Las Vegas is full of craps.
But I was hoping for more.
In 2003, the marketing expression, “What Happens Here, Stays Here,” came out of a brainstorming meeting of R&R Partners, the well-paid company who handles the publicity and marketing for Vegas. The goal was simple: Get millions of more people to visit Sin City, a destination truly known for only one thing: gambling.
R&R spent a year doing researching the slogan.
Some of the conclusions (these are taken from their official report):
“The emotional bond between Las Vegas and its customers was freedom. The freedom to be someone we couldn’t be at home. And freedom from whatever we wanted to leave behind in our daily lives. Just thinking about Vegas made the bad stuff go away.”
The slogan was so popular it greatly boosted tourism, inspired an Usher song and was quoted by Laura Bush when she appeared on Jay Leno’s show.
And so it was time for me to test the waters.
Armed with a list of Places to See, People to Meet and Things to Do, I left the Stages and Screens of Pittsburgh behind during Christmas and spent a week in Vegas. I chose the Flamingo because I have a devoted, warped affection for gangster Benjamin Bugsy Siegel, the man who was a partner in the Flamingo and helped build Vegas into a gambling mecca. The original Flamingo was built in 1946 but was destroyed in 1993; parts the “new” Flamingo sits on the site of the former garden and swimming pool. At least that’s what some say.
Rumor has it that Bugsy named the hotel, built with $1.5 million borrowed from crime families in New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, after his girlfriend Virginia Hill, who enjoyed a certain alcoholic that turned her pale complexion pink. Hill also had long, skinny legs. The nickname Bugsy bestowed on the floozy femme? “My little flamingo.”
Back then, the original Flamingo had only 105 rooms (the current one has 3,626 rooms); Bugsy always stayed in the “Presidential Suite” on the top floor, complete with bulletproof windows and a secret ladder that led from a closet to the underground garage, where his getaway limo was always on stand-by. Six months after he was caught skimming profits (more than $500,000 deposit in Swiss accounts), Bugsy was murdered on June 20, 1947 in a drive-by shooting while sitting on his girlfriend’s chintz sofa in her Beverly Hills home at 810 Linden Drive. The bullet hit his eye so badly it popped out and rolled across the room.
And so I was expecting to eye all the great things in Paradise—most of the actual Vegas Strip lies outside legal city limits in an unincorporated community named Paradise.
Hotel officials told me that Christmas week is not the year’s busiest, yet thousands of people swarmed everywhere. Everywhere. Most of the foreign tourists walked eight or nine abreast and then would stop, suddenly and without warning, to snap a photo of the fake Statue of Liberty or the fake Eiffel Tower. The sudden stops caused major people pile-ups, all of which resulted in screaming and yelling in (mostly) unrecognizable languages.
‘Tis the season to be jolly.
Every block or two had fixtures of self-anointed preachers, clutching Bibles and signs that promised all of us were all sinners and going to hell. These dudes were hooked up to professional micophones, making their voices BOOM when they boomed about being saved. I didn’t understand: If I was in Sin City and going to hell, where the hell were they going to go?
And then the homeless. They were sleeping and drinking everywhere. And they are awfully brazen these days. The cardboard signs crudely written with honest demands: WHY LIE? NEED BEER! or I WANT POT. NEED MONEY.
While I was waiting for a bus to take me downtown, an employee of Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada told me this interesting story. He said an investigation was done by a council about the increasing number of homeless, and about 40 percent of the “homeless” are not actually homeless. Playing homeless is their job; they dress like bums, make a sign, sit and beg, then go home. With money. Tax-free.
Another way to earn money without resorting that far: Famous cartoon characters (think Batman, Superman, Sponge Bob Squarepants) are at almost every corner on the Strip. Kids eye their favorites and Mom and Dad end up taking a photo of child with the character. The person playing the character cannot legally ask for money, but they can (and do) point to their tip bag or box. I watched a young woman remove her counterfeit Minnie Mouse head and count the money “Mickey” gave her. I’d say she made at least 200 singles. In two hours of “work”
My goal was to come home with a list of the Top 10 Attractions in Las Vegas. I came up with five. I bent my rules and added 2 more . . and these are not even officially in Vegas.
I omitted admission prices since discount coupons, BOGO and even freebies can be found no further than a Bible-thumper.
The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement (The Mob Museum)
The best attraction in Las Vegas. Period.
This is not a tourist trap about gangsters and gangs, but a Museum that accurately depicts Mob history, dispels the legendary “myth of the Mob” and provides details on the significant role law enforcement played in ending the Mob’s reign nationwide and in Las Vegas.
The Museum is housed within the historic former federal courthouse and U.S. Post Office. The courtroom on the second floor is the very courtroom where one of 14 national Kefauver Hearings to expose organized crime was held back in 1950.
The most riveting item on display is the actual brick wall, compete with bullet holes, from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The garage owner’s wife sold it, the museum bought it at auction, reconstructing it by connecting the numbers on each brick. Instead of being mortared together and possibly damaging it, cotton stuffing is used and the wall is kept behind (do I dare?) bullet-proof Lucite.
