I’m recently back from what is likely to be my last visit to Las Vegas. What happens in Vegas will have to stay there, now: I’m not going back to see.
Yes, you can have your picture taken with 'Chippendale's' dancers...
I’ve visited Las Vegas half a dozen times over 25 years or so; twice with family, twice for conventions and twice solo. Each time, I struggled with my thoughts: aspects of the city intrigued me, others seemed incongruous, uninteresting, even repelling, in turn. But now, I think I’ve seen enough to understand some of its attraction, and to conclude it’s not for me.
My alternate cycles of love (it’s Disneyland for adults), hate (it’s a tawdry play to our worst instincts) and ambivalence (well, there’s some good food, and it’s a good base for exploring other areas) have had the effect of getting me back there every few years, always trying to draw a conclusion.
What's no longer happening in Vegas also stays; above, in the Neon Boneyard
And now I have: No matter how cheap the hotel rooms (and they aren’t so cheap anymore), there are better places to stay while visiting nearby national parks. I’ve no appetite anymore for the fabulous casino buffets (which these days have prices that make them the expensive, not the cheap meal). And even the high-end chef-driven restaurants that once seemed an attraction in themselves have become mass-production extravaganzas. Unless you’re a gambler, which I’m not, it’s just not the place.
Casinos everywhere, always with the lights and sound. But note that many of the tables, like the roulette above, now are automated with no croupier
But what makes Las Vegas so wildly popular? A reasonable question, because it clearly is. It’s not only full of casinos, it’s full of amusements, ranging from one of the world’s biggest Ferris wheels to not one but two in-hotel roller-coasters. It has sky walks, it has (for a while longer, anyway) a volcano that erupts on the hour every night, a lavish fountain show, an Eiffel Tower, a pirate battle and hundreds of other attractions that bring families as well as gamblers and show-goers.
Speaking of show-goers: there are still headline acts, but not nearly as many as in past years. And one of the latest may point the way to the future: a dead singer headlining a hotel show via holograms. Yes. Believe it. It’s the Whitney Houston Hologram Concert, with tickets going from around $50 into the stratosphere. Whatever else Las Vegas is, ‘cheap’ no longer applies, and that applies even to prices in fast-food restaurants.
One thing is clear about Las Vegas: It plays well on the idea of being like nowhere else. It is a city where, in some sense, everyone is a stranger from somewhere else, or is only there to serve the strangers. While there are parts of the now-huge Las Vegas area that look like everywhere else, the parts that nearly all visitors see, especially The Strip and Fremont Street work hard at avoiding anything mundane in their appearance.
Over the top Caesar's (above) contrasts with more restrained Bellagio (below)
Las Vegas is a skilled shape-shifter: It will be whatever you want it to be, whether that is fake ‘frontier,’ faux French, a veneer of Venice, a model New York, some other city or even a futuristic fantasy.
The skills involved in creating and maintaining the atmospherics of the different hotels are a tribute to artistry and craftsmanship, of creating atmospheres that can be raucous in one place, tranquilly luxurious at another, over-the-top Roman orgy at another. Las Vegas will be whatever you want it to be.
Watching people, and especially families, moving along the crowded Strip and through the downtown Fremont Street area, left me with a feeling that we were all displaced, as if we had wandered backstage at the circus and were experiencing the acts and the animals from the wrong perspective: From the backlot instead of from the bleachers.
But it also has the effect of licensing behavior that the city glorifies, but most people wouldn’t do at home, the ‘Sin City’ attraction. That includes yard-long glasses of colored cocktails, outrageous clothing and, oddly and especially by pairs of stereotypical ‘showgirls.’
They are in the costumes the movies have told us to expect, standing or strolling the streets in high-heels with outrageous feathers and fans and minimal coverage. They are human stage-props, waiting to pose for pictures with adults and a surprising number of families with children. Local law allows no fee, but they carefully explain what tips they expect for the service, usually $20 and up.
But the 'Vegas effect' doesn't cover everything; wander away from the Strip and Fremont Street, and the less attractive side of life in Las Vegas becomes visible.
Actually, you don't even need to leave the bright lights; there were dozens of people camped out or sleeping at various points along the strip. Despite the passing crowds of potential, most weren't even panhandling.
And it only takes about a day of looking at billboards to believe what a guide claimed: Injury law is the state's second biggest industry. There are even dozens of firms specializing in guest claims that they were injured in their hotels.
So, here I am: disillusioned with the city of illusions. It’s a shame, but like Dorothy, I can no longer ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.’ It was fun, sort of, while it lasted, and I can’t say I never enjoyed it—but it’s over. For me, anyway: Obviously, many—and perhaps you—are still having fun!
At the end of the day: 'Aftermath' by J. Seward Johnson, at Paris Las Vegas