There is another section of this blog concerned with excursions out of Vegas itself – see Excursions from Vegas. This post is concerned with what you can do inside the city limits, other than gamble, eat or drink. When I say city limits I mean either accessible from The Strip or Downtown. I’m not including shopping since that is dealt with elsewhere – see Outlet Malls within the Different Areas of Las Vegas post and anyway, those who are dedicated shoppers seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to going about their business. Notice I didn’t restrict that comment just to ladies…..
I like to break ‘things do in Vegas’ down into two categories:
- Stuff in casinos
- Stuff outside of casinos
- THINGS TO DO OUTSIDE OF CASINOS
It’s not truly an excursion as you can walk there without much difficulty but you can’t visit Vegas without watching and listening to the wonderful fountains located between The Strip and Bellagio. You Tube and other such sites are littered with tourist videos, some of which are very well shot, but nothing compares to a live performance, preferably after dark. The fountains perform every half hour during the afternoon and early evening (on the hour and half hour) and then every fifteen minutes for the rest of the evening.
The show is free, the problem is getting a good pitch to watch from. Assuming you don’t have a fountain view suite at the hotel itself the number one viewing location is on the pavement between The Strip and the fountains. Get close to the perimeter fence, as central as possible and hold on to your place once you’ve secured it as there will be a lot of competition! When the show starts they’ll be watching and videoing several deep behind you.
If you wait around at the end of an evening performance you’ll find that the folks who watched the last show gradually melt away and you can slip into their positions for the next show. The show runs for five minutes or so. If you can’t get a good pitch along The Strip you can get a good view from the side by taking the walkway around the lake opposite the Paris balloon. This isn’t as good as the full on frontal view (what is) but there are more spaces to be had here at busy times.
Along similar lines to the fountains, the eruption of the Mirage volcano is another popular free attraction. It’s not in the same league as the fountain show but two or three times an evening the eruption is both a noisy and very warm distraction. Again, the best vantage point in the pavement between the Strip and the volcano which you can’t miss sitting just to the Venetian side of the Mirage’s main entrance.
You can ‘watch’ from behind as a walkway goes all the way around the lake and volcano island but your view will be considerably restricted if you stand this side. You will however still be able to hear the sounds and feel the intense warmth when the gas jets get into full swing. A couple of times I’ve been eating in Denny’s, on the other side of The Strip when the eruption has been taking place. Not only does the noise make the double glazing shake but you can feel the heat inside the buildings opposite.
The eruption now sadly takes place only two or three times a night, usually at eight, nine and sometimes ten pm. It used to be every half hour approximately from dusk until about midnight. MGM have seen fit to reduce the number of eruptions for operational reasons. It’s a shame since the eruptions have been more or less daily since 1989 but at least there seem to be no plans to reduce the number of fountain shows just down the road. Obviously the two shows can be combined in one evening.
The pirate battle outside Treasure Island was a third popular free show that could be combined into an evening’s entertainment but sadly that show closed in 2013 when the property changed hands and there don’t appear to be plans to resurrect it.
That’s pretty much the free stuff on the Strip done, now, what can you pay to do away from the casinos? The following suggestions do not appear in any particular order:
The High Roller
Just as London has the Eye, Vegas has the High Roller. It’s very similar in appearance but bigger and is situated at the rear of The Linq, a Caesars’ property between Harrahs and Flamingo on the East side of The Strip. A full revolution takes half an hour. Each cabin takes up to forty persons. It’s not cheap at $27 during the day and $37 at night (as of 1/16) but you can also buy your way into a Happy Cabin where you can drink unlimited beer and mixed drinks. I have friends who were pleased this was the option they selected! The phrase Happy Cabin has also taken on a new meaning.
Some say the High Roller was a very expensive mistake on the part of Harrahs. It’s still early days though and the jury is out. My grievance is that, like the monorail, it was built at the back of the properties. You therefore have some good views of parking lots and back roads as well as the great vistas over the Strip rooftops and those in the other direction towards the Hard Rock Casino and beyond. One advantage is that it’s only a short walk from the monorail station to the High Roller entrance.
When I’ve stayed at Harrahs and The Linq I’ve had excellent views of the High Roller from my suite. It puts on a good light show itself after dark. If any passengers have caught a glimpse of me watching naked from my hotel room I honestly didn’t know you could see into the room from that far away!
