Hidden Vegas: Aladdin’s Desert Passage


Looking skyward for the next entry in my series…

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Finding remnants from the bygone days of Vegas is always a treat. I’ve been scouring the mezzanines, peering under tarps and poking a camera through keyholes to add to my Hidden Vegas series. In the previous installment, I even flew overhead to photograph massive construction projects that are hidden from the average tourist’s point of view.

Recently I looked to the skies once more…from the inside of Miracle Mile Shops of Planet Hollywood. And there I found remains of the formerly Arabian-themed Desert Passage Shops.

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I started coming to Las Vegas in 2005, and had only been through the Aladdin Resort once or twice. At that time, the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain was in deep trouble, with closures taking place around the country.

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The announcement that Aladdin would be re-branded as Planet Hollywood Hotel Casino seemed very foolhardy. Sure, the movement to de-theme Strip resorts was in full swing, and Middle-eastern-flavored places like Aladdin and Sahara had fallen out of fashion in a post-9/11 world. But Planet Hollywood??? That decision seemed as out-of-touch as renaming it after dying restaurant chains like Chi-Chi’s or Kenny Roger’s Roasters.

Shows how much I knew, as Planet Hollywood Hotel is now a hip, popular middle-tier destination, with stars like Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani on the marquee. Somehow their biggest draw was Britney Spears, proving that there’s still plenty of dried-up cheese on the Planet Hollywood menu.

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The existing hotel is the second Aladdin to be built on this part of the Strip. The original opened in 1966 and was imploded in 1998. A new Aladdin was rebuilt from the ground up and opened its doors in 2000. Seven years later it officially became Planet Hollywood Resort.

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The Arabian motif was gradually stripped from both the hotel and adjoining Desert Passage Shops, which received a new frontage and glossy modern exterior. Inside, the corridors got a top-to-bottom makeover. Most of the ceiling was painted into a matte-gray finish, discouraging shoppers from gazing upward at the former faux skies.

However, not everything was taken away. There are two distinct areas within the mall where the original decor survives. One surrounds the V Theater complex and fountain show.

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The other is nestled under the indoor rainstorm.

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Perhaps it’s telling that the domes, citadels and faux village structures that comprise the Desert Passage remnants exist where other attractions demand your attention…and offer a convenient distraction. You’ll find be hard-pressed to find any mention of them on the glitzy, contemporary Miracle Mile website.

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The Arabian architecture of Desert Passage is clearly…and hilariously…out-of-sync with the rest of the Mile.

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Until very recently, the south-facing exterior of the mall along Harmon Avenue still carried the Aladdin facade. The removal of Krave nightclub and eventual opening of Buffalo Wild Wings and another Nacho Daddy finally jump-started the finishing of that section.

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It’s uncertain if the remaining Arabic interior will eventually get stripped out and de-themed. But for the time being, it’s another chapter in my book of Vegas curiosities.

This article previously appeared on another site. It has been revised with updated information.

Images: Sammasseur with additional stills from Miracle Mile Shops via Facebork, wishuwerehere.com and Greg C.

Hidden Vegas: Man-made Wonders from the Sky


I do a fly-over of the Valley to reveal more unusual structures….

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I’ve had a great time bringing you our series of “Hidden Vegas” oddities…things that are sometimes right under your nose. Like the abandoned Rocket Ship Ride at Circus Circus. A cleverly-hidden unfinished St. Regis Tower at Venetian. The massive phallic erection inside Shops at Crystals. Today’s entries aren’t on the Strip, but if you’ve flown into the city a few times, you’ve no doubt seen one or more.

First up is Ascaya, a failed luxury housing project. This massive abandoned development in the Henderson area is etched into the side of the McCullough mountain range. It’s easy to spot from the sky, southeast of the Strip and not far (when viewing from a plane seat, that is) from the M Resort.

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The Ascaya project was intended to provide 331 lots for high-end mansions. It was shut down and barricaded in 2009, after more than $200 million was spent on blasting into the mountainside to construct housing pads and connecting roadways.

