on vacation and I'm not supposed to care about money.

There's a reason why business is as good as I've seen it downtown during the past 20 years, and it ain't that awful Imagine Dragons skit high above the pedestrian mall that's putting asses in the video poker seats.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The evil that is the timeshare industry

This isn't about Vegas, but if you're a regular Vegas visitor, you can relate.

I've been to my share of timeshare presentations in my life. I don't remember how many, but too many. I feel as if the gifts are better nowadays than they were two decades ago. Perhaps it's my imagination.

I had no business going to an Orlando timeshare presentation in October 2000, but it seemed like a good idea. I was there with my friend and her sister and niece, and I was going to get a Disney admission ticket for giving up a couple of hours of my morning. I gave up a few hours of my morning, and ended up donating $10 to some charity, but I did get a Disney admission ticket out of the deal. I didn't ruin or change any plans of my friend, but I didn't feel as if it was worth it.

A few years later I was about as poor as I could be, and I wound up signing up for a timeshare presentation here in Minneapolis. It started innocently enough, I spun a prize wheel in the parking lot of a minor league baseball game. That turned into an invitation to the timeshare pitch, including a two-night trip to Las Vegas, airfare included. I should have been ecstatic about a free trip to Vegas, but I had no business spending $100 on a vacation at that time. I suffered through my timeshare presentation, received my gifts, including a $20 gas card, and was on my way.

In order to use the trip I would have had to put a deposit down and book the trip two months in advance. I couldn't afford to tie up $150 at the time, and there were too many unknowns about the free trip. What time would my flights be during the weekend I wanted to go? Would I be forced to connect, and endure a long layover, for my two-night trip?

I only had a few months to use the free trip, and couldn't justify doing so. At least I received a nominal gas card out of the deal. But it wasn't worth my time in the slightest.

I'm sure I had been to a timeshare presentation or two beyond those incidents, but I'm not recalling them at the moment.

By the time I received my free Vegas vacation via a timeshare pitch, I was done with pitches for good. That Vegas vacation might have been a nice freebie had I not been so poor, but for the most part I was convinced that the gifts weren't that valuable to me, even if my time wasn't worth a dime to anyone else, including myself. Nice gifts weren't worth the charade. Sitting at home playing video games would have been a better use of my time, I reasoned.

Somehow I've managed to avoid sitting through a Vegas timeshare presentation. I've been to Vegas more than 30 times during the past 20 years. I've been approached occasionally, but I've managed to avoid being suckered into one. Occasionally I see a nice gift being touted as enticement, but I haven't come close to being tempted in Vegas.

I'll spare you many of the details, but during a recent vacation in Mexico, I wound up going to two timeshare presentations on two consecutive mornings. I was there for a week, so I could afford to give up the mornings. Each presentation included a breakfast, and the pitches weren't obnoxious or overbearing, although I'm not anxious to make a habit of it.

I was with my girlfriend while in Mexico, and she suffered through the sales pitches as well. She knew, like me, there was no chance in hell we'd buy anything. We have thousands of dollars of bathroom improvements we'll be paying for in a few weeks, we weren't about to take on years of timeshare debt when we have a long list of home improvement projects we'd like to finance. There was no chance any timeshare offer would be too good to pass up, that much I knew.

During the first day's pitch we walked away with a voucher for a five-night stay at one of the company's properties, for a nominal cost. I'm sure using it will require sitting through another timeshare pitch, but I won't agree to do it if I cash in the voucher and wind up back in Mexico. What are they going to do at that point, force me to attend?

I have a year to use the voucher, so it's possible we'll go back next winter. If not, then our first morning was a waste of time. We were supposed to get a few other gifts in exchange for our time, and we did get a discount card that saved us a little cash on meals and merchandise at the resort we were staying at, but the discounts and deals weren't as great as suggested.

Near the end of the first day's pitch a woman was recruiting for another property not affiliated with the resort we had just toured. The resorts weren't affiliated, but the companies had agreements that allowed recruiting of those who balked at the incredible deals offered at the first timeshare pitch, evidently. Strange, I know.