Freemont Street Experience and the Zipwire
Downtown for one now. Freemont Street, at the heart of Downtown Vegas, is largely pedestrianised and covered by a high sweeping roof structure. Not to keep the rain off as it hardly ever rains but to carry the impressive Viva Vision free light show. This is worth a look in itself after dark from about 8pm until midnight depending on the time of year. There are a variety of different light shows so it’s not always the same thing.
A recent addition is the Slotzilla zip line. Not for the remotely faint-hearted there are two ‘levels’ of wires. The lower ones (a mere 77 feet up) will take you half way along Freemont Street (which sounds bad enough to me) while the higher ones (at 114 feet above ground) will take you the entire length which is, apparently, 1,750 feet! These cost $25 and $45 respectively with cheaper rates in the afternoon (as of 1/16).
I’ve spoken to several people who’ve adopted different riding techniques. One, it seems, is to close your eyes and scream all the way down. Another is to lie flat, arms outstretched and to glide like a bird. You pay your money and take your choice I guess. I haven’t yet seen a flyer vomit over the crowd below yet but it surely must have happened!
There’s often free live music on Freemont Street. The downside for me is the number of rather tacky souvenir shops, stalls and booths and the crowds can sometimes be substantial in the evenings with a bit of jostling and drunken behaviour an inevitable consequence. Watch out for pickpockets.
The Mob Museum is only a couple of blocks away from Freemont Street near the Downtown Grand (the former Lady Luck) and is worth a visit. It’s open from mid morning until early evening. Follow the link to its website for more information. Ignoring the casinos themselves, that’s about it for Downtown although, as you walk around, make sure you look up at the fascias where you’ll see some of the classic old-Vegas neon lights and signs that have helped make the place so famous.
Skydiving (well, almost)
No, I haven’t gone mad, a fun alternative for the more bodily able is some indoor skydiving, yes, indoor. Located just off the Las Vegas Strip, south of what used to be the Riviera Hotel & Casino on Convention Center Drive why not try this if you’d like the sensation of floating under a parachute but aren’t dumb enough to throw yourself out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane?
Here’s the link – again it’s not exactly cheap starting from about $75 but how often are you going to be able to do this?
Make my day, punk
Ever fancy firing some fancy weapons? One of the biggest growth areas in Vegas entertainment is the gun range. Love them or hate them they seem to be here to stay and are very popular attractions. There are several to choose from close to The Strip reachable by car or a short taxi ride including:
This isn’t an exhaustive list – email and send me cash in an unmarked envelope if you want your facility to be added to the list!
You just won’t believe the choice of guns there are to shoot from very modern stuff to some real antiques, single shot to semi and full automatic. Again, this isn’t the cheapest afternoon out (it’s the ammunition apparently) but you should be able to get away at least 60 rounds for under $100.
Open top bus tours
You can do it in London so, of course, you can do it in Vegas! What’s more you aren’t as likely to get wet. Hop on, night tours and others for a very leisurely crawl along The Strip (have you seen the traffic) – here’s the link. Have to admit I’ve never done it myself as I’ve already seen it all but you can undoubtedly see much better from a true double decker than you would be able to from The Deuce and, as I’ve told you before, the monorail is at the back of the buildings and you can’t see very much at all from back there.
2. THINGS TO DO IN CASINOS
As a rule of thumb activities within a particular casino or hotel are not restricted to people staying in those hotels. There may be instances where a fee is waived or reduced for residents but, in general, if you’re prepared to pay then it’s open season for all.
There can’t be many hotel casinos in Vegas which don’t have some attraction peculiar to them. I can’t think of a better way to do this so I’m going to work my way along The Strip and tell you about those I’ve experienced or know about:
Let’s start at the Southern end with that gleaming golden edifice that is the Mandalay Bay. The Shark Reef Aquarium is quite simply a huge magnificent aquarium, exhibition and series of exhibits that puts many specialist worldwide aquaria to shame. I would unhesitatingly advise that you visit; last time my wife visited Vegas with me she even went twice! It’s quite a long walk around as the place is vast so don’t waste your energy walking to the end of The Strip. Take a cab or ride the free monorail from Excalibur.
If you’re willing to stump up the cash you can even swim with the sharks. No, not an old-style Vegas organised crime hit, bit actually getting into the tank! Let’s hope the inhabitants don’t take ‘stumping’ out of context. Check with the venue as I believe this option can get booked up long in advance and I also think it used to be available only to hotel patrons.
If standing inside a giant pyramid isn’t enough in itself there are two featured exhibitions to visit: Titanic Artifacts and Bodies. The former is self evident; the latter showcases real full-bodies and organs, providing a detailed, three-dimensional vision of the human form rarely seen outside of an anatomy lab. So says the description. A little squeamish in places but good to combine with the Titanic exhibition which has over 250 authentic artifacts. Good luck selling that to the kids.
