The Remarkable Double Life of CELESTIA’s Roman Mokrenko


Ukrainian aerialist’s gravity-defying career path will astound you…

Click HERE to read via BestOfVegas.com…

Sometimes the pressure of our daily routine makes us say “I just want to run away and join the circus”. But have you ever known someone who actually has? Well, meet a man who ditched his white-collar career for a chance at Sin City’s newest big tent spectacular.

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Roman Mokrenko is a 29-year-old Ukrainian from the port city of Odessa. Known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea”, Odessa boasts amazing architecture and a renowned Opera and Ballet Theater. The natural beauty of the Ukraine is as much a part of Roman as his love for physical arts. A longtime athlete, he studied acrobatics before pursuing a career in law. While attending the National University Odessa Law Academy, he simultaneously became a Junior Lieutenant in Military School. 

Being both a lawyer and a military officer didn’t extinguish Roman’s desire to accomplish something artistic:

One moment I just realized that this office life is not for me. I cannot live without a “scene”. Thank God I have a background in acrobatics and artistic gymnastics…I almost never stop training. There is too much energy in my head and body that I have to “splash” somewhere.

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If you’re going to make a splash, what better pool than the Las Vegas entertainment scene? There are countless productions here that incorporate aerialists, gymnasts, acrobats and contortionists. So when Roman discovered a casting call for the new circus-style show CELESTIA at The STRAT, he decided to take the plunge.

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I applied for the casting without much hope. Here you can see the best artists of the world. I thought it was impossible, but now I’m here! This is my favorite part of life in Las Vegas. I have seen almost every show.

Roman arrived in Las Vegas on Valentine’s Day 2018. You might say that this was the beginning of a love affair with Sin City’s desert. Although he misses life by the sea, the excitement of performing in Vegas has allowed Roman to reach new heights. He just had to learn how to deal with the scorching climate.

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Air conditioning saves us from extreme heat. But sometimes when I have practice in the afternoon it just helps to warm up and train without a shirt. On stage, the artist must look divine. Not for nothing that I train every day and stay on these diets. If you have something to show off, then why not?

He may joke about flaunting his chiseled abs, but Roman’s physique has landed him several modeling gigs…some of them a bit unusual.

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I was a sketch model several times in New York City when the show was being revised. People sit in circles, have drinks and make sketches while you’re almost naked. I’ve had several shoots with photographers…one was for a foot fetish site, haha!

That Ukrainian sense of humor comes through in Roman’s character work for CELESTIA, but it’s his physical abilities that stand out. He hopes that audiences will be inspired by his feats and channel that into their own fitness journey.

We’re on our phones all the time, but we can do it with some “profit”. Keeping in shape is much easier than going in and out of form. For ordinary people (not performers), 30 minutes a day will be enough. Just walk on a treadmill and watch a movie or play a game.  

When not entertaining crowds, Roman still finds himself in the company of fellow artists. After a massage and hearty breakfast at Omelet House, he heads to a very unique school:

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I like Nevada Rhythmic Academy. It’s a place where I can train, invent new acts, meet artists from other shows and try something new together. There is a real aura of the gym in which I grew up.

Mokrenko is considering buying a home here in Las Vegas, but there are a few dreams overseas yet to realize:

One day I’d like to be live on a stage with Ludovico Einaudi, Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds or Hans Zimmer. They are my favorites. And I want to perform with Nederlands Dans Theater. It will be an amazing mix between ballet and aerial performance…like dancing in the air!

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CELESTIA performs Wednesday through Sunday at 7 p.m. with additional 9 p.m. shows Friday through Sunday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The SAHARA Is Back – But Is It Too Late?


The iconic hotel gets yet another chance after the SLS debacle…

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The Sahara Hotel was one of the first casino resorts I stayed at when the Vegas love affair began. This was back in 2005, just when the landmark property was about to plummet to its lowest depths. Once a legendary destination, Sahara had become a place of despair. That being said, it still had its purpose as a value destination for those on a budget.

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In 2007, Sam Nazarian and Stockbridge Real Estate Group purchased the Sahara…and quickly ran it into the ground. My final stay in the summer of 2009 was so awful that I vowed it would be my last. Exposed electrical wiring, broken lamps, cigarette burns in the carpeting and furniture, golf ball-sized hole in the shower stall, broken bed frame, filthy casino restrooms….well, you get the idea.

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Nazarian locked the Sahara’s doors on May 16th, 2011, taping up a handwritten sign as his final farewell. To those of us who knew what he’d done to the place, this served more as a threat than a beacon of hope:

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When the property’s liquidation sale was announced, I flew in from Oregon to attend. We bargain-hunters and nostalgia-seekers were escorted onto the property in controlled groups, required to listen to a presentation before being unleashed to go exploring. Our guide told us that the hotel would eventually be re-opening under the name “SLS”. The fellow next to me said “S.O.S.? What kind of name is that for a hotel?”. If he only knew how prescient his question was…

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SLS Las Vegas opened three years and three months later. I was one of the first guests to check in on opening day….and just about everything went awry. No elevators in the parking garage, malfunctioning elevators in the hotel towers, being assigned a room that was already occupied, problems with the TV and more. Of course, all of these things were growing pains and could be easily forgiven for a newly-opened establishment.

