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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
September 30, 2013
15th Anniversary Special: My 15 Most Memorable Moments
Vegas4Visitors.com started in September of 1998 and has gone on to become one of the most respected Las Vegas travel planning websites around. Over the last month, I've been looking back at the last 15 years and to wrap up our anniversary specials, I'm getting personal.
I've gotten to do a lot of really cool things in Vegas over the years; stuff that most regular tourists never get to do. I've stayed at every major hotel, I've played every game, I've eaten at most of the restaurants, I've seen almost all of the shows, and I've visited pretty much all of the major attractions. But since 1998 there have been some really special moments; the ones I will remember forever. Presented, more or less, in the order in which they happened, here are my 15 Most Memorable Moments in Las Vegas.
One of my very first official Vegas research trips me and my best friend Mary, who I was co-writing the Frommer's guide book with, stopped off at a roulette table at The Four Queens. I had never played before and so I promptly put down two whole dollars on 17, my lucky number. Mary chastised me: "playing a single number is a sucker's bet" she said. I shrugged and left my money where it was. The wheel spun and the ball landed... on 17. Much disbelief fueled hooting and hollering followed.
The Venetian Opening
In 1999 I was invited to go to the opening of The Venetian. I had only been writing about Las Vegas for a couple of years and had only been doing the site for a few months, but somehow or other I finagled my way on to the guest list and found myself being led around the under-construction Grand Canal Shoppes by Sheldon Adelson in a hard hat. The hotel didn't actually open because of construction and permitting delays but I got to see a pre-curtain show like none I have ever seen since.
Seeing Cirque du Soeleil for the First Time
When I walked into the Mystère theater at Treasure Island I had no idea what to expect. I had heard about Cirque du Soleil but had never actually seen one of their shows. Keep in mind that at this time there were only two in Vegas, this one and O at Bellagio, so it wasn't the omnipresent experience it is now. It stunned me, wowed me, and literally moved me to tears. It was one of the most profound theater-going experiences I have ever had.
The Millennium in Las Vegas
December 31, 1999 was the dawn of the new millennium and I spent it in Las Vegas at a Bette Midler concert at Mandalay Bay. If you've never seen her live it is a spectacle unlike any other and this one was even more so. All of her classic characters and songs plus little pen lights taped to the bottoms of the seats in case the power went out when Y2K rolled around. They say "I flashed Bette Midler, December 31, 1999." I still have a bunch of them.
Filming for the Travel Channel
In 2001 I was invited to take part in the filming of a Travel Channel special called "The Top 10 Ways to Win in Las Vegas." There were many memorable moments including getting a sunburn while doing an interview on a balcony at The Venetian; trying to "act natural" as I walked through the Luxor casino; drinking a beer at ten o'clock in the morning for one of the shots; and hitting 17... twice!!... on a fake roulette game. They still rerun that special occasionally so you can see what I looked like when I had hair.
The Luxor Suite
While I was in town for that Travel Channel special, I got put up in a suite at the Luxor. And when I say suite, I mean mansion. The two-story digs at the top of the pyramid were bigger than my apartment and remain, to this day, the most luxurious, ridiculous, over-the-top accommodations I have ever had the pleasure of sleeping in.
Driving a Race Car
Lots of people do crazy stuff for thrills in Vegas like the Sky Jump at Stratosphere or the Roller Coaster at New York-New York, but I have never experienced the kind of mad rush I got as I did when I did the Richard Petty Driving Experience and was behind the wheel of a NASCAR race car doing 140 miles per hour just inches from the back bumper of the pacing car in front of me. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
Staying at The Ritz Carlton
There are some hotels that are just special. Some of the ways in which they achieve that are easy to explain but the rest of it is that sort of indefinable sensation that you are experiencing something unique and unforgettable. My first stay at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas, in a gorgeous one-bedroom suite over the top of the lake, snacking on the chocolate covered strawberries that had been delivered to my room, was more than just the sum of its parts. The hotel closed many years ago and I still miss it.
The Opening of Encore
I've gone to several hotel openings over the course of the last 15 years but none were as well executed as the media weekend for Encore, the sister to Wynn Las Vegas. Over the course of several days the staff gave us exclusive behind-the-scenes tours of both hotels, fed us ridiculous amounts of really good food, plied us with almost unlimited alcohol, entertained us, and more. It was the kind of special treatment that makes me really enjoy this job.
Going Backstage at the Bellagio Fountains
Everyone has seen the Bellagio Fountains but few people get to see it the way I did. A guide took me to the control center that overlooks the lake, explained all of the different features, and allowed me to pick a show to run off schedule just so I could see it from that vantage point. The one I picked was "Luck be a Lady," of course.
Meeting Bette Midler
I'm kind of a geek when it comes to Bette Midler. I've been a fan since I was a kid and have seen her in concert more than a dozen times including the aforementioned millennium concert in Vegas. When The Divine Miss M took up her residency at Caesars Palace I bought tickets to the second performance (the opening night was sold out) and then proceeded to see the show three more times including one that was a media event. After that particular show, Bette Midler came out to meet the press and I got to shake her hand, talk to her briefly, and take a picture with her. The idiotic grin on my face is more than enough of an explanation of how big of a deal it was to me.