I never fathomed I'd be immediately hit up to go to another pitch when we were so close to cashing out at the first one. I started to wonder if I was trapped in a vicious circle where I'd be badgered to attend presentations every day of my vacation. I was a bit stunned.

The nice recruiter assured us that presentation two would really only be 90 minutes, and she offered us a great discount on show tickets. The show was something my girlfriend knew of, and her sister had recommended. The street price was allegedly $145 a ticket, however, and we knew there was no chance we'd be spending even $100 a person for tickets to this show. We had vacation funds, but we needed to limit our recreational spending in order to afford our vacation. Even though we knew discounted show tickets were available without too much trouble for about $100, we weren't going to be buying.

But the nice recruiter offered us tickets for $20 per ticket. Now that's a pretty good deal. I looked at my girlfriend, who wanted nothing to do with another timeshare pitch. I said, "it's up to you." She told the recruiter "no."

The woman countered and said she really needed to get people signed up for the next morning, so she offered us two free tickets. I looked at my girlfriend again, and this time she decided we'd do it if we were going to get free tickets.

Our day two sales pitch was not much more than 90 minutes, and our saleswoman was fun to talk with. I'm not entirely sure why, but she didn't push the product very hard. I think it had to do with the fact we downplayed our personal situation when it comes to vacations. We weren't big enough spenders to fork over the minimum she'd need to get in order for us to become buyers, we hinted, so she quickly stopped trying.

As I said, I'm not planning to make a habit of sitting through the agony of a timeshare sales pitch for free tickets to a show, and I had no intention of doing so ever again. And yet more than a decade after I attended what I thought was my last timeshare pitch, I sat through two in two days.

There are plenty of websites with suggestions on what to do and what not to do if you're going to trade your time, on vacation or otherwise, for a gift from a timeshare company. Here are a few of mine:

1. Downplay your spending and vacation habits. The salespersons like to round up and try to show you that you're spending $1,000 or more for a week of vacation at a hotel when you go on vacation. The salesman from day one didn't seem phased by the fact that I go to Vegas somewhat regularly and get great deals and rates for the hotels I stay at. He had a scenario where I was spending plenty on vacations every year based upon the fact that I might spend $100 occasionally for a night in Vegas. And thanks to his catalog of places I can use my points or weeks, I can stay in Vegas at Polo Towers!

Also, don't mention many other trips you've taken in recent years. If you sound like you take a vacation every single year, you'll have a harder time getting the salesperson to throw in the towel.

We were much more liberal with our vacation talk regaring the past five years during day one. On day two we didn't travel as often, and our big vacation was using a friend's cabin in northern Minnesota, at no cost to us.

2. Make sure you have major expenses that are forthcoming. In our case we really have a major bathroom renovation forthcoming. But if I ever find myself in a timeshare presentation again, I'll be up to my eyeballs in debt. I'll have recently purchased a home that needs renovation. I'll have just finished one expensive project I'm trying to pay off, and I'll have another I need to start financing after I return home from vacation.

You'll be reminded that you are taking a vacation right now, so vacationing must be a priority. But downplay that, too. Tell the salesperson that you're there thanks to bonus points you received for signing up for an airline credit card, and note that this is the first time in years you've taken such an exotic vacation.

The less worldly and wealthy you sound, the better. The salesperson may not give up based upon that, but if she smells deep pockets, it will take longer to get her to throw in the towel.

3. Find things you don't like about the property. You'll see a beautiful room with an incredible view, but don't be too impressed by it. If it's a huge resort that has lots of kids out and about, (and you don't have kids,) or the resort isn't very close to things you'd like to be able access without driving, such as restaurants, mention that. You'll be reminded that you can buy today and use your points/weeks at billions of other properties, but at least you'll have planted another seed of doubt.

4. Have a pre-existing condition. Yes, you're on vacation, but note that you have a family member who you can't afford to be away from every single year. This isn't the best excuse, but it's an option. And you'll likely be told you can bank your time for a multi-week vacation whenever that family member dies.

