What's new about Las Vegas

First Person Exploits into the Unknown

As you can tell by looking at the pictures accompanying this story, I am back from my latest vacation to Las Vegas earlier this month.

This served as my “winter getaway vacation.” Unfortunately, I had to put it off for months on end, due to all the major news I was committed to covering. There were the leadership races. There was the byelection. There was the city budget. There was the trial. And on and on.

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My worry was that I left it too late. Usually, I try to hit Vegas right when the minus-30 temperatures hit, and we were long past those dismal temperatures.

Fortunately, the timing was still excellent, because the weather I was departing in Saskatchewan was still completely bad. My flight left Saskatoon immediately after the province got hit by a huge dumping of snow. Meanwhile, the weather in Las Vegas was the best I’d experienced yet, into the 70s. All in all, I was quite pleased.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done an “Exploit into the Unknown” piece about Las Vegas vacations. Back in 2011 I did a piece about travel tips for Vegas and it was very well received.

This time, I want to focus on some of the new and different things about Las Vegas since that piece was published. The one constant about Las Vegas is change, with casinos, entertainers and shows coming and going.

For instance, there were some big changes to some of the properties on the Strip. Here are a few notable ones:

Imperial Palace: No more. The property has been renovated and rebranded and it is now known as The LINQ Hotel and Casino. A huge observation wheel called the High Roller was built behind it in 2014.

The Sahara: No more. The property was closed, renovated and rebranded as SLS Las Vegas a few years ago.  

The Riviera: Gone. By “gone,” I don’t mean “renovated” or “rebranded,” I mean “reduced to rubble.” The Riviera was completely imploded in 2016 to make room for the planned Las Vegas Convention Center District.

There were some additional attractions added as well. You may know that there is a big Coca-Cola attraction and a big M&Ms store over at the Showcase Mall on the Strip. To keep up with all that, there is now a Hershey’s Chocolate World over at New York New York, which opened in 2014. You can go there and buy all the Hershey’s products you want; the top floor is devoted to Reese’s products.

There’s also some new restaurant and fast-food options. When I had last been to Las Vegas all the excitement was over the new White Castle that had opened, bringing the chain to the city for the first time. I noticed a second location has since opened downtown.

White Castle, of course, is the chain made famous in the infamous stoner-movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Which reminds me of another new thing about Vegas:

Cannabis is legal there now, though I understand there are still laws against its use in public. I can see the movie marquees now: “Harold and Kumar Go to Las Vegas.”

Something else new that’s happening: eSports. I notice that over at the Luxor they were converting a former nightclub into a new eSports arena for the gamers. This venue is meant to open this spring. I notice there was an eSports area over at the MGM Grand as well. Las Vegas is becoming a hub not simply for gambling games, but games of all kinds.    

There is another notable, more somber change about Las Vegas. You now see a lot of “Vegas Strong” T-shirts and signs around.

It’s a reminder of the horrific mass shooting tragedy at the Route 91 Harvest Festival last Oct. 1.

During my latest trip I sought out to see a number of things I hadn’t seen in a while, such as the downtown. I hadn’t been to the downtown since 2009, in fact, because it was so far out of the way of the Las Vegas strip.

The downtown Fremont Street area seemed quite a bit more vibrant than the one I saw back in 2009. Back then, downtown seemed old and tired and a bit of a dump, frankly. This time, though, it seemed more vibrant, with more people there.

There were refurbished casinos, including The D, which was renovated in 2012, and there are attractions in the downtown such as the Mob Museum to interest visitors.

I quickly figured out that the real reason there were so many people downtown that particular day I was there was because part of Fremont Street was closed for a car show.

It turned out this was Mint 400 week in Las Vegas, when the annual off-road race is held.

Downtown was filled with one off-road vehicle after another, including quite a few that would be racing in the annual event, which has been a Las Vegas tradition for 50 years. I didn’t know this event was going on, so I feel I lucked out with the timing.

It turned out there were a number of sporting events going on in Las Vegas that week. Right before I arrived, the city had seen a UFC event, a NASCAR race, and Sevens rugby.

But when I was there, the main focus had turned to another sport: college basketball.

Believe it or not, there were four conference tournaments going on in Las Vegas during the week: the West Coast Conference and the Western Athletic Conference over at Orleans Arena, the Mountain West Conference over at Thomas & Mack Centre, and at T-Mobile Arena it was the Pac-12 tournament.

It was an opportunity for me to see for myself the new T-Mobile Arena for the first time, located right behind the New York New York casino and resort. The T-Mobile hadn’t been built the last time I was in Vegas in 2015.

Outside, it was quite a scene, with the Pac-12 “fan experience” going on outside. They had a basketball court set up so fans could shoot baskets, and there were plenty of souvenirs to be had. The advertisers were out in full force, with even the GEICO gecko putting in an appearance there.

The entire area was crowded with fans, team mascots and marching bands, all decked out in the colours from their Pac-12 teams. Outside, sports reporters were doing their live hits for TV.

It was a great atmosphere and an exciting time to be a basketball fan in Las Vegas. You had the choice of watching games in the sports books, or live at the arena.

Being a cheapskate, I watched the games in the sports books.

Here is how my week unfolded in Las Vegas. I’d walk down the Vegas strip, my feet would get tired, and I would then go inside a casino and watch basketball games in a sports book. Then I would get bored, walk up the Strip again, my feet would get sore again, and I’d go inside a casino sports book to watch more basketball. And so on.

This routine continued all week. All I have to say is that I have yet to figure out how to avoid getting sore feet from walking along the Vegas strip. Every time I go there, the town does a number on my soles, simply because there is so much to see in a short period of time.

I suppose the biggest change to Las Vegas since the last time I was in the city is the fact that the city is officially major league now with the arrival of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.

Unfortunately, the team was on the road due to basketball commitments at T-Mobile Arena. So I missed out on much of the fan excitement surrounding the team.

Having said that, there was no shortage of reminders of the NHL’s arrival in Sin City. Golden Knights signs and souvenirs were everywhere, with licensed merchandise for sale in souvenir stores all over the Las Vegas strip.

It was surprising, in fact. The party line from hockey fans in Canada is that Las Vegas is no place for the NHL. The NFL’s Oakland Raiders are moving to Las Vegas soon, and you would have thought there would be far more Raiders items for sale or otherwise being worn around the city. For some reason, I noticed far more Golden Knights stuff.

I had a bit of a goal for this Vegas trip that I wanted to accomplish. Many of you may remember that I wrote a column detailing how I rescued Sombrero the Frog from Cancun during my trip there in 2016.

This time, my goal was to find the one Golden Knights souvenir I was most interested in: a stuffed Chance the Gila Monster, the mascot for the Golden Knights.

This was the “Gainer the Gopher” of Las Vegas that I was looking for. I heard these items were out there, but I came up empty looking for him in stores all over the Strip. I even went into the Golden Knights official store at T-Mobile Arena, and while they had stuffed animals for sale, they didn’t have Chance.

Finally, after my week in Las Vegas, I headed for the McCarran International Airport empty-handed as I prepared to return to Canada.

Once past security, I headed to the departure area and noticed a sports souvenir store in there.

I was in luck. This store was full of stuffies of Chance the Gila Monster.

At the checkout counter, I told the clerk that I had looked all over Las Vegas for this beast. It turned out the store had received the last 24 of them.

I was pleased to have Chance join me as a travelling companion back to frozen Canada, a reminder of another successful vacation down in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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