2018 Events, Trends & Moments…Cosmic and Controversial


A lot has happened in the past 12 months. Today I look back on large-scale events…

GREATEST SIGHT IN THE SKY – Angels of the 2017 Massacre

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                      I witnessed it on Sahara Avenue near Palace Station…

This one is emotional and unforgettable. If you were there to witness it, you couldn’t have helped being shaken to the core. As friends and loved ones gathered to commemorate the victims of 2017’s mass shooting one year later, the sunset brought a phenomenon that was seen throughout the entire valley.

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                       Courtesy of Michal Furmanczyk, Absinthe acrobat…

While some were quick to explain it scientifically, many of us felt it was a sign from a greater power…or perhaps a message from another plane of existence. Whatever your take on the matter, there’s no denying that the sunset on 10/1/18 was one we’ll never forget.

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                                  Courtesy of performer Kim Lange…

ROLLING BACK THE PARKING FEES

So many people want to sling buckets of rotting fruit at the money-grubbers of MGM Resorts for instituting parking fees on the Strip. As usual, copycat CAESARS Entertainment followed, the same way they did with resort fees. But unlike those dreaded mandatory surcharges, many of their competitors have held off…or even rolled back…charging their guests to park.

To my recollection, Wynn/Encore was the first to rethink this strategy by offering validation to shoppers, show attendees and hotel guests. Cosmopolitan began including parking as part of their mandatory daily fees just this month. Of course, they had to spoil a bit of the satisfaction by RAISING the resort fee another four dollars per day.

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       Caesars couldn’t resist sticking it to their guests one final time in 2018…

Tropicana, Treasure Island, SLS, Stratosphere, Venetian, Palazzo and a few others still offer parking to everyone without cost. Then there’s the Caesars properties, who dropped a stinkbomb during New Year’s Eve weekend by introducing a flat-rate “surge price” of $20 per day. Keep on gouging, guys. You’ve learned nothing.

LADY GAGA IS THE NEW QUEEN OF THE STRIP

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It seemed really odd when MGM Resorts decided to spend $170 million to rip out their new-ish and gorgeous Aria Theater in favor of “more lucrative” convention space…and then spend millions more to expand/rebrand the adjacent Monte Carlo theater for…get this…more live entertainment. Mmmm kay….

The gamble seems to have paid off, though, as Park Theater just celebrated two years of hosting such high-profile acts as Cher, Ricky Martin, Queen/Adam Lambert and Stevie Wonder. Reports have surfaced that the unwelcome return of faux entertainer Britney Spears has suffered underwhelming ticket sales. But Lady Gaga’s ENIGMA residency came to the rescue by swooping in during the last few days of the year.

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Initial reviews have been stellar. Entertainment Weekly wrote “Enigma the show is a damn good time, and it’s admirable in its attempts to elevate a greatest-hits gathering into something striving for more, something that perhaps even galvanized an artist in the peak of her career to take a Vegas residency in the first place.”

A local media publisher, who shall remain unnamed, confided a different take with me: “Gaga was great. Everything else about the show was a disaster.”

There’s no question that Lady Gaga’s profile has risen substantially since she signed her Park Theater contract. She’s sure to get an Oscar nomination for A Star Is Born…and might actually win. Her credibility as a performer, humanitarian and cultural icon are unquestioned. So having her as a fixture on the Strip (for a planned two years) is a major coup for Park MGM. Britney who?

UPDATE: Mere minutes after I published this piece, it was announced that Britney had cancelled her Las Vegas residency, citing “family health concerns”. That’s PR-speak for “My sales suck and they want me out”. What a wonderful bit of news for lovers of genuine talent. Buh-bye, Brit Brit. Don’t let the door hit-hit.

https://www.ktnv.com/news/britney-spears-cancels-las-vegas-residency

TOUGH YEAR FOR VEGAS RESORT EXECS

The past twelve months have seen a surprising upheaval in upper management at major hotel casinos. It all started with an ominous event as embattled former Caesars Entertanment CEO Gary Loveman was shown the door in January…from his replacement job with Aetna. Loveman had never previously worked for healthcare companies.

