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Travel: Escape the Winter Blues in Las Vegas

Randi Walle Randi Walle Travel: Escape the Winter Blues in Las VegasAll photos by Randi Walle.
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Ohio winters can be bleak. The endless, gray, dreary days tend to take a toll on one’s psyche. By February, central Ohioans are counting down the days – or weeks – until spring. Thankfully, there is a way to beat those winter blues: traveling to a warmer climate. Las Vegas is a great winter getaway. With cheap flights and a 30-degree temperature increase, it’s an ideal place to escape for a cold weather reprieve.

When people think of Las Vegas, they usually think of the famous casinos and the hours of entertainment provided there. Hollywood blockbusters like What Happens in Vegas, Ocean’s Eleven, and The Hangover have glamorized the drink-all-night-sleep-all-day idea of the casino lifestyle. However, there is much more to Sin City than slot machines and alcohol. While it is possible to spend an entire weekend in the city without ever stepping outside, I’m going to offer an alternative to those who want to see more of the major international tourist hub than the blackjack tables.

In December, I traveled to Las Vegas to meet up with an old friend. She had traveled there from Texas for a work conference, so our trip had the added bonus of a hotel room paid in full by her company. We stayed at the Planet Hollywood, which, if you’ve seen What Happens in Vegas, is where Cameron Diaz’s and Ashton Kutcher’s characters meet. My friend had meetings and conference sessions to attend, so we planned our activities around her schedule. I was in Las Vegas for less than 72 hours and managed to see everything I wanted, but more on that later.

My Las Vegas experience started at the airport with a low-fare flight out of Columbus. Allegiant and Frontier both offer low rates – $30 one way – directly into Las Vegas. Packing light is key, unless you want to pay to check a bag, which I did in order to be able to take my computer, camera, and clothes for the long weekend. My flight left on a Saturday evening, and arrived in Vegas around 9 p.m. PT. Flying into the Las Vegas airport at night was one of the most beautiful nights-capes I have ever witnessed. Coming in to land, the flat expanse of desert gave way to a beacon of city lights, the high-rise casinos towering over everything.

Before I dive into all the activities I did while there, I have to explain how I was able to do them. We purchased Las Vegas Go Cards, which is essentially an activity pass to the city. We purchased the four day passes through Smart Destinations for $269. The pass allows for one big activity in the area, such as a night helicopter ride over the strip, Richard Petty driving experience, or Grand Canyon tour, as well as access to dozens of museums and experiences in the area. We tracked the admission prices we didn’t have to pay because we had the card, and it totaled $396. So, if you want to see a lot of the city, this is definitely worth your while.

We did 11 out of the 18 options, not counting daily admission to variety, comedy, and theatre shows. The Mob Museum, a historic three-story museum filled with artifacts and history of organized crime in America and the city of Las Vegas, was a personal favorite of mine. The museum explored famous historical characters such as Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone, and explained how their families — and others like them — founded and shaped organized crime in America. Major historical events, such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Prohibition, and the Kefauver Hearings are also explored through artifacts and interactive exhibits, and the museum also had extensive history on the city itself, how it was formed and how it grew into the iconic city it is today.

For those not afraid of heights, or willing to face them in a safe and controlled way, there are a few options for seeing the sights of the city. The High-Roller observation wheel and Eiffel Tower experience both offer a birds-eye view of The Strip. Day-time access to both is available with the Go Card. The Eiffel Tower, which sits right in front of the Paris hotel, is directly across from the Bellagio and the famous water shows. It’s a magnificent sight to see the water show from above; patterns and designs not visible from ground level are timed to music, a new show every display. The High-Roller Observation Wheel is similar to a giant ferris wheel, except each car is an orb that holds up to twenty people. Cocktail hours, wedding receptions, and corporate meetings can all be held inside one of the cars. We lucked out on our trip and had the whole car to ourselves. We timed our trip for the latest possible “day time admission” and were able to see the city during daylight, sunset, and nighttime during the forty-minute ride.

The last one we did was the Stratosphere observation deck. Located on top of the Stratosphere hotel, we went up at night to see the lights. Having already done a few other things to see the city, this one seemed a little anti-climactic. It was cold and windy, so we stayed long enough to take a picture and then left. For the more adventurous, tickets can be purchased for the rollercoaster on the deck that extends out from the top of the tower.

