Monday, October 30, 2006

Around the Strip Casinos

OK, back to Vegas topics. I wrote about things to do around the area, then on the strip, today we’ll discuss my views of the big strip casinos. Remember – these are my impressions of the place, even though we’ve been here for a few years I still haven’t been into all the casinos, or know all the hidden (or probably very visible) corners of each property. These are just places that I like to walk through and take visitors to.

When going down to the Strip I divide it up into three pieces. Las Vegas Boulevard is rather long and it is just a little too far to hit every place during one trip. Besides, it’s nicer to walk slowly and look at where you are, then go again to another section. My pieces are also divided up by where we park: locals know not to drive on Las Vegas Boulevard, so I look for the parking garages that can be reached from the back access roads. Each of these sections create a walk that takes anywhere from four to six hours, depending on how slowly you go, what you look at, and how often you stop and sit. We usually walk slowly, stop a lot, and look at everything. Since we live here there is no rush to see everything in one day. Even if giving tours to visitors we spread it out over several days.

1. Driving in from the west we head down Desert Inn Road, and there is a nice off ramp that winds us right into the parking garage for the Fashion Show Mall. There is lots of parking, I can grab a Starbucks first to get me moving, and if hungry we can hit one of the restaurants there. This is our base for hitting the north end casinos, which include Wynn’s, TI, Mirage, Caesar’s, and the Venetian.
2. If we say on DI, which is the only east/west street that doesn’t have a light on the strip but goes underneath it, we come to Paradise Road, which runs on the east side of the strip down to the airport. Turning south on this we can get to the parking garage of the Aladdin, which is also the Desert Passage shopping center. This is a little different mall, laid out to look like walkways through a foreign city – that is now, as the Aladdin has been sold to the Hard Rock group and it might change. This is our starting point for mid strip properties, including the Aladdin, Paris, Bally’s and the Bellagio.
3. Instead of taking DI we can go down Twain, and follow the path I take to work every day. This leads to Frank Sinatra Drive, which runs along side I-15 just to the west of the Strip casinos. Following this I can get into the Mandalay Bay or Luxor parking garages. We start here for our south Strip foray, which includes Mandalay Bay, the Luxor, Excalibur, Tropicana, MGM Grand and New York New York.
4. Can’t forget about downtown and the old section of the city off of the Strip. We like to go there at night, when the big signs that are seen in all the movies are lit up and the show is overhead at the Freemont Street Experience. Here we park at the Gold Nugget parking garage, and get a stamp in the casino – all parking downtown costs, while the strip parking is free.

Here is a picture I cut out of the paper a few years ago, I keep this handy to remind me where everything is.

There are a number of casinos that are not on my usual tour, because they are not really convenient to walk through and are rather older. These are the more northern places, like Circus Circus, the Stardust (which is about to be torn down), the Riviera, the Sahara and the Stratosphere. Circus Circus is interesting to hit, just to see all the activities available for the kids. It also seems to always have really grimy carpets, from all of the candy and treats that the kids seem to drop and walk over. The Stratosphere might be a destination just to go up in the tower. You can hit the rides up there (too high for me for a ride) or the revolving restaurant. It’s not rated as one of our best for food quality, but you can’t beat the view. The Sahara is the center for Nascar, so those racing fans among you might like to stop. The Hilton is off by itself to the east, a place to go if you are into Star Trek.

So, considering that those three parking garages are my starting points, here are the paths I take and the things to see as we walk.

For the north, we wander the Fashion Show Mall, looking at the shops and perhaps seeing one of the fashion shows that occur throughout the day. Then out and across the bridge to TI. This used to be known as Treasure Island, originally one of the first big themed hotels built by Steve Wynn. It used to be all pirates inside, with skulls and bones, the waitresses in pirate outfits with short skirts, a really big arcade for the kids and the classic pirate ship battle out front. It’s been converted back to an adult resort, with some fancy ‘ultra lounges’ overlooking the lagoon out front. The pirate battle has even been changed to the Sirens of TI, with scantily clad young women. It’s still interesting to watch – the battles happen hourly each evening, schedules changing with the seasons (posted out front). TI is also the home for Mystere, the first Cirque du Soleil show on the strip.

You can then either walk over or take the tram to the Mirage. Here you should go past the registration desk, and see the first huge salt water fish tank behind the check in counters. The theme of this casino is more jungle, interesting to walk through. Also the site of Sigfried and Roy’s big cats and exhibits.

