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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
March 4, 2013
A Personal Note from Vegas4Visitors' Rick Garman
As many of you know, last year I took some time off from my Vegas duties to deal with an esophageal cancer diagnosis. That involved a very big surgery that was designed to remove the very small tumor at the junction of my esophagus and stomach. Scans, and exploratory portion of the surgery, and biopsies indicated that they had gotten all of the cancer and everything was going to be fine.
In my first major follow up last week a new scan has found a new spot, this time on a lymph node near my liver. It was there all along, just too small to see back when I was having the surgery and tests.
I'm still in the process of determining exactly what all this means but will definitely involve another (minor) surgery this week and most likely chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the foreseeable future.
Unlike last time I'm going to keep working on Vegas4Visitors and the Facebook page as much as I can. I need the distraction and besides, writing about Las Vegas is much more entertaining than anything else I'll be dealing with. Having said that there will inevitably be times when I will miss a column or a posting here and there so please bear with me.
I'm not going to lie: the outlook for all of this is not great. But I have a lot to look forward too, especially in Vegas. There are giant observation wheels, a Michael Jackson show, water parks, the return of Liberace, and SlotZilla, the world's tallest slot machine hosting a zip line attraction, all in the works. The last one alone is reason enough to not give up in my opinion.
As always, thank you for your support of Vegas4Visitors.com and me. It is deeply appreciated.
Violence in Vegas: Staying Safe in Sin City
Several high-profile incidents of violence on or near The Strip recently have sent the media on a frenzy of "Is Las Vegas Safe?" style hyperventilation. The short answer to that question is "mostly, yes" but let's dig a little deeper.
Las Vegas is a major city and with all major cities crime is an issue. Robberies, purse snatchings, and pick pocketing are the most commonly reported incidents but even those are relatively rare when considered as a percentage of the massive numbers of people who visit Las Vegas every year. Sort of like gambling, it's luck of the draw. I've been going to Vegas regularly, on and off the major tourist areas, often into the wee hours of the night and I have never had a problem. Other people go once and get their wallets lifted.
But these types of crimes are not the kinds of things that are getting hyped in the media recently. Instead the focus has been on a handful of incidents:
- An employee at Excalibur was shot and killed on the casino floor by, authorities believe, a former boyfriend who then shot and killed himself
- A blackjack dealer at Bellagio allegedly killed a little girl and then stabbed a fellow dealer in the casino in front of horrified gamblers
- Several people were shot, but none killed, in the parking garage of the Showcase Mall in what authorities believe was a drunken altercation that went too far
- A man was stabbed in the elevator of THEhotel in what is believed to be another incident of people having too drink and not knowing when to back down
- A war of words between two men at Aria escalated into a shooting as they drove their respective vehicles down The Strip, ending with one of the men shot to death and crashing his car into a taxi that erupted into flames, killing the driver and a passenger
While admittedly shocking and sad, these crimes were isolated, often specific to the people involved (not random crimes that could've struck anyone), and many of them involved drunken confrontations that escalated out of control. Statistics show that the effective crime rate in Las Vegas is dropping and if you pay attention to your surroundings, guard your valuables, don't do stupid things like drink too much and get into arguments with strangers then 99.9999% of the time you'll be fine. That .0001% is usually completely beyond your control and is the price you pay for getting out of bed every morning.
Having said that, Las Vegas does present some specific challenges to safety that should be considered. Here are some general guidelines, tips, and ideas that can help keep you safe while visiting:
In terms of general crime safety - meaning trying to avoid getting yourself killed, mugged, etc. - you're usually okay if you stick to the high-profile tourist areas. The Strip, Fremont Street in the Downtown area, and the individual casinos and attractions scattered throughout the rest of the city are, for the most part, very safe places. Police and security presence is high and the number of cameras recording every inch of the major hotels seems to be effective in keeping all but the most brazen of criminals at bay.
However, most of those tourist areas are surrounded by neighborhoods that are questionable at best and downright scary at worst. Just as you probably wouldn't go wandering around the dark streets of your nearest major city at night, you should never wander too far away from the bright lights of The Strip or Downtown when you are in Vegas.
If you're driving and have to pass through some of these questionable neighborhoods, always be sure you know where you're going before you start the car and keep your doors locked, especially at night. I know this is common-sense stuff but it bears repeating here.
