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Opinion >  Column

Rob Curley: Las Vegas travel guide for the Zags fan who’s already done all the Sin City classics

UPDATED: Fri., March 4, 2022

Look, we aren’t rookies here.

Basketball fans from around these parts have migrated each spring to Las Vegas since 2009. We know things.

One of the only sure bets in Sin City is that any self-respecting Gonzaga fan can give you better and more truthful advice on the college hoops conference tournament capital of the world than any of those glorified, pay-for-play tourism guides you find in your hotel room on the Strip.

So, this is a travelogue for the Bulldog basketball junkies who can tell you where to still find a $5 blackjack table or a decent steak that doesn’t require refinancing your South Hill home that the New York Times says everyone now wants to buy.

If you’re looking for suggestions that include the Bellagio fountains or that big Ferris wheel, or where to watch an overpriced show starring French-Canadian acrobats, this is not the guide for you.

Have things changed since COVID-19?

Yes. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that, if you visited Las Vegas before 2020, you didn’t see anyone wearing masks. The same is true now. Apparently, masks aren’t optional here; they’re nonexistent. It’s like a worldwide pandemic never happened.

Well, except there are now pop-up tents on the sidewalk where you can get a COVID-19 test. And things that used to stay open all night no longer do. You used to be able to buy an expensive purse or some impractical shoes at 11 p.m. with no problems. Now, all of those fancy shopping places close a whole lot closer to the time that they shut down the NorthTown Mall each night.

There is another interesting thing about most of those malls: They still have stores. Real stores. Ones you’ve heard of. Oh sure, you see an empty storefront every once in a while, but – by and large – these places are still packed with stores, making them way more fun and nostalgic than they really should be.

It used to be interesting to see how the different resorts would perfume their air. The Venetian. Aria. Wynn. Mandalay Bay. They have a smell – the types of smells that actually are big-selling candles in some of their gift shops.

But Vegas has a new smell. It’s everywhere. Indoors. Outdoors. Definitely in your clothes. Recreational pot became legal in Nevada a few years back, and the smell of a surfeit of skunks permeates everything. Pepe Le Pew would love it. And Snoop Dogg.

Where did all of the free parking go?

No one builds a parking garage like Las Vegas. And it was gloriously free! Even the valet parking was free! It was ideal for anyone from Spokane who loves to complain about the cost of parking downtown. They’d pull into that famous circle drive at Caesars Palace, hand their keys to a guy wearing an odd-fitting jacket, and exclaim to anyone who would listen that heaven on earth had been found.

Then it was gone, like dust in the wind. Corporate accountants and shareholders cheered. These are the exact same people who invented “resort fees,” which are a special sort of evil. You can almost hear the ghosts of mafia past ask if you miss them yet.

But there are some places that still offer free parking on the Strip if you know where to look. Some might even surprise you considering Vegas’ knack of making sure the house always wins.

Some of the nicest, and most-expensive, resorts in Las Vegas still offer free parking. The Wynn and Encore. The Venetian and Palazzo. Resorts World, but only in that huge parking garage that seems closer to Interstate 15 than it does to Las Vegas Boulevard.

While it’s still going to cost you to park at the Aria and all of its related properties, valet parking is free at the Shops at Crystals, but that will make a lot more sense the moment you try to buy something. The parking at Fashion Show Mall is free, but there’s no overnight parking there, so don’t get any ideas.

There also is free parking at the Stratosphere, the Sahara, Circus Circus, Treasure Island and the Tropicana – which all kinda make sense, just for the exact opposite reason that Crystals will let you park for gratis.

They built a huge stadium next to the Strip

Drenched in silver, white and the Raiders’ infamous, light-swallowing black, Allegiant Stadium glistens with LED accents and modern technology. The new facility feels as though it could equally serve as the impenetrable black hole fortress for a sci-fi super-villain as it does in its current role: housing one of the NFL’s most-willing-to-move-on-a-whim franchises.

So, kinda the same thing.

