Cheer and Moping in Las Vegas

2017 May 14
by dickdickerydick

welcome vegas

Sunday: The Domino Effect

19 hours, 2 t-shirts and a packet of Beechams maximum strength flu tablets later I finally arrived at what was to be my sanctuary for the next 6 nights: a giant Pyramid. Sandwiched between a 480 ft high GOLDEN tower and a cartoon-looking castle resides the Egyptian themed hotel and casino (they’re all hotel and casinos here. They’re all themed too, apparently) Luxor, complete with 7 restaurants, 3 Starbucks, a food court and buffet; 2 theatres; 7 bar/lounge/nightclubs – including the Las Vegas version of L.A. “super-club” LAX; 2 exhibition centres; 15 stores; a fitness centre, spa, pool AND wedding chapel.

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Checking-in included a map and a 5-point set of directions to the location of my room, which I did find. Eventually.

Having to navigate through all the above to the correct elevator that would take me to my floor in a sweaty state of sleep-deprived delirium was the perfect ending to an all-round disastrous day. I was lucky to be in Las Vegas at all. A true victim of the Domino Effect.

I had to plead my way onto the first flight after arriving at the airport an hour later than anticipated, realising at Piccadilly train station to my horror that the clocks had gone forward. At Philadelphia they had changed the boarding gate of my second flight – or plight, so ravaged it was with turbulence. A situation made all the more excruciating by the comedy-genius sat just behind squealing “YYEEEHAW” with every dip and stomach-churning lurch of the plane. We’re 35 thousand fuckin-feet above ground in a tube with wings, wings that have become increasingly mobile over the last half hour. The only exclamations to be made at this point should be expletives or names of religious figures, you Yankee slapstick.

Las Vegas doesn’t wait for you to come to her, the city greets you from the airport arrival lounge with its slot machines and carnival cuisine. On the short drive from the airport to hotel, Las Vegas at first looks like a maquette of itself. As buildings loom closer and into scale you start to feel like you’re encroaching upon an enormous movie set, or collection of sets, carefully combed and manicured. Then fantastical things start to protrude form the dirt like coloured turrets, sphinxes, rollercoasters… Then you start to question, is this a city, or a theme park…?

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Monday: Adulterated Disneyworld

“Las Vegas is like a fairground; a Disneyland for adults”

They remained but words until that evening when we ventured over to the Stratosphere and had our first experienced of Las Vegas, by night.

At 1,149 ft, the Stratosphere Tower is the tallest of its kind in the United States, located at the northernmost end of the Las Vegas strip. Like every other venue in Las Vegas, it boasts its own assortment of bars, restaurants, theatres, shops and wedding chapels. Teetering, propelling and spinning a-top this looming feat of engineering are its three attractions: the “X-Scream” rollercoaster, the “Big Shot” and the melodramatically entitled “Insanity, the Ride” – a spinning mechanical arm extending 64 ft over the edge of the Tower and a “truly mind-bending experience”, apparently.

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Whilst mother, sister and her boyfriend were propelled across the Las Vegas skyline at various degrees, I was enjoying a gentler, static survey of the city from the observation deck – a $13.95 view, but an impressive one none the less. Once the adrenalin had subsided, we descended the Tower and joined the lights of Las Vegas.

After a 15 minute neon assault back into town, stunned and partially dazzled we arrived at the Treasure Island Hotel just in time for the second spectacle of the evening: the Sirens of TI pirate show. Now I really had landed in Disneyland – or rather Disneyland’s abused, psychotic twin. The show, set in Sirens Cove – a large-scale water feature at the front of the hotel, depicts a pirate assailant with galleons, guns and….girls, culminating in an explosive firework finale. Think Pirates of the Caribbean raping Showgirls – the magic of Disney being feltched by 21st century perversion and we have an analogy not just for this particular piece of inappropriateness, but for the entire spectacle that is the city itself.

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Tuesday: Beauty and the Beast

“The world’s most exploited DITCH”

The Grand Canyon attracts an average of 4.7 million visitors a year. At 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep it is an impressive expanse of nature’s power and beauty. It is also massively exploited. First there are the Grand Canyon Air Tours. Starting at $200 you can traverse the ravine by either plane or helicopter. “Whether it’s a quiet lunch upon descending from a helicopter tour, a day trip over majestic and historic Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, or a scenic flight above Lake Powell, you’re sure to find an exciting tour that fits your needs….” You can even get married on one. Not a fan of flying? What about a bus tour? Or a rafting tour? A hiking, biking or riding tour? – Horse, mule or wagon? There’s the Grand Canyon Overnight Tour, the Two Day, Three Day, Four Tour… even CELL PHONE TOURS.

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And then there’s the merchandise.

Grand Canyon mugs, glasses, plates, badges, magnets, key rings, posters, cards and calendars… Indian figurines, dolls, gems, jewellery, trinkets… Sweatshirts, t-shirts… The Grand Canyon DVD – which I regret to say, my mother purchased.