If you're getting a rental car, make a request ahead of time for one that does not bear any stickers or placards declaring it as such. Although I haven't heard of this being a major issue in Vegas, there have been incidents in other cities of criminals targeting people in rented cars so it can't hurt to take this simple precaution.
Protecting Your Valuables
The most common safety issue that Vegas visitors wind up facing is one of simple theft - usually at the hands of pickpockets lured by those wallets bulging with ill-gotten casino gains. But there are ways to reduce this risk as well.
First, and most obvious, is to not carry huge amounts of cash on you. Of course sometimes it can be unavoidable - say, you're lucky enough to win several hundred dollars while out in the casinos for instance. But whether you've got $20 or $2,000 on you, there are ways of keeping it a little safer.
Men should consider carrying their wallets in a front pocket or wearing one with a chain that attaches to the belt buckle. Women should consider not carrying a purse at all or if absolutely necessary, get one with a long enough strap so it can be worn across the body instead of casually slung over your shoulder. While they are not the most fashion-forward statement, fanny packs are also good alternatives although you should make sure to keep them zipped closed whenever not in use.
Be extra vigilant while visiting the city's eye-catching attractions or in the casino. It's much easier for a thief to rob you while you're not paying attention, such as when you're standing there agog over the Bellagio Fountains or pumping money into a slot machine. Take note of strangers who seem to be invading your personal space or seem to be taking more of an interest in you than they should. Pick-pockets and the like will notice you noticing them and will be more likely to move on to someone who isn't paying as much attention.
Theft can also be an issue for items in your room. If your accommodations come with a safe, use it. When you're not in your room, store your cash, cameras, jewelry, laptops, and other tempting goodies in your safe or out of sight in your suitcase. Incidents of housekeeping or other staff taking things from guests are virtually non-existent but why take a chance by leaving an expensive Rolex on the nightstand?
There are several things to consider that involve dealing with the other people you're likely to encounter on your Vegas trip. Some people will say these issues are mainly of concern for women, but I say crime can happen to anyone regardless of your gender so men should read this stuff as well.
Never open your door to anyone you aren't expecting, even if they identify themselves as hotel staff. It'll only take a second to call the front desk and verify that the guy standing outside your door really is just there to put a mint on your pillow.
How many times have you driven to a hotel's self-parking area only to find it so full that you wind up having to park in the furthest corner of the upper-most floor? That can put you and your vehicle at risk, especially if you are planning to head back to your car late at night. Valet parking is free at most major hotels in Las Vegas so why not use it? If the valet at your hotel is full, consider trying one at a neighboring hotel. For instance, if you can't use the valet at The Mirage, go to Treasure Island and then take the tram between the two hotels.
When you are going to your hotel room, be sure to pay attention to other people in the hallway. If you see anyone who looks even remotely threatening - you know, like an 82-year-old woman with a walker - wait a few moments before you open the door to your room. You can pretend to be looking for your key or you can just stand there if you feel like it, but waiting until the hallway is clear will ensure that no one will try to come in the room with you.
I know this sounds ridiculously simple but a lot of people use only the auto-lock feature on their door and don't bother with the extra security features while inside. Most Las Vegas hotel rooms have additional bolts, locks, or chains that can increase safety and while they are never foolproof, they do put an extra level of security between you and someone who wants to get inside.
One little trick that I use all the time is to put up the "Do Not Disturb" sign on my door whenever I leave the room. This is the same effect as leaving the lights on when you leave the house, signaling to would be burglars that there is someone inside. If they have a choice between a door with a privacy sign on it and one without they will probably be more likely to choose the one without.
Too many people seem to embrace the "anything goes" ethos of Las Vegas, especially at the city's numerous nightclubs that seem to encourage such behavior. Although you should absolutely have a good time, try to keep a few basic safety tips in mind when you're out partying.
For instance, don't let someone you don't know give you a drink. If they want to buy you one, make sure you get it directly from the bartender. Once you have that drink, don't let it leave your hand even while you're dancing.
It's great to make friends but you should never leave the club with people you don't know, especially if you are by yourself. If you want to continue the conversation or connection, go to a public place like a restaurant or a quieter bar.
All Las Vegas nightclubs have plenty of security guards and it's their job to make sure you stay safe (and don't cause trouble). If you are having a problem with another patron, don't be afraid to tell the nearest bouncer.