What else would you expect from a hotel themed around a strange mixture of a mock olde English castle and something out of Disneyland but jousting and sword fighting? Bring on the Tournament of Kings. I’ve done a few of these medieval banquet things around the globe but I never expected to take part in one in the bowels of a hotel in the desert! Horses, lances, swords, pyrotechnics and a three course dinner combined using pretend olde worldy utensils. Without doubt the best thing about Excalibur.
New York New York
This has to be the craziest looking casino hotel on The Strip comprising a selection of vistas from the Big Apple. See which ones you can spot. The photograph also gives you a clue as to my recommendation: The Big Apple Coaster. Roller coasters come in all shapes and sizes but how many do you know that wrap themselves around a hotel?
The ride operates about twelve hours a day. It’s not cheap at $14 a pop but day passes are available and various deals can often be had. Beware there is a minimum height restriction of 54 inches but the location alone warrants a visit. There can be queues depending on the day and time of year.
My daughter was heartbroken when the lions left. Yes, you read me right, one of the main attractions of the MGM Grand was an internal lion enclosure featuring a glass / perspex tunnel you could pass through to get a good look at the lions. This all flowed from the logo of the film company Metro Goldwyn Mayer being that roaring lion. The lions didn’t live on site 24/7 but were transported in and then back home on a daily basis to a ranch about nineteen miles away. This lasted from 1999 until 2012. They may be gone but the statue of Leo the Lion outside remains the largest bronze in the entire USA.
Why am I telling you what used to be the main attraction at the MGM Grand? Simply, it’s the third biggest hotel in the entire world with an amazing 5,044 rooms (not including the addition of further towers of condos and specialist suites) but it is, to my mind, a rather dull place with little in the way of an ongoing noticeable theme and is, simply too big. There is CSI: The Experience – an interactive experience based on the eponymous TV show of the same name but I haven’t tried it so I can’t pass on an opinion.
Aria is glorious to look at as one of the newest and most expensive properties on The Strip should be given, also, that it and the remainder of the City Centre development nearly brought down the MGM Group. Outside of shows however there’s little to tell you about (and we’re not dealing with shows here).
Strangely if you visit the Aria website you’ll be told about the new T Mobile Arena that’s in the final stages of construction. Strange in that the site is really between New York New York and Monte Carlo and actually has little to do with Aria except MGM ownership. Rumours abound that the intention is to bring an ice hockey franchise to Vegas. If that’s true it would indeed be an excursion to consider but, to date, the various mainstream sport administering bodies like the NFL have steadfastly refused to come to Vegas because of concerns about related gambling. Watch this space!
Since writing this there have been moves to build a new football stadium for UNLV that might and I stress might finally bring an NFL franchise to the city – see my post.
I used to love the Aladdin then it became Planet Hollywood. True the Aladdin had become really shabby but it was good for a poker competition. Now the two noteworthy attractions at Planet Hollywood are the Miracle Mile Shops (not a matter for this blog I hear you shout) and the Flowrider. Surfing and boarding could not be further from my mind but have a look at the photograph and you can see what it’s about. I think they pump lots of water upwards so you can ride as if you were in/on the surf. It looks expensive to me but this is an area where I have little idea what I’m talking about so you must judge for yourself.
I’m going to save most of my comments about Bellagio for the Where to Stay and Poker blog entries. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the fountains and there’s surprisingly little to add given the size of the property. There is however a Gallery of Fine Art, there is The Conservatory and the Courtyards to wander around – all entirely in keeping with what is probably the most pretentious venue in Las Vegas.
You can’t possibly miss it. Remember when a rich American bought London Bridge and transported it brick by brick to Arizona (allegedly thinking he’d bought Tower Bridge instead)? Wait, someone’s done the same with the Eiffel Tower!
No, not really, the Vegas one is only a half scale model. You can ride a glass elevator up near to the top for great views and there’s a restaurant up there too. Personally I’m quite happy just to look at it and not pay the entry fee but that’s just me. There’s also a replica of the Arc de Triomphe and the Montgolfier balloon on site to gawp at. The Arc de Triomphe is a two thirds size scale copy by the way!
Nope, move on.
