Vivi, Las Vegas!

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Viva, Las Vegas! Vivian and I decided to celebrate our “sushi anniversary” by taking a break from our midwestern winter wonderland and enjoying a week in the city of neon lights. I’ve visited Las Vegas five times before, all for business while working at Land and Sky. This was the first time I’d gone to visit just for fun. Vivian had never been to Las Vegas at all, so I was able to show her all the sights and sounds of Sin City.

The weather was a balmy 70 degrees or so — warm enough for the hotels to keep the pools open. It was quite mind-boggling to see people swimming at the Bellagio in the middle of January as if we were in the middle of summer. We kicked off our weekend by stopping for lunch at the Inn-n-Out on Tropicana, which was within walking distance of our hotel. The first time I ever ate at the cult burger chain was during my very first trip to Las Vegas back in 2006, so it only seemed fitting to stop by there again.

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After spending some time exploring the strip, we met up with Vivian’s childhood friend Alan at the New York, New York’s Gonzalez Y Gonzalez restaurant for dinner. He grew up with Vivian in Petaluma and even spent a little time in Bellevue before eventually winding up in Las Vegas nine years ago, so it was nice for him and Vivian to have a chance to catch up. We spent some time afterward wandering up to the Bellagio to watch a couple of their famous fountain shows and then explore the conservatory inside, which was decked out for the Chinese New Year (the year of the rabbit, as it turns out).

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We made sure to take one trip downtown so we could see the canopy light show above Fremont Street. I’ve always enjoyed staying downtown when it Las Vegas — seems like a much quieter version of the strip with much less walking distance between casinos.

The next day, we kicked off our sightseeing with a big breakfast buffet at the Monte Carlo and then a trip to the top of the Stratosphere. It’s always fun to get a good bird’s-eye view of Las Vegas, and the Stratosphere’s the only place I know of where you can see downtown Las Vegas, the Strip, and the World Market Center all at the same time. Our stay was unfortunately cut short when some nut tried to jump off the observation deck. Fortunately, the management were quite professional in preventing the guy from becoming road pizza, but they ushered everybody out of the place and got plenty of emergency personnel on the ground just in case. (As a bonus, we got a refund for our trip to the top).

We had to spend some time finding our way to a bus stop to get back to the strip, where we did a little sightseeing visiting the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign and the M&M’s World. Our dinner that evening was the enormous seafood buffet at the Rio, where Vivian and I tried to get our money’s worth by stuffing ourselves with all the split lobsters tails, crab legs, sushi, and ceviche we could eat. This night was our “Sushi Anniversary,” of course, so we had to have sushi!

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We stuck around afterward to see the Penn & Teller, everyone’s favorite libertarian atheist magicians. Audience members were allowed to go on stage and inspect a large wooden box that Teller would eventually pop out of. Pianist Mike Jones and Penn Jillette himself performed music on stage as everyone eventually got seated. The tricks themselves were quite amazing, and the duo revealed how some of them were performed — mostly through slight of hand and misdirection.

The highlight, however, was actually getting to meet both Penn & Teller after the show. They stayed in the lobby signing autographs and having pictures taken with audience members, so Vivian and I had a turn with each of them. We even bumped into Teller in his street clothes after getting a few drinks at the bar when the show was done, so I was able to thank him personally for giving everyone at the show the chance to meet them both. He said, “Oh, it’s fun — it’s like having a party every night.”

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We couldn’t visit Las Vegas without being able to say we did a little gambling, so we decided to blow $20 the next day on roulette at Caesars Palace. It took us exactly two spins to see it evaporate (lesson learned). We decided to stick around and try to get our money’s worth by visiting the animatronic show at the end of the Forum Shops, where King Atlas yells at his kids among water fountains and bursts of flame. It was quite fun to watch — kind of like Chuck-e-Cheese on crack.

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We ran into a large number of fun street performers along the strip willing to pose in photos for tips. Vivian got to have her purse stolen by Captain Jack Sparrow, and we both stopped to pose with a stormtrooper. If you’re coming to Las Vegas, bring a bunch of one dollar bills in your pocket so you can tip as many as you like.

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Of course, we got to have our pictures taken with many, many more celebrities at Madame Tussauds in the Venetian. I’d heard of this wax museum plenty of times, but I had no idea that we could actually have our pictures taken with any number of life-like celebrity replicas, including Simon Cowell, Evel Knievel, Shaq, George Clooney, Sean Connery, Jerry Springer, Stevie Wonder, and many others. We spent a couple hours there wandering among the lifeless celebrities, and I even had fun pretending to be a wax dummy just to scare a few other visitors.

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That evening, Vivian and I decided to live it up down at the Paris together. We had dinner at the very posh Eiffel Tower restaurant, dining on monkfish, pheasant, chocolate mousse, and some pineapple meringue dessert with champagne sauce, all of which was quite breathtakingly good. Our waiter was even an authentic Frenchman named Pierre who put a very heavy touch of suave Frenchiness on top of our entire visit. Nothing could beat the view of the Bellagio’s fountains across the street from the giant wall-to-wall windows, 0f course — nothing that is, except the view from the observation. Vivian and I both traveled to the top of the half-sized Eiffel Tower and got a great view of the strip and a water show from the Bellagio some 460 feet in the air. I can attest it’s the best view of the neon lights I’ve ever seen.

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After dinner, we hurried across the street to see “O” at the Bellagio. I saw my first Cirque du Soleil show, Mystère, when I came to visit during the WMC summer show of 2006. It was quite an impressive mix of trippy acrobatic stunts and beautiful music, and I found “O” to be much the same, except on water. Vivian and I were close enough to the stage to feel the heat of the fire acts on stage, as well as the cool water spraying from the thunderstorm scene. I’ve heard from several people that “O” is the Cirque show on the strip worth seeing most, and we definitely enjoyed it. I even got a T-shirt from the gift shop and played with some of the “zebra” masks with Vivian afterward, hamming it up for the camera by mimicking some of the characters from the show.

Our unforgettable trip seemed to end all too quickly when we finally flew home on Friday. It was much more fun to visit Las Vegas when I wasn’t there on business, and I have to admit that the recession has made Sin City a much better deal for travelers like Vivian and me. I only wish we’d brought our swim suits and taken a dip in the pool. Maybe next time.

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