The tour lasts about 75 minutes as it snakes its way through the $1.9 billion facility. Fans get the chance to see behind the black curtain at Allegiant, checking out owner Mark Davis’ suite, the team locker room, the broadcast booth and lounges. Tour guides are lively and banter with tour groups, which are kept small and run frequently throughout the day. Video is not allowed, but guests can pose for photos at the news conference podium and snap selfies in front of a few of the players’ lockers and the franchise’s Super Bowl trophies.

Of course, an NFL stadium in a city known for excess has to have eye-popping numbers. This one doesn’t disappoint. The stadium has 1,111 toilets and 2,200 televisions. The 95,000-square-foot Bermuda grass field tray is powered by 76 individual motors and can be slid in and out of the stadium in 60 minutes. If you visit this next week, the field will likely be gone because of several recent and upcoming concerts.

The Wynn Field Club is an exclusive field-level lounge and nightclub. The most expensive item on the menu? A jeroboam of Ace of Spades Rose costing $25,000.

At $60, is the tour of the Raiders’ latest home worth it? Well, you can spend a whole lot more in Las Vegas on a hand of blackjack that you aren’t going to remember by the time you’re back home, and you almost certainly will remember this. Plus, how often do you get to be in an empty NFL stadium outside of going to a Detroit Lions game?

The tour involves a lot of walking, so make sure you wear comfortable shoes and not those expensive ones you bought at Crystals to get that free parking.

Cheap beer and new neon

The neon capital of the world no longer has that much neon. There’s even a place called the Neon Boneyard where they put all of those long-gone cool neon signs. But there is a recently opened place on the Strip that eschews the current penchant for huge videoboards for some of that good, old excited gas in a colorful tube: Target. Yep. The department store that charges 8 cents for a bag in Spokane.

The front sign is Bullseye, the dog. In neon. With a wagging tail.

But that’s not why you should go there.

Ask any Gonzaga fan who visits Las Vegas every spring, and they will confirm that the Strip now has almost as many CVSs and Walgreens as it does casinos. Or close. And the things they sell in those stores cost a whole lot more than they do at their peers in Spokane.

That’s where this new neon-loving Target comes to the rescue. Things there will cost the same as they do back home. Including beer. Only the selection is a whole lot better at this Target. Just in case Washington State fans are worried, they totally sell Busch Light.

The Target on the Las Vegas Strip features a beer cave as photographed on Tuesday, Mar 1, 2022, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
The Target on the Las Vegas Strip features a beer cave as photographed on Tuesday, Mar 1, 2022, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Don’t let any of the casinos fool you. The cheapest beer, by far, on the Strip is at the new Target that’s over there by that huge Coke bottle and those massive M&Ms, so get yourself some candy-covered chocolates, a case of beer and a smile.

Something that still has that new resort smell

If you want to see one of the most-expensive resorts ever built in Las Vegas, at a price tag of more than $4 billion, Resorts World is now open. It sits across from the Wynn/Encore resorts in the former location of the Stardust.

It has a little bit of that “not completely finished” feel to it, but what is done is impressive. Though the resort describes itself as Asian-themed, it isn’t with the same heavy-handedness theming taken by most Las Vegas resorts.

What makes Resorts World feel different is that it’s a resort that’s filled with a bunch of smaller resorts. Or at least, small as a place with a couple of hotels that have around 1,500 hotel rooms can be. For perspective, the biggest hotel in Washington is Seattle’s Grand Hyatt with 1,260 rooms. The Davenport Grand has just over 700 rooms.

Resorts World is the home to one of the nicest Hiltons you’ve ever seen, the Conrad – which is technically owned by Hilton, only with way fancier toiletries – and Crockfords, which is like a fancy boutique hotel owned by a subsidiary of Hilton. Also with very nice soaps and lotions in the rooms. The biggest hotel inside Resorts World is the Las Vegas Hilton, which is, you guessed it, owned by Hilton.

This makes it sounds like the three hotels are similar. They’re really not. And for the quality, they generally aren’t as expensive as similar properties across Las Vegas.

Though Hilton is running the hotels inside Resorts World, it doesn’t own the overarching resort. It’s owned by a Malaysian company that has opened several other Resorts Worlds across the world, thought mostly in Asian countries.