Winning $15,000 on a Slot Machine
I had been having one of those nearly impossible Vegas nights, where I just kept winning. I was at Aria Las Vegas and my bankroll on the tables and the slots just kept going up. Of course you don't go to bed when that's happening so I stayed up all night and kept gambling, bleary eyed to the point that I almost didn't realize it when the slot I was playing hit a $15,000 jackpot, the biggest I have ever won in Vegas.
Eating at L'Atelier
I know that food shouldn't cost this much but when it is this good, it's totally worth it. Me and a group of old friends went to L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, the divine restaurant at MGM Grand, and had a meal that I will literally remember for the rest of my life. The company I was keeping was a big part of that, of course, but the food... my goodness, the food... is so insanely wonderful that it cannot be forgotten.
Being Kidnapped by David Copperfield
Okay, I wasn't really kidnapped but I still, unexpectedly, found myself in the back of a van at midnight being driving to a secret location where David Copperfield develops all of his magic tricks and has the world's largest collection of magic memorabilia. It's not open to the public but I got a tour of the facility while David Copperfield did random magic tricks. It was one of the weirdest, most amazing nights I think I will ever have in Vegas.
Painting with a Dolphin
I know it's a cliche to say that dolphins are special animals, but there it is. I got to experience that up close at the Mirage Dolphin Habitat when I painted with a dolphin named Osborne. Yes, painted. I held the canvas and he held the brush in his mouth, creating a one-of-a-kind work of art and a one-of-a-kind experience for me.
Vegas4Visitors 15th Anniversary
Okay, this is a bonus one that I have to include because making it to 15 years is going to be an unforgettable moment for me. It's hard to believe that what started as a little sideline has become such a fixture in my life and in the world of Vegas travel planning. Of course it never could've happened with readers like you, so please accept my gratitude and appreciation for keeping me going (both figuratively and literally) for the last 15 years.
One Month to the Life is Beautiful Festival
As if you needed more proof that Downtown Las Vegas is officially the coolest part of the city, the upcoming Life is Beautiful Festival should pretty much remove any lingering doubt. The two day event scheduled for October 26-27 will take over 15 blocks of Downtown and will feature music, food, art, a lecture series, and more aimed at establishing the area as the hip alternative to the tourist-driven Strip.
More than 50 bands will be playing on multiple stages around the festival grounds. Saturday's lineup includes Kings of Leon, Beck, Imagine Dragons, Pretty Lights, Alabama Shakes, Childish Gambino, and dozens more up and coming artists. Sunday features Las Vegas' own The Killers, Vampire Weekend, Empire of the Sun, Zedd, Janelle Monae, Jurassic 5, Living Colour, and more than a dozen other bands and solo artists.
The food aspect will include more than 60 chefs, more than two dozen wineries, and a similar number of breweries all setting up shop in the Culinary Village, a Moroccan-style bazaar. Among the Food Network friendly roster of talent is Hubert Keller of the amazing Fleur at Mandalay Bay, Cat Cora, Michael Mina of PUB 1842 and several other Vegas restaurants, Tom Colicchio, Charlie Palmer, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (the Two Hot Tamales) of Border Grill at Mandalay Bay, Paul Bartolotta of Bartolotta at Wynn Las Vegas, Todd English of Todd English PUB and Olives, Kerry Simon of KGB, Carla Pellegrino, André Rochat of Alizé, and more.
A separate Alchemy Garden is going to be set up for beer and wine tastings and events and there will also be a climate-controlled tent for the Chefs on Stage cooking demonstrations. Cat Cora, Hubert Keller, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, Kerry Simon, Todd English, and others will be taking part.
There will also be a series of special events (that require separate ticket purchase) including an 8-course meal from chefs like Charlie Palmer and Paul Bartolotta to raise money for a local food bank; Grills and Guitars, which will be a twist on a backyard BBQ with food from more than a dozen chefs; and a couple of Culinary Crawls that will take guests to several different restaurants for food tastings.
The art portion of the program will start with street art created throughout the festival area by renowned street artists from around the world. The murals, stencils, and street posters will get started before the event and will get their finishing touches during the festival, with many of the pieces becoming a permanent part of the Downtown landscape.
In addition, several special art shows will be staged including one commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas entertainment community is coming out in force with special performances six different Cirque du Soleil shows, Absinthe, Human Nature, JabbaWockeeZ, Million Dollar Quartet, Recycled Percussion, and Rock of Ages.
Lastly, a speaker series is going to happen throughout the festival weekend with TED type lectures from Zappos.com founder Tony Hsieh, Harry Shum Jr. from Glee, PX90 inventor Tony Horton, executives from Cirque du Soleil, UFC fighters, Food Network star Aaron Sanchez, the co-founder of Word Press Matt Mullenweg, endurance athlete Jason Lester, and more from the worlds of business, medicine, and beyond.