Flamingo is my daughter’s favourite Vegas hotel. I know, I’ve disowned her. Maybe she just likes pink? What it does have is The Wildlife Habitat. Mandalay Bay this is not but there are 15-acres of lush grounds stocked with exotic birds, fish and turtles including Flamingo Island, home to a huge flock of Chilean flamingos. The pool complex at Flamingo is one of the better ones on The Strip so some of you may consider that this does make a rather refreshing change from the commercialism and kerrrchinggg (is that how you spell it?) of The Strip.
On a similar theme, Mirage was my hotel of choice for a while. The Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat are superb outdoor wildlife attractions. I’m going to quote from the website as I couldn’t put it better: ‘Come face-to-face with some of nature’s most exotic and majestic creatures at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. Explore, learn and play in an enchanting world of Bottlenose Dolphins, White Tigers, White Lions and Leopards, right in our backyard’.
By way of a little further explanation, from 1990 until 2003, Siegfried & Roy performed a very popular stage show at the Mirage. Roy suffered a career-ending injury when he was allegedly attacked by a tiger involved in their show (there is some dispute whether it was actually a tiger attack or a stroke; the two are easily confused, I admit). Whichever it was, Roy being unable to return to showbusiness, the pair now run the menagerie that is the Secret Garden.
The Dolphin habitat is well worth the visit and, just like Shark Reef at the Mandalay Bay really puts some specialist locations around the world to shame. A must visit in my opinion. Beware the heat in the Summer – this is an outdoor exhibit with limited shade so take lots of water, sun protection and appropriate clothing – your string bikini alone will not suffice.
The Venetian / Palazzo
Now we’re talking! Sorry, I’m biased, but this is the best place in town on so many fronts, not least the very cold air conditioning. Technically it’s not really part of the hotel itself but immediately next door is a smaller than London but perfectly presentable version of Madame Tussaud’s. Not much more I can say about that as the brand is world-famous.
What is really unique however is that The Venetian also boasts its own canal network just like Venice! I say like Venice but it’s actually much cleaner and a lot less smelly and, if you drag your hand sensually through the water here you don’t expect to come up with something that belongs in a sewage farm (as has been known in the place itself).
You can take your loved one on a romantic gondola ride, partly outside (conditions permitting) but mainly inside, weaving its way amongst the Grand Canal Shoppes. Complete with singing gondoleer in his or her striped uniform they even parade the gondoleers through the property at shift change time, singing in Italian and clapping enthusiastically which is a nice touch – much to the confusion of some visitors.
It’s $21 each or $84 for the whole gondola (as of 1/16) plus gratuities for the poor man or women who has to punt you along (I think I may have spied a tiny propellor underneath to assist) but, hopeless romantic that I am, I think this is well worth it. There are long lines in the busy periods but you can phone in. Another definite choice!
Wynn / Encore
Every evening from dusk to 11.30 there is a ‘show’ at The Lake of Dreams, complete with its 40-foot waterfall and pine-topped mountain this is described as a spectacle of music and imagery created by over four thousand lights, stunning holographics and puppetry. OK. There used to be a brilliant car collection including, I think I’m right, a genuine Ferrari dealership on site. Sadly, like Elvis, this appears to have left the building.
I have a friend who won’t stay anywhere else but I still don’t understand why as ‘The Strat’ is pretty much halfway to Downtown and neither fish nor fowl – not really Strip quality but not in Downtown either. What you will have noticed as you flew into town however was its enormous Tower standing tall at 1,149 feet like an inverted onion bulb. The second tallest tower in the Western hemisphere, it features an observation deck and a superb revolving restaurant at the top – totally out of kilter with the remainder of the property at and around the base of the tower.
What Stratosphere has successfully done, with the exception of the roller coaster at New York New York, is to corner the market in thrill rides. There are four ‘rides’ for the loonies among you to attempt:
- Sky Jump – believe it or not you’re harnessed up and you jump off the tower (as in the photo)
- Big Shot – they put four of you on a thing like a park bench then shoot you way up into the air leaving you to fall back to earth
- Insanity (damn right) – a giant, revolving mechanical arm that hangs over the edge of the tower and
- X Scream – you sit in a metal cart which catapults over the edge of the tower then dangles in thin air!
Mental the lot of you, wouldn’t catch me near any of them but I realise I’m not typical and this is the ideal excursion for some of you and fair play to Stratosphere for developing this section of the market.
Finally an honourable mention for Downtown in the shape of the Golden Nugget. They recently pumped a fortune into this aging casino hotel making it, without doubt, the leading Downtown property in many respects. Again, it’s not Mandalay Bay but there is another large Shark Tank and the pool (for humans) is one of the coolest in town incorporating a giant viewing window into the Shark Tank itself.