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Some of it should stay in Vegas
Millions of people visit the gambling and entertainment mecca each year, and most know what to see: Bellagio's fountains, the Venetian's gondoliers, the new-and-improved Forum Shops.
But Las Vegas is loaded with bad choices too. Because the average visitor pops in for just a few days, wrong turns can be a huge waste of time and money. And nothing is more shameful in Sin City than wasting money that could instead be fed into a slot machine.
Local resident Steve Friess offers this slightly irreverent and highly subjective list of the city's seven biggest tourist pitfalls -- and proposes some underrated alternatives.
Avoid: The Stratosphere
The raison d'être of this Seattle Space Needle rip-off is to provide a bird's-eye view of the city. Trouble is, it's expensive ($9), the waits can be excruciatingly long at peak times, and there are several better vantage points on the Strip. The hotel's revolving Top of the World restaurant is a costly waste of time too with dull food and a boring view of flat terrain for much of the hour it takes to make a circle. The tower does have one thing going for it: Its thrill rides, including Insanity and the High Roller, are the city's terrifying best.
The Stratosphere, 2000 Las Vegas Blvd. S., (702) 380-7777, http://www.stratospherehotel.com .
Instead: Mix at the hotel at Mandalay Bay
This new bar-lounge on the Strip gives you everything you can see from the Stratosphere, except closer up. Plus, its $750,000 chandelier — made of 13,000 pieces of blown glass — is a spectacle in itself, as are the women's toilets and men's urinals, which stare right out over the skyline. The lounge opens at 5 nightly and is free until 10 p.m. After that, the cover charge is $20. If you're a high roller, you might want to try Mix restaurant, where entrees start at $30.
Mix at THEhotel, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S., (702) 632-7777, http://www.mandalaybay.com .
Avoid: The Casino Gold package at the Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace mainly thrives off its center-Strip location, but that's no reason to blow $170 for a weekend of tramping through a shabby casino that has a section where cards are dealt by Elvis and Michael Jackson impersonators. The Casino Gold package — which wisely replaces the Palace's notorious room-of-mirrors-everywhere offerings of years past — includes a gym day pass that's invalid on Fridays and Saturdays, passes to a buffet that's invalid for dinner and a why-bother $5 blackjack match play. The pluses: The updated deluxe rooms are more palatable, and the free passes to the auto collection are worth half an hour of fun.
Imperial Palace, 3535 Las Vegas Blvd. S., (702) 731-3311, http://www.imperialpalace.com .
Instead: The Casino package at Westin Casuarina Hotel
OK, so it's a bit more expensive than the Imperial Palace, but at $219 for a weekend night, it's still a steal when you figure you get a 24-hour buffet package, gambling lessons and a basket full of trinkets. The Westin, which boasts Heavenly Beds and Baths, is just a two-minute walk from the corner of Flamingo and the Strip, home to the Bellagio, Caesars Palace and Bally's. The Westin is the newest incarnation of what was once the Maxim. The owners have poured money into the place, turning a run-of-the-mill cafe into the surprisingly solid Silver Peak Grill. The just-opened resident show, the Strip parody "Forbidden Vegas," is a scream.
The Westin, 160 E. Flamingo Road, (702) 836-9775, http://www.westin.com .
Avoid: "The Sirens of TI" at the Treasure Island hotel
This is the recently revamped version of what was a wholesome and mildly entertaining pirate show. It has been sexed up with hot chicks to fit the "what happens here, stays here" Las Vegas theme. Trouble is, the 15-minute show, at 5:30, 7, 8:30 and 10 nightly, is dumb and a major pain to watch. In order to see anything, you have to find a place outside Buccaneer Bay at least 20 minutes ahead of time, and still there is no good vantage point to take in the whole thing.
Treasure Island, 3300 Las Vegas Blvd S., (702) 894-7111, http://www.treasureisland.com .
Instead: The Fremont Street Experience
Yes, it's downtown, which loses points with lots of Vegas-goers. But aside from the Bellagio's fountains, the best free spectacle in town is the astonishing, clever light show projected onto the underside of a four-block-long metal canopy that arches over a pedestrian mall. Last year, the Experience enjoyed a $17-million upgrade to LED, making it one of the largest LED displays in the world. Shows are at the top of the hour, from nightfall until midnight.
Fremont Street Experience, 425 Fremont St., (702) 678-5777, http://www.vegasexperience.com .
Avoid: Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden at the Mirage Hotel
Why pay good money — $12 if you're over 10, free for kids 9 and younger — to listen to an audio tour narrated by the now-defunct illusionist duo that tells what great conservationists they are? Sure, you get to see the royal white tigers they once used in their show, but it's hard to forget the reason they don't do a show anymore is because one of these cuddly cats went haywire in 2003 and snacked on Roy's neck. Somehow, despite the zoo's effort to present realism, there's no note at all of that incident and it's a bit of a touchy subject when you broach it with the animal handlers.
Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S., (702) 791-7111, http://www.themirage.com .