It seems like almost every week I read another news story in which a pedestrian is killed in Las Vegas. The details change but the basic story is almost always the same: someone walking where they should've have been walking or someone driving who shouldn't have been driving or, often, a combination of the two.
If you walk anywhere in Vegas, you're going to want to remember some basic rules to quite literally live by:
1. It's Not Going Anywhere/There Will Be Another One
Yes, I know, the Mirage Volcano is about to erupt, the Bellagio Fountains are about to blast off, the curtain is about to rise, your table at a fancy restaurant is about to be given away, and that slot machine you were playing earlier today is ready to pay out, you just know it! But here's the deal... all of that stuff isn't going anywhere or there will be another one. The volcano will erupt again, the fountains will dance again, they will seat you after the show starts, you can eat at that restaurant some other night, and that slot machine? It isn't really going to pay.
One of the biggest problems is that people seem to always be in a rush to get wherever it is they are going in Vegas. Relax a bit! You're on vacation! Taking your time will help you with tip #2:
2. Pay Attention to Your Sur... Hey, is That an Elvis Impersonator?!
There is a lot to look at when walking around in Las Vegas. Too much, perhaps (see above re: volcano, fountains, etc.). It's easy to get distracted, which is fine if you are walking on the sidewalk where you are relatively safe from passing cars. But I can't tell you how many times I've been driving in Vegas and I see people crossing the street pointing at things and taking pictures instead of paying attention to where they are going and, more importantly, what might be heading in their direction. Gawk all you want until you get to the crosswalk, which brings me to #3:
3. Stay in the Crosswalks
Seems simple, right? But a lot of people apparently don't have the patience, energy, or intelligence to go to the official crosswalks and have a tendency to invent their own, sometimes ones that dash across the middle of a block on busy Las Vegas Boulevard.
Sure, some of the crosswalks are not as conveniently located as the could be but that extra 50 feet and 30 seconds it'll take you to get to them could save your life. And when you get there, you should take tip #4 to heart.
4. Obey the Walk/Don't Walk Signals
In a lot of cities, the walk/don't walk signals seem to be merely suggestions instead of laws (I'm looking at you Chicago and New York and New Orleans). In Las Vegas they are routinely ignored as well, but you really shouldn't do that for a couple of reasons.
First, the streets and driveways around The Strip are wider than they look meaning it'll take you longer to get across than you think it will. Add in the blind curves that come out of many of the resorts and you have a high probability of starting across thinking there's no traffic coming and getting caught in it halfway through.
Second, drivers in Vegas aren't terribly forgiving about your intrusion into their driving time. Traffic is terrible and it doesn't help when you block the driveways walking when you're not supposed to. Consider the fact that 99% of the people behind the wheel in the area are either tourists who don't know where they are going, cab drivers, drunk, or some combination of the three.
That brings me to the last tip:
5. Don't Just Believe They'll Stop
If it comes down to a battle between you and the grill of an SUV, who do you think is going to win? Heck, even though I've had sandwiches bigger than those Smart cars, I still wouldn't want to get hit by one of them.
Whether you take all of the above to heart and just have bad luck or if you ignore all of the other tips above and find yourself in a situation where a car is coming in your direction, do not let this be your thought process: oh they see me, oh they'll stop, I'm sure they'll stop, why aren't they stopping, they aren't stopping, I'm going to die, life flashing before my eyes, ouch."
Stay safe everyone. Vegas needs you.
Resort Fee Update
After years of touting their hotels as resort fee free, Caesars Entertainment has finally caved to the obvious financial lure and has instituting the charges at all of its Las Vegas properties including Caesars Palace, Bally's, Paris Las Vegas, Planet Hollywood, The Flamingo, Harrah's, Rio Las Vegas, Nobu Hotel, and The Quad. Charges range from $10 per night at The Quad up to $25 per night at Caesars Palace and cover the usual things like Internet access, local calls, and fitness center access.
The turnaround means that every major hotel on The Strip charges a resort fee now but don't think that going elsewhere will automatically mean you can avoid the fees.
South Point, a locals' hotel just south of The Strip, also just added a resort fee of $14 per night covering Internet, calls, parking, airport shuttle, and miscellaneous offers like a free drink or two.