If you have an active mind and enjoy being challenged, Las Vegas has two interactive activities, both of which are family friendly. In CSI: The Experience, participants are handed a clipboard to track their findings while they examine a crime scene. Although I’m not an avid CSI or crime show watcher, this experience was still enjoyable. After we examined the crime scene, we took our results to a series of labs and had to work through problems and clues to determine what was helpful in leading us to figure out the mystery of how our victim died. In the end we solved the mystery and brought justice. The second hands-on activity we did was Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. where we were trained as agents by learning about the Avengers. Specific rooms are dedicated to well-known heroes such as the Hulk and Captain America, where we learned about their origins. We tested our strength by trying to remove Thor’s hammer from the stone, learned what makes the Hulk strong, avoided stepping on Ant-Man’s Ants, and ended the experience with a virtual battle. Again, although I’m not an avid Marvel fan, the experience was still enjoyable and worth the time.

Two of the most cost-efficient attractions on the Go Card are the transportation options. The Monorail runs the route of the Strip, with stops inside several of the major hotels. Since a majority of the activities are either inside a hotel or within walking distance of one, the two-day Monorail pass was a huge bonus. It enabled us to quickly get from one activity to the next, allowing us to make the most of our time in the city. The other transportation that was not only efficient but enjoyable was the Big Bus Tour. Although it is majorly touristy, it’s also very informative. Our guide had been doing tours for years and was a Las Vegas expert. As we rode on the upper deck of the bus, he explained the history all the buildings and casinos, usually accompanied by a fun anecdote or unique piece of history. We were able to hop on and off the bus as needed, which is helpful since the bus route has more stops than the Monorail.

The big-ticket item we chose to do with our Go Cards was the Maverick Helicopter ride. A bus from Maverick picked us up directly at our hotel and drove us to the airport. We were weighed and assigned a group for flight. A total of eight people went up at a time: seven passengers and the pilot. My seat was the closest to the window in the front, so I felt like I was entirely surrounded by glass. Around me all I could see was the dark sky and bright lights of the city.  The total ride was less than 15 minutes, but it was worth it to see the Strip from this vantage point. Once in the air, our headsets played a track of information corresponding with the sights we were seeing. We flew down the strip over one side and back up over the other side. Since it was my first helicopter experience I was a little nervous of motion sickness, but it was such a smooth ride I didn’t have any issues at all. After we landed back at the airport, our pilot allowed us time to take pictures of the helicopter, and even offered to take pictures for us. This might not seem like a big deal, until you realize it’s the only place in Las Vegas where that happens. Every place has you pose for a picture before entering, with the idea that you would buy a $25 print of you and your companions with a kitschy backdrop. This was the one and only time we had someone offer to take our picture during our whole trip, and we greatly appreciated it.

Regardless of your sight-seeing aspirations in Las Vegas, just walking through the hotels is an experience in and of itself. They are all open to the public, and most have restaurants, shops, and spas inside of them. The Paris Hotel has a cobblestone street that looks and feels like strolling down a Parisian street. The Venetian has a canal running through the center of it, with the option of boat rides to take in the Grand Canal Shoppes. New York New York has a giant Statue of Liberty replica, made entirely out of Styrofoam and seated in front of the hotel, along with an outdoor rollercoaster. The Bellagio houses the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens with a seasonal floral exhibit. Since I was there in early December, the display was Christmas-themed. The first time I visited it, I didn’t realize everything was made entirely out of different types of flowers. Once I learned that, I made a second trip so I could fully appreciate the craftsmanship. Houses, polar bears, trains, and elves were entirely composed of flower arrangements, with the focal point of the exhibit being the domed ceiling-height Christmas tree. Regardless of what hotel you stay in, definitely walk through some of the others for the experience.

My four days in Las Vegas were different than what most people experience. However, I have solid memories from those four days, and I came home with just as much money as I left home with. I got to see a side of Sin City that a lot of people ignore, and it opened my eyes to the reality of what Las Vegas is outside of Casinos.

 

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