City With No Exits
The casinos of Las Vegas will lure you in, but bring your compass if you want to get out
By Randall Shirley
Below--Vegas Top Picks
Remember the Fun House at the fair? It usually featured fat-mirrors and tall-mirrors, a rotating walk-through tunnel, rooms with dozens of wrong doors, and a challenging labyrinth just before the exit. You doubted the word "fun" in Fun House, but you always went in anyway--knowing full well that finding the way out would mean enduring flashing lights and negotiating that darn maze.
If you think the Fun House is a thing of the past, it's been too long since you followed the yellow-brick freeway from Orange County into the world of campy glamour known as Las Vegas.
Before you go, consider the following suggestion: leave a trail of breadcrumbs along I-15. Because just like a zillion-volt Fun House, finding your way out of any Vegas casino will prove you directionally dyslexic. And once you arrive back at your car, locating a freeway on-ramp may require a bloodhound.
The city may, in fact, have the least-visible exit signs in the country. Whether inside a casino or driving through infamous Glitter Gulch, it's nearly impossible to spot a way out. That familiar waving cowboy sign at the Pioneer Hotel? He is not waving goodbye!
Asking the locals for exit directions is a nice idea, but probably won't do you much good. One look around the outskirts of Vegas and you realize that no one is leaving. The place is experiencing a housing boom reminiscent of Southern California in the Fifties, complete with many of the same problems. Lake of water tops that list.
Even dead celebrities can't escape the desert quicksand that grabs your ankles the moment you arrive. Elvis is all over town, in a variety of ages and weights. Liberace still has a nightly gig at the Imperial Palace. John Belushi is resurrected and singing along an ersatz Dan Akroyd as the Blues Brothers. And Judy Garland belts out "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" twice a night. Even clicking your ruby slippers won't get you out of Vegas.
As you wander deeper and deeper into the gambler's mecca, you learn that finding your way back out is indeed a challenge. You see plenty of signs. They say things like "Nevada Nickels," "Mad Money," "Lucky Sevens," and "Mambo Bucks." Another sign describes what you're considered when you search for a casino exit: "Super Joker."
Now and then, through the Marlboro haze and beyond a million flickering lights, you may spot the pale red or green glow of a distant exit sign. But such a sighting is of little value--there are always several hundred slot machines blocking a direct path to the door. You're guaranteed to lose sight of the exit many times before you actually find it. At the Golden Nugget they're convinced you'll want to stay forever. They don't even post an exit sign over their elegant main casino doors onto Fremont Street.
To shed light on Vegas' exit signs, Deputy Allen Howe of the Las Vegas Fire Department's Fire Prevention Unit read a short list of exit sign requirements. The sign must be at least six inches high, with three-quarter-inch block letters in a contrasting color. If there were a fire, he theorized, the power would probably go out on the game lights and then you could see the emergency exit lights.
So what if you don't want to wait for a fire? What if you just want to find the door and leave the casino?
Sine the fire department wasn't much help, Melinda, First Lady of Magic, whose body is on half the billboards and taxis in Vegas, was the next best consultant. Watch her perform at Lady Luck and you'll know she's the perfect informant. After all, she escapes all sorts of cages and boxes (and most of her clothes, too) with the greatest of ease. Surely she should know how to escape the flashing, chinking, clinking maze of a casino.
"Actually," Melinda says, "that's the hardest illusion I ever perform. There's so much excitement it zaps all my magical powers!"
The woman knows who butters her bread.
Many of the hotels on Vegas' famous Strip now claim to welcome families. In order to keep youngsters off the gaming floors, places like Treasure Island, MGM Grand and Excalibur have included more clear-cut walkways around their casinos. This does not mean they've made it easier to find the exit or save money. Mazes of shops, arcades, and white tigers still come between you and the door.
Emperor of this trap is the eternally magnificent Caesar's Palace. Be warned, once you enter Caesar's realm you are not welcome to leave--it's a "non-exitus" kingdom. Moving walkways (entrance only) whisk unsuspecting visitors into the Palace from the nearby Mirage or the Strip. But once you've dropped all your shekels in the casino and elegant Forum Shops, you must walk back through miles of casino to the lobby, from which it is still a marathon distance to the street.
Why get sucked into all this in the first place? Because Vegas is the ultimate in adult fun. Because some people actually do get rich quick. Because there's lots of cheap, filling food, like a $2.99 breakfast buffet, and 75-cent shrimp cocktail. Because deep inside, every person fantasizes about lounging poolside in a desert oasis (even if the water is imported from Utah).
