The Quintessential American Amusement Park

Trip Start Jul 26, 2005
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Trip End Aug 20, 2005


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Flag of United States  , Nevada
Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Nobody tell Walt Disney, but there's a bigger, flashier amusement park in America than Disneyland. I don't know what roots it grew up from, but somewhere along the way, Las Vegas forgot it was supposed to be a city and instead became a spectacle. From a pinch of neon and dash of poker chips with a dollop of glitz, glamour, pizzazz and sheer tackiness, (toss in a few topless dancers for good measure), it's become the modern day dream of a place where you can forget that you ever grew up. That you ever had to behave, think responsibly and speak thoughtfully, chew with your mouth closed or be respectful to your elders.

The Strip, especially, is a place you might one night dream up and wake up in a cold sweat, trying to decide if it had been a fantasy or a nightmare. We started at one end, in the Las Vegas Hilton, with an American dollar bill fed to a ravensous five-cent slot machine, (theme: "The Frog Prince," thanks for the heavy-handed fairytale symbolism to the gambling, guys) the new-fangled type where you don't even get the exercise of pulling the lever. Just push two buttons, over and over and over. We have no idea which buttons give us the best chances of winning so we take turns jabbing. The fixated, chain-smoking, chain-drinking diehards at the machines around us grunt their disgust when we whoop in jubilation: we've gotten $2.80 back from the machine after putting in a dollar!

We have dinner at "Quark's," the Hilton's Star Trek-themed restaurant. This is in concession to my dad, who is a minor Trekkie of the type that wishes he could quote episodes verbatim but doesn't have the spare time to really take things to the next sci-fi nerd level. I order the "Warbird" (basically chicken with rice), my Dad has the "Flaming Ribs of Targ," which actually come lit on fire. Dad also orders the beer sampler, allowing him to try Romulan ale (blue), Klingon blood ale (you guess), Trixian bubble ale (yellow), and two other slightly normal-looking beers. Halfway through our meal we're joined by a Klingon who asks where we're from.

"Canada!" he says, with a big whooping laugh. "Ah yes. Your symbol is the maple leaf. What does it symbolize? You die, dry out and crumple up?" We counter that we also have the beaver.

"Oh, that's not so bad. Small animals with big pointy teeth please me." He insults our weaknesses a bit more---suggesting that Dad is a wimp for having put the Flaming Ribs out before eating them---before heading off to the next table for another round of sending nerds to Heaven. Then we get a Ferengi (the round-eared, big-nosed aliens who are obsessed with money) who simpers his pleasure at how much we're spending at the restaurant. Dad apologizes that his "women" are not "naked, as is Ferengi custom," but the Ferengi says he forgives us, since going clothed is our custom. Because this "alien" scares us less, we get photos with him, one where he inserts himself into my bemused mother's arms and poses for a loving photo, and another where Dad pretends to be selling me into slavery.

After dinner we head back onto the casino floor of the Hilton to have a go with our $2.80. Soon Mom and I, still uncertain which buttons to press, turn it into $6.50 and Dad, having a whack at a twenty-five-cent machine (rich for our blood, we suggest), gets himself a quick $8.75.

"Oooh, let's cash out, go to another casino, we're on a roll." I've already been promised any gambling profits we might make during the night, and there's a whole Strip of places to go to. The lines are shorter than Disneyland! You go up and down faster than on any rollercoaster, and it's 100% guaranteed to make you a little bit queasy!

We take the Monorail to the other end of the Strip, passing all the famous names (Stratosphere, Circus Circus, Mandalay Bay, the Luxor, so on) along the way and pile out into the MGM Grand. I plead for a few dollar bills, just to try our luck here. One dollar later Mom and I, teamed up as a button-pushing team, are crowing about the $3.00 we've just got---you'll see that we're not exactly high rollers---until Dad comes around the corner waving his slot ticket, which proclaims that he is now the owner of $13.75.

"Cash out! More to see! More to do! Cash to rake in!"

Unfortunately that marked the end of our beginner's luck streak; never again would we make a profit on any machine. Fortunately, cooler heads than mine would prevail and while we put less than fifteen dollars into the machines at the next run of casinos we won a combined total of $32.75. We came out on top in Vegas. Who can say that?

Now the focus was on the "sights," running from casino to casino to determine which had the glitziest, most over the top attractions. The self-proclaimed "seductive" Treasure Island pirate battle, complete with sinking ship, was a bust because the crowds to see it were already piling out into the street, earning hard looks and heavy honks from the taxis. We rushed to the Mirage to see their exploding volcano instead. Flames! Red-coloured water! The sounds of tropical birds amongst palm trees! At New York New York we ogled the miniature Statue of Liberty, and at Paris the recreated Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. Getting a picture of it in the right light was almost as good as a picture of the real thing, wasn't it? Wasn't that what Vegas wanted you to think?

The Bellagio has its famous dancing fountains, which gave us an inspired, balletic show to the music of Elton John and then, fifteen minutes later, to that song (you know the one) from Titanic. The water seemed thrilled to be shooting upwards as Celine's voice jetted off into the night sky. The giant crowds gathered around the huge lake in front of the hotel were little bothered by two men with "Think of Jesus" and "Remember the Ten Commandments" signs, yelling out that we were of his flesh and his blood and should remember "His" sacrifice. Nobody blinked, only shoving them aside in a bid for a better view of this water spectacular, blooming in the desert. Why bother in Vegas? Nobody comes there to repent. They come to sin and giggle about it for years afterwards, titillated by the memories.

I'll admit that I liked Vegas. I was upset that when we piled into a taxi at midnight we hadn't had a chance to investigate the pleasures of every single one of the casinos on the Strip (to see the Forum sky change from dawn to dusk in fifteen minutes at Caesar's Palace! To ride the indoor gondolas at the Venetian! To see the thunderstorm over the harbour at the Aladdin!). But it didn't feel like a city, it felt like a video game, a virtual reality ride where nothing you did would have any effect on real life. And I felt a twinge of guilt---though probably not the one that the Bible Bashers wanted me to feel---at what such a place represented for our society. What does it say about us that we can create this sort of oasis in a water-starved desert, have water dance for our amusement when elsewhere hotels pleaded with guests to take short showers? What does it mean that we use our ingenuity to recreate our greatest cultural feats on a smaller scale solely for greed, to make a pirate ship sink and reappear every hour and a half when the same technology, fuelled by the money that goes into the slot machines every hour, could be put towards saving the world? Vegas wants us to forget the world around us, forget that it sucks the resources of an already-dying land to the limit while using the money and expertise that could go to far greater causes only to create for ourselves the ultimate amusement park.

Or maybe it is a fairy tale, but a cautionary one. Without meaning to, it made me twinge and wonder how much better use the fifteen dollars we put into slot machines might have gone to.
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