5. Express doubts about agreeing to a purchase without adequate financial planning. All of these deals are based upon buying a package that day, with little basis of comparison. They don't send you home with a brochure and offer sheet because they know you won't be dazzled by the offer on paper a week after you get home. If anything, you'll learn how a $30,000 commitment over 30 years isn't such a great deal.

When I'm expressing doubt, I note that I don't like to buy a car or make other purchases without adequate consideration. That won't put an end to the game right then and there, but it plants another seed of doubt in the saleswoman's mind.

Beyond those five suggestions, I'd advise not bothering with a timeshare presentation. But if you find yourself signing up because the lure of the gifts is too good to pass up, plan ahead so that you don't open doors for the salesperson to walk through. It had been years since I had endured a pitch, so when I ended up doing two in two days, I sharpened my skills between pitch one and two, and it paid off. I was polite and friendly enough, but I gave the poor saleswoman little to work with, and she quickly added us to her long list of strikeouts.

And if you are signing up, barter a bit. The folks signing you up for the presentations usually don't care if you're likely to buy. Their job is to put asses in the seats. All they care is that you meet the minimum income and other requirements. (In Mexico it was important that we were married, or at least reside at the same address, according to our IDs. In our case, the latter is true.)

In Mexico we saw that our initial reluctance to say yes to discounted show tickets turned into free show tickets. So hold out for better loot if you think you're willing to sit through a pitch, and don't be afraid to walk away if it's not that great of an offer. Show tickets to a show you weren't interested in aren't worth giving up a morning for, even if the tickets sell for $100 each.

Once you say yes you'll probably be asked to hand over a small deposit, because otherwise you'll blow off your appointment. So make sure you're offered good, valuable gifts before you finally say yes.

And a reminder... an important lesson I had to re-learn in Mexico. If you're not interested in a timeshare pitch, and don't want to be politely hassled by people trying to talk you into attending one, remember the golden rule. You're going home tomorrow morning. Say that, even though you might be in town for another five days.

When somebody in Vegas asks me how long I'm in town for, which happens in areas of high pedestrian traffic, both on the street and in casino/hotel lobbies, I always say I'm leaving tonight or tomorrow morning. That's all it takes. It doesn't matter if the guy is setting up timeshare presentations, selling discounted show tickets or booking Grand Canyon tours. If he thinks you're about to leave town, he won't waste time with you.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A thought regarding MGM's parking fee increases

I read this today:

“We are adjusting the parking rates for a variety of business-related reasons,” said MGM spokeswoman Yvette Monet. “These adjustments are based on market analyses we have conducted since we implemented the program.”

My translation: "People are threatening to boycott our strip properties that charge for parking, but not enough of them are carrying through to the point that it affects our bottom line, so we'll keep charging more, a la resort fees."

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Neil Sedaka, naughty nurses and Tropicana

I really didn't envision using my blog as a vehicle to comment on Vegas podcasts, but I had a few thoughts about topics inspired by the latest episode of the Vital Vegas Podcast.

The host gushes over Neil Sedaka, who he interviewed. I'm not that much younger than the host, but young enough not to remember how big of a presence Sedaka had in the world of popular music. I know the name, I know he's a big deal, but I don't know much about his music, his career or anything else.

I learned a bit thanks to the podcast, and it was entertaining to listen to the host's interview.

I don't consume any Vegas podcast religiously, but there are a few I listen to with great regularity, and what sets the VVP apart is that the host includes interviews periodically. The interviews are with entertainers, like Sedaka, and Vegas movers and shakers, some of whom are otherwise anonymous to tourists like me. Most of the interviews have been worth the time to listen, even if I didn't think it was a person I was interested in hearing from. I'm not that interested in learning about Sedaka or his career, but I gave it a listen earlier tonight and was entertained.

Kudos to the host for giving me something unique, and highly valuable, via the podcast.

The host also discussed the awkward circumstances surrounding the short-lived existence of a Heart Attack Grill on the Vegas strip. I'll assume you know HAG is a gimmicky, high-calorie burger restaurant downtown. For less than two months it opened a second location on the strip, in a sports bar that once bore the name of Pete Rose.