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My buddy, photographer Greg C. offered these memories:

I recall shooting some pics up there in the foothills near that development back in 2009. I biked up there a number of times from the Anthem housing area where my parents used to live. Got a rude shock one day when an accidental blasting charge went off in open air as they were working in another zone near that area.

I was actually facing in that direction and could see the distortion of the shock wave hit me about a half-mile away. The shock wave shattered windows in nearby completed homes. I have been to eleven hotel implosions and this shock wave exceeded anything I ever felt at those…..

I dug up one pic from 2009 showing my bike out there in the foothills behind that area…..you can see the Strip in the distance… Used to go up there all the time…..

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“You can also see where some of the work was going on cutting into the hills.” Greg C.

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“You can see the Ascaya terraces here from behind. The city is beyond the ridge”. 

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“The homes on the little hill knob were the ones that took blast damage in 2005. (photo from 2011)

According to VegasInc, the site was re-opened in August of 2014 to sell off parcels of land in phases. The article also described plans for a clubhouse to lure prospective builders, with an intended summer 2015 start date. I can see no evidence of it in my aerial photos taken in July 2016 .

The official Ascaya website had you believing that everything in the project is going according to plans of its creator, Hong Kong billionaire Henry Cheng. Panoramic motion photography sweeps over the gigantic corpse layout and invites you to envision the gorgeous community that awaits. Good luck with that…even the site itself appears to be dead these days, although a dedicated Facebook page is (somewhat) alive.

Only time will tell if the Ascaya Luxury Community ever lives up to the promises of its designers. Until then, much like the Fontainebleau behemoth on the north Strip, Ascaya will be a shrine…and a testament….to over-reaching ambition.

Once your eyes have finished taking in the Ascaya debacle, allow them to drift in a southeasterly direction. There you should be able to spot another massive project, albeit a very successful one.

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The Nevada Solar One plant lies in the Eldorado Valley, south of the region between Las Vegas and Boulder City. If you’ve ever taken a day trip to Laughlin, you’re sure to have seen this massive solar power plant. After all, it covers 400 acres of prime sun-fed Nevada desert.

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Nevada Solar One took sixteen months to construct and went online in June of 2007. Unlike the Ascaya project, which literally blew away fifteen million cubic yards of mountain rock, the Solar One plant’s 760 parabolic trough concentrators follow the natural terrain of the desert floor.

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The silent and somewhat aesthetic complex generates about 136 million kilowatt-hours annually. And according to Wikipedia, the amount of carbon emissions it reduces by creating clean energy is the equivalent of removing 20,000 automobiles from the road each year.

A different kind of power plant…hydro-electric…is just a short drive from Nevada Solar One. Of course, I’m talking about Hoover Dam. This man-made wonder continues to generate enormous amounts of electricity for Arizona, California, and Nevada. That’s despite the fact that continually-dropping water levels have dramatically changed the appearance of Lake Mead.

Man-made Lake Mead has shrunken in both depth and width, with shorelines crawling far inward throughout the past several years. The entire Lake Mead Marina had to be relocated in 2008 as water disappeared. It was floated two miles downstream to join Las Vegas Marina. This was a huge effort that moved hundreds of boats, slips, a restaurant, and store at the pace of 1 mph.

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Lake Mead Marina was only one of several dock and marina relocations required due to the drop in depth. Flying overhead, you can clearly see what remains of this dwindling body of water…and where the shoreline once was. It’s a sad, extreme example of the impact of climate change.

Just a little farther north of Lake Mead, you may spot another debacle to rival Ascaya. But at least this one actually was completed before falling apart. Lake Las Vegas Resort is a never-was destination of hotels, residences, golf courses, shops, restaurants and a casino.

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The centerpiece of this resort community is a 320-acre artificial lake that was built atop the Las Vegas Wash. The wash feeds contaminated…and radioactive…run-off from the Vegas valley into Lake Mead (keep that in mind if you’re ever planning a boating or swimming excursion there). Filling of the new lake began in 1990, and over 3,500 acres of land surrounding it were made available for retail and housing development.