One-of-a-kind artifacts are integrated throughout the Museum’s interactive exhibits and provide an insider’s look into many of organized crime’s biggest names, including Capone, Moran, Luciano, Lansky, Siegel, Giancana, Cohen, Spilotro, Gotti and Bulger. The Museum is also working with the FBI and many famous undercover agents who made a career of fighting the Mob, including legendary agents Joe Pistone who infiltrated the Mob posing as a small time jewel thief, Donnie Brasco; and Cuban-born Jack Garcia who successfully ingrained himself into the Gambino family. It’s a crime to miss the gift shop. The museum is not far from Fremont Street Experience, see below. themobmuseum.org
The Hoover Dam
Travel about 30 miles outside of Vegas to see a wonder of the world. All the hotels and strip mall kiosks offer reasonable-priced van or bus tours. A Pink Jeep “VIP” tour includes a brief glimpse of the bowels of the dam that house the generators, but it’s the dam itself that must been seen.
The dam was meant to control floods, provide irrigation water to several states and produce hydroelectric power for Nevada, Arizona, and California. The dam created Lake Mead, the 16th largest man-made lake in the world.
The job gave hundreds of men (no women) dangerous jobs during the Great Depression, who spent just five years (1931-1935) building this 726.4-foot high concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River straddling the border between Arizona and Nevada. The thought of the blasting, scaling and all the inherent danger; seeing photos of the first job (diverting and taming the Colorado River) is mind-boggling.
Make sure you pay close attention to the sculpture of Norwegian artist Oskar J. W. Hansen, who work graces the dam’s entrance. Rising from a black polished base, is a 142-foot flagpole flanked by two winged figures, which Hansen calls the Winged Figures of the Republic.
“The building of Hoover Dam belongs to the sagas of the daring,” he once said. “The winged bronzes which guard the flag, therefore, wear the look of eagles. To them also was given the vital upward thrust of an aspirational gesture; to symbolize the readiness for defense of our institutions and keeping of our spiritual eagles ever ready to be on the wing.”
The winged figures are 30 feet high. Their shells are 5/8-inch thick, and contain more than 4 tons of statuary bronze. The base is a terrazzo floor, inlaid with a celestial map. The chart preserves how the sky looked on September 30, 1955, the date on which President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Hoover Dam.
The most moving memorial is a bronze plaque commemorating the 96 men who officially died during the construction of Hoover Dam. It part it reads, “They died to make the desert bloom.” Look closely at the close-up detail for a “hidden” reminder of morality. usbr.gov
Memorial to Bugsy Siegel
The Flamingo Hotel does little to acknowledge such a baddie, but in the rose garden is a brass memorial plaque and a bas-relief bust. It’s a bit hard to find (it sort of sits in front of the small wedding chapel), but is a reminder that Vegas had, and still has, lots of other scammers and scum. The gardens are manicured and the grass is fake, and it broke my heart (and hurt my eye) that no one else stopped by to bid hello to Bugsy. An extra bonus: Exit the rear door of the Flamingo to enter The Linq Promenade (see below), and stop by the ramp leading to the bathrooms on your left. Outside the men’s room are three over sized framed photos of Bugsy, including a mug shot and his death certificate. caesars.com/flamingo-las-vegas
Helicopter Ride Over and Into the Grand Canyon
Again, one of Vegas’ best attractions is not in Vegas. I took Sundance Helicopter’s “Grand Canyon Picnic,” thinking it was the best way to spend Christmas Eve. A stretch limo picked me up at 5:50 a.m.—thank God Donny and Marie weren’t playing that night. six of us spent an hour at the airfield, where we had to weigh in so the pilot knew where the fatties would sit in the EC-130. Finally just the sun began to rise, we hopped in and off we went. We got a sampling over the glittering strip, then flew over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. The Mojave Desert terrain may all look the same, but it’s still an incredible sight. After a smooth 45 minutes flight, there it was: Just over the edge of the Mojave and suddenly, wow!, like magic, the Grand Canyon presented itself as one of God’s gifts to the Earth. We had landed on an area owned by two American Native tribes, and Sundance pays “rent” for that honor. Our breakfast was a glass of cheap champagne (most people dumped it), a semi-fresh roll, a package of dried fruit leather, a bottle of water and orange juice and a teeny container of yogurt. Bad News: We only spent 30 minutes in the Canyon. (It took 90 minutes off flying back and forth). Good news: I did it. Bad news: My camera’s battery died once we landed. sundancehelicopters.com
The Big Apple Coaster
I thought I could handle this. When I was younger and thinner, I loved roller coasters. Up, down, sideways, upside down. And so I sat (alone) in the first car. I remember the ride beginning with a 180-foot incline and a 76-foot drop, followed by a 144-foot drop. That took 40 seconds. I don’t not remember the next 2 minutes. I was positive the energy, inertia, and gravity would not work, and I would be head first into the Great Neon Abyss. The coaster zooms at 67-miles-per-hour, and when the ride was over, I was disoriented and dizzy, And ready to do it again. Looking for something really different? You can get married married on the coaster whose home is at New York, New York. newyorknewyork.com/attractions/the-roller-coaster.aspx
The Linq Promeade/High Roller
The Linq Promenade is a dining, shopping and entertainment pedestrian-only brick-lined “alley” lined with some 40 shops and restaurants that connect the Linq and the Flamingo hotels. There’s much not to do, but lots to see and eat. The Brooklyn Bowl is a nightclub and bowling alley; their 32 Brunswick bowling lanes can each host up to 8 bowlers at a time.