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What couldn’t be overlooked was that the concept of turning a rundown north-Strip relic into an expensive knockoff of a Los Angeles hit was a fool’s errand. Nazarian and team had entertained the idea that LA residents would come to Vegas to experience what they already had at home. They packed the SLS with not one but SEVEN Hollywood-based Fred Segal shops, taking up every retail outlet within the resort. Within a year, they were all gone.

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Some things vanished even quicker that the Segal stores. An excellent new second-floor buffet was shuttered after only three months. LA-based Griddle Cafe lasted an entire five months before pulling out. Foxtail Nightclub was quickly shut down and LIFE Nightclub was gutted/converted into The Foundation Room (allowing for Foxtail’s pool club to reopen at night).

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The musical chairs within the building were shuffled as frequently as the execs in the boardroom. SLS Las Vegas was, without a doubt, a resounding flop from every perspective. All because it tried to be something it wasn’t and deliver something the city never needed.

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What Sahara really needed was another chance to be the Sahara again. Refreshed, revitalized, reborn as “The New Sahara”, perhaps….but NOT re-branded into an expensive luxury destination built on a rickety old foundation. The little nods to Sahara’s past had been peppered into the SLS decor, but this was essentially lip service to people like me…those who continue to embrace Sin City’s past.

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But the Sahara’s soul had been ripped out along with the theme, camels and that unforgettable neon porte cochere. It was replaced by bare concrete and a nearly-colorless, white/grey/black palette with bare ceilings, exposed duct work and a bar that looked like a boardroom full of monkeys. An artistic representation of reality, perhaps?

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Last week’s announcement that current owners Meruelo Group would be restoring the Sahara name was met with great fanfare (Scott Roeben’s VitalVegas.com readers knew quite awhile ago that this was in the works). It’s the hottest topic on Vegas message boards, Facebook pages and blogs like mine right now, so there’s interest in the old property after all.

Mostly everyone seems to like what’s been happening at the old/new Sahara. Meruelo has re-acquired a tower that had been taken over by W Hotels. They’ve restored full in-house operations and are putting a reported $100 million or more into additional renovations, much of them to address the despised flaws in the SLS room redesigns. Even the Casbar Lounge is back in a modern incarnation!

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             Sahara owner Alex Meruelo and wife Liset and name-reveal gala…

The company’s founder Alex Meruelo had this to say last week about the property’s future:

The SAHARA played an important role in the evolution of the destination. And, we are now responsible for shaping a new narrative. We are writing the next chapter in the city’s evolution, for the love of Vegas.
We are committed to delivering an intimate, unexpected and memorable visit for our guests. We want people who stay with us to say, ‘My God what an experience!’ because experience leads to memories. And, that’s what we want to create, memories and experiences you won’t forget.
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                                               Casbar Lounge then…
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                           …and now…(photo by Scott Roeben, Vital Vegas)
You can watch a video of the announcement by clicking here. The press release went on to say:
Alex Meruelo’s debut comes at a time when there are few sole proprietors left along the Las Vegas Strip. As a life-long entrepreneur with a track record of business success, Meruelo expressed his commitment to continual improvement and investment in SAHARA Las Vegas ensuring the resort remains both timeless yet modern so that guests will want to return time and time again.

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So yes, there’s plenty to be excited about The Sahara’s return. All signs point towards things being done correctly this time. But is it too late to matter? That depends on the final product and where it fits into the 2019 market.

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    World Tower room at SLS. Super-boring, oddly arranged, claustrophobic…

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                               New color scheme on current Story Tower room…

I have no problem in admitting that, just because of the name, I’m much more inclined to book or recommend a hotel called “Sahara” than “SLS”. After all, there is a major road and several current businesses in the area that are named after it. Sahara IS Vegas…it evokes the desert, a rich history and promises of an experience that “SLS” (that nonsensical clump of letters) never could.

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Many of us have complained about the removal of themes from Strip resorts. Then we lost our cool when office-bland City Center bleached out any hope of their restoration in the future. So if Sahara dares to restore its past Moroccan motif, even just a little, we owe it to Meruelo Group to support their audacity and daring.

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It’s reassuring to know that the new owners have already done a great job of returning Reno’s Grand Sierra Resort to relevancy. They’ve wisely appealed to a variety of guests from the frugal to the elite, managing to modernize that hotel/casino while acknowledging its rich 41-year history. That’s exactly what The Sahara needed to do all along.

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There are plenty of reasons to give the new Sahara a try. Resorts World and The Strat are drawing much-needed attention to those few blocks of the Strip. Sahara has its own monorail station, tying with Westgate for the most accessible of any stop on the line. Vital Vegas broke the news that foodie-favorite Bazaar Meats will remain and get expanded. He also reported they’re gaining an established resident production (the nauseating-yet-inexplicably-popular Magic Mike Live) that is sure to draw traffic back into the resort.

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So let’s hope that Meruelo Group continues their current audacious path for The Sahara. They’ve been running reduced booking rates, “No Resort Fee” and “Half-off Resort Fee” specials since taking over, have maintained free parking, attracted a variety of hip comedians and made the casino layout more appealing.

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With the right mixture of value, service and dining/entertainment/gaming offerings, The Sahara could become a standout destination that the current Las Vegas is sorely lacking…a fun affordable Sin City resort worth returning to over and over.