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Since then, Lake Las Vegas Resort has had a depressing history of closures, lawsuits, and massive debt. Hotels have been closed, re-opened by other owners and then closed again. Empty storefronts spread out across the retail “Village” area and abandoned golf courses eventually turned from green to brown (they have recently sprung back). The Monte Lago Casino ceased operations twice before being relaunched as a barely-used events center.

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Lake Las Vegas Resort, surrounded by unfinished construction projects.

As with Ascaya, the official Lake Las Vegas website is full of gorgeous photos depicting a successful and glamorous destination. But one look from above will tell you that it’s anything but.

This article previously appeared on another site. It has been updated and expanded.

Photos: Sammasseur (aerial), Greg C.

Hidden Vegas: Into “The Vortex” at Linq Hotel


Another elusive treasure that’s yours to discover…perhaps for only a short time longer…

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If you’re a frequent traveler to Las Vegas, you might think that you know the city pretty well.  It is, after all, one of the most visitor-friendly cities in the world.  And yet, there’s a separate side to Vegas that you may not ever see.  It’s vast, exists on many levels, and some of them are right under your nose (like the never-completed St. Regis Tower at Venetian, hidden behind a canvas facade).

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Vegas photographer Greg C. and I are what he likes to call  “urban explorers.”  We get a certain thrill from finding our way to the balconies, closed-off corridors, rooftops and recesses of Vegas structures. And we’ve decided to share our discoveries with a series we’re calling “Hidden Vegas.”

My fascination with this city’s secrets was ignited back in 2007 when I lost some memory cards in front of the Mirage volcano.  Hours later I was escorted to the casino’s Lost and Found department to claim them. Luckily, that office was deep within the bowels of the Mirage.

The stroll back there seemed to take forever, and I was amazed at the enormous amount of activity that most folks would never lay their eyes on.  It was like stumbling upon a forgotten city…dazzling and unforgettable.

The Strip isn’t the only place where you can go treasure hunting. Downtown Las Vegas is a veritable goldmine for the urban explorer. There are catacombs inside just about every hotel on Fremont Street, especially at places like Binions and the now-destroyed Las Vegas Club, where closed-off hotel rooms and shuttered restaurants are just begging to be rediscovered.

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While we don’t encourage doing anything illegal, it’s hard to resist the urge to peer behind a rarely-open door, especially when you have a camera or phone with you. My  buddy Scott Roeben, that cool dude at VitalVegas, has become fond of regularly posting his own “security breaches”. Perhaps it’s the reporter in us, ever-present, that hopes to catch a glimpse of the newest venue rising up behind construction barricades. Even so, if you explore, do so wisely and at your own risk.

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I’m 2015, while searching for a less-crowded restroom at the premiere of Mat Franco – Magic Reinvented Nightly, I headed to the fifth floor of Linq Hotel, which was once a collection of Imperial Palace restaurants. These days it has been named the “Bloq Room” and was a temporary home to Divas Las Vegas as their theater was undergoing renovations.

On the far side of Bloq Room, a pair of open doors beckoned me towards a not-quite-finished escalator that led towards a vast outdoor space. And beyond that was…(cue the drum roll)…THE VORTEX!!!!

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The Vortex might seem eerily familiar to Star Trek fans. Perhaps that’s due to its resemblance to the God-like artificial intelligence known as V’Ger from the 1979 theatrical movie STAR TREK: The Motion Picture.

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                The Enterprise encounters “V’Ger” in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)…

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You have no doubt noticed this incredible light show, which beckons visitors away from the Strip and into the pedestrian mall that now shares the Linq name with the former Quad Hotel. The colorful swirl of lights is an eye-catcher from the ground, but standing underneath it is absolutely surreal.  The dizzying, ever-changing digital tornado could easily give you a feeling of vertigo, especially if you’re prone to motion sickness. Epileptics, don’t even think about prowling around up here.