Next down the strip is Caesar’s Palace. Coming from the Mirage you pass their big lake and erupting volcano. You first come upon the entrance to the shopping mall. Enter here and you will find a grand entrance – with the circular escalators leading up to the top level, where you have to go to get to the rest of the mall. See the expensive shops, and perhaps some celebrities shopping. Stop at one of the shops for a coffee or soda and sit at an outside table (well, not outside outside but outside of the shop on the mall) and watch people. By now your feet will start to hurt and it is a good time for a short rest. Proceed through all of the arms of the mall, looking for the big fish tank and the talking statues. There are several circular courts where there are periodic shows. You might come upon Anthony and Cleopatra and their Roman Legion guards walking through; stop them for a photo op.

Then end up at the casino itself. There are several really fancy restaurants around Caesar’s, you might hit one for lunch if you feel rich. The casino has been upgraded recently, it used to be one of the old classic style casinos, but the ceilings have been raised giving it a different feel. Exit out the main entrance and work your way south through the courtyard, perhaps stopping here for another drink at the outdoor bar (really outside this time).

If you really feel like walking you can continue over the bridge south to the Bellagio, but we usually cross over to the east side of the strip and pass by the Barbary Coast and the Flamingo. This is the site of Jimmy Buffet’s Cheeseburgers In Paradise restaurant/bar, and where I would suggest you have lunch. If the weather is nice you can ask for an outdoor table, or just hit the top level outside bar and look across at Caesar’s. Sitting in the main room to eat is an experience, with the entertainers and erupting volcano.

Continuing north you pass the Imperial Palace and Harrah’s, which are older and I just quickly wander through. You then come upon the Venetian. Like Caesar’s, there is a large shopping mall (not as large, but nice stores) but this one is upstairs along side the Grand Canal. You can watch the gondoliers floating by, they all sing a little song at the turn around point which you come to first. Wandering around you eventually come to St. Mark’s Square. Grab an ice cream cone or drink and sit again and watch the entertainment. Take a boat ride if you want to – there are also boat rides out front if the weather is warm. Take the escalator down to the casino level and wander some more. There is a good restaurant here, not fancy but the Grand Lux Café has a good menu and another nice place for lunch or not really expensive dinner.

Outside again, past the front lagoon and construction site for the new tower you cross the bridge over to Wynn’s. Here you walk through the trees, past the waterfall into another short shopping mall. These stores are really high end and $$$$. There is a nice ice cream parlour near the entrance, a place to sit either when you go in or you leave. You can walk past the stores and have a drink at the up and down bar, overlooking the lagoon. Wander around inside – we still haven’t made it to the main shops farther inside the casino. The coffee shop off the casino is another nice place for a sandwich. If you’re into cars you might stop at the Ferrari dealership and look at what a quarter million dollars can get you (they do sell a lot of cars, it’s rated as the dealership with the highest sales in the world). Used to be free, but so many people were wandering around getting in the way of paying customers that it now costs $5 to walk through. Pick up a Ferrari keychain or hat. If you’ve done really well at the tables pick up a real Ferrari. (quite a few people have; that’s why they’re there)

When you’re done there it’s across the bridge and back to the Fashion Show, for more shopping or just to get to the car.
Next part, center Strip. From the parking garage we wander through the Desert Passage streets. We do like a number of the stores here, and there are quite a few tourist oriented shops, including a nice store for Vegas trinkets in gold and silver if you have a bracelet that you add to for every vacation. Stop at the dock area, and watch rain fall from the ceiling into the lagoon. You can grab an ice cream cone and sit and wait for it (every half hour or so).

The Desert Passage is attached to the Aladin hotel and casino. This is due to become the Planet Hollywood soon. The new organization is busy upgrading the mall and casino, so things will be changing during the near future.

After your wanderings go on outside and head north to Paris. I like this casino – it’s full of trees (artificial) and wandering paths and metro stops supposedly looking like a walk through Paris (yea, sure, a Paris filled with slot machines). There are back passages and a really nice coffee shop with some nice pastries. Sitting here with an espresso and pastry does feel a little like a Paris side street café. You can ride up to the top of the Eiffel Tower for a nice view up and down the strip. There is a good restaurant up there, we haven’t tried it yet. I have had reports that it is a pleasant place to eat, and look down upon the center of the strip.

Out front is the boulangerie restaurant, you can grab a sandwich inside or better yet wait for an outside table, which is just a few feet above the Strip sidewalk with a view across to the Bellagio fountains. Take your time to eat, watch people walking by, and wait for the water show across the street. Afterwards wander back through the casino and back corridors into the rear of Bally’s. Go on through this casino back to the Strip, passing through the old outside tunnels and moving walkway.

