The Best of Las Vegas
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The Strip, formally known as Las Vegas Boulevard, is more densely developed at its southern end. From here up to the middle section is where all the newer, highly themed mega-resorts are located. There are a few 'older' style resorts scattered in this part of the Strip. The northern third of the boulevard is where most of the 'older' style resorts are located, possibly because this real estate is not quite as valuable, and they haven't been imploded to make room for the new resorts.
The 'must see' modern resorts include The Mirage, Treasure Island, New York - New York, Paris, the MGM Grand, Excalibur, the Luxor, Bellagio, the Venetian, Mandalay Bay, the Rio, Aladdin (Planet Hollywood), and Wynn Las Vegas. Two of the older resorts that pioneered the concept of 'theming' are doing very well, and are also must-see attractions. Caesars Palace still looks beautiful and up to date, even though it was built in the 60's. Circus Circus is still the very best place to go if you have kids. Add to this list the Las Vegas Hilton and the Stratosphere's spectacular observation deck, and you have visited the cream of the crop the city has to offer.
If you've never been to Las Vegas, and you've seen all the photos of the various mega-resorts, when you arrive you may be surprised at how close they are to each other - literally side-by-side. This makes it easy to get around on foot, especially given the traffic on the Strip and the hassle of dealing with the parking garages. The south end and middle of the Strip are particularly easy to walk around. At two of the busiest intersections, elevated walkways connect all the corners. The first of these is near the very south end, where the MGM Grand, New York - New York, Excalibur, and the Tropicana are located. The other is further up the Strip, where Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Bally's / Paris, and the Barbary Coast converge. You can also take the tram or double-decker busses that runs the length of the Strip.
There are short monorails from Bellagio to Monte Carlo, Excalibur to the Luxor and Mandalay Bay, and Treasure Island to the Mirage. All of these are free to everyone. On the other side on the street is a long monorail (with a small charge for its use) from The MGM Grand to Bally's, the Flamingo, Harrah's / Imperial Palace, the Las Vegas Convention Center, and the Hilton.
A number of free streetside attractions are presented in front of various Strip resorts. The Mirage has a volcano that erupts from its beautiful fountains every 15 minutes after dark. Treasure Island stages a battle between two ships every 90 minutes beginning at 5:30 p.m. The most beautiful of these shows is the water fountain show at Bellagio, every half hour from about midday through the evening (ask about the schedule when you are there). Each show is only one song, but the shows differ from half hour to half hour.
The Mirage kicked off the current era of themed mega-resorts. Inside you will find an atrium rainforest; aquarium; white tiger exhibit (free); an animal area with performing dolphins, white lions, and an elephant ($10 admission); a beautiful pool area with waterfalls; and that erupting volcano at night. The Samba Grill Brazilian steakhouse is at this resort. The adjoining Treasure Island is similar, and has the ship battles outside, plus the whimsical European-style circus, Cirque du Soleil's Mystere (somewhat expensive).
The best resort to take children to is Circus Circus. All day long there are performing circus acts above one part of the casino (there is a second floor observation area where all ages can view the shows). This resort also has the large enclosed Adventuredome amusement park, with a looping roller coaster, water flume ride, and numerous smaller rides and games. The Steak House (that's its name) is located at this casino, and an RV park is adjacent. The second best resort for children is Excalibur (operated by the same company). This newer, medieval themed resort features a motion simulator ride and a huge arcade. The buffet here is large and inexpensive. Excalibur's Tournament of Kings is a jousting show with dinner included.
The MGM Grand is the largest resort in town. It has the largest hotel in the world (5005 rooms), the largest single-room casino in the world (177,000 square feet), two shopping areas, 12 sit down restaurants plus fast foods locations, a 15,000 seat arena, large arcade, large swimming area, spa, and convention facilities. In keeping with the theme, there is a free lion habitat in the casino. There are nightclubs and showrooms, including a recreation of Studio 54. A Cirque du Soleil show performs here. Emeril Lagasse has his New Orleans Fish House here, Wolfgang Puck has a Cafe, the Brown Derby has been recreated, and the Rainforest Cafe theme restaurant is here as well. There is a very good and very large buffet. The pool area has 2 large pools and a long lazy river.