Instead: The Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo Las Vegas
Enjoy the lighthearted antics of pink Chilean flamingos and endangered African penguins as they leisurely stroll around islands amid tranquil waterfalls. Australian black swans, helmeted guinea fowl and various ducks join the menagerie at this free attraction. The two islands are surrounded by fresh water where colorful koi swim along with 25-pound green-gray grass carp and yellow albino channel catfish. Visitors can gawk at it all from footbridges.
Flamingo Las Vegas, 3555 Las Vegas Blvd. S., (702) 733-3111, http://www.flamingolasvegas.com .
Avoid: Elvis-a-Rama Museum
It's even worse than it sounds. This ugly strip-mall storefront behind the Fashion Show Mall supposedly has $5 million in Presley junk owned by the self-styled King of Elvis Memorabilia, Chris Davidson. The most impressive piece, the blue suede shoes, was on loan to Elvis-a-Tokyo or some such when I visited. Now, seriously, does the Louvre lend the "Venus de Milo"? Worse yet are the shows — and the entrance fee forces you to pay for them. Your choice at the door is $14.95 plus tax for a bad Elvis show or $22 plus tax for a bad Elvis show and tour of the museum. Our show featured a fat 'n' lazy Las Vegas Elvis, who shook his hips only once and whose voice was processed through some sort of Elvis-a-phone.
Elvis-a-Rama, 3401 Industrial Road, (702) 309-7200, http://www.elvisarama.com .
Instead: Liberace Museum
Once as painfully tacky as Elvis-a-Rama, this off-Strip tribute to the man who invented over-the-top Vegas camp is now a respectable and seriously curated presentation. In wandering from room to room, guests learn about the Liberace legend — and the place rhinestone-encrusted grand pianos and 50-pound feather costumes had in creating it.
Liberace Museum, 1775 E. Tropicana Ave., (702) 798-5595, http://www.liberace.org . Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, noon-4 p.m. Sundays; $12.50 adults, $8.50 seniors and students, free for kids younger than 10.
6. STAR VEHICLES
Avoid: Celine Dion's "A New Day
It's not that it's a terrible show. Well, it was when it opened in 2003, but it's refined itself since then and Celine looks better and chest-thumps less. But her music is so relaxing that it fails to deliver the jolt of energy that Vegas theater is supposed to give. And Celine is such a good singer that it sounds flawlessly like her records, which everybody already owns. Watching her sing can be a letdown in another way too: You start wondering what this woman — she of the perfect marriage and motherhood — could know about the sort of sadness and desperation of "I Drove All Night" or "It's All Coming Back to Me."
Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (877) 423-5463, http://www.celinedion.com . Shows 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; tickets $87.50-$225.
Instead: Clint Holmes
By far the hardest-working and underrated showman on the Strip, Clint is a Sammy Davis Jr. protégé who rocks to some of the oldies as well as his own creations. He performs before a 12-piece band, telling his fascinating life story as the son of a white British opera star and a black American jazz musician who met during World War II. His mother, now in her late 80s, sometimes shows up and joins him for a number. The most amusing part is when Clint plays his own Top 10 hit from the early 1970s, the novelty tune "Playground in My Mind" (with the lyric "My name is Michael"). Yeah, that's the guy.
Harrah's Las Vegas, 3475 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (800) 392-9002, Ext. 5222, http://www.harrahs.com . Shows 7:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; tickets are $59.95.
Avoid: "We Will Rock You"
Several musicals have come to Vegas recently from Broadway or are coming soon. This one went directly from London to Vegas without a New York stop, and here's why: It's horrible. Possibly the dumbest, least engaging production I've seen in my decade in Vegas. "We Will Rock You" is set in a futuristic world in which music is banned and rebels are trying to overthrow the leather-loving evil queen. The Queen music is fine, but the script goes to great lengths to canonize Freddie Mercury and, in the process, cheapens his memory.
By contrast, "Mamma Mia!" at the Mandalay Bay never explicitly acknowledges its Abba roots because everybody already knows it and the storyline is fun, even if you're not an Abba fan.
But the writing in "We Will Rock You" is terrible, and there's a lot of real talent on that stage that is wasted.
Paris Las Vegas, 3655 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (877) 796-2096, http://www.playcaesars.com . Shows at 7 and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. other days, dark Thursdays. Tickets $53-$113.50.
Instead: "Don Arden's Jubilee!"
This venerable 23-year-old Las Vegas classic is old-school and modern all at once. It's a garish parade of leggy women in mammoth headdresses accompanied by buff male dancers in cheesy skits such as "Samson and Delilah" and "Titanic."
The music is fun, but it's the eye-popping ensemble of dancers, occasionally topless, in Bob Mackie couture that enthralls. Plus now they have a worthwhile one-hour backstage walking tour at 2 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays that costs $10 with the purchase of a show ticket. You're guided by one of the showgirls, who shows off the 75-pound head gear they balance each night.
Bally's Hotel-Casino, 3645 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (800) 237-7469, http://www.ballyslasvegas.com . Shows at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m., except Fridays; tickets $58-$74.