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His successor Mark Frissora, who assumed the position from Loveman in summer 2015, will be departing his role in the next month or so. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Frissora was accused in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing by his former company, Hertz Global Holdings, of “inappropriate accounting decisions and the failure to disclose information to an effective review” three weeks after he took over at Caesars. Ouch!

Gary Loveman wasn’t the only former resort exec to have a bad year. Longtime MGM Resorts‘ Felix Rappaport was found dead in his home this summer. Current MGM CEO Jim Murren issued the following statement: “We are saddened by the news of the passing of our former colleague and friend, Felix Rappaport. Felix was a member of the MGM Resorts family for more than two decades and is remembered fondly by many. Our condolences and prayers go out to his family at this difficult time.”

Also at MGM, it was announced in October that Bobby Baldwin, Chief Customer Development Officer of their resorts and President/CEO of CityCenter on the Strip, will depart both positions soon…without explanation. The press announcement was extremely brief and offered no details, which stirred up plenty of rumors. Hmmm…

During that same month, they welcomed George Kliavkoff as the new President of Entertainment and Sports. He took over for legendary bushy-maned Richard Sturm who had held that position since 1993. Sturm shocked many when he announced his departure from MGM five weeks earlier. He was leaving to form his own entertainment consulting firm that would work exclusively with…MGM Resorts (insert facepalm here).

VitalVegas.com reported on a number of departures and managerial changes this summer at Westgate Hotel Casino. The most noteworthy that I personally can report on was the promotion of Cami Christensen into the position of President and General Manager. I happened to be there on the evening of the announcement and was honored to offer congratulations.

Christensen has been with the property for over seventeen years and assumed the responsibilities of former GM Geno Iafrate, who reportedly departed to help launch a new franchising concept for Westgate’s Superbook. Oddly, Iafrate’s LinkedIn account currently shows him as having left the property and looking for work.

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             Gordon Prouty and Cami Christensen raise the bar at Westgate…

I was also excited to meet Gordon Prouty while covering the annual Mr. Olympia Weekend this summer. Gordon had just accepted a position as Westgate’s Director of Public and Community Relations. This dapper gentleman has an extensive background in media and community relations throughout the country.

Here in Vegas, Gordon’s been involved in several organizations and Greenspun Media Group. And as the best-dressed man in all of Las Vegas, he served as inspiration for my article on STITCHED Men’s Haberdashery. Only good things can happen at Westgate with Gordon Prouty behind the PR wheel.

There’s nothing like a sex scandal to ruin a man’s legacy. Just ask Kevin Spacey….or in this case, Steve Wynn. The super-successful businessman, whom many credit with the mega-resorts of today, had one really tough year. Allegations of sexual misconduct forced the magnate to sell off his shares in Wynn Resorts this past March. Just before that he’d stepped down as CEO of his own company while denying the claims being made against him: “The idea that I ever assaulted any woman is preposterous.”

The founder of one of Las Vegas’ most luxurious resorts was also forced to depart the on-property villa he called home, as well as to forfeit his healthcare and severance pay. To add insult to injury, Wynn’s final pet project, the Paradise Park Lagoon, was scuttled. It would appear that Wynn West, an expansion on the opposite side of Las Vegas Boulevard, has also been put on ice.

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                                                     Photo via KSNV-TV

This is the third project to fall apart on the former New Frontier Hotel space. Perhaps it’s just as well. Somebody is apparently building Wynn West just a little farther down the street anyway. Unfortunately they’ve named it Resorts World, which doesn’t quite have the same ring. But it certainly looks familiar…

Tomorrow I’ll conclude my year-end wrap-up with the things that made Las Vegas 2018 a deeply personal affair.

Banner photo by Jim Gisclair of Serenity Helicopters

 

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Vegas 2018 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst in Large-scale Production Shows

 


Wrapping up another event-filled year with fond memories and a little sass…

Can it really be that Santa is returning to his home base to put the elves back to work? Perhaps, but that Christmas hangover still lingers, ensuring that you didn’t dream your way through another holiday season in Vegas.