Take the bridge over to the Bellagio. This entrance is right at the shops and fancy restaurants. You can stop on the bridge over the strip and take some nice photographs both north and south. Perhaps catch the fountain show from up here. The Bellagio shopping area starts here at the north corner. In addition to the fancy shops there are some pretty fancy restaurants. If you have the money you can dine fine and overlook the fountain show from behind. During nice weather some of the restaurants have dining out on the balconies overlooking their ‘lake’. Meals here are about ‘Strip average’ for a nice meal – around $100 per person, plus wine. There are some wide spots in this passage that they decorate for different holidays.

Keep wandering and you will eventually come to the casino floor. If you keep to the left wall there are more fancy restaurants. We usually just keep following the main path through the middle. You will come upon two small cocktail areas raised a few steps above the main floor, one in about the center and one down by the lobby at the other end. Either of these is a great place to stop, take a break, and have a drink, coke or coffee and watch the crowds go by. Both have a piano, and live entertainment at assorted times.

Continuing on you will eventually come to the lobby. Take a break again here. Look up at the ceiling – it’s covered with big glass flowers. Sit a bit and watch all of the people checking in and out. Turn right and you will come to the conservatory – this is one of our favorite places on the Strip. First, it’s free. Next, it’s a big glass ceiling room filled with flowers and decorated for the season. The Bellagio changes the decorations here every six to eight weeks, so you can keep coming back and see something different each time. Last year they purchased a huge banyan tree from someplace in Florida, cut it up and trucked it out here. It shows up periodically in the back, something big to walk through. At the back of the conservatory is an area where you usually walk through the plants. One Christmas there was snow falling from the ceiling. Usually there are some of their unique fountains spurting water overhead.

At the rear is the entrance to their coffee shop – we haven’t eaten here yet, but there is usually only a short line. To the other side is an exit that leads back to the new spa tower and the chocolate fountain. This is another place that sells some great pastries and coffee (and chocolate) so you can try something fancy here as well.

When you’re done here exit through the main lobby. Turn right and take the moving walkways back to the Strip. There are places to get off if you catch one of the fountain shows during your ride. At this point I would suggest that you walk back north up Vegas Boulevard, and look at the lake and fountains from this angle. There are benches to sit on, and it’s a nice shady walk. Take the overhead bridge back across, and walk past the front of Bally’s, Paris and back to the Aladin.

Just south of the Bellagio is a lot of construction, this is the site of the new seven BILLION dollar (that’s $ 7,000,000,000 ) City Centre construction project. Looks like it will be another stop on the tour, and a place to kill quite a few hours.

Our last segment is the south strip. For this section we usually park in the Mandalay Bay parking garage. The entrance from the garage is right into the main restaurant area, at Lenin Square. Wander through here and keep turning right. You’ll pass their Black and White coffee shop and head towards the convention center. The walkway is nice, full of plants and water fountains. Some of the restaurants are pretty nice just to look at. The most romantic restaurant we’ve found is here – the Fleur de Lys. It’s a really nice place – you can get an intimate table surrounded by draperies and have a nice quiet romantic dinner. We went for our 30th wedding anniversary, and I would highly recommend it. Of course, dinner here is a little above Strip median, probably running $250 or so for two of you. (but hey, you’re not in Vegas very often, are you?). If you want a view rather than intimacy then hit Mix (description later, photos in an earlier post). Next to Fleur de Lys is Aureole, with it’s famous four story wine tower. You can look at it through the round windows, and if you go by when it’s open you can see the ‘wine angels’ flying up and down the tower on wires, picking out bottles. Next comes Shanghai Lily, probably the next fancy place we’ll try – supposedly some pretty great Oriental food. Look at the tiles on the outside as you go by.

Round the corner and head to the convention center. To your left will be a wall of windows looking down on the pool area. You can see the wave pool and in the center the concert stage, where you can stand in the water and catch some good groups during the summer. Past the wedding chapel, and you will eventually come to Shark Reef. A place where you can wander among the fishes and kill another several hours.

Backtrack a ways and get back to the casino. If you are in Vegas for a few days then you can really treat yourself to a day (or half day) at the spa. The spa at Mandalay Bay is rated as one of the best, for guys or gals (not mixed, separate areas), a good way to pamper yourself with a facial or massage or just lay around for a few hours. We’ve sent some relatives there, and treated B as well. Nothing to really look at in the spa area, just something to think about.