Tickets are $95 for a single day pass or $159 for a 2-day pass, both of which include access to all of the bands, art, cooking areas (excluding the special events), and lecture series. A VIP pass is $349.50 and includes access to a VIP lounge; special concert and event viewing areas; VIP food and beverage concessions; and more.
You can get tickets and more information at lifeisbeautifulfestival.com.
Las Vegas Zoo Closed
The Las Vegas Zoological and Botanical Park closed suddenly last week, leaving many to ask one very important question: "Las Vegas had a zoo?"
Yes, it did, but you are forgiven if you didn't know about it. Located on the north side of town on Rancho Road near Texas Station, the facility was not exactly worth going out of your way to visit. A few dozen animals, mostly of the small desert variety, were housed in fairly basic enclosures that provided little in the way of must-see entertainment.
The zoo was a private endeavor that has come under fire over the years for its treatment of the animals it housed. There had been several investigations but it wasn't until last week that the Animal Control Board and the USDA stepped in to shut down the facility. According to reports, the entire staff quit leaving the animals untended.
To further complicate matters, the owner of the facility, Pat Dingle, was charged with misdemeanor battery after allegedly taking a swing at a reporter who was trying to interview him about the closure of the zoo.
As of last week, federal official were moving all of the animals to other facilities and there is no expectation that the zoo will reopen.
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Cutest Idea Ever Award of the Week goes to Caesars Palace for their inaugural Running of the Bulldogs. The event, held September 28, featured more than 30 bulldogs running a course in front of the hotel and generally being adorable. Lola was crowned the "top dog" and was given a laurel wreath and dog treats while her owners got a 2-night stay at Caesars and dinner at Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill.
The Men are from Mars Award of the Week goes to The Cosmopolitan, which has locked down pop star Bruno Mars to not only open their new theater but to perform there several times in 2014. The Chelsea is a new 3,000 seat performance space set to open with Mars over New Year's Eve weekend. It's going to be located on the 4th floor near the pool.
The Sweeth Tooth Award of the Week goes to Buddy V's, the upcoming restaurant from TLC's "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro, which is now set to debut at the Palazzo on October 7, 2013. It will be located in the space formerly occupied by First Food and Bar, on the second floor of the Shoppes at Palazzo overlooking The Strip. The restaurant will feature classic American-Italian cuisine and lots of Valastro's famous desserts.
Shopping Review: Rogue Toys
When you think of Vegas, you think of fun and games but not necessarily of toys. That could be changing as the city now has a second fantastic store devoted to the devotees of collectible, classic, and cool toys.
The first is, of course, The Toy Shack at Neonopolis. Rogue Toys, located on Las Vegas Boulevard a few blocks south of Fremont Street, is not as big or polished but what it lacks in on-the-shelf inventory it more than makes up for in the completeness of its collections. Looking for a "Star Wars" action figure? This place has every single one of them ever produced through "Return of the Jedi."
That's right, sci-fi nerd; I just made your head explode.
Action figures take up the bulk of the room in the display cases and racks with Transformers, The Simpsons, Star Trek, sports, and superheroes of all varieties represented. They also have Hot Wheels both new and old, Barbie and her friends, Living Dead dolls, and a lot more. If there was ever an episode of "The Big Bang Theory" where the main characters visited a toy store, it would look just like this.
Prices are all over the map. You can find things for a few bucks or for hundreds depending on the level of collectability.
Between this place and The Toy Shack, Las Vegas seems poised to become the capital of fun, games, AND toys.
616 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Suite B
Las Vegas, NV 89101
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+
Nightlife Review: The Velveteen Rabbit
The Fremont East Entertainment District has been growing at an incredible pace, driven mostly by the introduction of several taverns and bars aimed at a hip crowd of locals and discriminating tourists. The Arts District, on the other hand, has mostly been focusing its redevelopment efforts on things like boutiques, galleries, and art installations to varying degrees of success.
Located on Main Street just across the street from the fab Retro Vegas antique store, the Velveteen Rabbit has a noticeable hipster vibe to it. The crowd is almost exclusively local, younger, and seeming to be the type that would be more inclined to have a craft cocktail or mircobrew while discussing politics and art than to have jagerbombs while screaming "Wooooo!"
The space is small, with a bar and some stools, a couple of places to sit, and some standing and chatting open floor areas. I'm going to call the decor smart industrial chic but only because there isn't a simple classification to put it in. Exposed timbers in the ceiling and roughhewn walls give it the factory feel while interesting touches like beer taps shaped like hands and a curio cabinet holding the liquor give it that air of intelligence.
They have a long list of specialty cocktails and beers, all at prices that are almost shockingly cheap when compared to those on The Strip.
I don't know that I would necessarily call this a destination bar for Vegas visitors, especially since there is nothing else of note within walking distance (at least not at night). But who knows... in a few years there may be a lot more bars like this in the Arts District and it could become as much of a nightlife destination as the Fremont East Entertainment District has become.
The Velveteen Rabbit
18b Arts District
1218 S. Main St.
Las Vegas, NV 89104
Vegas4Visitors Grade: B+