As you bring out the noisemakers and put champagne on ice for New Year’s Eve (check out my piece for tips on last-minute NYE planning), let’s look back at some of the noteworthy…and notorious…moments and madness from Las Vegas 2018. First up: the shows…

BEST NEW SHOW – Manilow: The Hits Come Home

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I’ll admit to being a bit worried when 75-year-old Barry Manilow missed his own big night at Westgate Las Vegas. The legendary singer was hospitalized on the morning of his kick-off weekend, which scuttled a massive media party and prompted singers Clint Holmes and Earl Turner to entertain the sold-out auditorium with their SOUNDTRACK show in his absence.

It turns out that my fears were unnecessary, as Manilow snapped back quickly, proving that he truly is the World’s Greatest Showman. Brimming with energy and love for his audience, Barry is everything you want in a Las Vegas event production. Check out my full review here and be sure to see Manilow: The Hits Come Home through June of 2019.

Runner-up: Soundtrack with Clint Holmes and Earl Turner, also at Westgate (now closed), OPIUM at Cosmopolitan (tie)

WORST NEW SHOW – Inferno: The Fire Spectacular 

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                                        “We need more GAS-O-LEEN!!!!!” 

There are certain entertainment venues in Sin City that seem to have a hex on them. Bad things happen, shows close way faster than they should and nothing seems to go right. Tropicana Showroom, Encore Theater at Wynn and Palazzo Theater have all gone through this period at one time or another (in Tropicana’s case, it’s as bad as ever). Now the curse seems to have landed at Paris Hotel Casino.

This was a bad year for Paris. Its troubled (and aging) Paris Theater chewed up and spit out Circus 1903 and Marilyn: The New Musical in just the first half of this year. Next came the cringe-worthy Inferno: The Fire Spectacular. Built around the supposed talents of peculiar and obscure magician Joe Labero, this upstart element-based production squandered every bit of potential in its premise and left you laughing for all the wrong reasons (“We need more gasoline. Lots and lots of GAS-O-LEEN!”). Read my full review here.

While Inferno could have been salvaged by jettisoning its star and focusing on the fire aspect (and The Fuel Girls), the show was abruptly yanked from the Paris schedule just six months in. Its cast was rudely told to hit the road during a break without the benefit of a farewell performance. Show business can be cruel.

It’s interesting to note that I Love The 90’s, the next production to enter this venue, went on an abrupt hiatus for most of December, just two months into its residency. UD Factory‘s CEO Seth Yudof assures me that there is no reason to be concerned. He swears that I Love The 90’s will return stronger than ever in January. Let’s hope his production is the one to break the Paris showroom curse. Entertainers in Sin City already have it tough enough.

Look for my review of I Love The 90’s when it returns in 2019.

MOST UNWELCOME RETURN – Mariah Carey/Britney Spears/Criss Angel (tie)

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                   A stripper, a robot and a douche bag walk into a bar…

The worst thing about Christmas is taking down the tree, packing up the lights and tossing away all that torn wrapping paper. I get that same sinking feeling every time I spot a billboard hyping the residencies of these three clowns.

Like a dried-up fruit cake that won’t go down the garbage disposer, the miserable triad of Carey, Spears and Angel continue to regurgitate up our collective pipes and spread noxious odors throughout the Vegas valley.

There’s an amazing amount of common ground among the self-proclaimed diva, robotic lip-syncer and goth faux-magician. Arrogance, fakery and distraction are the hallmarks of their supposed talents. Onstage gaffes, cancellations, accidents and savage reviews have plagued each of their productions. Yet minimally-talented blowhards continues to sell tickets and broker new residencies shortly after the last ones have been kicked into the desert.

The PR teams for each were touting their “returns” before the stench had even cleared from their previous rounds. Mariah’s somehow on her second stint at Caesars…three if you count last year’s Christmas gig. MGM Resorts wooed Britney from Planet Hollywood over to Park MGM Theater starting in February (why, exactly?). They’re probably regretting it now that advance ticket sales have been lukewarm at best.