Through the casino, near the end off to the right is the House of Blues, site of a noisy Sunday Gospel Brunch, as well as stopping place for some good groups. To the left is the entrance to The Hotel tower. This is where you can catch the elevator (in the corner, you have to look for it) up fifty floors to Mix; the bar and restaurant. Mix used to be rated as one of the best restaurants in Vegas, but it changed management and dropped down, but I’ve recently heard from people that have gone to eat that it is pretty good once again. And the view is about the best you will find anywhere. (see photos below). The elevator doesn’t open until 5pm, so no more daytime views until time change in the Spring, but go up and have a drink anyway. Sit out on the balcony if the wind isn’t too much.

Back down and keep heading north (inside the casino) and you’ll come to some escalators that take you up to the shopping area. Just next to the escalators is a bookstore and coffee shop – this is the site of some evening book and poetry meets, if you’re into that. Some different shops along this area. There is a kid’s store that I would recommend you all go into – some really cute stuff (but at $400 + per outfit a little past these grandparents budget). There is also Urban Outfitters, a chain around the west. In the center you’ll some upon the Burger Bar – my choice for a few meals (probably $15 each or so, some good local beers here too if you like that. Unless you go for the $60 burger; haven’t tried that one yet, usually just get the Kobe beef with fries.)

Continuing on you’ll go through some doors and be on the upper level of the Luxor. Some tourist shops here, along with an Imax theatre. Look up at the inside of the pyramid, with the peak thirty stories above you. Wander around up here, then go on down to the casino level. More wandering, and eventually exit via the main front doors. Turn around and look at it as if you are coming in - this is about the most impressive casino entrance I think you’ll find anywhere. Two huge Egyptian statues, a shiny floor, and thirty stories of the inside of the pyramid opening above.

Exit here and you can either take the tram and walk north to the Excalibur. I think this place looks best from the outside – a tall wall with openings at two corners, with a fairytale castle inside. The casino isn’t very impressive. You can have dinner downstairs and watch the jousting matches if you like action.

Exit here and cross the bridge north to New York New York. I like the inside of this casino too, similar to Paris, you walk the streets of New York City. Wander to the back through the narrow streets, stop for a coffee, and you will eventually come to the entrance to the El – really the roller coaster. Grissom from CSI used to like this one; though he hasn’t been riding coasters for the past few seasons. Back out the main entrance and continue north along the strip, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to the Monte Carlo. Haven’t been into this one so I don’t have anything to say. We usually just take the bridge across the strip over to the MGM Grand.

The MGM is still rated as the largest hotel in the world (number of rooms) with over 5,500 hotel rooms. Soon to be outdone by the Venetian, when their new tower opens next year. Out back, when Vegas was pushed as a place for kids, there used to be an MGM theme park, with rides and stuff. It’s been closed, and the area is filling up with condo towers. You used to meet MGM characters wandering the casino, from Dorothy to the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, but they are gone along with the park. There are some top rated restaurants here, along with three or four ‘ultra lounges’.

When you’re done wandering the MGM you can go a bit north to the M$M World (I think it’s still there) or just cross the bridge south to the Tropicana. One of the older places on the strip, unfortunately it looks like it. Walk back towards the hotel rooms, there is a bridge down the center with pools and green space on either side. The bridge used to be lined with parrots and other big birds that you could talk to. (don’t know if they’re still there).

Eventually exit and cross the street back over to the Excalibur. Take the trolley south back to Mandalay and you’re done.

So there you go – three smaller segments that cut the Strip up into smaller pieces. If you walk slow, stop to look and stop at the coffee shops or bars for a drink and to people watch each of these can take a full day. If you walk fast and try to get through it all you can at most do only two in a day – no way you can see the whole strip at once. Please, don’t try – take your time and enjoy your self. If you don’t see it all this trip you can always plan to come back. After all, the Venetian and City Centre projects are under construction. And the Stardust is due to close in a few days, to be imploded and replaced with a four billion dollar ($ 4,000,000,000 ) new project up north of the Fashion Show. Rumors have it that the Hilton will also be replaced, and the Tropicana has been sold with more rumors of implosion and replacement. Vegas is always changing.

And this doesn’t cover downtown or the Rio, Orleans and Palms to the west or the Hard Rock to the east.

I’ll try to pull my casino photos together, and list them along with links to the major casino web sites. Restaurant reviews and suggestions to come in a future post.


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