The host had an explanation for why the HAG was gone within two months. Allegedly the lease was on a month-to-month basis, leaving the building's ownership the ability to sell off the property the restaurant is a part of -- and swiftly kick out its tenants -- for redevelopment by an eager buyer.

That's plausible. And allegedly the HAG ownership wanted to invest more into its leased space, but was unwilling to do so without some sort of lease that extended beyond one month. That makes sense.

What didn't make sense to me, and wasn't addressed by the host, was why HAG moved into the space in the first place.

If you are serious about a restaurant on the strip, and you want to invest in the space you're going to lease, then you don't move in without negotiating a lease agreement prior to occupancy. The former Pete Rose sports bar was already equipped to run a bar/restaurant, so it was probably easier to open HAG there than it would have been in other places. But it's hard to believe a restaurant proprietor would take over such a space on a whim, hoping to get what s/he wants after the fact.

I don't doubt the ownership wanted to invest in the property, and the ownership wanted a longer lease term than 30 days, but I'm skeptical that the lack of a long-term lease was the reason HAG pulled out in less than 60 days.

I suspect the real reason was that, by most online reports, HAG had a tepid reception on the strip. If an established business was failing to drive a lot of traffic through its new doors upon its arrival, (even if it was relying upon word of mouth for advertising,) it was easier to pull out quickly, given its investment into the space was likely minimal by most restaurant standards.

I'm quite certain that if HAG was doing gangbuster business in its first six weeks, the month-to-month lease wouldn't have been enough of an issue to quickly shutter the breastaurant.

Choose to believe what you will. I continue to believe it was a cheap, easy way to try to duplicate the downtown HAG success on the strip, and with early returns as soft as they were, the ownership cut its losses.

One might only have needed to look at how lackluster the Pete Rose experiment was to guess that naughty nurses serving mediocre food wasn't going to set the strip on fire.

Lastly, the host talked about a variety of new show offerings coming to Tropicana, a casino with a great location on the south end of the strip, but one that seems to enjoy "also ran" status.

I was contemplating this today during a discussion thread online about how the big two, Caesars and MGM, are monopolizing the strip and stifling the concept of competition. It's not quite that simple, but that's the general overview of the strip casinos these days.

Tropicana is not part of a strip conglomerate, but it is part of some sort of hotel group. Being the only strip casino in the corporation's portfolio, Tropicana should be operated like a loose cannon. Decisions don't need to be weighed in relation to several properties, and with plenty of people continuing to express dissatisfaction with the big two and their bloodsucking ways, the Tropicana should be selling its old school vibe and offering many of the things Vegas gamblers love about Vegas of yesteryear.

Old school sells downtown, and using that approach, while positioning the property as the only one of that kind on the south end of the strip, certainly couldn't hurt the Trop's bottom line. There's a real appetite for vintage Vegas on the strip, and it's pretty hard to find these days.

It's unlikely that formula would result in record profits for Tropicana, but I suspect it would be well received.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

When do resort fees have a profound impact?

The following, edited comment was hastily constructed for a Las Vegas message forum discussion. It was a discussion regarding the latest resort fee increase announcements from the major players on the strip. I'll assume you've heard the rants and understand why resort fees irritate many people.
Not so long ago I wondered when we'd see a resort fee base rate (pre-tax) of $50. I predicted by the end of 2018 or very early in 2019. Of that I have no doubt as of today.

People will continue to fill hotel rooms, parking and resort fees be damned. People will fill them because they're waived due to casino loyalty, because they don't have to concern themselves with the bill at the end of the weekend or because the company is paying for them to be there.

With increasing declarations by people that they're done, or nearly done, with Vegas, particularly on the strip, and the number of locals who don't have any reason to darken the doorstep of strip properties – now more than ever – how soon are we going to hear about woeful economic times for the hourly workers who rely upon the tourist for their income?

It has been reported that parking fees are cutting foot traffic inside strip resorts, and that has affected the income of dealers and valet personnel, as well as the retail revenue inside the resorts. It has the potential to snowball into something not good.

Doesn't mean doomsday, but is it possible that we see a vicious circle that has a long-term effect?