New York - New York is a particularly beautiful resort. The outside has facades of a number of New York skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge (and even tug boats spewing water jets). Also in front of the building is a dramatic looping roller coaster (entry to this is inside the resort). The side of this resort (facing Tropicana Ave. directly across from Excalibur) is striking at night, with lots of lights ala the Times Square area of New York City. Inside the casino area are recreations of New York city streets with shops. 'Coney Island' is a large arcade and midway. Upstairs you can dine on a Nathan's hot dog. (There are a number of Nathan's locations scattered around town). The famous New York bar Coyote Ugly has an outlet here. Adjacent is the ESPN Zone sports bar and restaurant, with a nifty arcade of its own. Yet another new Cirque du Soleil show, Zumanity, has opened here. This one is more adult-oriented than the others; you must be 18 to be admitted.
The Luxor is the dramatic black pyramid, with the Sphinx in front of it. A huge atrium is inside. On the second floor is an IMAX 3-D theater and motion simulator ride (with stationary seats available for the motion-sickness inclined). The Ra nightclub is also located here.
Mandalay Bay is the southernmost resort on the Strip. In back is an 11 acre water park with multiple pools, a large wave pool, and a 3/4-mile long lazy river. Shark Reef is a walk-through tunnel aquarium with sharks, rays, sea turtles, jellyfish, and crocodiles. Inside is a House of Blues theme restaurant (with great Louisiana style food), another Wolfgang Puck restaurant, the interesting Rumjungle restaurant with its wall of fire, and the Aureole restaurant with a wall of wine (visible from the entrance). This wall of wine is 42 feet tall, with 10,000 bottles, and 'wine angels' (women suspended by ropes) who retrieve the wine. Also on site is a 12,000 seat arena and a large convention center.
The new Paris hotel has beautiful themed architecture outside, highlighted by the Eiffel Tower (which you can ride to the top of), and an indoor mall of Paris streets and shops with an artificial sky above you. The casino area, located in an atrium, is particularly pretty. As you can imagine, there is good French food available at several restaurants.
Another new resort in the same vein is the Venetian, this time with Italian theming. Down the center of the indoor mall is a canal, with gondola rides available; above the mall is an artificial sky. Another Wolfgang Puck restaurant is here, as is Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse, and the Warner Brothers Stage 16 theme restaurant, with rooms decorated like famous movie sets (including Casablanca, Ocean's 11, and Batman). A motion simulator ride is located in the resort. The Sands Expo Center is a very large convention hall located behind the hotel. A new 1000 suite tower has recently opened.
Bellagio was supposedly the most expensive hotel ever constructed (at the time), at a cost of $1.8 billion. This is one of the most expensive resorts in town. Children are not allowed inside the building at all, unless they are staying there. Besides the excellent water show out front (which your kids can watch), the expensive buffet here is well regarded. Also here is another Cirque du Soleil show, 'O', featuring a water stage. This is quite expensive (tickets are $100 - $120); reserve in advance of your trip if you are interested, as this is the hardest ticket in town to obtain in spite of the prices. Rotating art exhibits are also now on display at this resort. A new Spa Tower addition is being constructed.
Steve Wynn, who developed the Mirage, Treasure Island, and Bellagio, has opened the new Wynn Las Vegas. It features 2700 rooms, 18 restaurants, shopping, a new golf course, convention facilities, a showroom with a presentation similar to the O show (not produced by Cirque du Soleil) and, what every casino needs, a Ferrari dealership. The price tag exceeded the Bellagio's.
Caesars Palace still has some of the most dramatic architecture in town, both inside and outside. This mega-resort has the best 3-D motion simulator in town, Race for Atlantis, which utilizes an IMAX sized screen. The Forum Shops is a 100 store shopping center adjoining the casino, with a projected 'sky' overhead that changes from day to night. Inside this shopping area is a huge FAO Schwartz toy store, a Virgin Megastore, and a pretty aquarium. Statues come to life in shows at both ends of the mall on the hour; the show near the aquarium is the better of the two. Five more smaller motion simulator rides and an arcade area are also here. Wolfgang Puck has a Spago restaurant in the mall, and New York City's Stage Deli is represented. A Planet Hollywood theme restaurant is on the Caesars property. Behind the resort is a beautiful swimming area, although you have to be a hotel guest to even get a good look at it. Celine Dion performs a show in a custom-built theater at Caesars; when she's not there, Elton John usually is.
The Planet Hollywood resort has an indoor shopping plaza with yet another artificial sky, but this time it rains every 30 minutes (into the central decorative pool, not onto the shoppers). The shopping mall is extensive and has different theming in each section of shops.
At the very north end of the Strip is the Stratosphere. There is a nice enough casino and shopping area here, but what stands out is the huge tower (equivalent to over 100 stories tall). Take the ride up at night, and you will be treated to an absolutely spectacular view, not only of the Strip, but of the entire city of Las Vegas. If you've ever been on an airline flight approaching a large city on a clear night, or been up to the top of a New York City skyscraper, you have some idea of the view. Above the indoor observation deck is an outdoor one. Also up here is the Top of the World restaurant.