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But what exactly is this space and why isn’t it being utilized? Ask the show performers and employees at Linq, and the most common response is “I heard it’s going to be a nightclub”.  So why isn’t it yet? Pure Nightclub at Caesars Palace became Omnia in less time that Vortexhas been sitting here, virtually forgotten.

Press releases stated that the renovation of Linq Theater was the final step in Linq Hotel‘s conversion.  But I wasn’t so sure of that, as my explorations also came across the former third-floor bar/food court/sportsbook, walled off and awaiting renovations.

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I do know that the Vortex Deck has been used for special events, as a Fourth of July fireworks viewing party was held there that summer for Linq VIP customers. And, we spotted a small stage during our exploration that appeared to have been recently used.

According to the Vortex information page on Caesars Entertainment website, this massive space and light show can be yours…for a price. The entire deck is available for parties, catered events, concerts, weddings etc.  Prices aren’t mentioned anywhere, but we guess it would cost a pretty penny to have such a sprawling venue – with an incredible view – all to yourselves.

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For us that evening, the space, the solitude, the silence…and the view…were absolutely free. And totally priceless. But with the  recent announcement of both a zip line and the bizzare Kind Heaven project, the future of this spot seems uncertain.

So, the next time you’re in Sin City, consider putting on your hiking shoes and setting out to find your own “Hidden Vegas”. But be sure to share those photos!

This article previously appeared on another site. It has been updated and expanded.

Photos: Sammasseur, Greg C.

Hidden Vegas: Structures Hiding In Plain Sight


Look closer…not everything is as obvious as it appears…

Welcome to “Hidden Vegas”, teasing your brain with questions like “How did I miss that?”. I’ll take a close look at structures that are more than meets the eye…and others which have been repurposed into something fresh and new.

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Let’s start off with the St. Regis Tower. As seen above, the unfinished structure between Venetian and Palazzo resorts was once planned to be a condominium tower. An economic collapse and financial trouble for Sands Corporation froze the $600 million project in 2008. Thus, it joined a list of rusting eye sores that suddenly littered the Strip and surrounding areas.

Sands Corporation forked over a million dollars for a custom tarp, meant to cleverly disguise the skeleton while the powers-that-be decided what to do with it (the market for Strip residences isn’t what it was when the first blueprints for St. Regis were being drawn).

Whether it ends up being dismantled, completed for a timeshare operation or used as an additional tower for Venetian/Palazzo is anyone’s guess. But for now, St. Regis continues to exist as a genuine mirage – a building that isn’t really there…in a land of make-believe.

Now, if only someone could toss an invisibility cloak over the unfinished Fontainebleau. At least that monstrosity now has a new name (The Drew), new owners (Witkoff\Marriott) and a projected  opening date of 2020. Call me “skeptical”.

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Planet Hollywood began life as a chain of celebrity-fueled restaurants. Then it became a casino resort that was once the Aladdin Hotel. And the Aladdin Hotel was once known as…the Aladdin Hotel.

Don’t be confused. The original Aladdin began life as the English-themed Tally-Ho. It opened in 1963, but was rechristened a year later as King’s Crown…which promptly failed. A few years and several million dollars later, the Aladdin Hotel Casino opened up on the same spot.

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During the summer of 1976, Neil Diamond became the first performer at the new Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts, constructed on what was once a golf course. The huge venue, boasting a glass ceiling, was the only thing standing when the Aladdin was leveled in 1998.

A new Aladdin went up around the free-standing building, this time integrating it into the casino design….and forever hiding the exterior view from the naked eye (unless you’re on a rooftop, like Greg C. was for this recent photo).

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This past February 2018, the AXIS Powered By Monster Theater (we aren’t making that up) which replaced “Art” with a tart (Britney Spears, natch) was once again renamed as Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood.

That gorgeous open ceiling was covered by a non-transparent dome years ago. It’s current seating capacity is greatly downsized from the original 7,500 monster (see what we did?) to 4,600 for residency shows. Even so, Zappos remains one of the largest venues on the Strip, and the largest of its kind in the United States.