Hungry for something awfully tasty? Sprinkles Cupcakes is off limits to diabetic and the obese.
At the Goorin Bros. hat shop I bought a retro-style newspaper boy cap that actually fits me, and I spent hours on Christmas Eve rummaging through Kitson, a two-floor store that attracts celebs to its Los Angeles flagship branch. Spend big bucks, and choose form top-notch clothing, cologne, jewelry, games and toys. Better yet: Check out the sale rack, where items slightly damaged are 80 percent off.
During Christmas week, there was a fun family show, with Santa and a bunch of carolers . . . I stuck around long enough and the show ended with real snow magically floating through the air.
On one end of the Linq is the High Roller. Opened in 2014, it’s the world’s largest observation wheel, topping out at 550 feet. Some 2,000 colored LED lights probably made it visible from Jupiter. It travels at one foot per second, while riders take in 360-degree views on Vegas during a a very slow . . . . very slow . . . 30-minute trip. Some will get bored within 8 minutes. Need loosing up? You can reserve a pod and 40 people cam cram in, complete with a bartender. A new definition of drinking but not driving. The 28 glass “pods” has two small red benches but most people stand to gawk and take photos. Riding after 5 p.m. is the ideal, but it costs more. Once is more than enough.
Fremont Street Experience
Rule No. 1: You must visit at night.This is the “original Las Vegas Strip” and was fondly dubbed as Glitter Glitch because of the blindly neon casinos and hotels, including El Cortez (now on the Registry of National Historic Places), Golden Nugget, Pioneer Club and Four Queens. (Many are still open.) Downtown Las Vegas was the center of tourism and entertainment from 1905 until the the ’50s when bigger-names resorts and casinos began building south. But certain smart people knew that Downtown had to be saved. And it is being saved, slowly. From 2010 to 2014, billions in private and public development have been poured into the area.
Perhaps the major attraction is the barrel vault canopy, a four-block long, 90-foot high “ceiling,” on which nightly light and music shows begins by turning off the lights on all of the buildings, including the casinos.
Stop in Binion’s Gambling Hall and Hotel, where you can pose (for free) with one million dollars in cash The million display on the casino floor consists of 100 $10,000 bills. No samples, though.
The Four Queens (opened in 1966 and named by the original owner to honor his wife and their three daughter) boasts so many lights you may need sunglasses. There are 42,162 lights on the marquee and the iconic bull nose’s ring boats 5.600 bulbs. Wonder what that bill is?
On the night I went, there were many oddities, their tip baskets at hand. I saw a grossly overweight man dressed only in a diaper; another man (this one muscular) might as well been nude, save for the teeniest piece of suede covering his privates; and my favorite, a small person, drumming empty pails like a madman while his bulldog kept him company.
Those with courage will relish SlotZilla, at Fremont Street Experience that offers two ways to fly down and waaay up over the street. They guarantee it’s unlike anything you’ve ever done before, but flying down a zip line at my age and weight makes me a Big Chicken.
The Downtown Experience grows bigger and better every year; future development is promised and Fremont East, a $5.5 million revitalization already includes retro-looking neon signs, cafes, shops and residential living. There’s no truth hiding the fact that sections of the area are not the most savory. But it’s changing. Slowly.
In and around the Downtown Las Vegas Arts District (the area near Fremont Street that needs the most renovation) are a slew of antique stores. Time allowed me to visit just a few: Patina (patinadecorlv.com) is home to vintage furniture, artwork, costume jewelry, lamps and so much more. JJC Clock & Antiques (jjcclocks.com) has a bit too much time of their hands—there are clocks everywhere, some dead, some ticking, some tocking, some chiming, some in need of repair. There are also cases of books, Baby Boomer collectibles and antique record players that demand the 78 rpms be brought back in vogue.
But my fave spot was Retro-Vegas (retro-vegas.com). It’s slighter smaller than Rhode Island, and items are neatly on display. Vintage vinyl, art, Vegas show memorabilia, knick-knacks, doo-dads and sundry souvenirs. There’s even a kitchen so mint mid-century that I could have sworn I saw June Cleaver making cookies for her Beaver.
Upstairs is a small selection of vintage clothing; I bought a 1960s macho lumberjack jacket that was a steal at $27 . . . a better deal with $2 taken off the price. I really wanted a green cardgian sweater, but a moth really wanted it more than I did and ate a hole in it. Talking to the two men who own the place is like talking to long-lost buddies. A note of warning: One of their bestselling are those tacky paintings on black velvet . . . they sell as quickly as people drop quarters into slot machines, Every such painting on their website has been sold, but it’s still cool to check out what you missed, plus there’s a nifty “Deal of the Week” special.
And so . . . the odds of returning? Not high, though missing The Mob Museum would be a crime.