Ours was a Scenic Airlines Tour to Grand Canyon’s South-western Rim, flying out from Boulder City, over Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, to the Grand Canyon West Airport. From there an inclusive bus service drove us into the Park, stopping at “key sightseeing locations”, including the southernmost edge of the Canyon and “Eagle Point” – site of this area’s most infamous attraction: the Skywalk.

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The 4 inch-thick glass walkway juts out 70 ft beyond the canyon edge and some 4,000 ft from its base. Though commissioned as an economic stimulant by the impoverished landowners, the Hualapai (wal-a-pie) tribe, it was Las Vegas tour company owner David Jin who proposed and funded the Skywalk’s construction. “Like the car and buses. The white man made it, and it came out strong… We’ve got to give it a chance,” commented the 84year-old tribal elder. Sure it has created a FEW extra jobs but for a community averaging between 50 and 70% unemployed it has not made a significant impact – nor are they the ones particularly profiting from the structure so much as the tourist companies who suggested it.

At $33 per head and an additional $20 for the photo (no personal cameras allowed “to protect the glass…”), the Skywalk is more expensive than impressive… sadly, much like the Canyon itself.

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Wednesday: “Sin City”

Gluttony
Every hotel in Las Vegas has a “buffet”. For those unfamiliar with the term, a buffet is the closest human equivalent to a trough. For a fixed fee you can gorge upon an array of cuisine without restriction before succumbing to shame, disgust or internal combustion. There are over 40 buffets to choose from in Las Vegas, ranging from a $6.99 “Breakfast Feast” to Wynn’s $34.95 Champagne Brunch. Averaging at around $14 a meal, consisting of a potentially infinite number of dishes, the buffet is just one of the city’s many alluring vices.

Lust
girlsdirectNevada is the only state in the US that allows legal brothels. Whilst prostitution, however, is illegal in Las Vegas, “escorts”, “entertainers” and naked “companionship” are overtly advertised throughout the city across billboards, vans, and in paper formats – the latter dispensed along the Strip by uniformed Mexican migrants.

It’s estimated that there are as many as 10,000 prostitutes operating illegally in Las Vegas, in an industry suggested to be worth as much as $6billion a year. They work in the casinos, bars and hotels. They do “extras” out of strip clubs and massage parlours, provide “outcalls” to apartments and service (when required) the casino high-rollers – as well as operating from print and online ads, and selling their bodies for drugs.

Wrath
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Sloth
All of the Las Vegas Strip hotels rely upon a unique attraction to lure in tourists and their wallets. Circus Circus has its fairground, the Bellagio its dancing fountain, and the MGM has… lions. Lions INSIDE the casino, to “honour and help safeguard its preservation for future generations”. NOT to exploit them as a tourist gimmick. MGM lion mug, t-shirt, stuffed toy, key ring, magnet…anyone? Whilst the lions actually live on an 8.5acre ranch 12 miles from the MGM Grand, they are rotated between the casino’s “one-of-a-kind Lion Habitat” – a glass box at the edge of the casino floor filled with plastic and apathy – “as a showcase for public education”…of course.

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Envy
Las Vegas as a city was founded on 15 May 1905 when 110acres of land was auctioned off in what is now Downtown Las Vegas. Gambling was legalised in 1931 and ten years later the first casino, El Rancho Vegas, was built. The success of El Rancho ignited a flourish of similar hotel-casinos to be built, fronting a two-lane highway leading into Las Vegas from Los Angeles on what is today recognised as the Las Vegas Strip. The Strip has since ballooned into the city’s main thoroughfare as modest casinos developed into spectacular mega resorts throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. All the while leaving Downtown to fall into disrepute and despair.

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In 1994 Downtown – the original Las Vegas – launched its counter attack: “The Fremont Street Experience”, to compete with the spectacle of the Strip. Whilst visitors flock in their thousands down to where it all began, for cheaper tables and a more laid-back atmosphere, Downtown will forever remain in the shadow of its successor, one of the most famous streets in the world.

Pride
Steve Wynn, “the King of the Strip”, has been cited as the man responsible for the Boulevard’s dramatic expansion during the 1990s. Beginning in early the 1970s in the declining Downtown area of Las Vegas, Wynn first transformed the Golden Nugget from a gambling hall to a successful resort hotel and casino. In 1989 he opened his first major casino on the Las Vegas Strip: The Mirage. He went onto developing a string of grandiose “mega resorts”, including: pirate themed Treasure Island, the luxurious Bellagio and most recently the Wynn Las Vegas and Encore Las Vegas.

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Greed
Whether it’s an American thing or just in Las Vegas, here you’re expected to tip, be it for a drink, meal or taxi. The first two, fair enough. In fact, tipping a waitress can only reap benefits – like on the casino floor, where the drinks are free but only if you can catch a girl. Give her a big tip and she’ll be sure to return. But tipping someone for hailing a taxi and then another for the journey itself, on top of an already extortionate fare, is just ludicrous. And these drivers are fucking ruthless. You actually have to request your change and anything less than a $5 tip is received with resentment. I didn’t ask for your life story and I’m perfectly capable of opening a door, so why the fuck do I need to hand over more of my money, you greedy bastard?