Anyone who has walked the full length of MGM Grand Resort will vouch for its enormous footprint. The sprawling property is even larger when including Signature at MGM Grand. That three-tower annex sits on land that was once home to MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park. The main building, though, has a secret that few current visitors are aware of: the west wing once stood alone as the Marina Hotel.

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Marina Hotel opened in 1975, had 714 guest rooms and its own casino. It was closed in 1990 to become part of the new location for MGM Grand, the original name for the current Bally’s (did you follow that?). Instead of leveling Marina, it was cleverly integrated into the new, Oz-themed structure, which opened right before Christmas in 1993.

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MGM Grand’s “West Wing” rooms are smaller and less expensive than those in the newer portions of the resort. However, they’re sleek, stylish, and still a favorite for solo travelers…and those who enjoy easy access to the Strip.

The Shops at Crystals might be touted as a world-class shopping destination, but for some of us it’s more like a mausoleum or an echo chamber. Highly regarded premium designers have locations here, so if you have thousands for impulse purchases, Crystals is your place.

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                (Photo by Scott Roeben, VitalVegas.com)

For the rest of us, one thing alone makes the lengthy walk into the Simon Corporation mall worthwhile: gawking and chuckling at that giant wooden penis. A perfect example of “What were they thinking?” , the  multi-story shaft and scrotum are home to Mastros Ocean Club aka “Treehouse”. I’ll just leave this here:

Our final entry sits at the opposite end of the Strip, directly in the shadow of the aforementioned Fontainebleau Resort carcass. It’s an industrial-looking tower next to Circus Circus.

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The family-friendly Circus Circus resort boasts Adventuredome, a glass-enclosed amusement park that opened its doors (and attractions) in 1993. Before that, thrill-seekers had to go outside to get their pulses racing. And they probably bypassed the sedate-looking merry-go-round for a shot at the Rocket Ship Ride.

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This earth-bound cousin to Stratosphere‘s sky-high “Big Shot” attraction took travelers up a 210-foot tower, which undoubtedly offered a terrific view of the Riviera Hotelacross the street.

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In 1992, the tower was repurposed as a bungee-jumping attraction, utilizing an elevator that, according to bungee.com, is the tallest single-stage lift in the world.  A reflecting pool was added to allow jumpers to witness their own descent.

These days, the pool has been filled in and seemingly forgotten. The rocket itself sits earthbound, too, as shown in this photo by Greg C. It was taken on January 2015…from the base of Stratosphere’s “Big Shot” ride.

This article previously appeared on another site. It has been updated and expanded.

Photos: Greg C., UNLV Digital Library, bungee.com, Flickr.com, Scott Roeben via VitalVegas

Malta and Tenerife Await


Vegas Unfiltered will be taking a two-week hiatus…

I hope everyone is enjoying the dawn of springtime. Yours truly will be jaunting off on an extended visit to Malta and Tenerife (in the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa) with brief stops in London and Barcelona.

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I’ll be returning to the States on May 4th and will hop right back into things here asap after that. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to keep you up to date via the official Facebook Page. That is, of course, as time allows.

Until then, keep thinking those happy thoughts, thank you for reading my site and enjoy your Vegas daydreams!

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                                              Sam Novak aka “Sammasseur”

“Drag Brunch” at Treasure Island is a Bold, Giddy Blast


Señor Frog’s Wakes You Up With Breakfast Burritos, Mimosas…and Drag Queens?

These days, the opportunities to say “Only in Vegas” are getting harder to come by. The lions have left MGM Grand.  The volcano at Mirage rarely erupts these days. Bowling with “glamazons” at Drink and Drag Lounge has faded into memory. But there’s an activity in Sin City that you most likely can’t do at home. It’s Señor Frog’s Drag Brunch at Treasure Island.

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When I first heard about Treasure Island’s Drag Brunch, I didn’t think much of it. This writer has covered many weekly mixed-crowd events that quickly “petered” out (no pun intended). But during my weekend mornings at home in Oregon, I noticed plenty of Vegas friends tagging themselves and checking in at the Brunch on the official Facebook page.