Criss Angel’s partnership with Cirque du Soleil is finally over (they’re probably breathing a collective sigh of relief for surviving ten tumultuous and embarrassing years). He’s left Luxor biggest theater for a mezzanine-level auditorium at PHo, the same troubled theater that swallowed Frankie Moreno and Paul Zerdin just last year. Let’s hope it manages to choke down Mindfreak Live…and digest it once and for all.

Santa didn’t hand out coal this year…he gave away tickets to Mariah, Britney and Criss.

SADDEST CLOSURE – BAZ/David Goldrake’s IMAGINARIUM (tie)

It’s frustrating to see unique and talent-packed shows being overlooked for the likes of the notorious three mentioned above. And while they’re vastly different, both BAZ and IMAGINARIUM suffered similar fates.

Palazzo Hotel Casino deserves a lot of credit for backing BAZ, the daring musical mash-up built around a trio of familiar and tragic love stories. Defying simple descriptions and difficult to promote in any form of media, BAZ relied on word of mouth to put butts in seats. Those who saw it praised the innovative production and its amazing cast. In other words, it was doomed from day one.

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David Goldrake IMAGINARIUM had the unfortunate challenges of 1) coming in behind notorious child-porn illusionist Jan Rouven in the cursed Tropicana Showroom 2) sharing the same corner with high-profile magicians Criss Angel and David Copperfield, and 3) being better than Vegas audiences wanted…or deserved. The hard-working Goldrake made IMAGINARIUM far superior to anything either of his competitors currently offer. And he did it with sincerity, dignity, humility and a great deal of sexiness.

Runner-up: Soundtrack at Westgate Hotel Casino

BEST OVERALL PRODUCTION – Le Reve The Dream

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It’s nice to have my all-time show back on this list. Le Reve – The Dream had to take a backseat to BAZ for a few years. But now that the musical has closed down, nothing shines more brightly than Wynn’s signature spectacular.

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Not only is Le Reve back to the top of my list, but it’s fresher than ever. New costumes and make-up design, a fabulous re-imagined score and songs by original composer Benoit Jutras…and a revised story line all come together for an unforgettable experience. When it comes to sheer spectacle, nothing on the Strip beats Le Reve – The Dream. Read my full review here.

Be sure to check back for my next entry in 2018’s wrap-up. And best wishes for the New Year.

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

Manilow: The World’s Greatest Showman


Barry returns to Westgate’s International Theater in a must-see event…

Thanks to Hugh Jackman’s recent hit film The Greatest Showman, a new generation regards P.T. Barnum as the greatest showman. But look a little closer at history and you’ll find a career marked in controversy and ethical concerns.

No such worries with the revered Barry Manilow. This legendary performer is universally respected, admired and loved….with good reason. No living singer/songwriter has done for entertainment what the Brooklyn native has been able to accomplish. And the fact that he’s still bringing crowds to their feet at 75 years of age is beyond remarkable.

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It goes without saying that after more than four decades, Manilow has begun to show signs of aging (ya think?). The voice is a little less velvety than you may remember. And after some serious health issues, his gait can be a bit wobbly at times.

But make no mistake – the man still owns the stage and can belt them out with aplomb. As Manilow said himself last night: “What is your 75-year-old grandfather doing tonight? I’m STILL a sex god!”. Yes, sir, you are.

As for the production, Manilow: The Hits Come Home is a landmark achievement in Vegas entertainment. Returning to the stage that he ruled for so many years (under the “Hilton” banner), Manilow’s entrance is preceded by a video intro that builds an unbearable amount of suspense. When the screen arises and the icon steps into the spotlight, it’s a true “pinch me” moment.

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The set list begins with 1975’s “It’s A Miracle”, which seems fitting considering the circumstances. The significance of this early hit was not lost on a packed house of diehard and casual fans. “Daybreak” and “Looks Like We Made It” round out the opening medley, setting the tone for 105 minutes of pure hits and touching moments.