Charlotte from New Hampshire has been to Vegas more than 20 times "because we had so much fun searching for the best margarita the first time--and we found it at Sam's Town." Two mail carriers from Florida are on their third trip to Vegas simply "because we like to play blackjack at Binnion's Horseshoe." Another woman is trying to duplicate her previous success on quarter slots: "Last time I paid for the trip, paid off my car and bought new furniture. But this time I'm losing big."
At Binnion's Horseshoe the action is hopping. The dealers in the Old West casino are the friendliest in town. "I've been dealin' cards for 152 years," huge-haired Joni laughs as a player blows Kent smoke into her face. "Here's my cardinal rule: borrowing money always brings your luck back up." Then she sweeps all the players' chips into her pile.
At the next table, a great lesson about Las Vegas is taught: For many people it wouldn't matter if the exit signs were ten feet high. "Look, Bob, we have to go. Now!," a man says to his friend. "The plane leaves for Atlanta in 45 minutes."
"Hell, I'm not leaving this place," Bob mutters, plunking down another $100. "Not while my luck's up."
Judging by the number of hotel rooms in Vegas (5,005 rooms at MGM Grand alone) the casino creators intend to lure more and more folks into the gaudy maze. And since it's only a six-hour drive, you may be tempted to go for a look. When you do, remember two things: 1) wear comfortable walking shoes and 2) casinos rarely pay your bills.
And don't be surprised if the next new hotel on the strip is called "Bermuda Triangle: No One Escapes."
Freelance writer Randall Shirley is a frequent contributor to Orange Coast. If you find him, have him call in.
Originally published in Orange Coast Magazine, May, 1995
Vegas Top Picks--May 1995
BEST BUFFET: Rio Hotel's Carnival World Buffet. The secret to its success (and I mean success) is that almost everything is cooked fresh, often by natives of the theme countries. Don't miss the shrimp teppanyaki!
BEST CASINO: Caesar's Palace. Since you can drop your cash in any casino, why not do it where the atmosphere is truly sumptuous? Fewer flashing lights and lots of open space win the prize for Caesar.
BEST FREE ENTERTAINMENT: Treasure Island. Move over Disneyland, the live action pirates at T.I. are making waves. Stand on the pirate side, and don't miss the dashing captain as he swings across above the crowd's heads.
BEST EVENING'S ENTERTAINMENT: "Conga!" Dinner Show at the Rio. Premium food, great Latin rhythms, pre-show dancing--this event is worth every penny of the $38.95. They've done a remarkable job of recreating the famed Hollywood supper club. Even your dinner is choreographed.
BEST PLACE TO STAY WITH KIDS: Excalibur. You can generally get a screamingly low room rate, and their kids? arcade includes four different simulator rides. The pricier MGM is just across the street with its modestly amusing theme park, and the bizarre Luxor pyramid (there's something strange about 45-degree angle walls) is right next door.
BEST ESCAPE: Splurge on a luxury rental convertible and check out Hoover Dam. It'll take your breath away as fast a poker dealer takes your money away.
AT LEAST SOME VEGAS ENTERTAINMENT HAS A CLEAR UP-FRONT COST
Waiting in the Hilton showroom for Andrew Lloyd Webbers Starlight Express to hit the state, an elegant older couple reminisces about the shows they'd seen in that very room: Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr., and Bill Cosby in his stand-up days.
"The Hilton has made a mistake," the woman says, "changing this room into a theatre for a roller-skating show. What a shame." When the skates stopped rolling and the crowd stopped cheering 90 minutes later, the woman's attitude had changed. "That was one of the most fabulous shows I've ever seen!"
The face of Vegas nightlife has changed. If you're looking for Miss Topless De GoGo, you'll still find her. But there's much more to see on the Vegas stage than perfect breasts and feather plumes.
Of course, the spectacle of Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage is the big ticket. To see tigers vanish, you'll also see $78.50 vanish. Melinda: "First Lady of Magic" (Lady Luck) puts on a suitably impressive show for only $29.95, including drinks. The wizardry of Lance Burton at the Hacienda is also very popular.
As dinner shows go, there's none better than "Conga!" at the Rio. "King Arthur's Tournament" dinner event at Excalibur is a hoot, but you'll have to pound the table with your fists to get silverware. The jousting is fun, but the true highlight is Merlin's performance--it takes an amazing actor to fill an entire arena with his presence, and that's exactly what you get at Excalibur.
For those of you who can't get enough Cirque du Soleil, Treasure Island has a troupe in permanent residence with a fabulous show called Mystere. As usual with Cirque, the "story" is the true mystery. But it's delightful.
There are about 40 shows in Las Vegas every night. And there's a show for every taste and budget, from $15 on up. Country, comedy, revue, female impersonators, circus, jazz, or big name--Vegas will entertain you as nowhere else can.
Photo courtesy Las Vegas Convention & Visitors' Assoc.
Casino photo courtesy CaesarsPalace.com
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