Photo By Denise Truscello

Sahara fans are invited to witness its rebirth and transformation via a newly-launched website. Follow the excitement and sign up for updates by clicking here

Photos: Sam Novak, Greg C., SLS/Sahara, Vital Vegas, KVVU-TV, Pinterest, The Publicity Lab, Denise Truscello

 

 

‘Celestia’ Comes to Earth By Way of the Vegas Strip


New astral-themed production opens at the STRAT…

Anticipation’s been as high as the massive tent erected on its behalf. An announced January premiere came and went, as did competing tent show Fuerza Bruta. But after many delays and hoopla galore, CELESTIA has finally come to Earth…and landed on the Las Vegas Strip.

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CELESTIA is the first large-scale entertainment offering under the STRAT’s new ownership and name. As the iconic hotel casino continues its evolution from Stratosphere into a decidedly more hip and relevant offering, CELESTIA has become an inadvertent keystone of their new image and business model. Naturally, a lot hinges on its success.

Last week’s official premiere was flashy and epic in scope. Celebrities like BMX pro Ricardo Laguna and entertainers from all over the city enjoyed signature cocktails and delicious bites at a pre-show reception. Then guests grabbed boxes of popcorn before heading into the main tent.

The cavernous performance space, which is beautifully landscaped on the exterior, looks even larger thanks to colorful motion projections of the cosmos. Stars twinkle in every direction and colorful astral bodies spin and glow. The stage is arranged proscenium-style, an unusual departure from the typical circus-in-the-round.

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But CELESTIA is more than the traditional three-ring spectaculars of your childhood memories. As a live band pumps out the arresting opening number, a large international cast appears from all directions. Still more plunge downward from unseen platforms, filling the air and stage with wonder.

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A threadbare premise follows central character “Celestia”, a star who’s taken the physical form of a young woman. Hoping to learn about artistry and human emotions, Celestia journeys through our world accompanied by a pair of comical sidekicks. Of course, this story line is just an excuse to present a variety of colorful and jaw-dropping acts.

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The fledgling production is beautifully mounted with snappy pacing, memorable costumes and a very attractive athletic cast. Contortionists, aerial artists, archers and knife-throwing wizards fill every square foot of the wide, neon-lit stage. Performers run through the aisles and leap onto platforms scattered throughout the audience, making for great photo-ops along the way (the show is flash-free picture-friendly).

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Fans of The Greatest Showman will enjoy seeing Russian Bar athletes The Sandou Trio. America’s Got Talent finalists Sergey and Sascha bring their stunning head-to-head balancing act to Vegas crowds as well. A spectacular sequence on the Wheel of Death will have you alternately hiding your eyes and raising your voice with cheers. Mounted of a massive scale, this finale rivals anything Cirque du Soleil can offer.

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Speaking of Cirque, you may wonder where CELESTIA fits into an already crowded entertainment landscape. Click here to continue reading… 

Photos: CELESTIA, Sam Novak

 

 

 

 

Last-minute Deals and Tips for New Year’s Eve


You still have options galore but don’t wait one minute more…

Very few cities aside from New York can match the outlandish excitement of a New Year’s Eve in Sin City. With all of the dining, entertainment and nightclub options, there is something to appeal to every taste.

Be aware, though, that restaurants fill up quickly and most require reservations. Same goes for hotels, and the closer to the actual date, the more prices will skyrocket. Many resorts prohibit checking in on December 31st and require a minimum two-night stay. So if you haven’t reserved your lodging yet, prepare for quite a bit of sticker shock. Prices will fluctuate frequently, often several times within a single day, so this article is only meant as a guideline. Check prices often and lock them in if something meets your budget.

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When it comes to searching for hotel deals, this writer is partial to Kayak.com. Entering dates for a stay from December 30th through January 1st, you’ll see that the best deal out there (at the time this article was written) is at Downtown’s El Cortez. Priced at a non-refundable rate of $126.00 per night (plus taxes and fees) for a double suite, the El Cortez is a great last-minute option. It also puts you within walking distance of the wild street party held under the Fremont Street Experience canopy.

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If you’d like to take in the Strip’s beautiful fireworks shows at midnight but want to avoid the insane crowds on Las Vegas Boulevard, consider two nights at Gold Coast Hotel Casino. Situated across from PALMS on Flamingo Road, Gold Coast has an assortment of wonderful restaurants and recently-updated rooms. Parking is free and you can easily walk to a number of nightclubs…even Voodoo Rooftop Nightclub at RIO for an unbeatable view.

Priceline.com is currently listing several room options at Gold Coast from $202 to $212 per night (plus taxes/fees) and free cancellation if you find a better deal elsewhere.

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For those who absolutely must stay on the Strip to chime in 2019, the best price going right now is at LUXOR for $207, You’ll notice the inclusion of Westgate Hotel Casino in the photo above. Even though it’s not technically on the Strip, having its own dedicated monorail stop makes Westgate an absurdly convenient option to get around with ease.

Speaking of the Las Vegas Monorail, it’s truly the best way to traverse the city during this holiday. The monorail runs continuously from 7 am on December 31, 2018 through 2 am on January 2, 2019. Single rides are $5 and a 24-hour pass is $13. The track runs from MGM Grand on the south end to SLS Las Vegas on the north. Stations are in the rear of casinos and automated ticketing kiosks accept credit cards, cash and Google Pay. Click here for a guide to monorail resort stops.