There are very few performers of his era that can maintain the energy level that Barry does during a show. Eschewing the usual time-borrowing distractions…like solos from back-up artists and endless video packages (I’m looking at you, Cher), Barry is onstage from curtain-up through final bows.

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It’s clear that the singer’s primary reason for being onstage is because he enjoys doing it so very, very much. He wants you to have a great time, sing along and reminisce with him about an era that looks so great in the rear view mirror.

“I just love these songs”, he says. “Whatever happened to melodies? Today’s music is great….there’s lots of rhythm…but where did the melodies go?”. Then he answers that question by diving right back into his huge bag of goodies, which includes “This One’s For You”, “Even Now” and “I Made It Through The Rain”.

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Between songs, Manilow recounts his childhood…and the endless support he got from his family. This was especially true of his grandfather, who took little Barry into the city to record his voice at a coin-operated sound booth. Amazingly, the audio of that scratchy vinyl disc still exists. He shares it with the audience, along with photos of them together on their adventure.

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Speaking of adventure, Barry briefly turns on the campy charm with a 3D-enhanced flyover of New York City (everyone gets a pair of 3D glasses, glow stick and collectible tumbler), set to the lyrics of “This Is My Town”. That self-penned single is from his newest album. Released in 2017, “Songs of New York” is the 31st studio release, which rose to number 12 on U.S. charts.

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Another heartwarming moment brought tears to this writer’s eyes. It’s when Manilow is seen in a clip of his 1975 performance of “Mandy” on THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. After a few phrases, Barry himself appears, already seated at a piano. The two Manilows share a duet, separated by 43 years and a lifetime of experience. Try not to get choked up.

The television has always kind to Barry, especially in the formative years of his career. He began as a songwriter, creating jingles for the likes of State Farm, Band-Aid and McDonald’s. He shares a few of those ear worms, much like he did in a legendary 1978 HBO concert.

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That program, “Manilow: Live at the Greek Theater”, was HBO‘s first-ever music special…and a breakthrough for modern programming. It was also the first cable program to ever beat the big three networks in the ratings, cementing HBO‘s place in American homes (bet you GAME OF THRONES fans didn’t know that you have Barry to thank!).

I remember going to a friend’s house to watch this concert (we couldn’t afford cable back then) and being utterly mesmerized. And that’s how I felt at the Westgate Hotel Casino as this master of entertainment brought all those memories back to vivid life.

The nearly two-hour show flies by at a rapid pace, culminating in the glorious “I Write The Songs”, a masterpiece that united the many generations in attendance. This clip will show you just how moving a song can be. And of course, there’s an encore of “Copacabana (At The Copa)” to send you dancing in the streets.

If there’s one show you absolutely must see while in Vegas, it’s Manilow: The Hits Come Home. 2019 dates were just announced today, so you still have some time to witness the legend. But don’t put it off…even the World’s Greatest Showman will have to hang up his flashy jackets someday.

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Manilow: The Hits Come Home performs Thursday-Saturday at Westgate’s International Theater. Tickets start at $22 (plus taxes/fees) and can be ordered here.  Our friend at VegasFool.com is offering discounts via this link

Photos: Sammasseur

 

 

 

 

 

 

Behind the Mysterious Doors of the 29th Floor

 


A long-touted mystery is about to be revealed…

You may remember the pictoral series I did with photographer Greg C. on the splendid and spectacular Westgate Sky Villas. Ornate and opulent, the Sky Villas are the height of classic Sin City excess. While you can visit them via our articles, these high-roller penthouses are out of reach for just about everyone.

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One floor below, down a quiet and rarely-scene corridor off a private scenic elevator, the north wing of the 29th floor has a series of uniquely designed doors. Behind each is one of a collection of amazing Specialty Suites. Every suite is unique in style and layout, offering amenities in keeping with the theme and atmosphere of its particular presentation.

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Being a frequent and loyal guest of Westgate (as if you didn’t already know that), I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to many of the Specialty Suites….and have actually stayed in several. In fact, I’m typing this piece while reclining in the atrium of the Bahamas Suite…overlooking the lush greens of the  Las Vegas Country Club.