Would this be the one that actually catches on? Chances were pretty high, as the concept had already been the rage at Señor Frog’s locations in MiamiNew York City, and Fire Island Pines.

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Then I started getting a Groupon offer that was very tempting. Buffet, unlimited mimosas and a show for $45.00? I was already a fan of Señor Frog’s menu and wacky atmosphere. Throw in some seasoned RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants (like CoCo MontreseDesree St. JamesKahanna Montrese and India Ferrah) dishing out racy comedy and hit songs onstage and throughout the venue…and this makes for one heck of a deal.

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There’s also a VIP option with two-hour premium open bar and preferred seating. Prices are higher at the official site, which also lists a standing-room show-only option with cash bar for $10. I was told by an insider that the Groupon deal will be extended indefinitely, so that’s the way to go.

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As luck would have it, I was just about to purchase my Groupon when I got an official invitation to review the brunch. Despite a whirlwind schedule, I accepted and arrived early enough to take some photos…and get an early jump on the mimosas best seats.

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The venue on the second floor of Senor Frog’s overlooks the Strip (and lagoon for the former Sirens of T.I. show, another lost attraction) and has a dedicated bar and DJ booth. Most tables are large and “family style”, so you may make a friend or two before the show begins.

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If you’ve never attended a female-impersonation show before, this is the perfect opportunity to lose your gender-bender virginity. Drag entertainment has been around for centuries, going as far back as ancient Rome. Even Frank Marino’s DIVAS Las Vegas has been running on the Strip (in one form or another) for over 30 years.

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If you’re feeling a little insecure, the basic admission package includes unlimited mimosas. There’s also a cash bar staffed by muscular masculine bartenders. That should help to loosen your inhibitions and prepare you for the wild ride ahead.

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The Vegas version of Drag Brunch is emceed by Shannel (Bryan Watkins), whom you may have seen at Divas Las Vegas53X at Paris or Piranha Nightclub. Shannel has lightning-fast wit, amazing skill as a female impersonator and just enough gravitas to act as house mom to hold the younger “girls” slightly in check.

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Drag Brunch host “Shannel” will elevate your idea of drag queens….                

The jokes flew fast and furious, as did the wigs, lips and elaborate costumes. A cast of four performers covered the entire floor with outrageous dance numbers, wonderful spontaneity and laughs galore.

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Be aware that drag shows are extremely interactive. You may find yourself as part of a comical moment, dance number or group toast. Almost anything can happen here, but that’s why you come to Vegas, right? (BTW, it’s traditional at drag shows to wave some tip money at the performers, so you might want to have some singles ready).

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Since this review originally appeared on another site, I’ve attended Drag Brunch on numerous weekends and consistently have a great time. It’s a great choice for bachelor/bachelorette parties, anniversaries and any special occasion. They even hosted my birthday party this year, as you can see below.

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If you want to return home with your own “Waking Up In Vegas” tale, this is the one that you want to tell. Senor Frog’s Drag Brunch is a smash hit. Bring your appetite, a camera…and a sense of adventure. But leave your stuffy, uptight friends behind.

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Senor Frog’s Drag Brunch is held every Saturday and Sunday at Treasure Island Hotel Casino. Seating times are 11:30am and 2pm. Ages 21 and over. Prices range from $10 entry-only cash bar to $79.95 VIP including open bar and photo with cast. Group rates available. Discount admission via Groupon starting at $45 via this link.

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This review previously appeared on another site. It has been updated with current information and photos.

Photos: Sammasseur, Toshia Marvin, Drag Brunch

Wishing You The Happiest Thanksgiving


Warmest wishes and gratitude for being a friend…and a reader….

I want to express my gratitude to each and every one of you who have followed me here from other sites…or found my writings on your own. As we come up on nearly a half-year of reviews, news and eye candy galore, the thrill of bringing you new and updated articles becomes more and more enjoyable.

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Have an excellent holiday season and please keep returning. Vegas Unfiltered will continue to grow, evolve and become more attractive in the coming weeks and months ahead. Just like you!

Westgate Chef Michael McNeilly

Best wishes from Sammasseur…