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LAS VEGAS - CASINOS AND ENTERTAINMENT

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Las Vegas is like no place else in the USA. For that matter, Vegas is like no place else on earth.

At 3 a.m., the lights in downtown Glitter Gulch are so bright that you can take photographs without a flash or tripod. The five westernmost blocks of the Fremont Street gambling district earned the name Glitter Gulch from its vast number of neon signs.

Neon cowgirl in Glitter Gulch
Neon cowgirl in Glitter Gulch
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Just 15 minutes away, "the Strip's" sprawling casinos evoke neon oases, palaces and tropics like false-fronted movie sets - all in the midst of the desert.

The city never sleeps. Millions of visitors come every year, drawn to the lights like pins to a magnet.

Gambling

Money changes hands as in one big Monopoly game. Everything is geared to keeping you inside the casinos. Gamblers are lured by free and discounted drinks, blackjack and roulette.

In Glitter Gulch, barkers with loud-speakers virtually shanghai customers off the street, while at Caesars Palace, moving sidewalks feed humans into the casino like so many cookies on a conveyor belt. (No sidewalks move out!)

Looking for the registration desk, the elevators or the washroom? The answer is always the same: "Go past the slots, the craps tables and cashier's cage, then turn..."

There are no windows or clocks, but there are scantily-clad waitresses in outfits that would make a feminist cringe. Exits are difficult to find and the whirling lights, noisy tin trays and red carpets are intended to build excitement.

How to win

There's an oft-repeated saying here: "If you plan to leave with a small fortune, come here with a large one!" Some Las Vegas arrivals never make it past the airport.

Inserting coin in slot machine
Inserting coin in slot machine
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

They get hooked on the first slots they spy and stay with them to the bitter end. Others are saved from complete disaster only by rumors of Nevada laws that prevent them from hocking either their eyeglasses or dentures to get fresh green for the tables.

The best advice, we've heard, is to think of your gambling money as the cost of your entertainment. Then set a dollar limit and stick to it.

First-timers may find themselves a bit overwhelmed by the games of chance. The best way to learn about gaming, and have some fun at the same time, is to join one of the free classes offered by many of the casinos. You learn by playing with dummy chips and can stop to ask questions at any time.

Discount coupons

Since the odds are set by law, casinos compete with one another through atmosphere, entertainment and food. Bargains abound. Don't expect to find them, however, at the five-star restaurants.

Casinos offer coupons for free keno games, double-your-money bets and discounted or free souvenirs, food and drinks. Although food prices aren't as inexpensive as they were several years ago, you can still find cheap all-you-can-eat buffets, deli and sit-down meals.

Black jack table
Black jack table
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Most casinos serve complimentary cocktails, 24 hours a day, to players sitting at gaming tables, although wise patrons usually stick to coffee and soft drinks so as not to dull their senses.

Hotels and resorts

Las Vegas hotels are massive. The MGM Grand, for example, has 5,034 rooms. Medieval-themed Excalibur, with its moat, drawbridge and turrets, is straight out of Camelot.

The Venetian has canals, gondolas and strolling musicians. Luxor features a 30-story black glass pyramid. And Bellagio boasts spectacular fountains and a mind-boggling Cirque de Soleil show.

Caesars Palace exudes Roman opulence. (The Rain Man gambling scenes were filmed here.) Bellboys, dressed as gladiators, and a bejeweled Antony & Cleopatra welcome guests. Alabaster statues and six-meter chandeliers embellish the casino, while king-sized round beds (with mirrors above) and tiled circular baths furnish many rooms.

Also not to be missed is the Mirage, a South Seas oasis, complete with an indoor rainforest, dolphins, white Siberian tigers, and a volcano that spews smoke, flames and fumes 30 meters above the lagoons, every 15 minutes.

Lava appears to flow down its slopes, the water boils and turns crimson (from submerged red lights), and then everything returns to normal so the crowds can head back to the green felt and one-armed bandits.

Entertainers

To fill these rooms, hotels lure visitors with headliners, ranging from Elton John to David Copperfield, and the most extravagant stage shows in the world. Performances are scheduled twice nightly - a dinner show and a late-night show with cocktails.

While you may pay high ticket prices for shows featuring Julio Iglesias, Lisa Minnelli and other superstars, many extravagant song, dance and variety shows cost much less. Some even include dinner.

Free shows

The best entertainment bargains are found in the casino lounges, however. For the price of a couple drinks, or sometimes for free, you can watch some outstanding but lesser-known singers, musicians and comedians. Most lounges don't accept reservations, so it's first-come, first-served.

One of the best free shows in town, is at Circus Circus, where trapeze artists, high-wire acrobats, animal trainers and clowns entertain crowds daily.

Some hotels feature theme parks, suitable for all ages. The Excalibur, for example, features a lavish dinner show, complete with Merlin the Magician, King Arthur and his court, a horseback jousting tournament with armored knights, and laser pyrotechnics. Stratosphere has a thrill ride on top of the 113th floor.

Neon decorates the Flamingo Hilton.
Neon decorates the Flamingo Hilton.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shopping

If you can pull yourself away from the theme parks, neon and dice, Las Vegas offers a host of non-gambling diversions. At the Liberace Museum, gawk at Mr. Showmanship's pianos, minks, sequined and ostrich-feathered suits, as well as his Rolls Royce, covered with mirror mosaics, and 24-kilo rhinestone (the world's largest). Take a free tour of the Ethel M Chocolate Factory, home of the Mars Bar, or visit one of the largest dinosaur collections in the world at the Museum of Natural History.

Shopping ranges from casino boutiques to large malls. Not to be missed is The Forum shopping centre at Caesars Palace, where the ceiling changes from sunrise to sunset and darkness with stars. Marble statues of Roman gods talk when a laser lightning bolt strikes Bacchus every hour.

Day trips from Las Vegas

The best Las Vegas sights are found outside the city. Within an hour's drive, you can explore several ghost towns and tour the 70-story-high Hoover Dam. Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the States, offers fishing, boating and hiking.

You can also hike through the wind-sculpted red sandstone formations of Valley of Fire State Park and Red Rock Canyon, a backdrop in many cowboy movies. To escape from the heat, drive to 3,050-metre-high Mount Charleston, or board a panoramic flight over the Grand Canyon.

And yes, some people visit Las Vegas just to play golf or get married in one of its many wedding chapels.

With a multitude of options beckoning, the main problem facing visitors to Las Vegas is never what to do, but what to do next. Whether you select the neon-studded glitter of its casinos, or the laid-back charms of its desert surroundings, Las Vegas provides an escape from everyday routines.

That's one thing you can bet on!


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Las Vegas: www.vegas.com

More things to see and do in Las Vegas:

Las Vegas - New Hotels and Strip Bus Service