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While I enjoy including photos in my articles to help paint a picture, sometimes it’s best to keep the words to a minimum and let the photos do the talking. So please enjoy this sampling of what lies behind the doors of Westgate’s 29th floor.

The Bahamas Suite –

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The Bahamas Suite is an epic 2,268 square feet of splendor. With a pool table as its centerpiece, the Bahamas Suite has an atrium-style sitting area, suspended swing chair, four-stool bar, king-sized four-poster bed and a large soaking tub with a view of the eastern horizon.

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Velvet chaise lounges, a step-up bedroom area, shower and bidet, a mini kitchen and wall-mounted televisions are enhanced by plush carpeting, deeply-textured wall coverings and a grey-and-purple color scheme. A great place to throw a party…or spoil yourself in the lap of luxury.

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Desert Suite aka “Suzanne Somers Suite” –

2,200 square feet, one bedroom, two baths, large balcony and space to entertain fifty…

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Westgate founder David Siegel has a profound admiration for entertainer Suzanne Somers. Prior to the residency of her “Suzanne Sizzles” musical production, the resort’s CEO commissioned the Desert Suite to be redesigned just for her.

As you may know, Ms. Somers is a survivor of cancer and an advocate for healthy living and natural healing. In order for her to stay here comfortably, Mr. Siegel had the Desert Suite fitted with organic and non-toxic materials that met her lifestyle requirements.

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If you’re a business person (or writer like myself) you couldn’t hope for a more relaxing and inspirational view from your desk. Many a Vegas Unfiltered article was created from this very space.

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Even though Suzanne’s show and personal residencies were short-term, the custom suite that carries her name reflects her role as a crusader for health. I’m betting she felt right at home using the private workout facility.

Under a floor-to-ceiling glass enclosure with retractable shades, Suzanne was able to work up a sweat with a full assortment of free weights and a bench.

Perhaps Suzanne preferred upping her heart rate while drinking in the panoramic view from her own personal treadmill. Afterwards, she (or you) could create a refreshing smoothie in the nicely-stocked kitchenette to enjoy on the expansive balcony.

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What a great cool-down before stepping into the bedroom’s extra-deep tub prior to entertaining in the suite’s sleek, minimalist dining and living spaces.

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The primary bathroom is massive, with dual sinks, a full make-up counter, walk-in shower and bidet.

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          Click here for a 360-degree virtual tour of Suzane Somers Suite…

With all of the comforts of home…and more…you’ll never have to leave the Suzanne Somers Suite. Unless you feel like crossing the hall and visiting…

The Gold Coast Suite

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If minimalist decor doesn’t suit your fancy, perhaps the wilds of Africa’s west coast will put you in the proper mood. Step through these massive carved double doors and into turn-of-the-century British Colonies. The Gold Coast Suite will take you back to a pre-modern era of warm woods, lush textiles and bold animal prints.

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The floor plan of Gold Coast mirrors that of the Bahamas…with the addition of a small balcony off the bedroom. The pool table, spacious living areas and sun room are back. So is the bar…this time enhanced with lots of artwork and expensive-looking accents.

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Nobody wants to “sleep with the fishes” when they get to Sin City, but you can cuddle up next to giraffes, elephants and big cats right here. The Gold Coast Suite boasts a veritable menagerie of African wildlife…so you can throw your own “Hangover”-style bachelor party without the risk of a real life tiger encounter.

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The Gold Coast Suite will surround you in luxury with its elevated sleeping quarters and a jetted bathtub boasting an unspoiled view of the city and pool deck below.

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Enjoy the sight of helicopters flying past in an endless stream of sunset tours from the atrium. Relax on one of the enormous colorful sofas and chairs in front of the wall-mounted high-definition screen.

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With so many amenities to offer, the Gold Coast Suite is clearly ideal for entertaining large groups. But if you’re looking for something a little more intimate, you might want to peek through the keyhole of…

The Bedroom Suite – 

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Westgate’s adults-only Bedroom Suite will alter your perceptions of reality…and forever change the way you think about Westgate Resort. This 918-square-ft one bed/one bath retreat is designed for daring couples…and those who want to “tie one on” while in Vegas.