Another new hotel on the Strip is the Monte Carlo, which has a microbrewery.
Besides the new, highly themed mega resorts, there are a number of older style casinos and hotels on the Strip. Many of these places are interesting to see, if you have the time and inclination. They include the Tropicana, Hooter's, Bally's, Flamingo (home of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe), Imperial Palace (with the excellent Legends in Concert impersonation show), Harrah's, and the flashy Riviera.
Also on the Strip is an excellent shop, M&M World. You'll find 3 levels of everything you could imagine related to M&M's. There is a very cute inexpensive ($3) 3-D movie here (with no 'motion simulation', you won't get queasy or anything). Adjacent is a large Coca-Cola merchandise shop. Located next to the MGM Grand.
Sega Gameworks is a large free-standing arcade. You can pay for a certain amount of 'time', then ride everything for free during that time. This is a great arcade (although not as good as DisneyQuest in Orlando). Also located next to the MGM Grand.
There are 2 'fun' museums, Guinness World Records on the Strip and Madame Tussaud's at the Venetian. Ghirardelli, the famous San Francisco based chocolate and ice cream shop, has 2 stores in Las Vegas.
Just off the Strip
The Las Vegas Hilton is one of the largest hotels not on the Strip. It's located on Paradise Road, which runs parallel to Las Vegas Blvd. (a few blocks east). You can't miss the sign, the largest free-standing one in the world. Note: The Flamingo hotel, on the Strip, used to be named the 'Flamingo Hilton', and many people still use that name.
The only significant cross street intersecting Las Vegas Blvd. is Flamingo Rd. Go toward I-15 and you will come to the Rio, a beautiful resort with a Mardi Gras theme. In the main casino area, a 'parade in the sky' occurs periodically through the day, where colorful costumed singers and dancers entertain. If you're lucky you will receive one of the necklaces they throw to the audience (these all have miniature dice on them). This is obviously a draw for families, and the children can watch the parade from a second story viewing area, away from the casino floor. You can even ride in the parade for a $10 fee. The Rio has the biggest and one of the best buffets in town. There are 11 stations, each with a particular style of food, including American, Chinese, Brazilian, etc. A seafood buffet is also available, and the VooDoo restaurant at the top of the tower offers Louisiana food and a great view of the city. This resort maintains a wine cellar with 7,000,000 bottles, and free tours are offered. Club Rio is a notable nightclub located here. Near the Rio is the newly opened, highly-regarded Palms resort.
The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino is part of the chain of theme restaurants. It has an interesting guitar sign out front and a very nice pool area, with swim-up blackjack, if you are staying at the resort. Adjacent to this hotel are the Alexis, St.Tropez, and the new Terrible's.
Also just off the Strip, down Tropicana Ave., is the Orleans, featuring a bowling alley, Louisiana style restaurants, and well known visiting entertainers in its showroom.
The second section of casinos in Las Vegas is the downtown area. This has been here since the start of the town. You won't find any themed mega resorts here, but the whole area has been covered by a canopy, onto which is projected a multimedia show every hour in the evening. The town's largest collection of bright flashing lights can be found here. Some of the casinos don't even have hotels attached, but they are interesting attractions nonetheless. The best casino downtown is the Golden Nugget. Down one aisle they have on display the largest gold nugget in the world (over 60 pounds). Binion's casino is also famous for its poker history, althought the World Series of Poker is no longer played here. The Plaza is the large hotel at the end of Fremont Street. To get to downtown, just stay on Las Vegas Blvd. heading north until you reach Fremont Street. There is a parking garage; most of the downtown casinos will validate for about 3 hours free parking.
A third 'street of casinos' is developing along the Boulder Highway. Here you will find nice middle class resorts such as Sam's Town (a huge bowling alley, plus a pretty atrium with an animated show throughout the day, Billy Bob's Steakhouse, and an RV park), the Boulder Station, Arizona Charlie's, and a number of other attractions stretching into the town of Henderson. Just off the Boulder Highway are 2 of the best 'locals' casinos in town. Fiesta Henderson is on Lake Mead Dr. Sunset Station, on Sunset Road, is very attractive and consistently rated one of the best casinos in town. Get to both of these via either the Boulder Highway or, a little more conveniently, I-515.
Three more casinos are located on Rancho Dr. (Business Route U.S. 95) in North Las Vegas. Texas Station and the Fiesta Rancho are adjacent; further up the road is the Santa Fe Station. The Palace Station is also on this road, adjacent to the Strip (Rancho and Sahara Ave.) Just opened in North Las Vegas, off I-15, is The Cannery, with a 1950's factory theme.
