I walked into the entrance for the first time and was instantly hit by a strong smell of vanilla, while tobacco smoke wafted in the air. A jungle of plant life lined a walkway to a fountain adorned with stone monkeys. Then I saw it at the end of the path: a dimly lit structure with brightly colored lights flashing. I was in Mandalay. Not the ancient capital of Burma, but rather the resort and casino in Las Vegas.
I had seen movies and heard tales of Las Vegas, which has become a cultural symbol for Americans. Vegas was built by mobsters with money from various vices including (but most definitely not limited to) alcohol, gambling, and…well…let’s just say “female companions.” The Vegas stereotype is what attracts many to the city with the idea of “hitting it big,” but most visitors go home with a much smaller bank account. While it is most definitely an unusual place, the stereotype isn’t the rule and you can make Vegas what you want. While I am sure the Vegas stereotype still happens, most people are simply there on vacation, relaxing in the resorts. I was there to celebrate my mother’s birthday with my wife, parents, and sister—not exactly a rufilin-filled attempt to relive the plot of “The Hangover.”
You can literally get a hotel room on any budget. That doesn’t mean it will be in the best location. The “Strip,” which is Las Vegas Boulevard, is much longer than one might expect. Just because a hotel is on the Strip doesn’t mean it’s in a great location. We stayed at the Mandalay Bay, which is a newer hotel at the south end. While it was basically at the very end of the Strip, the south end is where all the newer attractions, casinos, and hotels are located. On the first day there we ended up walking two miles from our hotel, ending at Caesars Palace. Still farther down the way were the Venetian and the Stratosphere. Much farther was Circus Circus and the Golden Nugget. Make sure you have a good sense of where you are booking and no matter what, bring a good pair of walking shoes.
Aside from location, where you stay is a matter of budget and preference. I was surprised by how much the hotels go all out on their “themes.” The Venetian (which has the theme of “Venice”) was one of the more impressive hotels, with finely decorated pillars and painting on the ceiling. The shopping center even included a canal where you could take a gondola ride. It is, however, one of the more expensive hotels. Mandalay Bay had beautiful tropical layouts and southeast Asian-themed decorations that make you feel like you are passing through a royal palace in the jungle.
The ‘Slow’ Season
The time of the year will also affect your experience in Vegas. I was there the last week of January, which is the slow season. Every taxi driver we talked to complained about sitting idle for long waits between customers. Even though it was “slow” it was still somewhat crowed. The sidewalks were full of people, restaurants still had waiting lists for reservations, and the shows were all completely sold out. I cannot imagine what it is like during the high season.
Even so, the slow season did come with many financial perks. We were able to upgrade our hotel room from a standard king bed to a king suite…for a cheaper price…and with a $50 room credit. The trick is that you need to call and talk to a person. Simply booking online will give you standard rates. Las Vegas hotels and casinos want to bend over backward to make sure you come to their hotels…and more importantly, that you spend money in their casinos.
On the topic of what Vegas is best known for—gambling—we had a great time. In my opinion, the best way to approach the casino is to set aside an amount of money that you plan to spend on “entertainment.” Losing won’t stress you out as much and you won’t be tempted to bet more on “just one more hand.” This way the games become games while you have fun trying your hardest to beat the odds. Just to forewarn you, very few people leave winning money. The games’ odds are all stacked in the casino’s favor. Still, I found a few rounds of blackjack entertaining.
The shows are a part of Vegas that took me completely by surprise. I am not much of a show kind of guy, however, after seeing the Blue Man Group, I was blown away. The amount of detail, creativity, and audience engagement created a totally unique sensory experience. I have no idea how to put into words what that show felt like. The actors were simply brilliant, able to convey many emotions and feeling without ever speaking or moving their mouths. Their childlike wonder, mixed with extreme musical talent pulled you in. After the show I wanted more….but I still don’t quite know what it was. It was just fantastic.
When it comes to purchasing tickets for a show, again, talking to someone over the phone may get you discounts. We were able to purchase tickets for Blue Man Group at about half face value. However, there is a downside to this approach, as we found out. We ordered our tickets through Mandalay Bay, even though the show was at the neighboring Luxor. When we went to pick up our tickets, the booking was for the wrong date. We wanted January 29 but were given February 29. The agent at the box office was not very helpful and even refused to give us the name of his supervisor, claiming he didn’t understand what good that would do. Fortunately, the folks over at the Luxor were much more professional and quickly resolved the issue. We ended up seeing the show with only slightly different seats. I definitely appreciated the courteous and professional manner that the Luxor staff had.
At every restaurant I went to the food was fantastic, the atmosphere perfect, and the prices sky high. The largest expense of Vegas was not the airfare, or the hotel, or even the gambling—however if you are not careful that can get outrageously high—it was the food. Don’t get me wrong, I never regretted a meal—those chefs in Vegas know their stuff. But I was not expecting to pay $35 for a cheeseburger or $10 for a beer. If you are planning a trip to Vegas, plan on budgeting $25-50 per meal (even breakfast) or more, depending on your tastes in drinks.
There was one other thing about Vegas that caught me by surprise: There were a lot of children. From kids in strollers to teenagers, every resort had plenty of them. They were concentrated in a few places more than others (Excalibur had a whole floor dedicated to arcade games for kids). Still, there were many rather adult-themed experiences in Vegas, even out in the open. Liquor, gambling and burlesque shows were advertised prominently.
There is definitely no place like Vegas. You are greeted by rows and rows of slot machines as soon as you step off the jet bridge at the airport. You will see all kinds of strange people on the streets; some are street performers, others have become unintentional street performers. Vegas is wired, fantastic, luxurious, over-the-top, laid back, overpriced, worthwhile, outrageous, and most definitely unique—all at once. I don’t know if I could handle a full week in Las Vegas, but my wife and family most definitely enjoyed our weekend stay.