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Step through the polished and slightly-deceiving doors of this entry into a small world of fantasy, bondage and passion. Prepare to be shocked, titillated, amazed and intrigued. Leave your inhibitions in the hallway and indulge in your deepest desires.

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Drink in the colors of red, black…and several shades of grey…that set a sexy tone for memorable encounters. The large circular bed is nestled underneath a matching mirror, tucked into a plush black headboard that divides the sleeping area from a jet tub made just for two.

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Sip champagne as the bubbles flow over your body…and try not to blush as your eyes are drawn to a St. Andrews cross mounted to the wall, complete with softly-lined handcuffs.

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Slip into something comfortable…or out of it, as the case may be…to enjoy a picturesque sunset. Your full-length balcony offers excellent views of the city and mountains that form the western horizon.

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Click here to enjoy a 360-degree virtual tour of The Bedroom Suite.

There are five more Specialty Suites at Westgate Casino Resort to explore. With any luck, I’ll be able to share them with you in a future article. There’s also a myriad of villas that fan out from a central corridor on the same floor.

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These mystery villas carry names like “Windsor”, “Ambassador”, “Mediterranean” and “Viena”. Perhaps they’ll show up in a future article as well.

Acquiring one of the Westgate Specialty Suites is a bit of a gamble. Quite literally, actually. They’re usually reserved for high roller guests but sometimes show up on the Westgate reservation website. Check out this page from time to time and you might get the opportunity to splurge on one for yourself.

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Before we close this chapter, there’s one more perk you should know about….an over-the-top private penthouse elevator straight to the 29th floor. Take a selfie on the plush settee as you enjoy the gorgeous paintings and polished brass.

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All trips to the top should be this fun.

Photos by Sammasseur, Westgate Las Vegas

Models: Lisa and Scott Land, Jeff Desruisseaux

 

 

 

Find Your Inner Ariel at MERMAID SCHOOL


Weekend childrens’ classes are Westgate’s latest “outside the box”…

Going through my daily round of press release emails is a lot like attacking the pile of presents under the Christmas tree. Some of them I can’t wait to open up (“Chippendales Announces Latest Guest Host”). Others feel obligatory…like a Visa gift card from the mother-in-law (“Hash House A Go Go Introduces New Cocktail, Extends Happy Hour).

Then there are the ones that stink like rotten fish and get tossed into the garbage without opening (“Chris Brown Returns to Drai’s Nightclub”, “Mariah Carey Announces Christmas Show at Caesars Palace”). But my favorite emails are the ones that have you scratching your head in wonder. Things like “Learn To Be A Mermaid at Westgate Las Vegas”. Seriously?

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Regular readers know that bringing the children to Vegas is one of my biggest pet peeves. But Westgate is a different kind of resort. A privately-held timeshare company, their twenty-eight locations cater to families around the country. Of them, only the Vegas location on Paradise Road has a casino (and a topless revue).

Naturally there is crossover of timeshare owners with kids, so Westgate Las Vegas offers a limited selection of entertainment and activities that appeal to the little ones. Shows like Magic of Jen Kramer…and Dirk Arthur before her. Dining at the glorious gardens of Benihana Village. And yes, weekend mermaid classes.

I’ll admit to initially being tempted to toss this press release into the trash folder. But “only in Vegas” experiences should be treasured. So after a long night of partying with the guys, I donned my shades and took the elevator down to Westgate’s expansive third-floor pool deck to meet Mermaid Farasha and the little ones who had lined up for that morning’s class.

Mermaid Farasha DesertSiren goes by the name of Farasha Millner when in human form. A professional belly dancer and mermaid performer, Ms. Farasha travels with her mobile tank and seashell to entertain, educate and promote the “Mermaid Code of Ethics”. In other words, she’s a positive role model for youngsters…and anyone in need of a little course correction through the sea of life.

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I was able to briefly meet Mermaid Farasha before the morning’s class and she was indeed glowing with compliments and positive vibes. “Oooh, you give off a great energy” she cooed in my ear. “You’d make a great mer-man”. Yes, I really was blushing.