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Luxury hotels are available at press time and still not priced as outrageously as in previous years. Amoma.com is listing rooms at Wynn Las Vegas starting at $679 per night. With all of the nightclubs at the Wynn/Encore complex, this is certainly one worth considering for a high-end celebration.

Remember that the entire Las Vegas Strip is closed to all vehicles on New Year’s Eve starting at around 4 pm. Traffic is a nightmare and cars, buses and taxis will be squeezing onto the smaller back roads to get around town. So it’s highly advisable that you stay near where you plan to play, get situated early in the evening and have a plan to get around and back. You might also want to carry a fully-charged phone, a back-up battery and choose a meet-up point in case you get separated from your companions or have some kind of emergency.

Even though Vegas is in the desert, this is still winter. Plan on the possibility of cold weather and dress accordingly. You’ll also want to remember that crowded events pose issues of personal security. Keep your valuables as secure as you can, men should keep wallets in their front pockets, don’t accept drinks or food from strangers, etc. A little common sense will go a long way…and be especially careful of letting your guard down once the bubbly starts flowing.

There will be a significant increase in police presence on New Year’s Eve. Strollers, coolers, luggage, over-sized purses and backpacks will be prohibited on the Strip. Downtown’s Fremont Street Party is a ticketed event ($35 until Christmas Day, $45 after) and only those 21 and older are permitted. Click here for tickets to Fremont’s “America’s Party Downtown”.

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Expect security to be aggressive at nightclubs, too…along with hefty cover charges. Voodoo Nightclub at RIO has a $100 admission but includes open bar from 9 pm through 11 pm. Marquee Nightclub‘s admission at Cosmopolitan is $75 for women and $150 for men (say what?). Price includes hors d’oeuvres and open bar starting at 9 pm and a complimentary champagne toast at midnight.

Over at Caesars Palace, overhyped DJ Calvin Harris will be the hot draw for OMNIA Nightclub. Tickets cost $150 for women, $225 for men and include….absolutely nothing. Your dollars will go much farther at Aria‘s JEWEL, where admission is $52/$104 and gets you two hours of open bar and music by Tyga. You can add a four-course dinner at Herringbone for $175 per person, good from 7 pm through 11 pm.

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For the best view in all of Las Vegas, consider the Skyline Spectacular NYE Party at Stratosphere. For $250 per person you get the works:

Party in the Sky for a New Year’s Eve you won’t forget! Enjoy 3-hours of unlimited premium brand open bars, specialty drinks, martini luges and award-winning chef’s specialty food stations from around the world as you celebrate New Year’s Eve 800 feet above Las Vegas Boulevard in our iconic Tower’s indoor Observation Deck. Take in the spectacular Las Vegas New Year’s Eve Firework Show at Midnight with our signature champagne toast. Mingle and dance to live DJs and go-go dancers, and ring in 2019 in style.

Click here for tickets to Stratosphere’s Party in the Sky.

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Yours truly will be spending his first NYE as a Las Vegas resident in a somewhat conservative style. Just like last year, I’ll be enjoying great food, music and cocktails inside the cavernous ballroom of Westgate Las Vegas. Last year’s SUNDAY NIGHT FEVER costume party was a 70’s theme. This time they’ve jumped a decade ahead:

REVENGE OF THE 80s NYE PARTY: Pop your collar and jam out to music from the Spazmatics, celebrating the decade that gave us puzzle cubes, 8-bit obsessions, synth rock, shoulder pads, and other unforgettable fashions. You’re welcome to wear your sunglasses at night as you moonwalk your way out of 2018! $150 includes 3-course seated dinner and open bar.

The Westgate Revenge of the 80s party begins at 6 pm and is framed around an east-coast time zone ball drop (their home offices are in Florida). So you’ll have the opportunity to ring in 2019 at 9 pm…then do it all over again three hours later. Click here for tickets. Here’s a sample from last year’s entertainment:

There are a number of other inclusive events that’ll give you significant bang for your buck. For instance, Sugar Factory/Chocolate Lounge at Fashion Show Mall has a package deal for $99 via Groupon which in my opinion is the best NYE deal in the city. Here’s what you get:

  • General admission
  • What’s included: guest’s first goblet, free unlimited signature cocktails, unlimited champagne toast, buffet-style dinner, party with a DJ in the Chocolate Lounge, fireworks show at midnight, 20% discount off any retail purchase.
  • Bottomless signature cocktails to choose from: Peace, Love, Harmonie, Grape Crush, Lemon Drop, Watermelon Burst.
  • Buffet style dinner: chicken fingers, mini-burgers, fries, bruschetta, Caesar salad, mixed green salad, scalloped potatoes, green beans, chicken satay, grilled shrimp skewers, rigatoni marinara, meatballs, sandwiches, mini-cheesecake, chocolate cake, red velvet cake, assorted sundaes, brownies, cookies.
  • Time: 10 p.m.

While you won’t get the elevated views that Stratosphere or Voodoo Nightclub offer, it’s still a scenic and pretty sweet venue. The price on one Goblet Signature Cocktail by itself is upwards of $35 on a typical afternoon, so wrap your mind around the savings here.

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Neighborhood bars are a great way to drink in the Sin City vibe without feeling like your wallet has been stolen. Personal favorite The Golden Tiki on Spring Mountain Rd. will be featuring YouTube sensation Marc Rebillit with one of his offbeat musical performances. There’s no cover, complimentary hats/noisemakers and a free champagne toast at midnight.

