For over a month now, Debbi's been cheerfully mystifying me about my birthday present. All I knew was: We're going away somewhere, and that we'd be flying no more than 3 hours, or driving no more than 12, and we wouldn't be leaving the country (since neither of us have passports, a fact which practically scandalized my seasoned-traveller friend Lucy). Debbi eventually let slip that we'd be flying, not driving. But where? San Diego, Seattle and Portland were high on my list. Las Vegas was not, since she said she didn't think she could afford it. Maybe a scenic location like the Grand Canyon (which I understand is very cold this time of year), or something in Utah.
Saturday morning the truth was revealed to me: We were in fact going to Las Vegas! And our friends Lisa and Michel bought me a ticket to see Cirque du Soleil's show "O", which I'd said I'd definitely want to see if we went to Vegas!
What a gift!
We flew out of San Jose Saturday afternoon, and checked into our hotel, Bally's, without much trouble at all.
Here's a modicum of trivia:
Bally's is a pretty nice hotel with spacious rooms and comfortable beds - well, at least our room was that way. Shower water pressure was disappointing, but that was the worst of it. Bally's is across from the Bellagio, next to Paris and the Aladdin, and on the Las Vegas Monorail, all of which was pretty convenient for us.
- "Las Vegas" means "The Meadows" (in - you guessed it - Spanish).
- South Las Vegas Boulevard is nicknamed "The Strip", and is the main gambling and resort center in Las Vegas.
- Bally's opened in the early 1970s as the MGM Grande Hotel. There's a different hotel named that now.
Bally's is a "basic" hotel for Vegas, I thought. Comfortable to stay at, but the casino wasn't outstanding, the food and shopping was decent, and its headline show - Jubilee! - appears to be a classic Las Vegas show (i.e., a topless revue) but not something I'd go out of my way for (Debbi wants to see it sometime, though). But being centrally located and not overly expensive counts for a lot, in my book.
We got oriented pretty quickly, and after checking out the schedules I decided that I also really wanted to see the Blue Man Group, whom I'd heard good things about and who have been a fixture at the Luxor Hotel for years. So we bought a couple of tickets to that, and then went out to see some sights.
Mostly we ambled southwards down the strip, and finally stopped for dinner at Regale at the Excalibur, which turned out to be very tasty Italian food. Then we went to the Luxor where we gambled for a while. We virtually decided during the weekend that the Luxor was our favorite place for gamble. Mainly because they had a video blackjack game which I loved since you could double up on a win (giving yourself a 50% chance of doubling your winnings). But the casino also had lots of change booths, and attentive staff. They also seemed to do a really good job of laying out their machines, so Debbi and I could play near each other no matter what we were playing. (Plus, it's shaped like a big, black pyramid with a spotlight shooting out of its apex at night, and a sphinx out front. Yet it's not cheesy.) We made several trips down to the Luxor just for the gambling, despite it being an inconvenient trek from our hotel.
The Blue Man Group was a lot of fun! They're an avant-garde comedy troupe which mixed in percussion-driven music (which I quite enjoyed). A little of their humor tends towards the gross, but they also feature some neat feats of physical skill. How does one of them catching marshmallows in his mouth thrown from 20+ feet away sound? How about catching over a dozen marshmallows and holding them all in his mouth at once sound? Okay, it's kinda gross - but strangely impressive, too. And their general shtick - blue-faced men whose expressions are entirely body language and eye movements - is surprisingly effective. (You've probably seen their commercials for Intel.) They also wander out into the audience and give out lots of free paper - which you pretty much have to experience to understand. It was great. I had a blast. Debbi said she rarely sees me get into something like I did during their show.
As you might expect we generally didn't get to sleep in Vegas before 1 am. Though I think we always wound down before 2. We often changed from contact lenses to glasses for the night to give our eyes a break and better cope with the smoke in the casinos. Though actually, despite the prevalence of smoke along the Strip, it didn't bother me all that much - really good ventilation, I guess. Debbi was more bothered than I was.
Sunday we spent walking up and down the Strip, mostly. Mainly we headed north and saw the hotels up in that direction (about which more later). It's quite a bit of walking, and we were glad Bally's is centrally located since otherwise we would have been really tired at the end of the day. As it was, we came back to our hotel mid-afternoon and rested our feet for a while, and caught the first quarter of the Patriots/Steelers playoff game.
Eventually we headed across the street to the Bellagio where we had dinner and did some gambling. The Bellagio is one of the pricier hotels on the Strip and it's very nice inside. Of course, I kept stealing away to catch bits of the playoff game, which had the desired outcome as the Pats won 41-27. Yay!
Sunday night was the planned centerpiece of the trip: Cirque du Soleil's "O". Although our seats were not up near the stage, they actually were quite good in that there's a lot going on in this production, and being able to take it all in was very cool. I imagine many people sitting closer missed quite a few things which we could see (though I guess you could just go five or six times and see it from all different angles, but that would run into some serious money).
Like Blue Man Group, "O" (and I say this having never seen any Cirque du Soleil shows before, so they may all share these traits) is a mixture of several elements: Choreographed dance, feats of physical (mainly acrobatic) skill, and live music. Not to mention the lovely costumes and sets. The stage is a swimming pool with modular pieces which rise and fall in the water, so that the acrobats dive and swim in the pool even as the platforms are rising and falling. There are several moving backdrops, a variety of props, and many devices suspended from the ceiling for the acrobatic tricks. It's gorgeous to look at.