As of this writing, the only major hotel-casinos that do not charge resort fees are:
- Aliante Station on the far north side of Las Vegas
- The California in Downtown Las Vegas
- The Cannery in North Las Vegas
- The D in Downtown Las Vegas
- The Eastside Cannery on Boulder Highway
- El Cortez in the Fremont East Entertainment District of Downtown Las Vegas
- The Four Queens in Downtown Las Vegas
- The Fremont Hotel in Downtown Las Vegas
- The Golden Nugget in Downtown Las Vegas
- The JW Marriott in the Summerlin area of northwest Las Vegas
- The LVH (formerly Las Vegas Hilton) just east of The Strip
- The M Resort on the far south side of Las Vegas
- Main Street Station in Downtown Las Vegas
- The Silverton, just south of The Strip
- Terrible's, located just east of The Strip
As you can see, most of the Downtown Las Vegas hotels don't charge them with the notable exception of The Plaza and their $10 nightly fee.
It is likely that some or all of the holdouts listed above will quietly add them this year.
You can see a full list of hotel resort fees here.
So why add the fees, which are generally despised by just about everyone, instead of just raising the rates, which would work out the same in the long run. Research shows that as much as people hate the fees, they hate higher rates even more, so this allows the hotels to advertise a $99 rate instead of a $119 rate and still make the same amount of money.
A move is afoot to require hotels to disclaim the "all-in" price including all taxes and fees in advertising but the very powerful casino industry in Nevada is fighting that with everything they have. Most of them include the fees in the total when you book online or on the phone but it's important to note that even that is not required so be sure to specifically ask if your hotel is charging a resort fee even if one is not listed.
Arena and Convention Center Projects Planned for Vegas
Two major projects were announced last week that could radically alter some of the most familiar areas of Las Vegas.
The first is a 20,000 seat arena and accompanying entertainment district being planned by MGM Resorts for the land behind the Monte Carlo and New York-New York. The arena would be home to major concerts, sporting events, and conventions and would be connected to the various MGM Resort properties in the area, including CityCenter, via a street full of restaurants, bars, and shops that would stretch from The Strip back to Frank Sinatra Drive.
Details of the cost of the arena were not released but it is intended to be privately financed, unlike some of the other arena proposals currently floated in Vegas that would require taxpayer contributions. Thos include a nearly $1 billion arena at the University of Nevada Las Vegas to replace the aging Thomas and Mack Center, a proposal for Downtown Las Vegas, and at least two others for various places on or near The Strip.
There is also no timeline for the MGM Resorts arena although officials say the design and approvals phase is well underway. That probably means a 2015 opening at the earliest.
The other big project is a major overhaul of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The $2.5 billion project would completely revamp the facility inside and out; add new exhibit space and a dedicated world trade center; install a new transportation hub for taxis, buses, and light rail; add green spaces around the grounds; add classic Las Vegas neon and modern LED signage; and more.
One of the most intriguing parts of the project is the accompanying proposal to revamp Convention Center Drive, the street that runs from The Strip near The Riviera to the Convention Center. The proposal would turn the street into an entertainment district similar to the Fremont East area in Downtown Las Vegas with new restaurants, clubs and bars, and boutique hotels.
All of this is mostly theoretical at this point since they have only raised enough money to start the detailed planning portion of the project and not any of the actual construction. The planning is expected to go through 2014 so it will be late this decade before you will see any of this actually come to fruition.
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Danke Shoen Award of the Week goes to the Wayne Newton Estate, which is going up for auction on May 31st. A failed plan to turn the estate into a tourist attraction ended in lawsuits between Newton and the plan's organizers and bankruptcy proceedings.
The Fun For All Ages Award of the Week goes to the new $50 million Discovery Children's Museum, which opened this weekend. The facility at The Smith Center replaces the old Lied museum with state-of-the-art attractions all designed to entertain and stimulate young minds.
The Number of the Week goes to One, which is the official name of the new Cirque du Soleil Michael Jackson show debuting in May at Mandalay Bay. Tickets for Michael Jackson One go on sale to the general public on March 7 and range between $62 and $162.
The Last Howl Award of the Week goes to Coyote Ugly at New York-New York, which will be closing its doors sometime in the next month or so. No word yet on what, if anything, will replace it.
The Light 'em Up Award of the Week goes to the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign, which is getting a series of improvements designed to make it more accessible. The small parking lot is being expanded a new crosswalks will be installed allowing people to get to it without having to dodge traffic.