If you’re staying on the Strip, it’s definitely worth the walk to see Resorts World. But let’s be honest, if you’ve rented a car, the place has free parking, which is satisfying in its own right.

Bringing back the gee-whiz

When most people visit Las Vegas, they want to see wild things, or do wild things … or at least do or see things you can’t do or see in Spokane.

Well, we’re to that part of this list. Only with the caveat that nothing can cost more than $20.

First, head over to the Miracle Mile Shops shopping center at Planet Hollywood. There’s a place in there called the Tipsy Robot. It’s a bar. Only from the Jetsons. Or a Ford automotive assembly plant.

The Miracle Mile Shops are photographed on Tuesday, Mar 1, 2022, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
The Miracle Mile Shops are photographed on Tuesday, Mar 1, 2022, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

The point is that it’s weird.

You order drinks from touch-screen menus at the seats across the bar. Then robots at the bar make your drinks. Even if you don’t drink, you gotta see this. The place also has human bartenders, but that doesn’t seem nearly as cool as a robot making your drink. Besides, a human can make your drink in Spokane, so that’s not the goal of getting a tasty adult beverage at the Thirsty Robot.

A robot prepares drinks at the Tipsy Robot Vegas on Thursday at the Miracle Mile Shops in Las Vegas. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
A robot prepares drinks at the Tipsy Robot Vegas on Thursday at the Miracle Mile Shops in Las Vegas. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

It’s not going to take you long as you are walking around the Strip to run into a vending machine filled with fresh cakes from Carlo’s Bake Shop. Yes, that’s the same Carlo’s Bake Shop run by the Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro. If you want to buy some cake from a vending machine, you absolutely should. It’s good. Totally worth it. Plus, it’s in a vending machine.

Sweets on are photographed on display at Carlo's Bakery on Tuesday, Mar 1, 2022, at the Grand Canal Shoppes in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Sweets on are photographed on display at Carlo’s Bakery on Tuesday, Mar 1, 2022, at the Grand Canal Shoppes in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

But there’s a better place to get the same cake that’s even fresher.

Walk down to the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian. The actual bakery that made the cakes in those vending machines is hidden away in that mall known for its expensive canoe rides with the singing guys who are paddling you through that bizarre swimming pool that runs through the middle of that place.

The point is that the really good baked goods are at this shop, with way more than just the colorful rainbow cake that the original bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, is famous for. It all looks great. But don’t be tricked by how good everything looks. You want the chocolate chip cookies.

Sure, you should order whatever you want. You’re in Vegas. Just do yourself a favor and have the greatest chocolate chip cookie you’ve ever eaten.

Lastly, why not order one of the craziest shakes you’ve ever seen?

The Black Tap, in the Venetian by its sports book, has a lot of great bar food. The burgers are fantastic.

You’re not there for the burgers, however. You’re there to order a cake shake that has an actual piece of cake on top of it. A big piece of cake. Or a cookie shake that has an ice cream cookie on top of it. Or a cereal shake that is loaded up with Fruity Pebbles, and includes a Pop Tart, as well as a full-size stick of Laffy Taffy sticking out of the top.

The Raiders’ Shake one of the Black Tap’s “crazyshakes” is photographed on Tuesday, Mar 1, 2022, at the Black Tap in The Venetian in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
The Raiders’ Shake one of the Black Tap’s “crazyshakes” is photographed on Tuesday, Mar 1, 2022, at the Black Tap in The Venetian in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Is any of this any good?

Of course. It’s going to take you straight back to your childhood, where a world filled with fresh ice cream and highly processed junk food makes total sense.

Plus, you’re totally going to win this week’s Instagram battle with your old friends from high school.

More importantly, this is how you do Las Vegas when you’re a Zags basketball fan who’s already done all of the other things this place has to offer. Then you can watch the Bellagio fountains as you walk back to your hotel room. They’re still pretty darn good.

The Spokesman-Review photographer Tyler Tjomsland contributed to this report.

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