"O" is plotless - it's a show, not a story, and though there are a few recurring characters (a couple of clowns, an insane-looking ringmaster, a few others), they're there to entertain, not to grow and change. So at its core "O" is part circus and part ballet, with graceful, complex and choreographed dances combined with feats of skill: Aerial antics, patterns formed by the people in the water, other cavorting about the stage or just standing by. With a few exceptions, most sequences are astonishingly complex, with minor things happening off to the side in addition to whatever the main attraction is - I imagine repeated viewing is rewarding in that you see things you didn't have a chance to see before. The couple next to us had binoculars, which I imagine could also be useful.
They also play a number of conceptual tricks. Cast members wander into the audience from time to time, and sometimes interact with audience members. Often it's unclear whether the person they're interacting with is a real audience member, or a plant. In some cases it eventually becomes clear that they're actually part of the cast, in other cases it's less certain. Some bits are still neat to think about in this way after the fact.
I loved the music, and in fact part-way through thought to myself, "so this is where the popular arm of progressive rock has gone - avant-garde show tunes!" Many pieces from "O" would have fit right in alongside progressive rock bands like Renaissance or The Flower Kings, complete with the female vocalist and non-English lyrics (I don't know whether they're in a language I don't know, in a made-up language, or are just nonsense syllables crafted to fit the songs). Indeed, I enjoyed it so much I bought the CD in the store on my way out. (It was, however, a staggering $24. No doubt I could search around and find a used copy for much cheaper. Still, it's a nice CD.)
This was a great birthday gift. While it's not the free-for-all that Blue Man Group can be, it's a must-see. I loved it.
We wrapped up the day with another trip to the Luxor for more gambling.
We had considered going on a tour of the Hoover Dam on Monday, but decided we didn't want to get up that early and spend half the day on the road. So instead we bought all-day tickets on the monorail and went up to the Hilton to see Star Trek - The Experience. A section of the Hilton's casino is decked out like Ten Forward from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and dealers at the card tables are wearing various generations of Trek uniforms. Pretty cool in a very geeky sort of way.
The Experience has basically four sections: The least interesting is the cafe and shops. The most interesting - in a way - is the lengthy timeline of the Star Trek fictional future history and display of Trek memorabilia, including a small handful of items from the original series, such as a Tricorder and Spock's "stone knives and bearskins" equipment from "City on the Edge of Forever". The other two sections are the "experience", rides similar in spirit to Star Tours at Disneyland, but better done. The newer of the two is "Borg Invasion", based around Star Trek: Voyager. The riders are test subjects for Voyager's doctor on board a space station, with the hopes that they'll help produce a resistance to Borg assimilation. When the Borg attack the station, you're all loaded into a shuttle to flee. While the shuttle simulation is okay, the best bits are escaping down a corridor with live actors as Starfleet personnel and Borg. But overall it was kind of disappointing.
The other experience, "Klingon Encounter" is older but better. Here, the riders have been captured via a temporal nexus by Klingons, but they've been rescued by the Enterprise-D (from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and are loaded into a shuttle to be brought back through the nexus to the 20th century. The simulator is much better than in "Borg Invasion" - or for that matter Star Tours - and despite the cheese factor it's a lot of fun. Definitely worth riding on once.
Despite the relative lack of original series presence, I enjoyed the visit. Not sure I'll need to go back anytime soon, but it was fun.
After this we went back so Debbi could get another daiquiri (I got a Frappuccino at Starbucks, which had a lot of chocolate bits in it), and then to M&M's World, which Debbi really wanted to visit. (Debbi lo-o-oves M&M's.) Then we went back to the Luxor - again - to gamble some more. I played the dollar video blackjack machine, and after a run of bad luck (losing $20) went to join Debbi at the slots. She had vacated a 5-cent machine which had eaten a bunch of her money and moved to the adjacent one. I sat at the one she'd left and in pretty short order lucked into two bonus rounds and turned my $5 into $42.50. "You're buying me dinner!" Debbi told me. But that was okay by me! On the way back we went to the MGM Grand Hotel and saw the lion habitat, which featured two sleeping lionesses (and maybe others we couldn't see).
We wandered around a bit for dinner, being a bit stunned at the prices of some of the steak houses (plus the one at the Bellagio had a dress code we didn't meet), and ended up at Caesar's Palace, where we found both the food and service at Cafe Lago to be profoundly underwhelming - our least favorite meal of the weekend. The casino was also disappointing, with a dull selection of video machines. And on top of that their headline show is currently Celine Dion (ugh). Not our place. Nice facade, though.
So we headed back north to see the white tiger at The Mirage (yes, the white tigers kept by Siegfried and Roy), as well as its simulated volcano out front, as well as to Treasure Island to see the racy (but free) "Sirens of TI" show out front (which Deb says is a lot racier than when she last saw it). On the way back we went into the Flamingo which was rather disappointing: Slow service and few and well-hidden change booths, it seemed. Oh, well. We wrapped up the evening with another daiquiri and a little gambling at the Paris. Actually a really fun day, despite not having the tour or any shows to highlight it.
Tuesday was our last day, with an afternoon flight out. We checked out of our room, checked our bags at the concierge, had lunch, and gambled at our own hotel for a change. This was actually one of our most-fun sessions of gambling, as we both played video poker for quite a while, and had some lengthy rounds on the slots. I made a little money, including turning $1 into $11 at the penny slots (guess I shoulda been playing the dollar slots!). After a walk around outside to finish killing time, we went to the airport (yes, we remembered to get our bags first), and came home.
Going to Las Vegas was a wonderful trip. I hope I've thanked Debbi enough for it, since I know it took her both time and money to put together. We're already talking about going back sometime, maybe for her birthday. Next time, maybe I'll try gambling at the blackjack tables. Or even poker!
Guess I'd better buy a book and read up about all that first...