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For the LGBTQ crowd, The Garage on E. Flamingo Road makes the perfect locals’ NYE spot for guys who like guys. There’s a masculine auto-service theme, never an admission charge and the cheapest top-shelf drink prices in the city.

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Across the street and down one block from The Garage, Hamburger Mary’s is offering $50 open bar from 9 pm-midnight (well&draft), Champagne Bottles $25, Skyy $75 and Absolut for $100. Entertainment from7 pm-Midnight and a countdown with entertainer Kenneth Blake. Complimentary champagne toast while watching the fireworks on their Strip-view patio.

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The most unusual NYE party for this season has gotta be the one at Spiegelworld’s hit show at ABSINTHE at Caesars Palace:

For an all-inclusive celebration, The Gazillionaire has a huge package for you. Arrive from 8.30pm for a complimentary glass of champagne in the Absinthe forecourt. Then enjoy a performance of ABSINTHE from 9.30pm to 11.00pm. After the show, you will have exclusive access to a private outdoor party in the Absinthe forecourt, on Stripside at Caesars Palace, which includes an open bar, light hors d’oeuvres, DJ and one of the best views of the fireworks. The party will conclude at 1am.

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The all-inclusive Show & Party ticket prices are $599 for VIP seating, $499 for Category A seats and $299 for Category B seating, which is one hell of a deal for a Sin City party and show. Click here to reserve your tickets and party admission.

Be sure to stay safe this holiday and don’t drive while impaired. LYFT rideshare service is offering a NYE discount to get you there and back. “Whether you are celebrating on the Strip, bar hopping, or partying at a friends house, we want everyone to get home safe on New Year’s Eve and other holidays throughout the year”, says Yacob Girma, Lyft Nevada’s general manager.

The Las Vegas Coalition for Zero Fatalities has donated $200,000 in ride credits to LYFT. Access your discount by using code “LASNYE10”. Have a wonderful time and a spectacular 2019.

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Photos: Sam Novak, Stratosphere, Fremont Street Experience, ABSINTHE, Westgate Hotel Casino, The Golden Tiki, The Garage LV

Lost Vegas – When Your Favorites Are Gone Forever


The decision-makers of Vegas may want you to forget all about what “used to be”, but not me…

Everyone knows about the ever-changing face of Vegas. While the publicity machine churns out NEW! BETTER! BEST! in the hopes of grabbing your attention (and getting a fair share of your travel stash), they fail to mention that, in the process, you might be losing your favorite Vegas “whatevers”. Most times they’ll disappear, with no hope of returning and never to be mentioned again. In today’s round of “Lost Vegas”, I’ll share some of my own fond memories…and perhaps a couple of tears.

Chef Kerry Simon passed away in 2015 after battling MSA disease, a form of Parkinson’s. His death was preceded by the closing of two Vegas restaurants, Simon’s at Palms Place and KGB Burger Bar inside Harrah’s. While I was fond of Simon’s for its location and ambiance, it was the food at KGB that drew me back many times.

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My favorite item there was the Thanksgiving Turkey Burger, a one-of-a-kind holiday celebration on a bun: big juicy turkey patty, stuffing, cranberry relish and sprouts topped off with a layer of turkey gravy. That belt-buster was even better when washed down with a Captain Crunch milkshake.

My favorite KGB server, Chris, used to offer his own variation of the Crunch shake, topping it with strawberry syrup. All the better to evoke memories of morning cartoons with a bowl of Crunch Berries, the best variety of Captain Crunch.

Kerry’s legacy will live on at Carson Kitchen, his final culinary offering to Sin City. We’ll miss you, Mr. Simon…and those fond recollections of Thanksgiving and Saturday mornings in front of the TV.

From there we move to Neonopolis, the troubled downtown shopping/entertainment complex which has been mired by a history of failures. The biggest one-two punch came with the simultaneous closings of Krave Massive and Drink and Drag.

Both businesses catered primarily to the LGBTQ crowd, but Drink and Drag was much more of a progressive mix of gay and straight. This nightclub/bowling alley was the epitome of Vegas oddities, mixing lip-syncing drag queens, pool tables, tasty food and muscular shirtless bartenders into one wild ride.

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Always a blast, especially for those with an open mind, Drink and Drag quickly became a hit. The former Jillian’s location offered big entertainment–and a very unusual evening on the town…for chump change. Unfortunately, there was more behind-the-scenes drama than a truckload of divas sharing a dressing room. Management and liquor-license issues ultimately closed the doors, taking sister club Krave Massive (one level up) with it.

The final incarnation of Strip mainstay Krave never really took hold downtown, despite a temporary life at Rio, which kept the brand in circulation during the construction phase. Promising to one day become the biggest gay venue in the world (complete with a rooftop pool) Krave Massive was more like Krave Minor…it lasted only four months. Most sections of the club were never completed, and those that were accessible lacked…a lot.

The former occupant of that third-floor space didn’t fare much better. Galaxy Theaters at Neonopolis once offered mainstream movies to downtown visitors and residents. What started off as a 14-screen multiplex was later downsized to 11. The theater complex was poorly maintained and drew a frequently rough customer demographic. It even operated without air conditioning (unthinkable in the desert heat) for the last several months of its existence.