Restaurant Review: Citizens Kitchen
There is a reason they call it comfort food. It is designed to be "comfortable" to the masses - easy to comprehend, familiar in construction, appealing to look at, satisfyingly proportioned, pleasing to the taste buds, and not too expensive.
I am here to declare Citizens Kitchen at Mandalay Bay as the new capital of comfort food in Las Vegas. Not only do they tick off every box on the list above they go beyond it to serve food that is way better than just pleasing - it's bang your fists on the table fantastic.
The restaurant is in the space of the former Red, White & Blue, at the head of the restaurant row near Fleur and the Mizuya Lounge. It is done with an old-school kitchen vibe - white and black tiles on the floor, green backsplash style tiles on the walls, lots of wood tables, and industrial style factory lights. A display case with take-out items greets you and a big bar dominates one of the two dining rooms. It's warm, inviting, and yes, I'm going to say it, comfortable.
My table of seven ate more than our fair share of the menu, starting with the starters. Baked meatballs of beef, pork, and veal smothered in a red sauce gravy and topped with shredded provolone were immediately devoured with gusto and our only regret is that we hadn't ordered more. Buffalo wings were hot (but not too hot) and came with an extra creamy blue cheese dip. The mac and cheese with ham hocks and the tater tots smothered in cheese are actually side dishes but we sided in favor of adding them to our appetizer list and pretty much licked the respective bowls clean. I especially loved the tots - classic taste evoking memories of childhood but with that fantastic gooey cheese giving it a tangy twist.
Other starter options including things like queso fundido with chorizo and Velveeta cheese, calamari, and shrimp cocktail.
We skipped the soup and salad section because we wanted to save room for the "real" food but if you are so inclined they have a few selections like chicken noodle, French onion, chili, and your basic wedge, Caesar, Greek, and Cobb salads.
We also thought about burgers - I mean, how could you not when one is called the Baconator with "bacon, bacon & more bacon" and another is called the Fatty Melt, a double grilled cheese with caramelized onion.
But in the end we went to their signature entree section and pretty much stayed there. The southern fried chicken was perfectly simple - deeply crispy on the outside like a really good onion ring and tender and juicy on the inside. Spaghetti and meatballs satisfied our desire to have more of those meatballs we devoured in the first round of food. The prime rib is cooked for 18 hours and served with a roasted garlic and rosemary crust - cut it with a fork tender and bursting with flavor. Bag of Bones comes in an honest-to-goodness paper bag that became the clown car of food - just when you thought no more of the mouth watering, dry-rubbed baby back ribs or onion rings could come out of it, there was more. I kept expecting a couch to be next. There was also a masterpiece of a Maine lobster roll, served on a fresh griddled bun.
And then there was the meatloaf. Both of us that ordered it and sampled the other dishes (often when the people to whom they belonged weren't looking) decided that it was the clear winner at a table full of them. I wanted to call it spicy but zesty is probably a better word for it, made with beef and pork in a tomato glaze with a side of creamy mashed potatoes. Perfect.
Other options we didn't explore include fish and chips, mussels, fish tacos, steaks, and hot and cold sandwiches including a muffaletta (Italian meat, olive, and roasted pepper salad) that is big enough to serve six. If you eat it by yourself they will waive the $135 cost of it. Don't do this. It's crazy.
Dessert is a long list of cakes, ice creams, and sorbets. We basically told the waiter to surprise us with a couple of them and got a well-constructed seven layer chocolate cake and the most divine piece of cheesecake (with a cherry compote) that any of us had tasted in quite some time.
Speaking of our waiter, a huge part of the evening's success was the staff, which went out of their way to make sure that we never spent more than a moment without something to stuff our faces with. It was deeply appreciated.
Note that the restaurant is also open for breakfast with eggs, omelettes, pancakes, parfaits, pastries, cereals, and more.
Prices are beyond reasonable especially for the amount and quality of food you are getting. Starters, soups, and small salads are all right around the $10 mark; entree salads a few bucks more; sandwiches and burgers are mostly in the $14-$18 range; all of the signature entrees are under $30 and only the steaks cross that boundary. My table of seven had a ridiculous amount of food and more than a few cocktails and we did it for about $60 per person including tax and tip. A normal person could do it for significantly less although I say why be normal when you've got this much good food to eat?