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Thursday: “The Fremont Street Experience”

“Downtown you can get a wedding license, get married, gamble, lose all your money, pawn your jewellery, lose again, steal, get arrested, get imprisoned, get an attorney, get bail, get divorced and get a prostitute all within walking distance from each other”

By the time El Rancho opened and the Las Vegas Strip was born, Downtown was already in its mid-30s. The first Nevada gambling licence was issued to the Northern Club in 1931. Others followed, propelling Fremont Street to the forefront of the gambling industry. However as the Strip burgeoned, attracting investment and tourists alike, Downtown was simply left behind. Unable to compete with the mega resorts of the Strip, “The Fremont Street Experience” was conceived in 1993 as a means of drawing more people back to the dwindling gambling area.

kiss

Construction began in 1994. A five-block section of the street was closed off, support poles instilled and a 1,500ft long canopy erected, embedded with around 2 million LED lights. (The canopy has since been upgraded and now consists of over 12 million lamps.) From this light and sound shows have been projected nightly from dusk since its official unveiling in 1995. The shows depict a number of themes in strobes of heavily Americanised graphics, from famous Vegas icons, to racing cars, to aliens.

After driving nearly 30minutes out of the city for a Red Lobster dinner (meal-wise, one of the highlights), bypassing Downtown we were lucky enough to catch the last showing of the night, the KISS-themed “KISS Over Vegas” – a 20minute barrage of tongues, fire and painted faces. Traversing down the rest of Fremont Street, pass the tawdry casinos and recessive bars, the naff souvenirs and street performers, the atmosphere couldn’t be further from the competitive glitz and glare of the Strip. Here was the humble, more nonchalant Las Vegas: pleasantly seedy, light-heartedly sordid. A friendlier, more inviting Las Vegas – not as intense as the Strip, but still an “experience” none the less.

Friday: “The Entertainment Capital of the World”

“Forget about London and New York from now on…No place other than Vegas has 40 million visitors a year who come and want to see at least two shows”

At the point of writing, there are around 90 shows currently performing in Las Vegas ranging from elaborate stage productions by companies such as Cirque du Soleil; to magic, comedy and hypnosis performances; to music headliners and tributes; to the classic burlesque and more contemporary adult shows Las Vegas is as much renown for under its “Sin City” moniker. Indeed it is argued that no other place in the world has such a rich, diverse concentration of stage shows – more rich than diverse, with some show tickets reaching as much as $1000 each!

Rounding off the Las Vegas trip in style, we spent our last evening at one of the Strip’s most lavish hotel-casinos, the Bellagio. First dining at the upmarket circus-inspired Circo, before experiencing it first-hand – Cirque du Soleil’s most adventurous show yet, the aquatic-cum-acrobatic show, “O”. The Quebec-originating performance company first debuted in Las Vegas in 1993 at the Mirage Hotel. They now boast six permanent residences across six different Strip locations, entertaining over 9,000 people a night with their unique synthesis of acrobatics and surreal narrative.

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“O” – deriving from the French word for water, “eau” – is Cirque’s first and only aquatic show, based at the Bellagio’s purpose-built $10 million theatre for the last 10 years. The stage is in fact a fluctuating 1.5million gallon pool of water, 25 feet deep; the 85-strong cast all SCUBA-certified acrobats, synchronised swimmers and divers. Like all of Cirque’s shows, O is infused with deep, bizarre philosophy, depicted in visually astounding scenes and feats of physical ability. Outlandish props, costume and composition allude more to a living Dali painting than a circus performance, and clever manipulation of the audience combined with genuine moments of unpredictability make O a truly spectacular and incomparable piece of ingenuity.

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Saturday 4: Conclusion

“I’m clocking up my time in hell now, so later I won’t have to”

On the 19-hour return back to normality I had time to ponder over my week in Las Vegas, the most extreme destination experienced to date. All I could think about was the poor bastards who actually lived here, trapped in this contorted Mickey Mouse purgatory; a “hyperreal” existence to reference Jean Braudillard – devoid of all trace of reality. Las Vegas is a vacuum, operating within its own set of warped parameters to its own set of rules, totally independent from the rest of existence. It is a farcical city, a deluded city. A strange and somewhat unsettling city, with an equally dark and perplexing motto: “what happens here, stays here” – like it were an incentive to divulge in iniquity.

However over the last decade great attempts have been made to re-brand Las Vegas as a family-friendly tourist resort, in a move away from the irreputable “Sin City” image it was founded upon. Yet despite the efforts to sanitise Las Vegas, illegitimacy still remains deeply engrained in the city’s ethos, its history, and its very soul.

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Words & Photos by Holly Dicker