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The theater was closed abruptly on the eve of the new Star Trek reboot on May 7th, 2009. Neonopolis frontman Rohit Joshi explained that without digital projection upgrades, Galaxy Theaters would need to “maintain its competitive edge” by shutting down. With logic like that, it’s no wonder that Neonopolis continues to sit mostly empty.

Speaking of Star Trek, the former Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton continues to garner mentions at the annual Trek convention at Rio. Offering rides, character experiences, weddings, dining, a mock-up of “Quark’s Bar”, gift shops and a museum, Star Trek Experience drew visitors from all over the world. For many, it was the only reason to visit the otherwise-floundering Hilton (now a more successful Westgate Hotel Casino).

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At one point, Rohit Joshi (him again) promised to reopen Star Trek Experience at Neonopolis, in conjunction with a new Star Trek film on May 8, 2009. Obviously that didn’t work out so well. These days, the casino portion of the Star Trek space is being used by Westgate timeshare sales people as a presentation room. A curious end to an otherwise-legendary exhibit.

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In the 1990’s, it seemed like every casino wanted to have thrill rides – IMAX simulators, roller coasters, sometimes even an entire amusement park. A few remain, but two of my favorites are long gone. The first I experienced, on my inaugural trip to Vegas, was the High Roller. No, not the observation wheel at the Linq, but a roller coaster that once wound around the top of the Stratosphere. That slow-moving train was more about the height than the dips, but I’ll never forget stepping into the car, looking over the edge and saying “I must be insane to do this”. High Roller was closed and dismantled in December of 2005.

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Sahara Hotel was home to Speed: The Ride, a fast-moving coaster that shot riders from inside the building onto the Strip. It turned them upside down, then sped up even faster for a jaw-dropping vertical climb. Once the train came to a stop, it ran backwards and returned to the station through a cool misty fog, all in a very rapid 45 seconds.

Speed was dismantled with the closure of Sahara and was slated to be rebuilt near Mandalay Bay under the shadow of a second planned giant observation wheel called SkyVue. Years later, the pylons for that stalled project remained unfinished and the property has a “For Sale” sign on the corner of the lot. Was Rohit Joshi involved in this venture? We can’t help wondering…

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Free attractions were once a popular way to lure people into the casinos…and hopefully to keep them there. Now that gambling is no longer the hot ticket, every available space seems to be destined for retailing. Hence, the removal of the white tiger pool at Mirage for a burger joint, the lions at MGM Grand for a sports pub, the Sirens and Pirates at Treasure Island for a CVS Drugstore, and on and on.

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Many others are removed due to costly maintenance and staffing expenses, like Rio‘s Show In The Sky, the Gods of the Festival Fountain (moving statues) at Caesars Palace Forum Shops, the lobby aquarium at Mandalay Bay and the Roman centurions that once strolled through Caesars Palace. Some attractions just yield to the times, like Merlin’s Dragon Battle at Excalibur…and the Sphinx water/laser show and Nile River Ride, both at Luxor.

What favorite attractions, features or offerings do you miss in today’s Vegas? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Photos: Sammasseur, Greg C., Banner photo via Cuningham Group Architecture

Is Sin City Determined To Drive You Away?


Asking the tough question that’s probably on lots of minds…

Back in 2016, while editing a guest writer’s article about the de-theming of Luxor Hotel Casino for another website, I felt a long-brewing flame inside me suddenly become a flash fire. The article reminded me of all the things I fell in love with that Vegas was so intent on removing. I felt the need to rant about the path that Sin City has headed down. This is the result of that emotional rush.

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   “Has anyone seen those talking camels?”...                       

Since beginning my own Vegas addiction in 2005, I’ve helplessly watched as some of my favorite attractions have been yanked out and tossed into that box labeled “When Vegas Was Better”. They include SPEED, the roller coaster at Sahara, the HIGH ROLLER ride atop the Stratosphere (their own roller coaster, not that slow-moving LINQ observation wheel), MGM Grand‘s Lion Habitat and the indoor white tiger pool at Mirage.

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          Rio’s “Show In The Sky” was scaled way back and ultimately removed…

Then there are the gorgeous exterior fountains at Paris and Monte Carlo, the lobby aquarium at Mandalay BayRio’s legendary Show In The Sky, moving statues and costumed Roman gladiators strolling around Caesars Palace …and on and on.

With rumors swirling of both Luxor and Excalibur getting another strip-down, that guest writer’s article really hit home. It prompted me to finally vocalize something that I’m convinced is on lots of other readers’ minds.

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         The Linq Hotel – from dump to overpriced eyesore in the name of progress…

Not only have the attractions and free shows been ripped out, but the campiness and fun of hotel themes have been chiseled away ad nauseam. Sure, Imperial Palace was a flophouse. But it was also extremely affordable, had a unified faux-Asian charm…and those unforgettable Dealertainers. Now we have The Linq – a stupidly-named, generic exercise in blandness stocked with Ikea-grade furniture, glaringly-bright interiors and a hideous exterior paint job that defies explanation.

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                                                   Sorry, SLS, but I prefer this…

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                                                                    …to this…

In an alternate universe, Imperial Palace regulars might have moved down to Bill’s Gambling Hall or up the Strip to Sahara to get their affordable room and themed surroundings. But not in THIS reality, where Sahara’s Moroccan stylings were jettisoned in favor of white-on-white at the absurdly-overpriced SLS (three letters that represent nothing, really).