Seven casinos around town form the 'Station' franchise: the Sunset Station and Boulder Station on or near the Boulder Highway, the Palace Station, Santa Fe Station,and Texas Station on Rancho Dr, and the newer Green Valley Ranch Station and Red Rock Station casinos. The same company also owns the Fiesta Henderson and the Fiesta Rancho. All of these are nice casinos, well liked by locals. They have very good buffets, many featuring ice cream sundaes and other treats. Note the similarly named Main Street Station (just off Fremont St. downtown) is separately owned. My personal favorites in this category are the Texas, Sunset, and Green Valley Ranch locations.
Shopping centers outside the casinos include the Fashion Show Mall, 144 stores right on the Strip; Boulevard Mall, 122 stores on Maryland Avenue; Meadows, 73 stores on Valley View; Galleria in Henderson; and the Las Vegas Factory Stores and Belz Factory Outlet Malls, 100 or more stores each on Las Vegas Blvd. south of the casinos. The Las Vegas Premium Outlets center, with 100 stores, is now open near downtown. To see slot machines (old and new), game tables, cards, dice, and other gambling paraphernalia, go to the Gamblers General Store at 800 South Main St. downtown.
There are 3 large convention halls in the city. The Las Vegas Convention Center is next to the Hilton. The Sands Expo Center is behind the Venetian, and Mandalay Bay is home to the recently opened third large facility.
Two rather expensive race cars schools, the Richard Petty Driving Experience and CART Driving 101, are offered at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Plenty of nature (the dry, desert variety) lies just outside the valley. Las Vegas is surrounded on all sides by mountains, the highest of which, Mt. Charleston, is almost 12,000 feet in elevation. Take the Boulder Highway about 30 miles from town and you will come to the famous Hoover Dam, with guided tours. This gets busy; it's best to go early in the day. The Grand Canyon is 300 miles away in Arizona; bus and small plane tours are available. Over in Utah are 2 more national parks, Zion (157 miles) and Bryce Canyon (270 miles).
Three other gambling destinations are short drives from the city. Laughlin, with about 12 casinos, is 100 miles south; this is a very nice city with laid back, old-style casinos. Primm is on I-15 at the California border; three casinos and an outlet mall are located here. Inexpensive or free bus tours are available to both of these resorts. Mesquite is 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas on I-15 at the Arizona border (very near Utah), and is home to 4 casinos.
If you're looking for the hottest cocktail waitress uniforms in town, check out the Rio and Texas Station. I have also heard the Imperial Palace scores well in this regard. Of course a number of the resorts still have topless shows, notably the Riviera.
The least smoky casinos are the ones in atriums, such as the Luxor and Paris. Most Las Vegas casinos still allow smoking in their casinos, although progress has been made in shopping areas and restaurants. Most of the poker rooms are also now non-smoking.
The swimming areas at the resorts close at surprisingly early hours (to get you back into the casino?). Even in the middle of summer they usually close by 7:00 p.m. or earlier.
Getting around town: If you're in Las Vegas you should be able to find the Strip (Las Vegas Blvd.). Just look for all the really tall buildings. From a distance at night, you can also look for the bright light shining stright upwards (this is from the Luxor on the south end of the Strip). If you drive north on this road, you will eventually come to the downtown area at Fremont St. If you take Fremont in the other direction (away from the downtown casinos), it turns into the Boulder Highway. To get to Rancho Dr., turn off the Strip near the north end of the casinos onto Sahara Ave. Go west past I-15 and you will be there. Head north (a right turn) to get to the North Las Vegas casinos.
Several large companies own multiple casinos in Las Vegas. The MGM / Mirage Corporation owns the MGM Grand, New York New York, the Mirage, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur, Circus Circus, the Monte Carlo and Slots-A-Fun. Harrah's owns its namesake casino plus the Rio, Paris, Caesars Palace, Bally's, the Flamingo, Barbary Coast, O'Sheas, and the Imperial Palace. Boyd Gaming operates Sam's Town, South Coast, the Orleans, Barbary Coast, Gold Coast, Suncoast, California, Fremont, Joker's Wild, Main Street Station, and Eldorado. The Stations Casinos were mentioned above.
RV parks are available at Circus Circus and Sam's Town.
The Las Vegas area code is 702.
Visitors' Bureau web site: www.lasvegas24hours.com
Another good web site: www.vegas.com
Other Concise Guides:
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The Best of Myrtle Beach
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