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Although the Desert Siren was eager to begin, one fledgling mermaid had already been waiting long before anyone else arrived. Nine year old Carson Parker of Florida was up at the crack of dawn…and ready to slip into her fin.

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Accompanied by great aunt Becky Knowles (left) and aunt Kelli Wilkin, Carson was staying at Westgate while mother Melissa Parker, the reigning Mrs. Florida America, was competing in the Mrs. America Pageant. That event was being held the same weekend at the off-Strip resort.

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With her mother in rehearsal for the evening’s show, Carson was eager to learn some new tricks in the water. As fortunes would have it, Carson was already an avid mermaid-er. Adept at doing front flips, she regularly practices at the family’s pool in Melbourne.

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Word had gotten out to Vegas locals about the new classes, too. Seven-year-old Dionni signed up after her mother Tavia heard about Mermaid School from a Facebook friend…who in turn saw a piece on local station KTNV. She proudly posed with her new mermaid fin and couldn’t wait to begin.

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          Seven year old Dionni was eager to go “Under The Sea” in Mermaid School…

Also attending that weekend was Abbie Losch, aka “Mermaid Coral”. You may remember Abbie as the adventurous daughter of Westgate’s own superstar Chef Aaron Losch, whom I profiled earlier this year.

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                   Abbie Losch makes a striking mermaid at Westgate’s pool…

Inside the pool’s merchandise shop, other youngsters were lining up to buy or rent their fins. Some were singing from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”, whose soundtrack would soon be playing over and over (and over) on speakers during the morning’s lessons.

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The class began with a preliminary introduction and explanation of basics for the newbies. The students were assisted in learning to don and stand in their fins. Then came introductions all around. The young ladies were asked to choose a personal mermaid name, then the real fun began.

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After a brief absence, the Desert Siren returned to the pool in full mermaid regalia and shimmied into the pool. Along with showing her students new maneuvers, Farasha emphasized the importance of support, encouragement and respect for each other and one’s own self.

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“You’re in control. You are beautiful. In the mermaid’s world we support one another” she told them. The students learned how to tread water, give a “tail salute” and speak seafaring lingo like “Shello!”. But most of all, they learned how to be feminine, graceful and kind. “There’s so much you can do with this. You are a Mer!”.

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As the class wound down, curious onlookers came over to see what Mermaid School was all about and pose for pictures. Then a young boy swam over to chat to Mermaid Farasha about being a mer-man. “I love your British accent, handsome!”. Yes, the classes are open to boys as well.

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If interest continues to grow, there’s a possibility of adding adult groups into the mix. And why not? Apparently this is a new social movement. Mermaid Schools are popping up all over the country. And they’re a nice fit to Westgate’s other poolside offerings like sunrise yoga classes (Friday-Sunday from 7 am to 8 am, weather permitting) and the Silent Savana sunset sessions I told you about here.

Despite Farasha‘s suggestion that I try on the fins myself, I’ll leave that kind of fun to the younger guests. I’ll be content just to sip a fireball mojito and watch the activities from The Playground, Westgate’s 21-and-up dayclub that I told you about here.

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      Kate’s Island Shop at Westgate’s retail corridor has gotten into the mermaid spirit…

That’s what’s so great about Sin City. There’s something for every taste. And just when you think you’ve seen and done it all, another WTF press release will appear in your in-box. Let’s hope the next one isn’t “Mariah Carey Extends Latest Residency”. There’s got to be a limit to the madness!

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All participants agreed to being interviewed and their guardians signed waivers for press coverage…

Tickets for Mermaid Class are available at Serenity Spa at Westgate’s 3rd floor pool deck. Call 702-732-5648 to purchase tickets by phone. Classes are capped at 15 students.

  • Ages: 7-12. [Participants must know how to swim/parent or guardian must be present during the duration of the class and sign Mermaid School waiver.]

  • Price: $25.00 per class

  • Dates/Time: Saturdays & Sundays from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. 

Photos: Sammasseur, Jamie Losch