Remember the Victorian-era rich woods, stained glass and gorgeous chandeliers at Bill’s Gambling Hall (originally Barbary Coast)? That stylish little hotel got put on a salt-free diet of beige, blandness and more beige. It was refitted and renamed the meaningless Cromwell a few years ago (who exactly is Cromwell…a stuffy old butler?).

Bye-bye, Victorian Rooms $4.99 steak and eggs…hello to Giada and $60.00 for a 7-oz filet. I’m sure that Giada’s dental work didn’t come cheaply, but should you have to pay for it?

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                                           $36.00 for ravioli…just because I can…

There was once a time when guests arriving at Paris were greeted with quaint French phrases. Those arriving at Luxor could take a Nile riverboat to their inclinator (an angular elevator in the pyramid). Treasure Island was alive with buccaneers and a swashbuckling outdoor show.

The mirage-themed….er, Mirage was lined with bamboo accents and staff members wore tropical shirts (the volcano erupted way more frequently, too). Now the only thing that really sets these hotels apart from one another is the amount of their respective mandatory fees.

The fact that this trend continues could mean two things from where I stand. Either people don’t really care, or the powers that be aren’t concerned with what you want. When you poke around the internet and read things like “I’m done with Vegas. I can visit shopping malls at home and gamble at my local casino without being ripped off for everything”, you have to ask yourself who is right.

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                      These prices are long gone…and so is the restaurant itself…

I still love Vegas, enough to visit at least twice a month. But you can believe that my spending habits, entertainment choices and lodging selections have been altered dramatically. At first, it was a retreat into the Downtown area. where hotels and restaurants were much cheaper, parking was free and resort fees where unheard-of. Then Fremont Street and the surrounding area got bit by the same dollar-sucking bug.

These days, the ancient and crumbling Golden Gate Hotel tacks on an additional $20 per day to your bill (for nothing, really). Mermaids and the 99-cent hot dog are both gone. Parking meters line the city streets, gates block your entrance into hotel garages until you pay up, and the Gold Spike‘s $5.99 Prime Rib special will set you back $37 at Oscars (and side dishes are no longer part of the meal, by the way).

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                Those talking statues have left Caesars Palace for parts unknown…

After Downtown and the Strip both nickeled-and-dimed me to the point of defeat, I scoured the outlying areas in search of new haunts. And what did I find? Themes! Value! Free attractions! Yes, they’re still out there, waiting for you die-hards to discover. There really aren’t many remaining, and even the resorts that offer these beloved relics of yesterday’s Vegas have been affected by money-grubbing, albeit to a much lesser extent.

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                            Eastside Cannery – new, gorgeous, affordable…

We’re talking the likes of Sam’s Town (excellent cheap Firelight Buffet and lovely Mystic Falls attraction and show) and Eastside Cannery…one of my favorite Vegas hotels with no resort fees until very recently, extremely reasonable rates, free Wi-Fi and Strip-quality rooms on Boulder Highway.

Stations Casinos dot the entire valley, each one offering a different personality with plenty of attractions and dining options that won’t break the bank. They’ve also taken ownership of the faltering Palms Casino west of the Strip. My favorite of their value-geared locations is Texas Station for its atmosphere, cheap dining and movie theaters.

Palace Station, which is currently undergoing a major renovation, is my go-to for Feast Buffet. There, weekday dinners are only $10.99 and breakfast is $7.99 Monday-Saturday. Sunday brunch is $11.99 vs. $23.49 at Excalibur and $25.99 at Mandalay Bay, making it totally worth the drive for quality basics. And parking is still free…as it SHOULD  be.

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     Serene Hotel on E. Harmon Ave. offers a nice alternative to Strip gouging…

Let’s not forget the wide array of smaller boutique hotels, like SereneArtisan, aging Royal Resort and Tuscany Suites that offer a lot more style and personality than the Aria “office complex” ever could. Unfortunately, most of these have tacked on mandatory fees like their Strip counterparts, but are far less expensive overall than the big boys. And you won’t have to stand in line and be subjected to a pat-down just to take a dip in the pool.

It’s no secret that Vegas casinos have seen a drop in revenue, resulting in actions to make up that money elsewhere. Bottle service, admission fees, higher show prices, fewer free drinks for casino players, rationed complimentary cocktails using less alcohol and cheaper spirits, cutbacks on Player’s Club rewards. Maybe if they never rolled out the universally-hated 6:5 Blackjack odds, a bottle of water wouldn’t cost seven dollars?

I know that there are those of you out there, reading this now, who say “Things change. Vegas moves forward. The days of old Vegas are over”. To you I respond “That’s true if you accept it”. But why have we as a collective group of Vegas-goers allowed this to happen?

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                                 Sorry, Holly…we’re not buying into your lies…

Can you really state, with total honesty, that it’s fair for this city to tack on Resort Fees, Parking Fees, Energy Surcharges, Live Entertainment Taxes, Customer Facility Charges, Concession Recovery Fees, Concession and Franchise Fees, Room Preference Fees, Telephone Call Convenience Fees, Ticket Convenience Fees, Credit Card Usage Fees, Live Reservation Operator Surcharges, Early Check-in Fees, In-room Safe Usage Fees…and many more…to your visit?

