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Las Vegas - More than Just a Place to Gamble
By Charles Shugart Jr.
Located 300 miles or more from any other large city—and those miles being the beautiful but imposing raw deserts of the American southwest—Las Vegas is the preeminent city of paradoxes. It is called with varying terms of endearment (or disdain) Sin City, the Entertainment Capital of the World, Lost Wages, Garden of Neon, and City without Clocks. No matter what you call it, Las Vegas is built around gambling, or—as those in the industry choose to call it—gaming. But it was not always so. Several thousand years ago, freshwater springs attracted the earliest Native Americans. In the blistering desert heat, drinking water was a valuable resource. It still is.
As explorers and settlers moved farther westward, the Spanish Trail through the Las Vegas area became a desirable route to California. Later, the Mormons used it for their treks from Salt Lake City to California, and by the middle of the 19th Century, they had established a farming community in Las Vegas Valley. The town of Las Vegas was founded in 1905; the same year the railroad connecting Southern California to Salt Lake came through the then sleepy farming valley.
The growth of Las Vegas during those early years was slow. If it weren’t for the freshwater springs it’s doubtful if the city would ever have appeared on the map in the first place because it is surrounded by incredibly hostile desert. The term “Liquid Gold” didn’t refer to oil in those days; it referred to water, the one essential for life in the desert.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
After some false starts at establishing legalized gambling in Las Vegas, the breakthrough came in 1931 as a way to acquire money for public schools (through taxes). There was also the construction of Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam) during the terrible years of the Great Depression. Those thousands of jobs kept the Las Vegas economy steady, although World War II again slowed things down. After the war ended, the phenomenon of big entertainment and even bigger hotels began.
But the hotels were constructed for one reason—to attract people to the gambling casinos that were being built at the same time.
The whole casino/resort hotel/entertainment scene that is the essence of Las Vegas is one of fantasy. And it is done remarkably well. Glitz and glitter predominate. Come the hours of darkness and Las Vegas Boulevard becomes “The Strip,” with millions of flashing, brightly colored lights adding to the illusion. A couple million lights also flicker on in Old Town—Freemont Street. Vegas at night is hard to resist.
Among the world-class entertainment offered by the multitudes of hotel-casino resorts are: Cirque du Soleil (done to classic Beatles’ songs in one venue, and in a 1.5 million gallon water tank in another venue), An Evening at Le Cage (female impersonators of performers such as Joan Rivers, Cher, Madonna, and Michael Jackson), the Folies Bergere (based on the Paris show and still running in Vegas for more than 40 years), Legends in Concert (talented performers impersonating celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Liberace), Phantom of the Opera, and other quality shows.
There are also live performances given by world-famous singers, comedians and magicians such as Bette Midler, Tony Bennett, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Lance Burton. New York City, Hollywood, London and Paris might argue about Las Vegas being the Entertainment Capital of the World, but no one can dispute the fact that it’s a contender.
CLASSIC CARS, ART…AND MORE
In addition to casino gaming and big-show entertainment, Las Vegas offers other distractions as well. The Imperial Palace Hotel has one of the world’s greatest collections of antique and classic automobiles. Because they buy and sell vehicles, the selection changes from time to time, but it is always first rate.
Bellagio has an art gallery that features painting and sculpture treasures from around the world—both traveling exhibits and works of art from their own collection.
The Guggenheim and Hermitage Museum offers many of the finest art examples from the Guggenheim in New York City and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. You might want to visit the Liberace Museum to see his piano collection, jewelry, costumes and cars. A Liberace imitator gives recitals, reminding us all of the man’s talent. Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum is always good for a couple of hour’s diversion, unless the air-conditioning breaks down and the museum temperature soars to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Siegfried and Roy no longer perform, but their work with saving the endangered white lions can be discovered and appreciated at their Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. Star Trek, the Experience lets visitors travel at warp speed aboard the Enterprise to do battle with the Klingons.
The Stratosphere is an 1149-foot tall tower that offers thrilling rides at the top—looking straight down to the street. If driving your motorhome during Los Angeles rush hour traffic doesn’t provide you with enough thrills, you may want to sample “Insanity: the Ride.”
Although theater productions and museums charge admission, many of the most spectacular sights and events along The Strip are free for the strolling. Bellagio has a bit of northern Italy for the visitor. Lake Como seems to have been reduced to 11 acres and shipped to Las Vegas, with fountains and water shows helping to capture our interest. And it certainly did; within the first 20 days of the resort’s opening, more than one million people came to take a look.
Caesar’s Palace was the first themed hotel/casino, but it has kept pace with all the newcomers. I mean, a giant statue of Julius Caesar trying to hail a taxi can’t be all bad. There’s much more than that bit of humor, of course. The Forum has dozens of first-rate shops for the discerning buyer, plus 18 fountains and classically-styled statues of Venus, Apollo, Neptune, and my personal favorite, a slightly tipsy Bacchus. The Collosseum Theater seats 4,000 (Christians and lions are kept separate at all times).
The Excaliber is built around a medieval theme, with a dinner show featuring jousting matches and sword fighting, plus a hearty feast served by lovely wenches. At the Luxor you’ll find the world’s only gigantic black-glass pyramid, fronted by a huge Sphynx. Never mind that the real Sphynx and pyramids are not in Luxor, Egypt, but several hundred miles north, on the outskirts of Cairo.
The MGM Grand calls itself the “City of Entertainment.” And, like the other mega casino-resorts, it really does feature famous and talented performers. It also has a casino the size of four football fields and a bronze statue of the MGM Lion that weighs in at a hefty 100,000 pounds. No college pranksters are likely to steal that cat.
New York, New York gives visitors an idea of the famous skyline, plus the Statue of Liberty (150 feet tall), and the Brooklyn Bridge (300 feet long). The casino reminds people of Central Park at night (without the muggings. The casino has other ways to take your money).
Paris, Las Vegas style, has the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, the Opera House, Champs Elyses (the famous boulevard), the Louvre, and the Seine River. At Treasure Island, you’ll find a South Seas motif with palm trees, a wooden gangplank, and pirates doing battle with drawn sabers. The Venetian has the Grand Canal, Piazza San Marco, Doge’s Palace and gondola rides.
WHEN YOU GO
RV camping info: Las Vegas offers numerous camping opportunities: from deluxe resorts and Casino RV parks in the city, to plain old campgrounds in outlying regions. Nearby options are Boulder City and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Weather: Summers are blisteringly hot, the same as in other southwest desert locations. Winters can be cold and windy. Spring and autumn are best, with temperatures typically in the 70s or 80s.
Just remember, there is so much to see and do in “Vegas,” you had better set aside a few days for your visit, or you may not have time enough to gamble. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.