How soon before they install machines to collect quarters before you can use the casino restroom? When I was a writer for VegasChatter, we learned that some restaurants were starting to tack on an extra charge to serve you a glass of tap water along with your meal. Yes, tap water! Of course, their response was the typical “to serve our customers better” nonsense.

Isn’t it outrageous to you that free in-room coffeemakers, continental breakfast and wireless internet (things that are standard in just about every basic motel around the nation) are not provided in Las Vegas? Apparently not, because thousands of people shrug it off every day.

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Stratosphere has attempted to counteract “Today’s Vegas” with an ad campaign that has wonderful intentions. Called “Take Vegas Back“, Stratosphere is running commercials and filling the city with billboards and print ads. They plead for a return to the days when average Joes and Janes could enjoy themselves in Sin City without having to be super-rich or super-gorgeous. Too bad the hotel itself is a bit hypocritical by charging a $32.99 plus tax Daily Resort Fee…and a bacon double-cheeseburger is $15.99 in their casual Roxy’s Diner.

Once this city is completely consumed by blandness, fraudulent extortion charges, soaring prices and declining customer service, this writer may reach the point where Vegas becomes the rare once-a-year destination. After all, there are plenty of other places to visit where you can get bang for your buck. You know…like Vegas USED to be.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Things could revert if we stopped being so docile towards this nonsense and actually spoke out/fought back/refused to go along. Perhaps we’re seeing signs of this already, at least in regards to MGM’s parking fees, where rumors of show closings and dramatically-dropping retail sales quickly surfaced.

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                 HEXX and Budweiser Beer Park – two levels of scamming…

Why stop there? Let the hoteliers, restaurateurs and politicians know that you’ve had enough. Scott Roeben of VitalVegas.com put it beautifully when he exposed the CNF Concession and Franchise Fee at HEXX, Budweiser Beer ParkCabo Wabo Cantina, Senor Frogs and others:

Vegas visitors have long bemoaned the fact hotels charge resort fees, but Cabo Wabo Cantina and a few other Strip restaurants charge this concession fee, and it’s far worse than a resort fee because you get nothing whatsoever for it. It’s just a fee tacked onto your bill.

The CNF charge is, in fact, worse than a resort fee, because guests typically don’t learn about the gratuitous fee until their bill arrives, when it’s too late to choose another restaurant.

Adding to the outrage of the CNF charge is the fact it’s added to your bill before the sales tax is calculated, so you’re paying tax on a tax.

What can you do if you’re presented with a bill that includes a CNF charge you didn’t know about? Refuse to pay it. Talk to a manager, demand the charge be reversed and raise holy hell. Tell everyone you know to stay away. E-mail. Tweet. Comment on Facebook. Rant. Rail. Fight back.

Let these venues know we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it in the cornhole anymore.

Scott has also gone on camera and used his site to expose other customer-gouging practices, particularly at MGM Resorts.

And then there’s Branden Powers, the man behind Golden Tiki and the new Evel Pie pizza joint in Downtown, who wrote this beautiful treatise on the “old ways” for Las Vegas Review Journal:

Because of my history with this great city, I want to make sure that its past is not forgotten. We need more Las Vegas. Nightclubs, arenas and professional sports teams are all great. But we need places where people can go talk to each other, share a cocktail and dine on a great steak while watching a classic performer.

People want to experience the Las Vegas of yesteryear because they love its history as much as I do. We need to make sure that is protected. Our history like all things in the desert is slowly evaporating. We never should have lost JUBILEE, the last classic showgirl revue. We should have rallied around it, supported it and funded it as a community.

It’s important that places like The Golden SteerFrankie’s Tiki RoomCasa Di AmoreHugo’s Cellar and The Peppermill Lounge, just to name a few, live on.

I intend to carry the torch and not only protect our legacy but also rebuild it anew with places like The Golden Tiki that seem as if they’ve always been there. Las Vegas Review Journal, August 12, 2016

If more folks had the fortitude of Scott Roeben and Branden Powers, Las Vegas could actually return to the days of being affordable. And it would be lots more fun than it already is.

 

Photos: Sammasseur, Stratosphere.com, Caesars.com.

Excerpts by Scott Roeben and Branden Powers used with permission

Update #1

This Saturday, after attending the Black and White fundraiser at Mandalay Bay, I stopped at Dick’s Last Resort inside Excalibur for a quick bite…and to get re-hydrated.

Being charged $33.98 for an appetizer and salad was bad enough…but I was also slapped with an insulting fee for the glass of water that I asked for. Yes, it’s only 75 cents. But if you don’t see what this means for the future of Vegas tourism, you need to read on.

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That makes this article as timely as ever. Blatant gouging of guests will continue and grow worse as long as Vegas visitors shrug it off. MGM Resorts is at the forefront of this practice. Speak with your wallet and refuse to be ripped off. 

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   Outrageous prices, a mandatory gratuity and a service charge on top of that?

UPDATE #2

This week at SLS’s The Sayer’s Club, I ordered three small vodka/tonics from a cocktail waitress. What should have been served was “well liquor” was charged as top-shelf (big difference in price) and came with a request to tip TWO individuals. I added 15% to the base charge and didn’t dispute the bill (if well liquor is not available, it is the responsibility of the server to state “We carry ______ brands only, is that okay?”. Nevertheless, speak with your wallet and refuse to patronize establishments that knowingly gouge their patrons.

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